Sunday, April 20, 2008

Self-Forgiveness and Self-Respect

By: Robin S. Dillon

Thirty years later, Alison still recalls an episode in her teens, not frequently, but often enough, and always with something akin to self-loathing. There was this girl, Dana, someone Alison had been friends with in middle school, though they'd drifted apart. Dana was nice and smart and funny, and she was deformed (maybe thalidomide, Alison now thinks). That hadn't mattered to Alison when they were younger, but it was a big deal to her high school friends. They made up mocking songs and dances and made fun of Dana in the halls. Alison never sang the songs or danced the dances, and she told her friends to stop it when they ridiculed Dana. But she has always known to her deep shame that she was not guilt-free. She knows she was too cowardly and too needy of acceptance to stand up for Dana, to make her friends stop tormenting, to stop being friends with tormentors, and she knows that she did laugh. After all these years, Alison can't forgive herself for Dana. Nor is she sure that she should-how could a self-respecting person be at peace with herself about something like this? Recurrent self-reproach reminds Alison of things she wants not to forget.


To someone concerned with self-respect, self-forgiveness can seem puzzling. On the one hand, while forgiving another person for wronging you can seem virtuous, even saintly, forgiving yourself for wronging another seems a self-indulgent cheat, an attempt to feel good about yourself that betrays a failure of responsibility and a lack of self-respect. On the other hand, self-loathing and interminable self-punishment for some long-past wrong seems incompatible with respect for yourself as a being with the intrinsic worth Kant called "dignity," so overcoming these, as self-forgiveness is supposed to involve, seems called for by self-respect. May a self-respecting person forgive herself? Ought she?

Here is another puzzle. On the one hand, having done something that fills you with guilt and self-disgust, it is hard to forgive yourself, much harder than forgiving others, which can be hard indeed. On the other hand, if having done wrong, you then do what you morally ought and what a self-respecting person would do-take responsibility for what you did, repent of it, try to make amends, and engage in self-improvement to ensure that you won't do that sort of thing again-then it seems there isn't any work left for self-forgiveness, let alone hard work. Is self-forgiveness attainable? If so, what good is it?

The aim of this article is to understand self-forgiveness by examining it from the perspective of self-respect. Some philosophers link the two in claiming that forgiveness is morally acceptable only if it is compatible with self-respect. I will argue that there is a much closer connection between them: self-respect issues are at the heart of both not forgiving and forgiving oneself. Moreover, there are two forms of self-forgiveness; one is called into play by damaged self-respect, while the other manifests secure self-respect. A self-respecting person has reason to seek the first, and the restoration of self-respect it involves is its central moral value. The expression of self-respect is a chief moral value of the second. But the damage to self-respect addressed by the first form makes forgiving oneself hard, perhaps impossible, morally and psychologically.


Sometimes forgiving another is easy: someone hurts or offends you, you get upset, they apologize, you forgive, over and done. But forgiveness is usually thought to be hard, to involve overcoming brooding anger or hatred, harsh thoughts, the desire for vengeance. So it is with self-forgiveness. Let me begin with the hard kind, which most accounts treat as an intentional transformation in one's attitudes toward oneself, over-coming one kind of stance toward the self and taking up a different one, and doing so for certain reasons. One of the richest accounts of what I'll call 'transformational self-forgiveness' is offered by Margaret Holmgren. (1) Because it gives a prominent place to self-respect and elucidates what a self-respecting person must do to prepare to forgive herself, yet leaves unanswered some important questions, it will be useful to look at it. Drawing on Butler's familiar discussion of interpersonal forgiveness, (2) Holmgren characterizes the candidate for self-forgiveness as having a just sense of real wrongdoing, on account of which she experiences negative feelings such as guilt, self-resentment, or self-contempt. In forgiving herself an offender overcomes these attitudes in order to reach a morally more appropriate attitude, which Holmgren identifies as self-acceptance, which comprises compassion and love, and respect for oneself as a person. Central to the account is the Kantian idea that all persons have equal intrinsic worth in virtue of which they are always worthy of respect, no matter what they have done. The recognition of this worth is the central moral value of self-forgiveness.

The focus of the account is on the process that Holmgren argues a wrongdoer must work through in order for self-forgiveness to be morally appropriate, that is, genuinely respectful of self, others, and morality. The wrongdoer must, first, "recover enough self-respect to recognize that she is a valuable human despite what she has done"; (3) then she must take responsibility for her wrong, acknowledge that her victim is also worthy of respect, fully experience the negative feelings arising from acknowledging her wrongdoing, strive to eliminate the attitudes, behavioral patterns, and character traits that led to the wrong, and do her best to make amends. Upon completing the process, the wrongdoer "has taken the steps she needs to take to address her own wrongdoings and then is "properly situated to forgive herself." (5) Now she can relinquish her guilt and self-hatred and come to love and respect her valuable self again.

While there is much to admire in Holmgren's account, it also leaves a number of important questions unanswered. First, why think that self-respect is centrally involved in self-forgiveness? Holmgren holds that the loss of self-respect is a chief effect of wrongdoing and restoring self-respect is a chief function of self-forgiveness. But one might think instead that what is lost upon wrongdoing is a sense of comfort or peace with oneself, or a sense of wholeness or self-confident agency, and that self-forgiveness restores that (6).

Second, supposing self-respect has been lost or damaged through doing wrong, how might one recover it? It is odd that respect for one's intrinsically valuable self is both the starting point of the process that positions one to forgive oneself appropriately and what self-forgiveness is supposed to yield; it would seem that the journey is almost over with the first step. But how might that step be taken?

Third, is recovery of the wrongdoer's sense of intrinsic worth what self-forgiveness is really about? Alison's case suggests not. For what confronts her is not a worry that she has no intrinsic worth as a person but a concern with the kind of person she is, with her character and moral history. In general, there is no reason to think that even serious wrongdoing would lead someone to think that she has no intrinsic worth. Surely someone who fully understands her moral status and values herself intrinsically as a person can yet feel quite guilty and ashamed, be disgusted with and even despise herself. In such cases, there would seem to be no self-respect work for self-forgiveness to do; and Alison's case suggests that it might even undo important moral work done by abiding self-reproach.

Fourth, the account crystallizes a central puzzle about self-forgiveness. Suppose one has worked through the tasks which are preliminary to self-forgiveness, which we might call "fully taking responsibility for wrongdoing"-facing the wrong honestly, feeling remorse for it and repenting of it, thus abjuring the claims implicit in it about one's views of the victim and the wrong; seeking to atone and so to make the world in some sense right again; seeking through moral self-improvement to become a different sort of person, one no longer, as it were, bonded to the wrong and so one for whom repeating it is less likely. Now there are two possibilities regarding the negative attitudes. The first is that they are no longer warranted, responsibility-taking activity having eliminated their ground; and if one is rational, we would expect the attitudes to dissolve. Why then does the process leave one merely "properly situated to forgive oneself'? What remains for forgiveness to do, and why is that hard? But if repentance, atonement, and self-improvement are not sufficient to dissolve the attitudes (assuming no irrationality or neurosis), then what effects the transformation? What morally important work gets done between becoming properly situated to forgive oneself and being free of self-reproach?

The second possibility is that negative attitudes are still warranted even after the responsibility-taking work. Self-forgiveness would then involve overcoming self-reproach while recognizing that one still deserves it. (7) This would be difficult but potentially morally powerful. But there is a problem: to forswear warranted damning attitudes would seem to sacrifice integrity and self-respect. For, as I will argue below, those attitudes express one's judgment, in light of standards that are important to one's moral self-identity, that some central aspect of oneself is reprehensible. To overcome the attitudes would be to renounce the judgment and the standards that entail it. But when those standards are central to one's normative self-identity (as I will argue they are in cases where transformative self-forgiveness applies), renouncing them would be a failure to respect oneself and a sacrifice of moral integrity, which would give one additional grounds for self-condemnation. Trying to forgive oneself would be self-defeating.

The central puzzle that Holmgren's analysis prompts is this: it seems that self-forgiveness either must be earned through fully taking responsibility, in which case it looks to be superfluous, or is not so earned, in which case it looks to be not self-respecting. How is it, then, that self-forgiveness does morally significant work without sacrificing self-respect?


We can begin to develop a better understanding of transformational self-forgiveness by first getting clearer about the negative stance toward the self that it would overcome, how self-respect is involved in it, and why it might be desirable or morally important to overcome it.

