South African Journal of Philosophy

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Forgiveness: The Victim's Prerogative

Trudy Govier, Wilhelm Verwoerd


This article explores and offers a qualified defence of the claim that the entitlement to forgive a wrongdoer belongs to the victim of the wrong. A summary account of forgiveness is given, followed by arguments in favor of the victim's prerogative to forgive. Primary, or direct victims are then distinguished from secondary and tertiary ones, which point to a plurality of prerogatives to forgive. In cases of conflicts between these prerogatives it is emphasized that special care should be taken to protect the primary victim's entitlement, without giving an absolute and exclusive status to the latter prerogative. Grounds for limiting the primary victim's prerogative regarding forgiveness include (a) cases where harm to secondary and/or tertiary victims are greater than the harm resulting from the original wrong committed against the primary victim, (b) the social dimensions of the elements of forgiveness, and (c) the need for self-forgiveness when a repentant wrongdoer is not forgiven by any of the victims. The practical significance of these arguments are illustrated by considering the criticism that the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission have forgiven perpetrators in ways that inappropriately pre-empted the primary victims' entitlement to forgive.

S. Afr. J. Philos. Vol.21(2) 2002: 97-111
AJOL African Journals Online