The Duty To Forgive Murderers

by Thomas R. Wells

There are people living among us who have done terrible things to other human beings – murder and rape, for example – yet who nonetheless deserve society’s forgiveness. They have been convicted for their crimes and punished by the laws we collectively agreed such moral transgressions deserve. Now they deserve something other than punishment. They deserve to be treated with respect rather than resentment, contempt, and suspicion. They deserve a real chance to overcome their history and make something of their life.


When someone commits a morally terrible act against another that is a concern for the whole society rather than only the victim. Hence the institutions of police, courts and prisons administered by the state on behalf of the people. These systems are designed to discover the moral facts of each case: how bad the crime was, how responsible the perpetrator, and how much they deserve to be punished. This is important to make sure that we punish the people who do terrible things (and only those people), and also that we punish them to the degree that they deserve it and no more.

The last point is essential. We have a duty to punish the people who do bad things, but we have no right to punish them more than they deserve. For the same reason that it is wrongful to punish the wrong person for a crime, it is wrongful to punish the right person in the wrong way. This is why it is important for us to leave the judging to specialist institutions with the resources and authority to do it properly. When we try to do it ourselves we get mob justice – i.e. punishment only stops when those with the most extreme feelings about the case are satisfied.

In most developed countries the criminal justice system is trusted well enough to decide who is guilty and deserves punishment, i.e. who is a criminal. However, it seems that some people hold a lingering belief in their personal right to decide how much punishment criminals deserve to receive, and to inflict that privately if they have the chance. Thus, people with convictions for murder are routinely harassed and denied employment or access to opportunities like university education.


This moral vigilantism does particular harm because prejudice against convicted criminals is so widely accepted. Here’s an example of a murderer rejected from all but one law school he applied to, and almost chased out of that one by student protests:

“I think felons should get a second chance. But why at Tulane? What are we, the law school for murderers?”

Here’s an example of a murderer who found a job at a charity. He was scheduled to make a presentation about adolescent addiction to a teachers’ conference, but a teacher spotted his name and called the press to prevent such a terrible thing from happening.

“I just think of the family of the murder victim”

People convicted of serious crimes are particularly vulnerable to mistreatment not only because a substantial minority hold lingering feelings of malice and resentment against them, but because many others feel disgust or fear towards them, and almost no one is willing to step up and defend them. This resembles good old fashioned racism, in which a minority of people motivated by hatred was able to determine the treatment non-whites received. It resembles racism further in the rage that punishers seem to feel about criminals rising above a state of abject humiliation, to get above their station in life by seeking a professional career or recognition for their achievements like a real person.

Where the rights of an entire group of people are at stake, the cumulative effect of many people’s private but shared prejudices is gross injustice. In such cases we don’t have the right to act on feelings like disgust or fear however sincerely we feel them and however compelling they may appear. For example, you don’t have the right to refuse to share an office at work with a black man or complain to management about him on the grounds that you think ‘they’ are dangerous. We have a positive responsibility not to let our workplaces turn into Jim Crow, and that means evaluating our feelings by our moral standards rather than allowing our feelings to dictate our behaviour as if it were just our personal business. Likewise, the cumulative effects of many people’s shared prejudices is that those with the word ‘murder’ attached to them will never get a fair chance to get a job or succeed in what they attempt – whatever values they are now trying to live by.


What does forgiveness look like?

First of all it does not mean condoning what the criminal did. When we condone something we mean that there was nothing to forgive in the first place. We discover that the transgression was not bad (or not so bad) after all, like Alan Turing’s conviction for homosexuality or a conviction for smoking weed. What makes forgiving serious crimes like murder so difficult is that we have to acknowledge that this person really did do something truly terrible and yet still deserves a fresh start.

Forgiveness has negative and positive requirements. The negative requirement is to renounce lingering feelings of resentment and malice towards criminals who have served their sentence and to refuse to act on such feelings if they continue to occur to us. We as a society have a duty to punish those who do terrible things but that includes a duty on us as individuals not to subvert the criminal justice system by trying to punish criminals ourselves. After all, it is not as if we were personally harmed by the crime or have some other grounds for claiming to know better. Our moral indignation all too often comes from something we saw on TV.

The positive requirement is to do our part in restoring the relationship between the criminal and society that was ruptured by their behaviour. A murderer who has served his sentence shouldn’t have to prove anything to deserve civil treatment and respect. He deserves not just basic human rights, but also fair and equal opportunity to participate in and contribute to society, to achieve meaningful goals such as a professional career, and to have any achievements publicly recognised. We are a long way from there. A first step would be to think of convicts as a suspect class because (like members of religious and racial minorities) they are subject to hostility and discrimination on the basis of features they cannot change and are politically powerless to defend themselves. This suggest a blueprint for protecting convicts from discrimination by the state itself (such as voting restrictions) as well as new laws curtailing the public’s right to inflict their prejudices on them.

In all this I have been talking of the responsibility of the ordinary citizen to forgive murderers, as an implication of organising our response to such moral atrocities via a criminal justice system. My analysis does not automatically extend to those who knew and loved the murderer’s victim, the people who actually suffered from the crime. For those people, forgiveness may have additional value for healing their moral trauma: renouncing justified anger so that their own lives can move on. Yet it may also depend much more closely on the moral progress of the criminal and his relationship with those he harmed, particularly his ability to sincerely repent for what he did. It is not reasonable to reduce the development of such relationships to a simple recipe or set of duties (such as I have outlined for the ordinary citizen). Nevertheless a criminal justice system that genuinely cared about repairing the harm wrought by violent crime would foster and encourage such relationships far more than it does at present.


Thomas Wells is a philosopher in the Netherlands. He blogs at The Philosopher’s Beard.