Thursday 2 September 2010

The Philosophy of Saying Sorry (2010)

From The Philosopher, Volume LXXXXVIII No. 2

Notes on the Philosophy of Asking Forgiveness

By Michael Bavidge

Apologies are other-directed in a strong sense. Apologizing is something we do. And what we do is directed at another person. There are other morally important actions, states of mind and feelings which have a relation to other people, but which are not directly interactive. Shame, for example, relates to others. But that does not make it dialogical in the same way as apologies, confessions or guilty pleas. What are the elements of an apology understood in this sense?

The Greek word apologia means a defence or justification, offering defensive arguments, making excuses. Socrates' Apology or Newman's Apologia pro Vita Mea are apologies in this sense. But in modern usage an apology, at least a good apology, requires the suppression of pleas and excuses. The Oxford English Dictionary defines apology as a frank acknowledgement, by way of reparation, of offence given, or an explanation of that offence as not intended, with expression of regret for any offence given or taken. This suits well enough though it implies, but does not quite say, that an apology is offered by a person who has committed an offence to the person offended.

An apology involves acknowledging that a wrong has been done. If you don't believe that any offence has taken place, you have nothing to apologise for. Equally, what people who feel entitled to an apology want, in the first instance, is recognition that they have been harmed. On top of the original injustice, their grievance is that their plight has not even been recognised.

The refusal to acknowledge can take subtle forms. Bishop Williamson who was accused of denying the Holocaust made the following statement:
To all souls that took honest scandal from what I said, before God I apologise...I can truthfully say I regret having made such remarks, and that if I had known beforehand the full harm and hurt to which they would give rise, especially to the church, but also to survivors and relatives of victims of injustice under the Third Reich, I would not have made them. [Guardian, 27/02/09] 
He directs his apology at those who 'took honest scandal'. The implication being that the people who were harassing him did not take 'honest scandal'. The Bishop's apology is not far from Homer Simpson's apology to Marge: Of course, Marge, I wouldn't have done it, if I had known that you would find out. Secondly an apology involves accepting responsibility for the wrong done.

When the leading bankers involved in the collapse of various British banks appeared before the Commons Select Committee, they began by taking it in turn to apologise profoundly for the crisis and the misery it caused their employees, shareholders etc. But it soon emerged that they were expressing regret that things had turned out so badly, rather than apologising. Andy Hornby, Chief Executive of HBOS, said that he thought that he was not personally culpable for the crisis. [Independent on Sunday 15/02/09] This amounts to a withdrawal of his apologetic opening gambit.

A third requirement is that an apology should involve an expression of sorrow. We put great weight on the feelings accompanying apologies because appropriate sorrow is often, but not always, a criterion of the genuineness of an apology. A determination not to repeat the offence is another criterion of the sincerity of an apology. In normal circumstances, I cannot sincerely apologize for being rude to you and then immediately repeat the offence. But could someone who suffers from Tourette Syndrome, or (to take a less clear case) from alcoholism, sincerely apologize for their behaviour knowing perfectly well that they will repeat it? Finally, an apology is offered by way of reparation. The very act of offering an apology is an act of atonement for the wrong done. This is the powerful thing about an apology: just the offering and the acceptance of an apology does the business.

Another way to look at it is to say that apologies can be distinguished from other related but different activities. For example, an apology is not a confession. You can confess your faults to anyone who is prepared to listen, but you can apologize only to the one you have harmed. There is a website called Joeapology. It is an amusing and interesting site, but it is misnamed. It should be called Joeconfession. Its mission statement acknowledges the point: is a site where people can freely and anonymously post their apologies. Think of it as a confessional of sorts (without the religious ties, that is). Are you feeling sorry about something you did? Do you want to get something off your chest? Go on, tell me about it...and remember, it's completely anonymous. Just post your apology, no matter how big or small, and you'll feel so much better. I promise. -Joe Apology [see box below]

There are at least two problems about Joeapology. An apology is a Levinasian moral move ? After the 20th century French philosopher, Emmanuel Levinas meaning...  is, it is face to face? And that is an essential part of its effectiveness. The apologiser has to turn up. But what counts as turning up is negotiable. For example, Restorative Justice processes give victims the chance to impress on offenders the real impact of their crime, to get answers to their questions and to receive an apology. Best practice, as envisaged by The Restorative Justice Consortium, allows the possibility that apologies may be offered in a number of ways - directly, via a third party, or for example, by letter, email, or video. Or perhaps via Joeapology.