The second thing to note is that wrongdoing is not all that might call for self-forgiveness. Wrong feeling, wishing, wanting, thinking, reacting, and especially wrong being may bring it into play as well. Being too cowardly to speak out against wrong, as Alison was, or finding cruelty humorous, wishing one's dying parent would just get it over with, feeling unwelcome racist fear, not feeling much love for one's child, being sexually excited by violence-otherwise decent people experience such things and may loath themselves on their account. (11)

Moreover, one can do, want, be what is not wrong and still understandably condemn oneself. Orleanna Price, Rachel's mother, did everything in her power to keep her children alive during their missionary sojourn in the Congo and still a snake killed her youngest. For the next thirty years Orleanna is "hounded by judgment . . . how can I ever walk free in the world?" (12) She "keeps wanting to wash herself clean, but she clings to her clay and dust." (13) Her daughter Adah understands: "How is it right to slip free of an old skin and walk away from the scene of a crime?" (14) Putting an aged parent into a nursing home against her will when one can no longer properly care for her, divorcing a spouse who loves and needs one though one no longer loves or needs him, following the dictates of the family of one's dying friend and telling her when she asks that she is not, (15) accidentally backing a car over and killing a child, (16) leaving one's invalid mother behind to get the rest of the family to safety when the murdering soldiers sweep down on one's village (17) -it is understandable, and a mark of one's decency, that one would be consumed by guilt and even self-hatred for being responsible for something terrible or tragic even though one did, objectively or in one's own mind, nothing wrong. (18)

But while neither wrong nor wrongdoing is required, agency is. It makes no sense to think, for example, that a person contemptuous of herself for a congenital deformity or lack of natural talent could forgive herself for this, for where there is no agency there no is responsibility, and the assumption of responsibility is central to self-reproach. It does, however, make sense to hold character flaws, failures of virtue or excellence, or inappropriate emotions or dispositions against oneself, since these do implicate agency, and to be devastated by the terrible thing wrought through one's agency, even if it isn't strictly speaking wrong. (19)

It is also not enough to regard one's actions, feelings, dispositions, role in a tragedy as wrong, bad, or terrible for self-forgiveness to come into play. It must also be the case that one cares enough about it to suffer, and rather a lot, in self-imposed punishment. But even then self-forgiveness need not be called for, for sometimes the suffering ends, and appropriately so, without it. When Jane Austen's Emma is admonished by Mr. Knightley for ridiculing Miss Bates, she acknowledges the justice of his criticism and feels angry with herself, mortified, and grieved by her cruelty. Truly penitent, she resolves to improve her character and conduct; and after making amends to the Bateses, her negative feelings disappear. (20) But though her self-reproach is eliminated precisely through fully taking responsibility for her shameful behavior, we probably would not say that she had forgiven herself. And perhaps most of our self-critical episodes work this way-the negative feelings move us to set things right again, and having done this, they leave us in peace. Thus, not all self-reproach calls for self-forgiveness. Rather, one has reason to try to forgive oneself only when self-inflicted suffering is not self-limiting, and-since it is reasonable and not uncommon to bear suffering without seeking relief-where one can't or oughtn't bear it.

It is also important to see that the stance that transformative self-forgiveness might address is more complex than is conveyed by calling it "experiencing negative feelings as the result of wrongdoing," which becomes obvious if we attend to detailed descriptions of it. For example, one study by a group of psychologists, based on in-depth interviews with subjects who said that self-forgiveness had been an issue for them, describes the initial stance thus:

Awareness that something is fundamentally wrong with one's self or one's life . . . a sense of "brokenness," an estrangement from self and others that is deeply painful . . . intense feelings of self-recrimination as one replays the situation in one's mind, wracked with confusion, guilt, anxiety, and despair. One's faults and fallibilities can no longer be denied.. . . Self-recrimination often takes the form of "beating oneself up.". . . One fears becoming stuck: never recovering from devastation. . . . [One subject reports,] "It was like I entered into the darkest part of creation and really couldn't see much purpose in being alive." (21)

The individuals whom therapist Barbara Flanagan describes in her popular book Forgiving Yourself experience guilt, grief, shame, self-blame, remorse, self-loathing, self-disgust; they feel small, dirty, worthless, failures, fallen short as persons; they feel cut off from others, personal relationships fracture under the weight of their suffering; they confess and apologize repeatedly but cannot accept support and forgiveness from others; they are obsessed with their pasts. Flanagan describes this state as "internal battle" with "the enemy within." (22)

When one's past contains wrongs one can't evade, Norman Care writes,

one is vulnerable to different forms of moral-emotional pain, for example, . . . regret, remorse, shame, guilt, despair. . . . When one suffers such pain, one's agency is, or risks being, negatively affected.. . . Problematic parts of one's past may not only haunt one, they can leave a mark, in the form, for example, of a change of personality, loss of confidence, restrictions on ambition, or paralyzing bad feelings about oneself. . . . One's past may command one's attention in a way that seems coercive . . . [and] dominate one's thoughts and even prevent one's giving reasonable attention to current projects and future plans. (23)

The core of the stance, Jeffrie Murphy argues, is "moral self-hatred," which he defines as "a kind of shame placed on top of guilt-guilt over the wrong one has done but, in cases where being a moral person is part of what Freud would call one's ego ideal, shame that one has fallen so far below one's ideal of selfhood that life-at least life with full self- consciousness-is now less bearable." (24) This is "shame that I could have been the sort of person who performed the acts for the reasons that I did and fear that the seeds of such a person might still remain within me. " (25)

Drawing these things together, we can say that the stance transformative self-forgiveness might address involves these elements: (a) painful feelings of negative self-assessment such as guilt, shame, deep disappointment with oneself, self-contempt, self-loathing, as well as remorse, anguish, despair, self-doubt; (b) negative self-judgments underlying the emotions, both judgments of fault and judgments of self-worth ("What kind of person could do such a thing?"); (c) the emotions and judgments are sustained through replaying the past, and (d) they are self-injurious and experienced as self-punishment: beating oneself up, waging war on oneself; and (e) one is alienated from oneself. In the worst cases, (26) there is (f) an enervating and distorting obsession with the self as bad that makes attending to other things difficult; and (g) the stance reverberates throughout the self, sometimes to the point of corrupting one's judgment, undermining one's agency, distorting one's character, and dominating one's life. The stance that self-forgiveness would overcome has affective, cognitive, and motivational elements; it plays out in patterns of attitude, emotion, thought, behavior, attention, desire, valuation, and expectation.

The most important dimension of the stance is the one revealed in Murphy's emphasis on shame. Contemporary accounts of shame characterize it as expressing a negative assessment of self-worth predicated on a negative assessment of some important feature of one's self. (27) To say that shame is at the core of the negative stance is to say that even when the stance is prompted by wrongdoing or the terrible consequences of one's actions, its object is one's self. One sees not only one's past conduct as wrong or terrible but also some aspect of one's self revealed in the conduct as undesirable, faulty, tainted, perhaps dreadful or rotten, and so one regards oneself as a lesser person, perhaps a worthless one. As Alison and Orleanna illustrate, it is one thing to think that there was something wrong with what one did or didn't do, another to think there is something wrong with oneself for doing or not doing it, (28) and the latter is what makes the negative stance corrosive and persistent: the self-appraisal at its core is that one is seriously flawed as a person. (29) One's moral self-identity and sense of self-worth are called into question: What kind of a person would do something like that, let something like that happen, enjoy something like that? As Flanagan explains, (30) in such a case a bedrock assumption about oneself-that one is basically decent and worthy-is damaged, so that one can no longer take it for granted or even believe it, because one has been brought inescapably face to face with a heretofore hidden part of oneself that one can barely stand, one's "self-as-feared": I really am cowardly, unloving, irresponsible, perverted, and so on. (31)

Because how one now sees oneself is inconsistent with how one assumed one was and believed one should be, one's "moral self-image [has] sustain[ed] a severe fracture," as H. J. N. Horsbrugh says. So he observes that in cases "in which one might speak of not forgiving oneself ...the speaker has sustained a severe injury to his self-respect. ... Self-forgiveness only arises as a genuine and serious issue when the agent has acted in a way that leads to diminished self-respect. " (32)

Conrad's Lord Jim provides an instructive example. What gnawed at him, driving him to quit port after port to avoid anyone who might know about him was not simply that as chief mate of the Patna he'd jumped off the ship he thought about to sink, leaving the unwarned passengers to their fate-although he was truly remorseful about that. Rather, as someone who conceived himself to be heroic and morally superior to others, he was horrified to think he was no different from the disgusting cowards with whom he fled. "Trying to save from the fire his idea of what his moral identity should be," (33) Jim struggled with but could not bear what he feared to be true, that he was "not good enough." (34) Exiling himself on Patusan, Jim gained the natives' trust and respect. But although he tells Marlow that "he was satisfied . . . nearly," (35) his actions on Patusan-especially in response to the intimations of the malignant, cowardly Brown that he and Jim were two of a kind-were but attempts to deny "the real, real truth" about himself. (36) The author's note to the original edition calls the story one of "acute consciousness of lost honour"; nowadays, we'd likely say it is about lost self-respect.

Summing up, transformational self-forgiveness has work to do when (a) punishing self-reproach dominates one's way of being toward oneself, because (b) a persistent negative view of oneself dominates one's self-identity, because (c) one takes oneself to have been revealed to be, contrary to what one had assumed, unbearably flawed, so that (d) one's self-respect has been damaged. Self-forgiveness is thus a matter of addressing damaged self-respect. But which kind of self-respect? For there are many, as I have argued elsewhere. (37) An adequate account of self-forgiveness must focus on the right kinds at the right places, and so it requires a good understanding of self-respect, to which we shall now turn.


