A philosophical exploration of anger and forgiveness

  • Craig Henderson

Student thesis: Masters ThesisMaster of Philosophy


Discussions of anger and forgiveness have been widely contested in public and political discourse and within philosophical literature both historical and contemporary. Within this thesis I argue that particular conceptions of anger are morally valuable responses to wrongdoing. The primary value of these forms of anger is linked, I argue, to their functional role in defending the self-respect of the victim of wrongdoing.

Chapter One amounts to a conceptual analysis of the punitive emotions. Here I present a typology of different forms of anger in making clear what binds these distinct emotions together as well as highlighting the multitude of elements which constitute emotions generally and anger in particular.

In Chapter Two I present my argument for anger as having a valuable – albeit narrow – role within interpersonal relationships. I build my argument by responding to two main lines of critique against the moral worth of anger. First, I consider Nussbaum’s objection which holds that anger is ‘normatively problematic’. I respond here by stressing that, should anger contain a retributive aspect, the retributive element present within particular forms of anger is importantly communicative in nature and concerned with defence of self-respect rather than a misguided wish for revenge in order to ‘balance the scales’. Secondly, I respond to Pettigrove’s ‘epistemic objection’ in highlighting the role of a signal which anger can best fulfil, thus arguing for the inclusion of anger as ‘one voice among many’ (including meekness) within our moral deliberations and social interactions.

Chapter Three moves on to consider forgiveness. I conceive of forgiveness as the overcoming of resentment (and intimately related emotions) for moral reasons, thus creating a strict linkage between anger and forgiveness. Much like the discussion in the opening two chapters, a central theme throughout my writing on forgiveness is the importance placed on the self-respect of the victim of wrongdoing. Consequently, I present a rebuttal of Garrard and McNaughton’s account that forgiveness ought to be unconditional. In response I present an argument for conditional forgiveness which grounds the appropriateness of the bestowment of forgiveness on recipient-focused reasons. Such reasons are seen as rendering forgiveness appropriate to the degree that they separate the wrongdoer from their previous wrongful conduct (and the character traits which occasioned it). I then consider objections to my account of conditional forgiveness. Here I argue again for the importance of the victim’s self-respect and highlight how this is under threat not only from wrongful conduct, but also by forgiving prematurely (in the absence of the appropriate, or any, moral reasons). I conclude by arguing that there are important distinctions between secular and divine accounts of forgiveness such that the secular account I endorse throughout the thesis is neither demeaning nor dominating towards the recipient of forgiveness.
Date of AwardJul 2020
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • Queen's University Belfast
SupervisorJeremy Watkins (Supervisor)


  • Anger
  • Resentment
  • Forgiveness
  • Normative Ethics

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