Trudy Govier, 'Forgiveness and Revenge'

IssueMarch - May 2003
Review by Andrew Rigby

Published works relating to forgiveness generally fall into one of three categories. First off are the Christians who urge us all to follow God's example and forgive and embrace all those who have done us wrong. Then there are the therapeutic manuals produced by behavioural psychologists and new-age gurus that tell us how to achieve the mental and emotional fulfilment which is the fruit of forgiveness by a simple six or maybe twelve-stage process. Finally there are the philosophical works targeted at the academic market and which seem to me to be too far removed from the life and death issues of how to overcome the individual and collective bitterness about past wrongs that drives so many protracted and destructive conflicts around the world and at all levels of life.

Trudy Govier is a philosopher, but what comes across very strongly throughout this book is her engagement with the ethical and practical issues raised by the tensions between the two poles of forgiveness and revenge. Is violent revenge every justified? What are the differences between punishment and revenge?Are certain categories of acts “unforgivable”? Can groups forgive? What is the relationship between forgiveness and reconciliation?In addressing these questions she draws on a whole range of material to illustrate the impact of revenge and forgiveness at the interpersonal and the political/collective level. Underpinning it all is the awareness that a necessary dimension to any sustainable process of peace-building is a constructive approach to the legacy of past wrongs.

Unlike a number of other writers on this topic, Trudy Govier attempts to move beyond the simplistic bilateral framework of perpetrator/victim, as she explores the dynamic mixture of doing and suffering wrong that is a feature of so many damaging and violent interpersonal and political relationships. This leads her to address issues relating to processes of mutual forgiveness and acknowledgement of past wrongs. Unlike a number of other writers who have argued that only the direct victims of wrongs are entitled to forgive, Govier presents a convincing argument that it is appropriate to talk of “group forgiveness” - groups can forgive just as groups can commit wrongs and be the target of injustices.

At a time of an escalating threat of a US-led war against Iraq driven in part by the quest for revenge for past injuries and humiliations, Govier voices her own practical and moral objections to violence as a means of retaliation - acts of revenge are far more likely to provoke more hatred and violence than to deter it.

But if retaliation is not the way to deal with wrong-doing, what is the appropriate response? This book will not provide the reader with any easy answers, but it does provide a clear and a morally engaged guide through what can be a perplexing maze of ethical and practical considerations pertinent to the politics of peace and reconciliation.

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