Although it is commonly taken to be a discrete belief or attitude, self-respect is in fact a complex of multilayered and interpenetrating phenomena-all those aspects of cognition, valuation, affect, expectation, motivation, action, and interaction that compose a mode of being in the world whose heart is an appreciation of oneself as having morally significant worth. In the Western tradition, two kinds of morally significant worth are chiefly ascribed to persons, which makes for the first two of three kinds of self-respect. What I call "status worth" derives from such things as one's social role or place, membership in a group or a people, or essential nature. Recognition self-respect centers on status worth. (38) Respect for oneself as a being with the dignity that, on the Kantian view, persons as such have, is a form of recognition self-respect. The other kind of worth is merit, which is based on the quality of our character and conduct, and which we earn or lose through what we do and become. Evaluative self-respect is oriented around merit. (39) It includes thinking well of oneself on account of positive merit, but its primary mode is regarding oneself as coming up to scratch in the absence of significant demerit. (40)

Recognition respect for oneself as a person involves living in light of an understanding of oneself as having intrinsic worth and moral status just in virtue of being a person, and of the moral constraints that personhood entails. The Western conception of persons grounds intrinsic worth in three things-equality, agency, and individuality-so there are three forms of recognition self-respect. First, taking it that all persons have equal basic moral worth, which entitles each to respect from all, respect for oneself as a person among persons, which I call 'interpersonal recognition self-respect', involves living from a view of oneself as a being of equal dignity. The repertoire for so living includes having a conception of what persons as such are due and what is degrading or beneath the dignity of persons, desiring to be regarded and treated appropriately, and resenting disregard and disrespectful treatment. Recognition self-respect involves, second, a proper appreciation of oneself as a moral agent. The repertoire of 'agentic recognition self-respect' includes taking seriously one's responsibilities as persons, especially the responsibility to manifest one's dignity as a person. So, the self-respecting person regards certain forms of thinking, feeling, acting as befitting her as a person and others as degrading or shameful, and she expects herself (and others) to adhere to the former and avoid the latter. Third, 'personal recognition self-respect' involves appreciating the importance of being one's own person by striving to live according to a conception of a life that defines and befits one as the particular person one is. The self-respecting individual holds herself (though perhaps not others) to personal standards and expectations the disappointment of which she would regard as shameful or degrading.

Evaluative self-respect expresses confidence in one's merit, which rests on an evaluation of oneself in terms of the normative self-conception (41) that structures recognition self-respect. A recognition self-respecting person commits herself to a conception of the sort of person it would be good for her to be and the sort of life such a person would lead, and she tries to live in accord with the norms of character and conduct that configure a life she regards as worthy of herself as a person among persons, an agent, and an individual. But she also stands back to reflect on herself, asking whether she has merit: is she living congruently with her normative self-conception? And it matters to her that she be able to 'bear her own survey.' (42) Evaluative self-respect contains the judgment that one is or is becoming the kind of person one thinks one should be or wants to be, or more significantly, that one is not or is not in danger of becoming the sort of person one thinks one should not be or wants not to be. To have a normative self-conception is to stake oneself on how one stands in light of it, so self-evaluation and concern for evaluative self-respect are integral to it. The disposition to appraise and regulate oneself in its light is essential for moral self-development, reflective self-government, and pursuit of one's important goals.

Our normative self-conception, which contains both moral and nonmoral ideals we aspire to and standards we hold ourselves to, forms one part of our moral self-identity; the other part is our representation to ourselves of how we stand in light of it. Our view of ourselves, that is, is always double: we see ourselves both as we think we are and as we would have ourselves be. The negative stance arises when this view is incoherent, when one's actual self (as one sees it) clashes with one's normative self-conception. The shame at the core of the stance enacts the judgment of one's self as undesirable by one's criteria of minimum acceptability: (43) one regards one's self as less worthy or unworthy of evaluative respect. (44)

At the same time, liability to shame is part of recognition self-respect in its agentic and personal forms. Although being or doing what is shameful is self-disrespectful, feeling ashamed on such occasions manifests recognition self-respect, for through it one takes responsibility for oneself and demonstrates commitment to one's standards and values. Shamelessness, by contrast, is doubly disrespectful.

There is a third kind of self-respect underlying the other two, which I call basal self-respect. The worth basal self-valuing takes for granted is fundamental-intrinsic and unconditional, and so unlike merit, but more intimate and less inferential than Kantian dignity. (45) And like all respect, as the etymology reminds us, basal self-respect is also a mode of perception and so interpretation. The basal orientation is the primordial and implicit "seeing oneself as," the invisible lens through which everything connected with the self is viewed and presumed to be disclosed, that is, experienced as real, true, and important. It structures the configurations of recognition and evaluative self-respect and shapes one's experiences of self and worth. It explains why, for example, a person with good grounds for a positive self-evaluation interprets the evidence as confirmation of inadequacy, and how someone subjected to dehumanizing treatment can emerge with his sense of dignity intact. Secure basal self-respect involves an implicit confidence in the rightness of one's being; but weak or distorted basal valuing is fundamental insecurity about one's worth or a tacit view of oneself as not good enough or as nothing that reverberates throughout one's self-experiences and life.


Returning to the negative stance that transformative self-forgiveness might overcome, we saw that it arises when self-respect is seriously damaged because one was confronted with one's "self-as-feared" and now worries or believes that one really is that reprehensible self instead of the decent person one had been used to thinking one was. I had asked, which kind of self-respect is implicated in this stance? We can now answer that question.

The negative stance is an evaluative one; it expresses the loss of evaluative self-respect arising from the perception of oneself as less worthy. One views oneself as not coming up to scratch, indeed, to recall Murphy's way of putting it, as having "fallen so far below one's ideal of selfhood that life-at least life with full self-consciousness-is now less bearable." (46) And though the wrong lies in the past, perhaps even the distant past, the wrongness of self is taken to be still present, either in one's character or in "the fear that the seeds of such a person might still remain within me." (47) The more central the violated standards are to one's self-conception and the more central one's flaws, the greater the loss of merit and the more searing and enduring the emotions enacting the negative self-appraisal.

It is important to see that being hard on oneself, despising oneself and not just one's actions, isn't pathological or egocentric. Rather, it enacts broad features of the human psyche, including the dispositions to express one's values and to take matters of character very seriously. The power and persistence of negative self-assessments manifest the value one places both on the things one has harmed and on being a certain kind of person. One cannot have a normative self-conception without a disposition to assess one's self and not just one's actions in light of it, and without being liable, unless one is a saint, to self-reproach.

Shame enacts the perception or fear that one is unworthy of evaluative respect. It can also express agentic and personal recognition self-respect, for in feeling ashamed one holds oneself accountable for betraying one's standards and values. Here is another explanation for why reasonable people punish themselves so. Because the capacity to be a morally decent person living a morally decent life is, on the Kantian account, the ground of our dignity as persons, whenever possession of that capacity is called into question, the basis for recognition self-respect is shaken. In reaction to this threat, agentic recognition self-respect can motivate two things: self-punishment, to reassure ourselves that we are still capable of goodness because we remain committed to our standards and values; and repentance, atonement, and self-improvement, to reinstate our goodness. Thus far from being something that a reasonable person should always strive to eliminate, punishing self-reproach can be a practice of responsibility that expresses and protects self-defining values. It can be a survival strategy, a way of preserving moral self-identity and a sense of responsibility in the face of evidence suggesting indecency and irresponsibility. Even strong self-condemnation can be a practice of integrity, a way of holding ourselves together despite the clash between what we appear to be and what we believe we should be. Self-reproach thus can be a recognition self-respecting response to something that has diminished evaluative self-respect. This is true of Alison. And when she wonders whether it would be self-respecting to forgive herself, she is wondering what would happen to agentic and personal recognition self-respect were she to slough off the emotions and judgments that enact them.

Recognition of one's dignity as a person is compatible with the negative self-appraisal that structures self-reproach. Thus, cases in which transformative self-forgiveness might apply are not always ones in which a sense of intrinsic worth needs to be restored; but they are always cases in which the sense of merit is damaged.

When evaluative self-respect is justly diminished and agentic recognition self-respect justly responds, self-reproach is warranted. But the stance can also have unwarranted dimensions. For evaluative self-respect might be so damaged that recognition self-respect is also negatively affected. This could happen in several ways. For example, if one's basal sense of worth is fragile or one has the mistaken idea that all worth is conditional, then one could come to view oneself as having not only no merit but also no dignity. Kant defines contempt as the denial of intrinsic worth; self-contempt is thus a sign that interpersonal recognition self-respect has been damaged. (48) Or, confrontation with one's "self-as-feared" may lead to seeing oneself as lacking the capacity for agency and moral decency that makes us persons, hence, as lacking intrinsic worth, hence, as unworthy of interpersonal recognition respect. Agentic recognition self-respect can also be damaged. Seeing oneself as fallen far below one's minimal standards might lead to regarding oneself as less than a person, and considerations about the responsibilities of persons or what is beneath persons may no longer motivate-one may think that now nothing is beneath one. Alternatively, agentic and personal recognition self-respect can become distorted in defense of one's standards and values, so that punishment that is objectively disproportionate seems to one to be the only appropriate response to such a contemptible self. Nor is this a matter of motivating self-improvement. Rather, the underlying fear is that to stop punishing is to betray or abandon one's central values and so oneself. This may circle back to evaluative worth: perhaps the only sense of merit one can muster under these circumstances comes from the "honesty" and "integrity" of holding oneself to values that one knows one does not and cannot fulfill, and from castigating and deprecating oneself for one's failure. (49)

The negative stance thus manifests diminished or lost evaluative self-respect; it also manifests agentic and personal recognition self-respect that either are functioning properly or are distorted or even destroyed; it may manifest damaged interpersonal recognition self-respect.

