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Which Contributes More to Forgiveness, Sympathy or Free Will?

The question of whether sympathy or free will is more important for forgiveness is a bit like asking “Which is more important for human survival, oxygen or nuclear arms control?” Both questions demand comparisons between entities that cannot be placed on a common scale, so the questions might not have answers at all. Even so, the “Sympathy or Free Will” question offers a way into another important question that certainly does have an answer: Why are some harms easy to forgive and others hard to forgive? To answer this question, sympathy and free will turn out to be very relevant indeed.

Before going any further, let me define forgiveness. I think about forgiveness from an evolutionary point of view, so it has been important to define forgiveness functionally—that is, in terms of what the human capacity for forgiveness is for. Animal researchers have observed that many non-human animals that live in stable groups tend to engage in friendly behaviors (usually involving physical contact) after they have had a conflict or an aggressive interaction. These friendly post-conflict behaviors (known collectively as “reconciliation”) seem to serve the function of helping individuals to patch up important relationships. Based on these observations and other considerations, I have come to think that the thing we call forgiveness has a similar function, which is to inhibit retaliation and to motivate behaviors that will coax a transgressor back into a mutually beneficial relationship—on the condition that the harm-doer mend his or her ways and raise his or her regard for the forgiver’s welfare going forward.[i]

If the human capacity for forgiveness really did evolve for the function of coaxing transgressors back into constructive relations, then the behavioral systems responsible for forgiveness should be good at executing that function. (This is a standard adaptationist article of faith, and an empirically defensible one at that.[ii]) So far, so good, but what should we expect a well-designed forgiveness system to do? Well, the most important thing it should be good at is keeping itself alive (that is, at motivating choices that would have been fitness-enhancing during the era in the deep ancestral past when the system was evolving). But how would it do that? By motivating forgiveness for the right sorts of people (that is, people who are likely in the future to do things that would help the forgiver), and withholding it from the wrong sorts of people (that is, people who are likely in the future to do things that would harm the forgiver).

Forgiveness Is Easy When Facts Suggest That Forgiveness Is The Smart Move

In other words, forgiveness systems should be avid connoisseurs of data, obtained from the real world of social interaction, that enable them to determine whether a candidate for forgiveness is the kind of person that the forgiver would benefit from continuing to associate with. When a forgiver perceives that a transgressor continues to have potential value as a relationship partner (as a friend, say, or a neighbor, or a loved one, or a business partner), then he or she just might be a person who is “worth forgiving.”

It ought to be easy, relatively speaking, to forgive someone like that.

Sympathetic Forgiveness Feels Easy

In the brain, forgiveness systems are computing who is worth forgiving and who is not worth forgiving based on transgressor’s perceived relationship value and his or her perceived likelihood of harming the putative forgiver again in the future. In the felt experiences that our conscious selves can access, however, we know nothing of the brain’s computations. Instead, we talk about “feeling sorry” for offenders, or about feeling that “the offender has suffered enough” for his crimes and should be taken back as a friend, or about feeling “moved” by a heartfelt apology. In other words, sympathy matters. When you feel sympathy for a transgressor, forgiveness doesn’t seem to require much effort. Sympathy is a clue that you’re on the easy road to forgiveness.

By using the word sympathy, I’m actually thinking of empathic concern, which Dan Batson defines as “an other-oriented emotional response elicited by and congruent with the perceived welfare of someone else” that includes “feelings of sympathy, compassion, soft-heartedness, tenderness, and the like—feelings that are inherently other-oriented.”[iii] Research has shown that sympathy of this sort is one of the very best predictors of forgiveness.[iv] This is true in the context of day-to-day transgressions as well as in the context of the kinds of harms that send people in search of professional help. Sympathy’s efficacy in promoting forgiveness even explains why restorative justice interventions—in which willing offenders and victims meet up in a safe, monitored environment (usually after sentencing) to discuss a crime and its impact on the victim, and to give the offender a chance to apologize and atone—are so effective at reducing the desire for revenge and promoting forgiveness.[v] Sympathetic forgiving is an easy kind of forgiving. No choosing is really needed. Like vision, or hearing, sympathetic forgiveness “just happens” because the brain’s forgiveness systems make it happen.

When Forgiveness is Hard, (Something Like) Free Will Becomes Crucial

So there is a kind of forgiveness that is “easy.” Sympathy often is a clue that we’re on that easy road. However, sometimes we want to forgive (perhaps out of ethical or religious convictions, or because we’re tired of taking antacids for heartburn, or half a Benadryl to fall asleep) even when a transgressor has not apologized, tried to make amends, or demonstrated remorse—that is, in a sympathy-free social environment. Here, something like free will becomes important.

But hang on—is free will even real? Well, I see no reason to believe in any sort of (to use Daniel Dennett’s phrase) “God-like power to exempt oneself from the causal fabric of the physical world.”[vi] However, philosophers such as Dennett, and Richard Holton have persuaded me that there is a kind of human freedom that is neither illusory, nor trivial, nor incompatible with determinism. This freedom consists to no small degree in the ability to make causally efficacious choices. Sometimes (and perhaps much of the time) the choices we make are actual causes of our behavior. (I will not attempt to substantiate this claim here; take it or leave it, or read Dennett and Holton.) Reducing “free will” to “efficacious choosing” might look like a major demotion for such a venerated concept as free will, but with respect to understanding what helps people forgive, it is just the sort of freedom that ought to concern us.

