Over at the Mirror of Justice, Thomas Berg has a post entitled "Can the Secular State Forgive People?" He quotes John McCullough, who asks:
My question is whether or not the state has a moral obligation to forgive those that commit unlawful acts. Should the state, at some point, forgive an individual who has repented (i.e. served time, probation, remained law abiding, is rehabilitated) by sealing the criminal record from public view, erasing any collateral consequences associated with the conviction, offering a certificate of rehabilitation, etc. Forgiveness, from what I understand, is a Judeo-Christian virtue. Is there a place for it in the secular state? Can the secular state forgive people?
There are really two questions here. One concerns the possibility of "forgiveness" as an action by a state that is secular. The other concerns the underlying grounding for forgiveness--is "forgiveness" a distinctively "Judeo Christian" virtue?
As to the first question, it seems obvious that a secular state (or individual) can forgive. Forgiveness has two components. One is a speech act--"I forgive you." The other is dispositional. True forgiveness requires that the speech act be accompanied by a disposition to act in forgiving ways--to cease blaming, to treat the offending individual as if the wrongful act had not been committed, and so forth. It seems clear to me that forgiveness by a secular state is possible--with the caveat that states are not persons and that "dispositions" by states are actually complex bundles of institutional arrangements.
As to the second question, it seems clear that a variety of secular moral theories can support a "virtue" or practice of forgiveness. Two examples: First, utilitarianism naturally supports forgiveness--as the disposition to engage in blaming and punishing behavior creates disutility and hence can only be justified on utilitarian grounds if it also creates counterbalancing benefits. A utilitarian state would be obligated to forgive in a variety of circumstances. Second, secular (neoaristotelian) virtue ethics is well suited to support a virtue of forgiveness--as a disposition to forgive for the right reasons in the right circumstances is likely a component of human flourishing.
Moreover, I should think that the idea of a "fresh start" for persons who have "paid the price of wrongdoing" can also be seen as a public value--which can be shared by reasonable persons who affirm a variety of comprehensive moral and religious doctrines. If this is correct, then forgiveness can be a well-grounded practice in a liberal state that is neither "secular" nor "religious."