Transformative self-forgiveness involves overcoming self-reproach, but we should ask whether it ought to be overcome, and, if so, why. It hurts, to be sure, but that is not a sufficient reason to end it. Considerations of self-respect make part of the answer clear. Diminished evaluative self-respect and the holding-responsible and justly-punishing modes of agentic recognition self-respect are appropriate when they enact correct judgments about one's actions and self. But (setting aside cases of arguably evil humans) contempt and loathing that deny all worth to the self and a sense of evaluative worth built on unremitting self-punishment are not in keeping with recognition self-respect. In the worst cases, interpreting oneself as irredeemably bad can make it impossible to exercise moral agency in living toward the good, inasmuch as it undercuts the psychological premise of agency. (50) Further, insofar as self-condemnation corrupts judgment, distorts character, and blocks agency, it is self-destructive. And insofar as it involves self-absorption and demands interminable but always ineffective attempts at expiation, it results in a perversion of one's capacity for valuing: where the most important thing in the world is how awful one is, one can't value other things properly. Finally, insofar as one settles into the habit of condemning oneself, one is likely also to be a condemner, and probably an unjust condemner, of others. All of this is antithetical to agentic recognition self-respect. The negative stance is painful, but it can also be morally pernicious. When it is, recognition self-respect (not to mention respect for others and for morality) demands that it be overcome. I will return shortly to the questions of whether it ought always to be overcome and what it means to overcome it.


Two more questions now arise. First, why might someone be vulnerable to unwarranted self-reproach and distorted self-punishment? One answer is that dimensions of self-valuing may already be so fragile that they are destroyed by the encounter with the "self-as-feared." If this is true at the basal level, amelioration may not be possible, given the relation between basal interpretation and the other forms of self-respect. (51) Alternatively, the person might have assumed, like Lord Jim, that he couldn't transgress his standards and is horrified to discover that he could. Or his normative self-conception might be inappropriate; for example, some criteria of minimum acceptability might be better held as ideals toward which to strive. These cases would call for revision of assumptions and standards, not self-forgiveness.

A second question is, setting aside self-deception, evasion, and so on, what might make an individual less susceptible to the strongly condemning forms of self-reproach? One answer is, secure self-respect that enables one to deal with oneself in less harsh ways. Here is the basis for a second, distinctively different form of self-forgiveness, which we might call "preservative self-forgiveness." (52)

Persons with the disposition of preservative self-forgiveness are less likely to get into a state that would call for transformative self-forgiveness, because of their deep and abiding self-acceptance, which has three aspects. First, they have a view of themselves, perhaps of humans generally, that is both optimistic and realistic: they see themselves, on the one hand, as basically decent and aiming to be good, capable of moral self- improvement and of regaining their bearings if they get off track, and, on the other hand, as inherently fallible and liable to get even far off track. Importantly, they see wrong doing, feeling, wanting, being, as compatible with being a good person. Second, although they may have lofty ideals they aspire to and strong principles they strive to follow, their normative self-conceptions are not dominated by standards they must not fail to meet. Third, they have an enduring attitude of tolerance and patience with themselves: they may have high standards but perfection is not the least they expect of themselves; they may get angry with themselves but are not liable to self-contempt or fundamental self- doubt or despair. This is not, however, culpable resignation or adjustment to what they should change; rather, it is the ability to see their faults and wrongs and still value themselves. Nor is this a matter of "separating the sin from the sinner"; rather, they accept themselves not despite what they are but as they are. Since there is no "enemy within" to vanquish, they don't beat themselves up or become self-alienated. They are able to say, when they've erred, "I blew it; I'll have to do better next time, " (53) not taking the wrong to define the self. Self-forgiving individuals need not let themselves off all the hooks-they can feel guilt, shame, anger, deep disappointment with themselves, and judge themselves worthy of punishment, but these do not become corrosive and enduring features of their way of being toward themselves. So, whereas the candidate for transformative self-forgiveness struggles to overcome powerful self-reproach, the self-forgiving person is less likely to take such a stance in the first place, and though she can judge herself negatively, she can also let it go and move on. (54)

As a trait of character, preservative self-forgiveness can be a virtue or a vice. It is a vice if it ignores wrongdoing or judges it too leniently, shirks responsibility, making repentance impossible, tolerates the intolerable, making self-improvement impossible, aims for comfort rather than self-respect. But where it arises from deep confidence in one's basic goodness and indestructible worth, where it manifests honesty, proportion, an intact sense of justice and responsibility, and compassionate understanding of human fallibility, then preservative self-forgiveness is a virtue, an enactment of agentic recognition self-respect, grounded in basal self-respect. (55)

This form of self-forgiveness preserves evaluative self-respect from utter destruction when one recognizes grounds for its diminishment, and makes possible the restoration of it, both by acknowledging the possibility that it can be redeemed and by directing one's agency to redemptive activity. It also preserves the integrity of the self, both in the sense of wholeness, by precluding self-alienation, and in the sense of unwavering commitment to one's values and standards, by employing them in ways that don't encourage renouncing them to escape their implications. Thus, in a very real sense, preservative self-forgiveness preserves the self.

If preservative self-forgiveness is among one's settled dispositions, it can be fairly easy to deal responsibly with the failings, errors, and wrongs that are inevitable as flawed humans try to be good and do right. Preservative self-forgiveness may also be able to deal with cases where one s moral identity and senses of self-worth are shaken by serious wrong or significant deviation from one's expectations. For so long as the stance of acceptance and humility is flexible and the bedrock assumptions about one's decency and worth are not damaged, preservative self-forgiveness may be able to return the shaken self to equilibrium. But if one has violated core standards of one's normative self-conception and called one's worth and capacity for decency gravely into question, if one's self-respect has been notjust shaken but significantly damaged, then preservative self-forgiveness will likely be ineffectual and transformative self-forgiveness may be called for.


Returning to transformative self-forgiveness-having characterized the negative stance more fully, we must now address two questions. First, when self-punishing self-reproach infuses one's life, how can one over- come it? Second, what is the outcome achieved in self-forgiveness?

Let us take the second question first. Because the condition that gives rise to any plausible need to forgive oneself is centrally characterized by damaged self-respect, I would argue that transformative self-forgiveness is overcoming a self-reproachful stance to reach a self-respecting one. Now, some have claimed instead that forgiving oneself aims for a state of love and compassion for oneself or being at peace or comfortable with oneself. (56) But while someone might try to overcome self-reproach for the sake of these rather than self-respect, construing the function of self-forgiveness this way is unsatisfactory on three counts. First, it is misguided, insofar as it misunderstands self-reproach and so proposes an ineffective solution. Second, it is morally objectionable, insofar as it tempts us to end-run the difficult work that dealing responsibly with warranted self-reproach requires. Third, it is conceptually problematic, insofar as it precludes the possibility that appropriate self-forgiveness may yet leave one with a measure of self-reproach that one ought to bear to the end of one's days. But, as I argue below, there is no reason to rule this out.

Self-respect is the outcome for which transformational self-forgiveness should aim. But what does that involve? Not just recognizing one's intrinsic worth as a person, that is, restoring recognition self-respect. For some forms of self-reproach do not involve lost recognition self-respect-indeed, they manifest properly functioning agentic recognition self-respect-and sometimes recognition self-respect is not all that needs to be restored. The outcome is best understood as one in which interpersonal recognition self-respect is intact, agentic and personal recognition self-respect function properly, and evaluative self-respect is appropriate.

This does not mean that all elements of the negative stance are eliminated. For agentic and personal recognition self-respect may require retaining some of the judgments and emotions; and since merit is a scalar concept and normative self-conceptions are typically complex, levels and configurations of evaluative self-respect are compatible with levels and configurations of self-reproach. We should keep in mind, when thinking of self-forgiveness as an overcoming, that to overcome something is not necessarily to eradicate it. We also overcome things by not letting them cripple or control us, by lessening or constraining their power over us. In some cases, surely, self-forgiveness extirpates self-reproach, but we should not assume this is so in all cases. For a self-respecting stance could be one in which self-reproach is properly constrained, in which one still blames oneself, sees oneself as diminished, but is not dominated by it. I'll return to this in Section IX.

Now to the first question: how can a self-reproachful stance be overcome to achieve a self-respecting one? In answering we must note two things. First, there must be some ground for overcoming it. A person who cares about self-respect cannot simply jettison judgments she experiences as warranted, for that would betray her self-defining standards and values and thus herself, giving grounds for further condemnation. So we must ask not only how but for what reason self-reproach can be overcome. Second, we must recall that there can be unwarranted as well as warranted elements in self-reproach, and these may need to be overcome in different ways. The best cases involve appropriate assessment of culpability and justified diminishment of evaluative self-respect: judgments and attitudes that express a reasonable view of one's self as less worthy. In the worst cases, there are unjustified judgments ("altogether worthless"), unwarranted attitudes (loathing, contempt, despair), utter destruction of evaluative self-respect, damaged interpersonal recognition self-respect, distorted agentic recognition self-respect, and the domination of one's life by self-condemnation. On what grounds can these be overcome?

