Reconciliation #2 – Apologies and Forgiveness

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Area: Language Arts and Literature
Grade Level: High School & Beyond, Middle School
Topics: apology, ethics, forgiveness
Estimated Time Necessary: One hour or more

Lesson Plan

Think together about apologies and forgiveness.
The aim of this session is to explore the difference between apologies and forgiveness and whether it makes sense to forgive people who have no contrition.

This lesson plan can be read in conjunction with “Chapter 4. Reconciliation” (pp. 69-82) in the freely available teaching resource Coping: A Philosophical Guide (OpenBook Publishers, 2021) with discussion questions (pp. 124-5) and additional teaching materials (p. 119-20). 

Accepting an Apology versus Forgiving

Questions for Discussion:

  1. What is the difference between accepting an apology and forgiving someone?
  2. Can one accept an apology, yet not forgive?
  3. If an apology has been offered, can one forgive, yet not accept the apology.

Here are some responses that the students might give:

Question 1. First, forgiveness has a religious dimension. We don’t apologize to God, but rather, we ask for God’s forgiveness. Also, the practice of asking forgiveness and offering forgiveness between people is arguably more at home within a religious setting. Second, forgiveness is more fitting for graver offenses, whereas we accept apologies for smaller offenses. And third, there is an emotional component to forgiveness, more so than to accepting an apology. I may still be angry yet bring myself to accept an apology.  But genuine forgiveness requires, arguably, that we let go of our anger.

Question 2. We may be able to bring ourselves to accept an apology, yet still not be able to forgive, because we cannot let go of the resentment we feel toward an offender. (“Vicar who cannot forgive tube bombers” (Guardian 7 March 2006) is an interesting piece to read on the inability to forgive.)

Question 3. We may forgive and yet not accept an apology when we do not consider the apology to be genuine. (For more detail, see lesson plan Reconciliation 1: Genuine and Disingenuous Apologies.) But what if we consider the apology genuine? Might we forgive in our heart but not accept the apology, just to not let the offender off the hook that easily? This is certainly debatable. I am inclined to say that if you genuinely forgive, then you should forgive openly, and it makes no sense to forgive openly while not accepting the apology.

Forgiving the Unrepentant

Question for Discussion:

Could one forgive someone who is in no way sorry for what they did?

As to the possibility of forgiving an unrepentant offender, the philosophical literature is notoriously divided.

  1. Some people think that forgiveness makes sense within a practice of reconciliation, but that it takes two to reconcile. Hence, if the offending party has no remorse, then forgiveness makes no sense.
  2. Others see forgiving as a self-healing practice in which we let go of anger and resentment. That is, we can forgive in our heart, even if the offending party shows no contrition. Furthermore, if we want to make sense of forgiveness for historical wrongs, in which the offender is no longer alive, then we do need the latter view of forgiveness.

I expect that some students will take one side, while others will take the other side, which will lead to an interesting discussion.



This lesson plan was created for PLATO by: Luc Bovens, University of North Carolina Chapel Hill. Artwork by Fiorella Lavado.

This work is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 4.0

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