Beyond virtue and the law: on the moral significance of the act of forgiveness in Hegel's <i>Phenomenology of Spirit</i>

Mary C. Rawlinson

in Trauma, Truth and Reconciliation

Published on behalf of Oxford University Press

Published in print August 2006 | ISBN: 9780198569435
Published online February 2013 | e-ISBN: 9780191754449 | DOI:

Series: International Perspectives in Philosophy & Psychiatry

Beyond virtue and the law: on the moral significance of the act of forgiveness in Hegel's Phenomenology of Spirit

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Among philosophers in the Western tradition, Hegel is unusual in making forgiveness the core of his analysis of moral judgment as well as social life. Most philosophers rely on a concept of rights derived from a social contract, as well as on a concept of justice as equity or fairness in analyzing moral harm. Contemporary approaches to genocide, torture, and other forms of organized violence against classes of persons reflect this heritage by identifying commissions on human rights as the appropriate forum for their adjudication and declarations of human rights as the appropriate articulation of what has been transgressed. In the analysis of ethical life and moral philosophy that forms the heart of the ‘science of the experience of consciousness’ laid out in his Phenomenology of Spirit, Hegel turns instead to the act of forgiveness as the point of orientation for ethical action and moral thinking (Hegel, 1979; references in the text hereafter are to paragraph numbers). In his account, both social life and the individuality of the single consciousness are sustained on the basis of the act of forgiveness.

Hegel's analysis provides a philosophical elaboration of the insight of the Ugandan leaders and victims: that forgiveness proves socially and personally sustaining only because it is itself the result of collaboration. The reconciling power of forgiveness depends upon the act being elicited rather than being produced spontaneously by a single consciousness. Forgiveness, in so far as it is a socially constitutive force, responds to the truth as laid forth in another's act of confession. It requires a narrative of the transgression before others. The abject truthfulness of the confession solicits from the judging consciousness a generous suspension of both the moral law and the legal code by which the perpetrator would be held to account for his transgression. The confession, though necessary, hardly restores the loss, and forgiveness constitutes moral generosity. Unlike mercy, it is not dispensed from above by a superior judge, but circulates freely among the members of a socius. Only in a spirit of generosity can the injured one let go the wrong, resist the instinct to settle accounts, and forgive the other in the name of their shared life. Beyond the moral law and legal code, the act of forgiveness can reconcile the parties and restore the sociality that sustains each one, but only on the basis of a narrative that genuinely captures the transgression.

In the course of this analysis, Hegel also identifies a persistent error that is associated not only with the inadequacies of rights and ‘legal status’ as conceptions of moral agency and responsibility, but also with terrorism and its mass murders and other transgressions. Terrorism results when the single individual believes in the immediate identity of his will with the universal and, therefore, in his absolute right to impose his will directly on an evil world, without the mediation of others through social forms and institutions. Hegel links terrorism to dogmatism, to the adherence to oneself as a source of moral truth, rather than to action before and with others. Terrorism results when the particular consciousness valorizes its own virtue or its own law over the exchanges of social life. (‘Consciousness’ in Hegel's analysis refers to the single empirical human being in its entirety, not merely to mental or psychological capacities. The destiny of consciousness is to become self-conscious, to become aware of its own awareness or knowledge of its own knowing. In the course of his analysis, Hegel considers the whole range of experience from the sensuous and sexual to speculative reason. The Phenomenology traces the genealogy of consciousness as it develops through its various essential forms.) The hard-headedness with which these forms of consciousness terrorize the world is matched only by their hard-heartedness: their unwillingness to forgive and to be freed from revenge by letting the other go free. Hard-headedly sticking to an inner virtue or a formal law, these figures hard-heartedly engender terror, a war of each one who adheres relentlessly to his virtue or law against the other hard hearts.

Chapter.  14529 words. 

Subjects: Psychiatry

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