Consider, first, unwarranted self-reproach. This might arise, as we saw, from faulty assumptions about the self or faulty standards, or from faulty application of reasonable standards in misjudging one's action or character. Where recognition self-respect is damaged, a faulty theory of the worth of persons could be involved. Thus the first step may be to correct the assumptions, judgments, standards, and theories. Now one might argue that although unwarranted self-condemnation can be powerful and there is strong moral reason to overcome it, it is not self-forgiveness that overcomes it. (57) For consider: if a person's self-reproach were wholly ungrounded-if they simply had never done or been what they think and feel they did or were-we would not advise that person to forgive themselves; we would instead (were it our place to do anything) point out their error. But while the objection is right about ungrounded self-reproach, it is nevertheless appropriate to talk about self-forgiveness where self-condemnation is an excessive reaction to something really wrong, bad, or terrible. For this kind of self-condemnation is self-disrespectful and one might try to overcome it in order to restore self-respect, which is what transformative self-forgiveness involves. (58)

But even where forgiveness is not strictly involved, it is still worth asking, on what grounds could unwarranted self-condemnation be overcome? One is, as the objection points out, the truth. For ungrounded self-condemnation rests on what is, from the Kantian perspective we've been assuming, false: that one has no intrinsic worth, utterly lacks the capacity for good, cannot possibly improve morally, and so on. But the truth is that persons always retain intrinsic worth and so never deserve contempt (in Kant's sense), that self-condemnation proves that one still possesses a concern and capacity for the good, and so on. If one is rational, accepting this ought to dissolve unwarranted attitudes and restore recognition self-respect. To the extent that one still has some merit, evaluative self-respect may also be enhanced.

Another ground is a suitably critiqued self-identity. Where skewed self-perception or inappropriate standards make one vulnerable to self-condemnation, seeing oneself more accurately or judging oneself more reasonably ought to dissolve it. Although we might worry about someone revising their judgments or standards so as to wiggle out from under the burden of condemnation, sacrificing self-respect for the sake of comfort, (59) there are two more serious concerns here. First, it is one thing to come to have reasons for having a different view of oneself, but yet another to come to have that view. Human psychology being what it is, reasons-even those we fully endorse-sometimes are but sometimes are not psychologically efficacious. The second concern is the real difficulty of reevaluating and revising one's normative self-conception. For where the standards and values at stake are central to one's self-identity, there may seem to be no place to stand to call them into question. Or, since one defines self-worth and self-respect in terms of one's norms and expectations, even objectively justified revision for the sake of self-respect may nonetheless seem like self-betrayal. The tenacity of a faulty normative self-conception may make overcoming unwarranted self-condemnation difficult indeed.

A third ground is secure basal self-respect. If one's basic self-valuing had been shaken by higher-level devaluing, then if it can be stabilized, one has a place to stand to reject judgments of utter worthlessness. Note that basal self-respect is not something that self-forgiveness can bring about; it is, rather, the ground of the psychological possibility of any other positive valuing of oneself. Unfortunately, one explanation for the worst cases of self-condemnation is that they arise out of insecure or negative basal self-valuing. If that is so, then overcoming self-condemnation may not be possible, for, as I noted above, there is reason to think that there is no way to ameliorate weakness at the basal level. In such a case, the first ground, the truth, will turn out psychologically to be no ground at all, for basal devaluing interprets everything in ways that support rather than counter the devaluing: it will simply be impossible to believe that one has indestructible intrinsic worth or any capacity for goodness. If the source of self-condemnation is a basal sense of oneself as worthless or defective, then overcoming it may be psychologically impossible.


What about warranted self-reproach; on what grounds can it be overcome? It is here, of course, that forgiving oneself is morally hard. For self-respecting self-forgiveness requires both that one not overlook or reinterpret the wrong in one's actions and self and thus betray one's values, and also that one overcome the modes of attitude, thought, behavior, attention, and desire that carry the verdict of one's values.

Note, first, that fully taking responsibility is necessary. For since the problem is centrally one of diminished evaluative self-respect, which rests on a negative appraisal of self, one can restore it only by proving to oneself that one really is a decent person, and responsibility work provides the evidence. Moreover, agentic recognition self-respect demands that one fully take responsibility for one's wrongs.

Is fully taking responsibility sufficient to overturn warranted self-reproach? Not necessarily, as I will argue below. It is an open question whether responsibility work is sufficient to bring one up to scratch by one's standards so that one merits respect. Much depends on the particular structure of one's normative self-conception.

It might be thought that having motivated us to take responsibility for our wrongs, self-reproach ceases to be of value and becomes something objectionable that morally ought to be banished. (60) But I have argued that insofar as self-reproach involves correct judgments vis-à-vis warranted standards, it is morally valuable inasmuch as it expresses agentic recognition self-respect and sustained commitment to the values and standards of one's normative self-conception, as well as an honest appraisal of oneself that refuses to compromise for the sake of comfort. Retaining self-reproach, even after one has done the responsibility work, can be defended on at least three grounds. First, there are considerations of retributive justice. It is, after all, one's sense of justice that is expressed in self-reproach: one deserves to be punished for wrong doing and being. And inasmuch as we are sometimes justified in sentencing people to life without possibility of parole, individuals may justifiably impose a similar sentence on themselves-all the responsibility work they can possibly do may still not redeem them. Second, sustained self-reproach may be necessary to balance a tendency to self-exculpation and so may be necessary to prevent repeated wrong. The third and most important reason, which is illustrated in Alison's case, concerns the role of emotions like guilt and shame in the right sort of memory retention. (61) Self-reproach begins because something has a certain significance for us; guilt, shame, and other such emotions express that significance and so express our values. It is because we care about what was harmed and the kind of person we are that we feel as we do; and remembering often rekindles the feelings. But more than this-we may need to hold on to self-reproach, especially its emotional dimensions, so that we don't forget what we care about. (62) Keeping a grip on our values is among the tasks of agentic recognition self-respect; hence Alison's concern that not remembering in a certain way is not self-respecting.

Even after one has fully taken responsibility, then, sustained self-reproach may still be warranted. Nevertheless, it can be morally appropriate to forgive oneself. But now a central question arises: what distinctive and morally important work is left for self-forgiveness after one fully takes responsibility for what one did, thought, was? What makes it more than psychological housekeeping?

Repentance and atonement deal responsibly with the wrong. But after that's over, there remains the task of dealing responsibly with oneself; and that is the task of self-forgiveness. Important questions remain to be settled: how shall I think of myself now, how shall I go on from here? For someone properly concerned with self-respect the hardest work is settling such questions without betraying oneself.

There are two cases to consider. The first is where responsibility work fully justifies a new stance toward the self; the second is where it does not. Consider the first case: having renounced one's wrongs, made the world right again, and given evidence of moral rebirth, one has earned back enough merit to justify evaluative self-respect. What makes it possible then to replace self-reproach with self-respect? Discussing forgiveness of others Joseph Beatty asks, for what is one asking, in asking for forgiveness? He answers, to be seen differently-to be seen not just as a wrongdoer but as someone who has, through repentance, transcended his acts and so is no longer identical with the one who did wrong. (63) Self-forgiveness also involves coming to see oneself differently. One stands, as it were, at a crossroads: there is reason to continue to view oneself as "the kind of person who could do such things," and there is reason to view oneself as a better person. To forgive oneself is to take the second road, to see oneself as someone who has transcended the past and so again has merit. And this is hard, since the other view has a serious claim; so forgiving oneself, even when one has repented and atoned, can be hard. To be self-respecting, such a change in view cannot involve forgetting the past or overturning the judgments about it and about what it means for one's character and self. Self-forgiveness is not a matter of changing one's mind about what happened; it is interpreting one's self differently, because one has reason to do so.(64)

Underlying this possibility of changing one's perception and so one's mode of being is a certain view of the self and the past. Coming to see oneself differently because one has fully taken responsibility for what happened assumes that the self was not transfigured or indelibly stained by it, that its significance for one's worth and sense of worth can be changed, and that the past need not determine the future. It might also be thought that seeing oneself differently assumes that responsibility work expunges one's moral record. But I would argue that it is more respectful of our reality as beings whose lives have a history and whose characters are inevitably shaped by it to say that self-forgiveness does not erase the past, but only alters its power or meaning for us. The record is there, in our characters as well as our minds; but we can regard it not as a moral GPA, where enough failing grades can make it impossible to graduate, let alone with honors, (65) but as a transcript that as a whole is always open to interpretation and never precludes a decent future.

It might also be thought that when one takes responsibility and, as it were, allies oneself with good, then one's true self is the self reborn, and self-forgiveness involves the decision to embrace one's true self. But I have been arguing that the issue is about how to see, not about what's underneath it all. What makes self-forgiveness hard even after the responsibility work is that the question of how to see the self isn't settled by an underlying reality. There is a decision to make about how to see, and there are strong reasons for, and strong pressures toward, different ways of seeing. And a fully justified view need not be morally or psychologically compelling.


While self-forgiveness can be hard when responsibility work fully justifies a positive view of oneself, it is harder when it doesn't. How could this be? Perhaps one did something so deeply wrong that it cannot be righted or atoned for. Or perhaps one's fears are well-founded: the wrong was not an aberration but truly a matter of bad character. Sometimes repentance does not effect moral rebirth: there is no discontinuity between a past bad self and present good self that enables one to see oneself as now worthy. There may be no getting around that despite all one's efforts, one remains shamefully defective. Some things, once stained, cannot be bleached clean. In such a case, to forgive oneself would be to change one's mind and heart about oneself while still believing that one deserves reproach. In such a case, is self-respecting self-forgiveness possible? If so, how could it be achieved?

There are three possibilities. The first is that it can't be done. For one may have done something unforgivable-objectively unforgivable, such that no one should forgive anyone who has done such a thing, or subjectively unforgivable, such that by one's own standards one could have no grounds for any stance other than damnation. We say, "I could never forgive myself if.. . ." Sometimes we mean only to emphasize the gravity of whatever we are talking about. But sometimes we mean it literally, not predicting how we will respond, but stressing how we think it would be morally appropriate to respond. In speaking thus, we mark our bottom line, our personal point of no return, the crossing of which would involve the threat of a life that had lost all meaning. (66) We say, "I am not the kind of person who . . ." If we violate such identity-conferring commitments, there may be nothing else in our normative conception to offset condemnation. The only way an agentically self-respecting person could then prevent self-destruction and scrape together any integrity would be to reclaim the standards by condemning herself forever for violating them.

