Owen Ellerkamp: Social Science Aspects of Forgiveness

Thirty years ago Professor Mahallati, then Iran’s Ambassador to the United Nations, presented photos of victims of a chemical attack to the United Nations. Today, Nikki Haley, US Ambassador to the U.N, stood in front of the security council with photos of deceased Syrian who were victims of chemical weaponry. The paradigm rings true– history repeats itself. The use of chemical weaponry has been contentious since its inception and the continued use of it brings to light the inability to learn the devastating consequences of this war tactic. In displaying the photos of deceased Syrian children Nikki Haley sought to appeal to the emotions of her fellow members with the intention to have the U.N react to the attack. Upset with the impotence of the U.N Haley threatened that if the U.N fails to address the problem, the United States will– and that is what happened. This evening the United States carried out a missile attack in Syria targeting the launching place of the chemical attack. President Trump justified the use of 59 Tomahawk missiles through a concern for national security: “It is in this vital national security interest of the United States to prevent and deter the spread and use of deadly chemical weapons.1” While the retaliative action of Trump may seem heinous and unwarranted is it a precedent that has become normalized as a reaction to chemical weaponry.   Under the Obama administration the same policy of punishing regimes who used chemical weapons was in place, but this policy was never enacted.  The rash and rapid decision, though precedented, on behalf of the Trump administration to act through retributive justice is rife for analysis through the theoretical frameworks in this week’s readings. In this week’s response paper I am going to digress from my case of the Yugoslav War because this current event deserves reflection and it’s relevance to the course is undeniable.

The pursuit of forgiveness in cases of war may come across as lofty idealizations of a perfect world . In reality, wars are often products of the inability for one group to forgive another. In place of forgiveness punitive justice is sought which leds to the outbreak of war. Trudy Govier, author of Forgiveness and Revenge” writes through a social science lense on the ability for groups to forgive. Govier, unlike previous scholars encountered in the course, believes that groups can in fact forgive. At the basis of her argument is the premise that qualities on individuals are not purely individual. We form and cultivate our beliefs, attitudes, feelings, and goals in social contexts in which we engage with each other 2. The collectivity of a society has the ability to cultivate particular attitudes and beliefs and forgiveness is a moral principle that can be cultivated. In the context of South African apartheid, Mandela and Tutu forgave others for their vile racist actions. The actions of Mandela and Tutu are regarded as saintly actions in which many ordinary people do not have the capacity to carry out, but Govier credits part of their ability to forgive to the beliefs at the time. Their ability to forgive is credited to the prevalent belief in the philosophy of ubuntu, or generosity, compassionate and caring at the time in South Africa. Due to the prevalence of attitudes of generosity, compassion, and caring forgiveness, rather than retribution was a normalized attitude of the time. In full, Govier posits that with the cultivation of attitudes and beliefs that motivate forgiveness can lead to more forgiving groups. Returning to the case of chemical weaponry and retributive reactions, it can be deduced that American society today needs to work on the cultivation of forgiveness as a collective belief. Rather, it seems that justice, particularly justice in the judicial sense (punitive, tit for tat) reigns supreme in the American psyche as the primary method in reaction to a wrong doing. How can the ethic of forgiveness be cultivated in a political environment where fear mongering, isolationism, and retributive justice is central to the nation’s rhetoric?

Continuing with more secular conceptions of forgiveness is Norlock’s work on the gendered aspect of forgiveness. Norlock’s argument hinges on the Western culturally constructed dichotomy that men are rational and women are emotion. This dichotomy, which I find to be problematic, pervades into the act of forgiveness. Forgiveness is an action that requires vulnerability, cooperation, and often humility it aligns with the female, or emotional side of the human psyche. Because of the association of forgiveness with emotional capacity women are expected to forgive more and and forgiveness is seen as feminine. Rationality is associated with justice in the sense of an eye for an eye. To build on Grovier’s argument concerning collective values, the framework in which femininity is associated with forgiveness makes it difficult for patriarchal societies to cultivate forgiveness. If our societies and governments are led by “rational” men, who are less expectant to forgive than women, forgiveness seems to be a far off goal. It begs the question– if we had female leaders, or more matriarchal society would we, as a group, be more apt to forgive? There is an antithetic case to this position– the life of Jesus Christ. Jesus is seen as the figure that made forgiveness horizontal, or brought it to the human to human level 3. Jesus, a male figure, is the figurehead of human to human forgiveness, yet the act is gendered as feminine.  

Further social science work by Garrard and McNaughton looked at forgiveness through a psychological lense. Psychology can’t provide insight on when one ought to forgive because science tells us how the works not how it ought to work. Psychology can provide us with answers as to what happens to one’s psychological state when they forgive or are forgiven. Victims of a wrongdoing are psychologically better off when they forgive 4.  Given the empirical evidence that forgiveness promotes psychological well-being, should one forgive unconditionally in order to maximize their well-being? This is where the morality of forgiveness, an area of human behavior that cannot be regulated by science, comes into play. While unconditionally forgiveness may be depicted as an ideal it can be dangerous due to the lack of retribution for wrongdoing. In short, psychology can’t tell us when to forgive, but it can provide insight into the psychological impacts of forgiveness. Also, what is psychologically beneficial does not always correlate with what is morally correct. In the case of Trump’s use of missile strikes in response to Syria’s use of chemical weapons, morality and national security motivated Trump to order the strike, but psychologically he suffered the thought of knowing he killed innocent people.

The theoretical basis for the readings this week were mostly secular. In regards to my case of ethnoreligious war in the former Yugoslavia these perspectives provide key insights into social scientific interpretations as to how reconciliation and forgiveness could come to fruition in these ethnically divided communities. Of particular interest to the case is scholarship on group forgiveness and collective identity within a group. Grovier goes into depth regarding how group forgiveness is both logical and plausible which will be further explored in my final paper when thinking about the Serbs and Muslim Bosniaks during the Yugoslav war. The political fear mongering by the Serbian state manipulated identities by creating an us versus them rhetoric which effectively fueled the war. 



1. Cooper, Helene. “Dozens of U.S. Missiles Hit Air Base in Syria.” New York Times. New York Times, 6 Apr. 2017. Web.

2. Put another way, we collectively create each other and no human exists in isolation.  Govier, Trudy. Forgiveness and Revenge. London: Routledge, 2009. Print. 81.

3. Shriver, Donald W. An Ethic for Enemies: Forgiveness in Politics. New York: Oxford UP, 68.1997. Print.

4. Garrard, Eve, and David McNaughton. “The Case of Forgiveness: What the Psychologists Say.” Forgiveness. N.p.: Acumen, 69. Print.