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Journal of the History of Ideas 62.2 (2001) 233-244

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Joseph Butler on Forgiveness: A Presupposed Theory of Emotion

Paul A. Newberry

"I forgive him as far as humanity can forgive. I would do him no injury."

Mrs. Dale in Anthony Trollope's The Last Chronicle of Barset, 1867.

In the recent philosophical literature on forgiveness, a topic of great concern is the proper characterization of forgiveness or, said in another way, the proper definition of forgiveness. Forgiveness has been defined in a multitude of ways: among others, as the overcoming of resentment, the overcoming of moral hatred, as a speech act, and as forbearance. Of these definitions the one that enjoys anything close to a kind of consensus is that forgiveness is the overcoming of resentment. This position, with various qualifications and stipulations, is held by numerous philosophers, among them R. S. Downie, Kathleen Dean Moore, A. C. Ewing, Martin Hughes, and Jeffrie Murphy. 1 The progenitor of this view is widely acknowledged to be Joseph Butler, who wrote sermons on both resentment and forgiveness nearly three hundred years ago. 2

In this paper I will demonstrate that the attribution of this definition of forgiveness to Butler is in error: he did not define forgiveness as the overcoming of resentment but rather as the checking of revenge, or forbearance. Aside from the goal of setting the historical record straight, I have a broader and more important purpose in this essay. One sees that such an interpretation of Butler must provoke two questions. First, why did Butler define forgiveness only in terms of how one is to act, therefore paying no attention, apparently, to how one feels? Second, how do Murphy and the others incorrectly attribute this view to Butler? [End Page 233] I contend that these answers can be addressed if we take a close look at the role of emotions and theories of emotion in the definitions offered by Butler and Murphy (as representative of the group). I will attempt to establish that Butler's definition of forgiveness as the checking of revenge presupposes a feeling theory of emotions which is distinct from and in conflict with--in many ways pertinent to forgiveness--the cognitive theory of emotions presupposed by Murphy's definition. If I am successful in showing this claim to be plausible, then I will also have demonstrated that more attention needs to be paid to theories of emotion underlying work on forgiveness. But since the misinterpretation of Butler is widespread among contemporary writers on forgiveness and not peculiar to Murphy, my claim is a gesture toward what I take to be a problem greater than mere misinterpretation. Given the fact that a feeling theory of emotions was the predominant theory among philosophers in Butler's day until the end of the nineteenth century and that cognitive theory is currently a dominant philosophical theory, I fear that what has happened is that modern commentators on Butler are unaware that they are imposing their own presupposed theories of emotion onto a text from an earlier historical period.

The plan of the paper is first to show by careful exegesis how Butler characterizes forgiveness and then, after a brief sketch of the difference between feeling theory and cognitive theory, to demonstrate how Butler's definition presupposes the former and Murphy's the latter. I will conclude with a few remarks about the import of these findings.

Joseph Butler's treatment of forgiveness is found in a collection of his sermons first published as Fifteen Sermons in 1726. 3 Included in this collection are two sermons of primary importance to the topic of forgiveness: a sermon on resentment (Sermon VIII) and a subsequent sermon on forgiveness (Sermon IX). An understanding of Butler's definition of forgiveness properly begins with his sermon on resentment in which he distinguishes between two different kinds of resentment. One kind he calls "hasty and sudden" resentment, the other "settled and deliberate" resentment. 4 Hasty and sudden resentment is generally (and naturally) the result of sudden hurt or violence. 5...


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