The Law of Forgiveness

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Last week’s Chronicle includes an article (here) about a rising subdiscipline in “forgiveness studies.” In Turning the Other Cheek, a Growing Scholarly Discipline, Tom Bartlett reports on several academic studies of forgiveness:

At the time [of his mother’s murder], [Mr. Worthington Everett L. Worthington Jr.], a professor of psychology at Virginia Commonwealth University, was one of a handful of scholars studying forgiveness. His initial reaction to the crime, though, was understandably visceral: He was filled with rage. He wanted to kill his mother’s killers. He recalls in his 2003 book, Forgiving and Reconciling: Bridges to Wholeness and Hope, how he later struggled to empathize with the two young men responsible. * * *

The topic of forgiveness went from being a sideline to Mr. Worthington’s primary academic interest. He’s since published eight books and numerous papers on the topic. He’s also helped dole out more than $9-million to forgiveness researchers, first as co-director of a grants program at the John Templeton Foundation and later as executive director of A Campaign for Forgiveness Research, a nonprofit organization. As a result, in part, of those efforts, the number of papers published on forgiveness has grown from a few dozen in the late 1990s to well over a thousand today.

So, it’s fair to ask, what have researchers learned about forgiveness?

For starters, they’ve found that it matters not just to the person who is forgiven, but also to the forgiver, and that a capacity for forgiveness is associated with mental and physical well-being. One study found that quality-of-life ratings improved for terminally ill patients after four weeks of “forgiveness therapy,” in which they learned techniques like imaginative empathy. Another study discovered that cardiac patients who were generally more forgiving had lower cholesterol levels. Still another found that military veterans who struggled with forgiveness had more severe post-traumatic stress disorders.

In one study, Mr. [Ryan] Fehr, a postdoctoral fellow in psychology at the University of Maryland at College Park, looked at the relationship between forgiveness and creativity. * * * Dutch researchers recently set out to find whether there is a relationship between forgiveness and executive function, the cognitive-control center that organizes thought and regulates behavior. They had participants match letters that were flashed on a computer screen. They also tested them using the Tendency to Forgive Scale, which asks users to rate their agreement with statements like “I tend to get over it quickly when someone hurts my feelings.”

What implications might any of this have for the law? Legal scholars have already begun to explore that landscape in family law, international law, criminal law, legal history, legal ethics and professionalism, bankruptcy (Bruce Mann’s As We Forgive Our  Debtors comes to mind), torts, trusts & estates, human rights, labor law, executive powers, law & religion, foreign relations, dispute resolution, consumer law . . . I’m thinking about tax law, too.  Martha Minow published “Between Vengeance and Forgiveness: Feminist Responses to Violent Injustice in the New England Law Review in 1998. The Fordham Urban Law Journal sponsored a symposium on “The Role of Forgiveness in the Law” in 2000.

This seems like a fruitful avenue for further inquiry and exploration.

-Bridget Crawford

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