Towards a Relational Stance

Dr. Sukaina Hirji, University of Pennsylvania


It is often thought that cultivating empathy helps us forgo resentment. Clinical psychologists tell us that when someone has hurt us, and we want to forgive them, we should try to understand, from their perspective, why they did what they did. When we hurt people we care about, we often offer explanations that are neither justifications nor excuses but instead attempts to make sense of ourselves -- and our failings -- to the person we hurt. But philosophers have puzzled over why empathetically taking up the point of view of someone who has wronged us should help us forgive them. Indeed, many philosophers have regarded this route to forgiveness with suspicion. At best, it seems suited to displacing resentment in favor of something like ironic detachment or pity. At worst it seems to manipulate the victim into caring more about the abuser than the wrong that has been done to them. 

  I argue that empathy can provide a route to forgiveness not by undermining one’s reasons to be angry nor by destabilizing the victim’s perspective on the harm done to them, but instead by shifting the victim’s evaluative outlook. I argue that within Strawson’s participant stance, the perspective from which we evaluate actions according to considerations of justice and fairness can come apart from the perspective according to which we evaluate actions with a view to managing our vulnerability in our relationships with others. This has important implications for when, and whether, we should cultivate empathy in the service of forgiveness.