The second possibility is that one can overcome justified self-reproach to reach a self-respecting stance. But how? In Gravity and Grace, Simone Weil writes, "Men owe us what we imagine they will give us. We must forgive them this debt. To accept the fact that they are other than the creatures of our imagination is to imitate the renunciation of God. I also am other than what I imagine myself to be. To know this is forgiveness." (67) The last lines provide two paths to self-forgiveness. The first involves, as before, a change in self-perception, but this time where there is not an equally justified positive view of the self that can replace the negative one. For Weil reminds us that even where the latter is warranted, it is not the only view one can, with reason, take. For most of us most of the time, there is more to the story about the self than condemnation tells. True, I am the one who did something awful and is still capable of doing it, I am one whose character is deeply flawed; but I am other than this as well. I am not wholly bad-my own self-reproach bears witness to this; my history contains not only wrong but right; my character contains not only vice but virtue. To forgive myself would be to see me as I am, not as I only imagine myself to be, (68) to tell a richer story about myself, one that is more honest for being richer. (69) It would be to put the negative judgments in their proper place-not to renounce them and so betray myself, but to look for and to be willing to accept considerations that would allow those judgments no longer to dominate my image of myself. To the extent that there are offsetting considerations, I may view myself as more worthy than self-reproach would permit. And if evaluative self-respect rests on a holistic gestalt, rather than totting up merits and demerits, it can be possible to restore some measure of it by taking this broader view. Moreover, to the extent that this view is more encompassing and truthful than the condemning one, to take it is to manifest agentic recognition self-respect inasmuch as honesty is among its demands.

There is another possibility in Weil's remark. She reminds us not only that there is probably more to my story than grounds for self-reproach but also that I am the one who tells the story. I interpret myself as reprehensible. To acknowledge this is to shift the focus from the self as object of condemnation to the self as judge and condemner, and thus to open another route to self-forgiveness. For evaluating myself is something I do, thus something I could do differently.70 And I could choose to do it differently, not only because there is something different to be seen but also because to do so would be to improve myself morally. Character is implicated not only in that for which one condemns oneself but also in condemning: it is because one is a certain kind of person that one responds as one does. And if one recognizes that even warranted self-reproach can express vice or be corrupting of character, one may try to overcome it in order to assert or strengthen morally better traits of character. So self-forgiveness may involve a conscious choice to be more generous, merciful, optimistic, less harsh, demanding, obsessed with justice. Nor need this involve self-betrayal. Rather, where the virtues one might choose to emphasize are also elements in one's normative self-conception, to try to forgive oneself for the sake of improving one's character is to de-center standards that underwrite condemnation and to privilege other dimensions of one's self-conception, perhaps even to improve the conception itself.

Where, despite repentance and one's best efforts to atone and improve oneself morally, self-reproach is still warranted, it can be in some cases possible and in other cases not possible to let it go without sacrificing self-respect. There is a third possibility: one may be able not to abolish self-reproach but only to abate it. There is no guarantee that taking a broader view of oneself or reconfiguring one's self-conception will result in an all-things-considered better judgment. The best stance one can achieve might not be great. But it might still be good enough.

One troubling dimension of much of what is written about self-forgiveness is the assumption that there are only two stances one can take toward the self: negative or positive, loathing or being at ease with oneself. But in truth there is a vast middle ground in which one could retain a complex view of oneself that is shot through with ambivalence. One can both value oneself enough to get on with one's life and yet rightly carry a burden of guilt and shame to one's grave. And the closer to the core the violated standards, the more reason there is not to lay down that burden. But, and here's the important thing, to go on like this can be to have forgiven oneself. Self-forgiveness does not require extinguishing all self-reproach, for it is not really about the presence or absence of negative feelings and judgments; it's about their power. Forgiving oneself means not that one no longer experiences self-reproach but that one is no longer in bondage to it, no longer controlled or crippled by a negative conception of oneself and the debilitating pain of it, no longer alienated from oneself, so that one can now live well enough. This is possible even if one retains a measure of clear-sighted self-reproach, overcoming it without eliminating it.

But is this self-respecting? There is a tendency nowadays to think that the evaluative form of self-regard must be wholly positive to be good. But an older tradition holds that a low sense of merit is, for most of us, more likely to be accurate and so more virtuous and respectful of our reality as deeply flawed beings. Kant holds that proper self-respect requires a healthy dose of humility: "Humility, on the one hand, and true, noble pride on the other are elements of proper self-respect.. ..In the light of the law of morality, which is holy and perfect, our defects stand out with glaring distinctness and on comparing ourselves with this standard of perfection, we have sufficient cause to feel humble." (71) On this view, we should think of warranted self-reproach not as incompatible with self-respect but as self-respecting humility. Humble self-respect may be not only the best we can expect from self-forgiveness, but morally the most appropriate stance to take. Alison is right-sometimes a self-respecting person should not be entirely at peace with herself.

Neither self-respect nor self-forgiveness is all sweetness and light. But understanding their connections enables us to see both the possibilities and the limits of self-forgiveness, and the moral value in it.


I am very grateful to Jeffrie Murphy, Cheshire Calhoun, Margaret Holmgren, Daniel Brudney, Gordon Bearn, Elizabeth Bodein, members of the Lehigh Valley Feminist Research Group, and an anonymous reviewer and several editors of Ethics for helpful comments and criticisms on earlier versions of this article.

* This paper originally appeared in Ethics, Vol. 112, No 1, (Oct 2001), pp. 53-83. Published by: The University of Chicago Press.