The second and perhaps fatal problem with Joeapology is that the submissions to the site are intended not to reach the person to whom they are addressed. As Joe says, you can get stuff off your chest and feel so much better. Yet as Thomas De Quincey wrote in his own mea culpa, Confessions of an English Opium Eater:
Nothing, indeed, is more revolting to English feelings, than the spectacle of a human being obtruding on our notice his moral ulcers or scars, and tearing away that 'decent drapery', which time, or indulgence to human frailty, may have drawn over them. 
That seems a bit harsh; but there is something self-indulgent about confession: whereas the person who benefits from an apology is at least supposed to be the one who receives it; the person who primarily benefits from a confession is the one who makes it. There is a curious example in Wittgenstein's tortured life of a confession and an apology. In 1937 he wrote a confession which he insisted on reading to a number of his friends. Ray Monk, who does not overlook its comical aspects, devotes five pages in his biography to this drama. centred on an account of Rowland Hutt's embarrassment at having to sit in a Lyons café while opposite him Wittgenstein recites his sins in a clear loud voice.

Yet Monk is sympathetic; he attempts to understand the peculiar nature of a personality tested almost to destruction by a sense of sin, guilt, and the need to confess. And some may think it is to Wittgenstein's credit that in relation to one of his sins, he did not stop at confession. It concerned his severity towards little children when he was a schoolteacher in the 1920s: as part of his penitential exercise, he went back to the village where he had taught and apologised to the individuals involved. Christian theology is a drama of sin and redemption. The drama starts with Original Sin. What we get when God discovers the offence is guilt, shame, regret, excuses and blame, but no apology. If only Adam had said sorry, what a lot of fuss might have been avoided! But there is a good reason why he did not, in fact why he could not. Because it seems that you cannot really apologize to God, even if many people try to. Christian doctrine concerning the reconciliation of God and humankind, accomplished through the life, suffering, and death of Christ is expressed in a complex vocabulary of redemption and atonement. For our part, we are required to be contrite, to confess, to do penance and so on; apology figures hardly at all. Offering an apology Apologies are offered with more or less good grace but there can be considerable pressure to apologize. They can be difficult to make: they involve some degree of embarrassment; we may fear the consequences or dread rejection. Though they must be freely given, they may be wrung from us. But can they be demanded? They certainly are in political life.

At the start of his book, Conspicuous Compassion, Patrick West lists examples of what he considers fatuous political apologies: Tony Blair apologised to the Irish for the potato famine. Australians have said sorry to Aborigines for colonialism, the Pope for the persecution of Galileo, the Fijians for cannibalising a British missionary in1867, we are all contrite about the slave trade.

Nevertheless there are some more compelling instances of political apologies. The prime ministers of Canada and Australia have formally apologized to ethnic groups in their respective countries who were horribly mistreated in the recent past. Even so, West thinks that these political initiatives are 'arrogant and anachronistic'. He argues that one can apologize only for what one did oneself. And that an apology becomes inappropriate if other people did even worse things than the crimes one is apologising for. I would reject both these arguments however.

Rather, it seems to be that alhough political apologies are often suspect, the Canadian and Australian statements are unproblematic examples of apologies made by the right people to the right people. Both prime ministers acknowledge that a wrong had been done and that it was done deliberately by governments and officials as part of a national policy that was widely supported; they express the shame that people now feel about these crimes; they announce a determination not to repeat the offences or anything like them; and they say all these things to the direct and indirect victims of these policies as part of an act of reparation.

March 2007 was the bicentenary of the British parliament's abolition of the slave trade. The then Major of London, Ken Livingstone, said Germany apologised for the Holocaust. We must for the slave trade. This produced an angry response from the website Shiraz Socialis: To apologise for something that you are not personally responsible for, is to insult the intelligence of the person or persons you are 'apologising' to. The passage of time does make apologizing for the slave trade begin to seem inappropriate, but not because we or our political leaders were not personally responsible. It is because there are more effective and convincing ways of addressing the racism and other current injustices in our own society that are, in part, long-term effects of the slave trade.