On the hard road to forgiveness, when the offender has done little or nothing to merit it, we have to choose to forgive. Sometimes, that choosing will be efficacious, and sometimes it won’t be. The same is true of choosing to lose weight. On one hand, choosing to lose a moderate amount of weight is hard: Only 4 out of every 100 overweight or obese people who choose to slim down succeed in maintaining a 20% weight loss for a full year. On the other hand, more than 1 in 3 succeed in maintaining a 5% weight loss for a full year. In an important sense, then, we are less free (4% success rate) to choose to lose a lot of weight (20%) than to lose a little (37% success rate at keeping off 5%).[vii] Freedom to choose is not an “all or nothing” sort of thing: It is graded. [viii]

The same is true with forgiveness in a sympathy-free environment. Consider someone from school or work, perhaps, who said something that hurt your feelings a few years ago. Even if he has shown no signs of wanting to be forgiven, you still might find that your choice to forgive him causes new ways of thinking about him (perhaps you make a resolution such as “I’m going to try to view this person the way a loving mother might, even though he behaved boorishly toward me in the past”) or behaving toward him (perhaps you choose to defend him against someone else’s unfair criticism when he is out of the room) that, jointly, are causally efficacious in reducing your bitterness and increasing your willingness to re-establish a positive relationships. Your choice to forgive that person will quite possibly succeed. (Try it.) On the other hand, choices to forgive much more grievous harms, in the absence of the information that the mind’s evolved forgiveness circuitry is looking for, are more likely to fail. You are freer to choose to forgive the newspaper delivery person who keeps throwing your paper into the neighbor’s yard than to forgive the drunk driver that killed your daughter. This is a hard truth, but it’s good to know what you can (probably) change and what you (probably) can’t.


Forgiveness can feel easy, especially when the offender has admitted fault, apologized, offered to compensate you, promised to refrain from harming you in the same way again, and continued to make good on that promise day in and day out. Transgressors who go through these paces are relatively easy to forgive: The research on restorative justice shows us that the psychological effects of even very serious harms can be undone when these conditions are in place. This is because these realities give the human mind’s evolved forgiveness circuitry exactly what it’s looking for: Evidence that a harmdoer is both valuable and safe. In such cases, forgiveness can seem effortless; natural. In such cases, forgiveness might not require any choosing at all. Sympathy seems to do all the work.

Then, there’s the hard kind of forgiveness, which is what’s required when the offender has not apologized, offered to make amends, or changed her ways. In such cases, success in forgiving all turns on the efficacy of our ability to choose it. You won’t succeed in losing any weight at all if you don’t resolve to do so, and you won’t succeed in forgiving the unrepentant offender if you don’t at least try. Still, we ought to be realistic—and forgiving of ourselves—about how much forgiveness we can accomplish in a world in which nothing has changed.

(Please scroll down for questions).

[i] McCullough (2008).

[ii] Davies, Krebs, and West (2012).

[iii] Batson, Ahmad, and Lishner (2009).

[iv] Fehr, Gelfand, and Nag (2010).

[v] Sherman et al. (2005), Strang et al. (2006).

[vi] Dennett (2003), p. 13.

[vii] Kraschnewski et al. (2010).

[viii] Holton (2009).



Batson, C. D., Ahmad, N., & Lishner, D. A. (2009). Empathy and altruism. In C. R. Snyder & S. J. Lopez (Eds.), Oxford Handbook of Positive Psychology (2nd ed., pp. 417-426). New York: Oxford University Press.


Davies, N. B., Krebs, J. R., & West, S. A. (2012). An Introduction to Behavioural Ecology (4th ed.). Sussex, UK: Wiley-Blackwell.


Dennett, D. C. (2003). Freedom Evolves. New York: Viking.


Fehr, R., Gelfand, M. J., & Nag, M. (2010). The Road to Forgiveness: A Meta-analytic synthesis of its Situational and Dispositional Correlates. Psychological Bulletin, 136, 894-914.


Holton, R. (2009). Willing, Wanting, Waiting. New York: Oxford.


Kraschnewski, J. L., Boan, J., Esposito, J., Sherwood, N. E., Lehman, E. B., Kephart, D. K., & Sciamanna, C. N. (2010).


Long-term weight loss maintenance in the United States. International Journal of Obesity, 34(11), 1644-1654.


McCullough, M. E. (2008). Beyond revenge: The Evolution of the Forgiveness Instinct. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.


Sherman, L. W., Strang, H., Angel, C., Woods, D., Barnes, G. C., Bennett, S., & Inkpen, N. (2005). Effects of face-to-face restorative justice on victims of crime in four randomized, controlled trials. Journal of Experimental Criminology, 1, 367-395.


Strang, H., Sherman, L., Angel, C. M., Woods, D. J., Bennett, S., Newbury-Birch, D., & Inkpen, N. (2006). Victim evaluations of face-to-face restorative justice conferences: A quasi-experimental analysis. Journal of Social Issues, 62, 281-306.


Discussion Questions

  1. Sympathy-based forgiveness is characterized here as an “easy” kind of forgiveness, and forgiveness based on free choice is characterized as a “hard” kind of forgiveness. Can you think of exceptions to this characterization?
  2. Can you think of real-life instances of people who managed to forgive extremely grievous harms without any changed behavior from the offender? Were they able to generate sympathy on their own? If so, did that sympathy result from their choosing to think about their offenders in such a way that sympathy resulted?
  3. Which, in your experience, is more effective or long-lasting: sympathy-based forgiveness or choice-based forgiveness?