1. Margaret Holmgren, "Self-Forgiveness and Responsible Moral Agency," Journal of
Value Inquiry 32 (1998): 75-91. Also relevant is her "Forgiveness and the Value of Persons," American Philosophical Quarterly 30 (1993): 341-52.
2. In Sermon VIII, "Upon Resentment," and Sermon IX, "Upon Forgiveness of In- juries," of Fifteen Sermons Preached at the Rolls Chapel, 1722, in The Works ofJoseph Butler, ed. W. E. Gladstone (Oxford: Clarendon; New York: Macmillan, 1896), vol. 2, Sermons, Etc. Although she looks to Butler for the basic definition of forgiveness, Holmgren, like others, misinterprets his account. She takes Butler to define forgiveness as the forswearing or overcoming of resentment ("Self-Forgiveness," pp. 75, 76, and "Forgiveness," p. 341), and she takes this to mean relinquishing (or at least, working to eliminate) all negative emotions and judgments about the offender ("Forgiveness," pp. 342, 345, and "Self-Forgiveness," pp. 79, 86, 90). This reading takes resentment and similar emotions to be incompatible with the attitudes of goodwill and respect that forgiveness is supposed to yield, so that the former must be swept away to make room for the latter. But Butler does not define forgiveness as the elimination of resentment and he does not think that resentment is incompatible with an attitude of goodwill. Holmgren. quotes this passage as explicating Butler's definition of forgiveness: to forgive another is "to be affected towards the injurious person in the same way any good men, uninterested in the case, would be; if they had the same just sense, which we have supposed the injured person to have, of the fault: after which there will yet remain real good-will toward the offender" (Sermon IX, pp. 160-61). Note that Butler doesn't say that an uninterested good man would feel no resentment on viewing the fault. Butler maintains that the Biblical precepts to forgive and to love our enemies (his text for both sermons is Matt. 5:43-44) do not enjoin the elimination of resentment; rather, they "forbid only the excess and abuse of this natural feeling, in cases of personal and private injury" (Sermon IX, p. 152). For resentment-both hasty and sudden anger (passion) and settled and deliberate anger (resentment proper) occasioned by having been wrongly injured by another person (Sermon VIII, pp. 138-44) -is, Butler argues in Sermon VIII, given to us by God to prevent and remedy the evil and pain of injury by others, and so it is both ineliminable from our nature and conditionally good. What is bad and to be eliminated are the abuses and excesses of resentment: when the injury is only imagined or is exaggerated, when the anger is mistakenly directed at an innocent person or is disproportionate to the injury, or when it is malicious or prompts revenge. But "resentment is not inconsistent with good-will; we very often see both together in very high degrees; not only in parents toward children, but in cases of friendship and dependence. . . . These contrary passions, though they may lessen, do not necessarily destroy each other. We may therefore love our enemy, and yet have resentment toward him for his injurious behaviour towards us. But when this resentment entirely destroys our natural benevolence towards him, it is excessive, and becomes malice or revenge. The command to prevent its having this effect, i.e., to forgive injuries, is the same as to love our enemies" (Sermon IX, p. 158). Forgiveness is thus not the elimination of resentment but the control of it, preventing it from becoming excessive, unjustified, or malicious. It is worth noting that "overcome" can mean either to eliminate something altogether (as in the Civil Rights Movement determination that "We Shall Overcome" racial prejudice and discrimination) or to not let it cripple one (as a person might overcome a physical handicap). Holmgren takes Butler's account in the former way when he intends the latter. This point will become important later in this article.
3. Holmgren, "Self-Forgiveness," p. 76.
4. Ibid., p. 79.
5. Ibid., p. 76.
6. The first line is taken, e.g., by Lin Bauer et al., "Exploring Self-Forgiveness, "Journal
of Religion and Health 31 (1992): 149-60; and by Barbara Flanagan, Forgiving Yourself: A Step-by-Step Guide to Making Peace with Your Mistakes and Getting on with Your Life (New York: Macmillan, 1996); the second line is taken by Nancy Snow, "Self-Forgiveness," Journal of Value Inquiry 27 (1993): 75-80.
7. This possibility is suggested by Cheshire Calhoun's discussion of aspirational forgiveness in "Changing One's Heart," Ethics 103 (1992): 76-96. Others who hold that repentance does not make hard feelings unwarranted include Norvin Richards, "Forgive-ness," Ethics 99 (1988): 77-97; Joanna North, "Wrongdoing and Forgiveness," Philosophy 62 (1987): 499-508; Robert Enright, "Counseling within the Forgiveness Triad: On Forgiving, Receiving Forgiveness, and Self-Forgiveness," Counseling and Values 40 (1996): 107-26.
8. Oddly, this fact seems to be missed in many discussions. For example, Snow says explicitly and Holmgren ("Self-Forgiveness") implies that self-forgiveness is required whenever one does (serious) wrong, while Flanagan presents numerous cases of people who have done wrong but whose own responses to their wrongs we do not see and says of them that they will have to forgive themselves. It is true that wrongdoers are morally required to take responsibility for their wrong, but, as I argue below, it is not true that they need, morally or psychologically, to forgive themselves. It is also interesting to note a difference in how "wrongdoing" is treated in the literature on forgiveness of self and others. Some writers, e.g., Snow, Holmgren, and Flanagan, treat it as a matter of error, carelessness, or human finitude and limitations. Others, e.g., Calhoun and Jeffrie Murphy, focus on evil, nastiness, dreadful character, distorted values, shameful lapses of personal integrity (Jeffrie Murphy, 'Jean Hampton on Immorality, Self-Hatred, and Self-Forgiveness," Philosophical Studies 89 [1998]: 215-36).
9. I will use the term 'self-reproach' to characterize the central attitude in the negative stance most generally, recognizing that there is in fact a continuum of stances that might arise from recognizing that one is responsible for something terrible, wrong, or awry, ranging from mildly self-critical to ragingly self-condemning, for a short time to a lifetime. I think we talk about forgiving or not forgiving ourselves when the attitudes and other dimensions of the stance are more strongly negative and persistent, but I don't rule out the relevance of transformative self-forgiveness to milder cases.
10. Barbara Kingsolver, The Poisonwood Bible (New York: HarperCollins, 1998), p. 465. We might think that multiple denial is significant, but not (yet?) for self-forgiveness.
11. One might object that (transformational) forgiveness is distinctively tied to wrong- doing: as we don't forgive other people for being bad or for having done something that reveals badness of character but only for the wrong they've done us, so we can't forgive ourselves for being bad, only for doing wrong. That objection is mistaken on both counts. It makes perfect sense, for example, for someone to decide to forgive her parent for having been too self-centered to really love her as she was growing up, which is not a matter just of action or even pattern of action. The real complaint is about the parent's character, values, priorities, motivations, etc. Nor is overcoming reproach in cases like these a matter of acceptance rather than forgiveness, for the former is compatible with condonation, while forgiveness requires clear-sighted acknowledgment of the wrong or bad. Jean Hampton convincingly analyzes (transformational) forgiveness as essentially involving a "change of heart," which is a matter of overcoming what she calls "moral hatred," which, unlike resentment and indignation, which, she argues, are directed at the action, is directed at the person who harmed one and involves the belief that the person is bad. As she says, "The forgiver who previously saw the wrongdoer as someone bad or rotten or morally indecent to some degree has a change of heart when he 'washes away' or disregards the wrongdoer's immoral actions or character traits in his ultimate moral judgment of her, and comes to see her as still decent, not rotten as a person" ("Forgiveness, Resentment, and Hatred," in Forgiveness and Mercy, by Jeffrie G. Murphy and Jean Hampton [New York: Cambridge University Press, 1988], p. 83; author's emphasis). Though wrongdoing may sometimes, maybe even typically, be the source of the negative stance that forgiveness overcomes, its object is the person as the kind of person who could do that. When we forgive others, we forgive them for being that kind of person, and that's part of why forgiveness is hard. So, too, for self-forgiveness. I return to this point below.
12. Kingsolver, p. 89.
13. Ibid., p. 493.
14. Ibid.
15. Letter to "Dear Abby," "Woman's Death Consumes Friend Whose Words Fail," Allentown (Pa.) Morning Call (June 28, 2000). "I am still consumed with guilt for having concealed the truth from my friend. I am nervous all the time and have trouble concentrating and sleeping . . . the depression overwhelms me." Abby unhelpfully reassures "Grieving in L.A." that she should not blame herself since she did what the family said she must do.
16. Letter to "Dear Abby," "Toddler's Accidental Death Ends Someone Else's Life as Well," Allentown (Pa.) Morning Call (July 18, 2000). "My best friend accidentally backed her car over my [two-year-old] sister, killing her instantly. . . . My family recovered from my sister's death, but my friend never did. The accident ruined her life. She had been at the top of her class and everyone expected a bright future for her. Instead, she lived through failed counseling, broken marriages, and her career crashed-all because of a tragic accident that wasn't her fault. She couldn't forgive herself."
17. "Nowhere Is Safe in Kosovo," Allentown (Pa.) Morning Call (August 13, 1998). When Serbs attacked the Albanian village of Rezala, Yugoslavia, Zequir Zabeli, his wife and four children had to make a painful choice. They could carry his 85-year-old mother Hana, who was speechless and paralyzed from a stroke, "through a rain of artillery and mortar fire, risking death for all in a slow escape. Or they could leave her behind, run away unburdened and pray for her survival." They chose to run, and Hana died alone. "The Serbs attacked so fast we had no time to think how to evacuate my mother to safety.... I got my wife and children out.. . . We ran. It is a choice I will have to live with."
18. One might object that where there is no wrong, the self-reproachful feelings are unfounded and "the process of removing them is different from the process of attaining genuine self-forgiveness" (Holmgren, "Self-Forgiveness," p. 76). But in fact we do speak of not being able to forgive ourselves in cases like these, and I follow Herbert Morris and Jeffrie Murphy in, as Morris says, "being skeptical about any claim of widespread misuse of terms for emotional states" and, as Murphy says, resistingn) regarding the feeling [self-hatred even when one has done nothing wrong] as merely inappropriate or irrational or neurotic." Both explain the moral appropriateness of such feelings in terms of the "feelings of human solidarity" they express. I explain them below in terms of the structure of one's normative self-conception. See Herbert Morris, "Nonmoral Guilt," in Responsibility, Character, and the Emotions, ed. Ferdinand Schoeman (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987), p. 221; and Murphy, 'Jean Hampton," p. 229. The cases in the previous two paragraphs underscore a general point about forgiveness and reproach. If one's paradigm for forgiveness is the legal model, then one will think forgiveness applies only in cases of wrongdoing. But everyday talk about forgiving and not forgiving ourselves and others makes it clear that it is not so restricted, and thus that the legal model is not an appropriate paradigm. Wrong/doing is not the only grounds for the reproach that forgiveness addresses.