Another trouble with demanding an apology, particularly evident in the field of political life, is that the demand easily becomes a way of continuing conflict rather than of resolving it. When opponents demand apologies from politicians they are trying to force them to admit mistakes or wrong-doings as part of an on-going struggle. If politicians apologize they admit to a failure or a weakness that will be used against them later. If, however, the demand for an apology is rejected, that itself becomes a further source of grievance. Another problematic aspect of apologizing concerns who can offer an apology. In the standard case, the apologizer is the person who has committed the offence. But there are exceptions. Parents can apologize on behalf of their children. We may feel obliged to apologize for the bad behaviour of our friends and associates. There are more formal relationships which can be the basis for a sort of power of attorney. Criminals can apologize through their lawyers and, frequently these days, political leaders apologize on behalf of the nations. Nick Smith, in his book I was Wrong, offers an example of what he calls the legal commodification of apologies:

Settlement agreements may now explicitly negotiate the monetary value of an apology, for example offering monetary compensation of $10 million without any form of apology or $7 million with an apology.

Moving from making apologies to receiving them, the response to an apology is acceptance, not forgiveness. Forgiveness and accepting an apology are pretty close, but there are differences. We can forgive someone even if they have not apologised. Christ forgave his executioners. His prayer Forgive them, Father; they know not what they do [Luke 23:34] is a key moment in the Redemption story. Forgiveness and accepting an apology have a different power structure. Forgiveness involves authority; it is a result of largesse. Accepting an apology is part of an exchange between equals; it is motivated by and seeks to reinforce fellow-feeling. Does an apology have to be accepted before it is, as it were, consummated? Can an apology be left on the table? Or has an apology not been made unless it is accepted? Whatever the neatest answer to those questions, apologizing requires collaboration; it involves negotiation. Perhaps an exchange of self-deprecatory smiles is enough if we get in each other's way in the street; but something more structured is needed if there is to be reconciliation between, for example, a criminal and his victim.

Apologies, as well as confessions, strike some robust people as pathetic. Lord 'Johnnie' Fisher's advice keeps recurring: Never contradict. Never explain. Never apologise. This posturing misses the positive power of and need for apologies. Apologies put things right between people. We teach children to apologize partly because we bring them up to take responsibility for their actions, but also because we want them to experience the almost magical capacity of words to put things right. Apologizing has the curious power that Hume found in promising: `tis one of the most mysterious and incomprehensible operations that can possibly be imagin'd, and may even be compar'd to transubstantiation, or holy orders, where a certain form of words, along with a certain intention, changes entirely the nature of an external object, and even of a human nature. [Treatise, Bk.III, Part II, v] The making good is effected by the very speech act. The performance itself is taken as reparation in the sense both of making of amends for the wrong or injury done, and of restoring good relations. Apologies bring important practical benefits to the individuals and to society at large but there are also values internal to the activity itself. Apologies - offered and accepted - involve the mutual recognition of the fragility of moral life, the weakness of individuals and the instability of social harmony. They are an acknowledgement of the hazardous and bruising nature of social life.

The offering and accepting of apologies is a domestic righting of wrongs as opposed to Redemption which is moral, quantative easing by means of which God pumps goodness into the system, unearned, unmerited. Redemption takes the whole moral world and transforms it into a new creation. Apologies repair a localised tear in the fabric of the moral world; they do a more human job.

[box.] A Case Study from Joeapology
I am sorry for having an affair behind my husband's back I wasn't really hiding the relationship from him, only the depth of it, and the sexual aspect. I know now that was an awful thing to do. To my husband: I know you would never forgive me if you knew, and I can't go back and not have the affair. I only wish I had been smarter and never strayed in the first place. I am unbelievably sorry, and feel terribly guilty, but I know if I told you, you would be so mad you might leave me. Then, I think I would kill myself. So, please forgive me for having the affair, and for being too scared of the consequences to be honest with you. I love you. Me. 

About the author: Mike Bavidge is Chair of the Philosophical Society of England

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