19. Cases of survivor guilt pose a special problem. In correspondence, Daniel Brudney, noting the shame that a survivor of the Nazi death camps might feel on not having been among those who heroically resisted and died, objected that while it might be difficult to overcome self-reproach for being the sort of person who did not actively (and suicidally) resist and to accept oneself as morally "okay," it seems not to be a matter of forgiving oneself. However, if the survivor thinks of himself as having been cowardly or in some other way morally wanting in not resisting, then forgiveness would be appropriate. But it is difficult to know what to say about cases in which a person feels guilty simply for having survived when others died (e.g., in a bombing or earthquake), where it does not make sense to think of oneself as in any way responsible for the outcome or deficient as a person. The Murphy-Morris move in n. 18 makes the guilt feelings rational, but it is not clear that it would bring such cases into the range of forgiveness. Having raised the case, though, let me leave it for another day.
20. Jane Austen, Emma (1816), vol. 3, chaps. 7-8.
21. Bauer et al., pp. 54-55.
22. Flanagan, p. 57.
23. Norman Care, Living with One's Past: Personal Fates and Moral Pains (Boston: Row-man & Littlefield, 1996), pp. x, 5, 7.
24. Murphy, 'Jean Hampton," p. 218; Murphy's emphasis.
25. Ibid., p. 226.
26. It is worth noting again that not everyone for whom self-forgiveness would be appropriate is consumed by what troubles them, their lives virtually destroyed by self- condemnation. Alison is one less dramatic case: haunted by her past but not obsessed with it. The negative stance admits of fairly wide degree.
27. See, e.g., John Deigh, "Guilt and Shame," in Encyclopedia of Ethics, ed. Lawrence C. Becker and Charlotte B. Becker (New York: Garland, 1992); and Paul Gilbert, "What Is Shame? Some Core Issues and Controversies," in Shame: Interpersonal Behavior, Pathology, and Culture, ed. Paul Gilbert and Bernice Andrews (New York: Oxford University Press,1998). Note that self-forgiveness is not appropriately directed at all forms of shame. Shame felt over physical deformity, for example, is not within the scope of forgiveness.
28. As Helen Lewis argues, guilt involves blaming one's behavior for a bad event, but shame involves blaming one's character. Helen B. Lewis, Shame: The Exposed Self (New York: Free Press, 1992).
29. Thus, wrongs one can regard as "out of character" are less damaging to one's self-conception.
30. Flanagan, pp. xix, xii.
31. It is common in discussions of (self-)forgiveness to make the Augustinian move of arguing that although the act may be morally wrong, the agent can be separated from the act and seen as untainted by it and thereby forgiven (though repentance might be required for the separation and so for forgiveness). However, the self-reproachful stance rejects this move, for it is not the act that it focuses on but the inescapable defective self that is not supposed to be defective.
32. H. J. N. Horsbrugh, "Forgiveness," Canadian Journal of Philosophy 4 (1974): 269-82, p. 276.
33. Joseph Conrad, Lord Jim (1900), chap. 7.
34. Ibid., chap. 33.
35. Ibid., chap. 34. The ellipsis is Conrad's.
36. Ibid., chap. 32.
37. See my "Self-Respect: Moral, Emotional, Political," Ethics 107 (1997): 226-49, "Introduction," Dignity, Character, and Self-Respect, ed. Robin Dillon (New York: Routledge 1995), "How to Lose Your Self-Respect," American Philosophical Quarterly 29 (1992): 125-39, and "Toward a Feminist Conception of Self-Respect," Hypatia 7 (1992): 52-69 (reprinted in Dignity, Character, and Self-Respect).
38. I take this term from Stephen Darwall, "Two Kinds of Respect," Ethics 88 (1977): 34-49.
39. I take this term from Stephen D. Hudson, "The Nature of Respect," Social Theory and Practice 6 (1980): 69-90. Darwall's term is 'appraisal self-respect'.
40. On "coming up to scratch," see Elizabeth Telfer, "Self-Respect," Philosophical Quarterly 18 (1968): 114-21.
41. I use this term, instead of Freud's "ego-ideal," because the latter term implies that the conception is composed of or dominated by ideas about excellence and a commitment to become excellent. But our normative self-conceptions also contain ideas and expectations of acceptability and decency, as well as ideas of inadequacy and defectiveness and a determination not to get too close, and these come into play in self-reproach.
42. The phrase comes from David Hume, A Treatise of Human Nature, ed. L. A. Selby Bigge (Oxford: Clarendon, 1971), p. 620.
43. In "Self-Respect, Excellences, and Shame," in A Theory ofjustice (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1971), sec. 67, John Rawls holds that shame arises from the perception that one has failed to live up to one's standards of excellence. But this is mistaken. We are not ashamed of ourselves for not being excellent; rather, we are ashamed of ourselves for being less than the least we expect ourselves to be. Of course, if one expects nothing less than excellence from oneself, one will then, but only then, be ashamed for falling short of excellence. Arguing that "it is not so much the distance from an ideal self but closeness to the 'undesired self' that is crucial to shame," psychologist Paul Gilbert reports a study that found participants talking not about failing to live up to ideals but about being who they did not want to be (p. 19).
44. One's normative standards need not be moral in any narrow sense or reasonable to be powerful, nor need they allow for excused violation. If they include, for example, "good daughters always care for their mothers as their mothers cared for them," then putting one's aged mother in a nursing home, even when one cannot care for her any longer and she would get very good care in the home, could appropriately generate shame and self-reproach. Let me note here that I do not address an important issue, namely, that our self-conceptions are not wholly self-generated but are to a great extent socialized into us. An adequate account of self-reproach would have to take seriously the distortions of self-identity and self-reproach under oppression.
45. Whereas recognition self-respect expresses, "I matter because I am a person," and evaluative self-respect expresses, "I matter because I have merit," basal self-respect expresses simply, "I matter."
46. Murphy, 'Jean Hampton," p. 218.
47. Ibid., p. 226.
48. Immanuel Kant, The Doctrine of Virtue: Part II of the Metaphysics of Morals, trans. MaryJ. Gregor (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1964), p. 132 (Akademie, p. 463).
49. I take this example from M. H. Bickhard, "The Nature of Psychopathology," in International Psychotherapy: Theories, Research, and Cross-Cultural Implications, ed. Lynn Simek Downing (New York: Praeger, 1989).
50. Kant maintains that a feeling of "reverence for oneself' is one of the subjective conditions for the possibility of moral agency-did we not experience it, we "could not even conceive of duty" (Doctrine of Virtue, pp. 59, 63 [Akademie, pp. 399, 402-30]). Representing oneself to oneself as irredeemably bad and so forever unworthy would thus make it impossible to discharge the duties of self-respect, or indeed any moral duties.
51. I discuss this in "Self-Respect: Moral, Emotional, Political." Whereas insecure basal valuing can be a source of the liability to unwarranted self-reproach, secure basal valuing can provide immunity to even warranted self-reproach: someone whose wrongs are fully in character can regard them instead as flukes or bad luck-again and again-if they have a strongly positive and secure basal sense of worth that underwrites this interpretation of the data.
52. This form of self-forgiveness corresponds to another common usage of the term "forgiving," as providing a margin for error or shortcoming (American Heritage Dictionary, 4th ed.). As a laminate kitchen countertop is forgiving, while granite is unforgiving-a dropped glass might bounce on the former but will shatter on the latter-so one can be a forgiving person, of oneself or of others: less likely to condemn in the first place and so less likely to need to overcome it.
53. The phrase is Paul Hughes's in "On Forgiving Oneself: A Reply to Snow," Journal of Value Inquiry 28 (1994): 557-60.
54. Reflecting on the wide and deep damage wrought by her missionary father's raging condemnation of himself, his family, and the African villagers he meant to save from hell-a condemnation rooted in "a suspicion of his own cowardice" that formed when he stumbled from the jungle just before the rest of his company died to a man on the Bataan Death March ("Fate sentenced Our Father to pay for those lives with the remainder of his, and he has spent it posturing desperately beneath the eyes of a God who will not forgive a debt"), Orleanna's daughter Leah says, "If I could reach back somehow to give Father just one gift, it would be the simple human relief of knowing you've done wrong, and living through it" (Kingsolver, pp. 197, 413, 525).
55. I discuss such a form of self-respect in "Toward a Feminist Conception of Self- Respect," though I did not there make the connection with self-forgiveness.
56. See, e.g., Bauer et al.; Flanagan; and Enright.
57. Holmgren raises something like this objection in "Self-Forgiveness," pp. 75-76.
58. It is worth noting again that Butler maintained that the function of forgiveness of others was to overcome only the unwarranted dimensions of resentment, i.e., hatred, malice, and vengefulness (see n. 2).
59. An example of this is in Nevada Barr's Endangered Species (New York: Putnam, 1997). Frederick has become infatuated with Molly, the sister of his lover, Anna. But "along with titillating excitement was a rising tide of self-contempt. . . . He was ashamed. On some level he was aware of that.. . . Soon, he knew, the process of his exoneration would begin. Bit by bit he would change what needed changing. Each time he told himself the story he would come out looking a little cleaner. Frederick's judgments were cruel, damning. Years before, he'd learned how to keep them from turning and cutting him. After the process was complete and he was once again whole, there would be only a scar. . .. When self-analysis came close to unpleasant truth, Frederick turned his mind to his work. It was what he was good at" (pp. 153-55).
60. This is Holmgren's position in "Self-Forgiveness."
61. Jeffrie Murphy suggested this to me.
62. "Suffering is not for the evil, / for it would be wasted on them. / Suffering is for the enlightened, / so they may remember what they already know" (Rory Block, "Faithless World," on Ain't I a Woman, Rounder CD 3120 [Cambridge, Mass.: Rounder Records, 1992]).
63. Joseph Beatty, "Forgiveness," American Philosophical Quarterly (1970): 246-52.
64. See Enright on "refraining" (p. 125); and Robert C. Roberts on "refocusing" ("Forgiveness," American Philosophical Quarterly 32 [1995]: 289-306, p. 297).
65. This is Holmgren's metaphor.
66. I take the idea of a personal point of no return from Bruno Bettelheim, The Informed Heart: Autonomy in a Mass Age (Glencoe, Ill.: Free Press, 1960), p. 157. See also my "How to Lose Your Self-Respect," pp. 129-30.
67. Quoted inJeffrie Murphy, "Hatred: A Qualified Defense," in Murphy and Hampton, p. 91.
68. It is here that the forgiveness of others can be useful, even necessary for self-forgiveness. One may need to look through their perspective to see oneself differently. Thus the importance to Conrad's Jim of becoming so admired by the Patusan natives, and the doom entailed in losing their admiration. Thus, too, Leah Price, "cradled into forgiveness" by her husband's love (Kingsolver, p. 530).
69. Orleanna's daughter Adah takes this view: "If chained is where you have been, your arms will always bear the marks of the shackles. What you have to lose is your story, your own slant. You'll look at the scars on your arms and see mere ugliness, or you'll take care to look away from them and see nothing. Either way, you have no words for the story of where you came from. . . . [But I] am trying to tell the truth. The power is in the balance: we are our injuries, as much as we are our successes" (Kingsolver, p. 495-96).
70. Poisonwood Bible ends with this view: "If you feel a gnawing at your bones, that is yourself, hungry. . . The teeth at your bones are your own, the hunger is yours, the forgiveness is yours. . . Slide the weight off your shoulders" (pp. 537, 543).
71. Immanuel Kant, Lectures on Ethics, trans. Louis Infield (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1980), p. 126.

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