Can you be sorry without intending to change your behavior in the future? Without being ashamed? Do other cultures have different concepts of sorrow and guilt?
Nick Smith, J.D. and Ph.D., author of I Was Wrong: The Meanings of Apologies (Cambridge University Press, 2008)
Assistant Professor of Philosophy, University of New Hampshire
For a video of Spitzer's apology with this essay, see http://cupblog.wordpress.com/2008/03/17/parsing-spitzers-apology/
Elliot Spitzer’s recent statements accompanying his resignation as governor of New York provide an occasion to reflect on the meanings of apologies. I find apologies dizzyingly complex social rituals and in I Was Wrong: The Meanings of Apologies—published by Cambridge University Press in 2008—I identified more than a dozen kinds of meaning that we seek from gestures of contrition. Instead of worrying whether an example “is or is not” an apology, I wonder how well it serves certain purposes and to what extent it conveys certain kinds of subtle social meanings. I referred to these as a “loose constellation of interrelated meanings,” and in some cases a victim may desire each of the forms of meaning I mention. In others, she may only seek one sort of meaning such as a sincere expression of sympathy or a remorseless payment to cover the cost of repair.
I devoted much of the book to the inexact science of parsing the distinct spheres of meaning from each other. I began by considering how an apology can explain the history of an injury. Contested facts often lie at the heart of moral conflicts, and the offender’s explanation of the nature of her wrongdoing can in certain circumstances be the most significant and hardest-earned aspect of an apology. I then braved the knotty question of the relation between apologies and responsibilities. I subdivided this into concerns regarding 1) the distinction between accepting blame and expressing sympathy, as we often find in the form of “I am sorry that X happened to you”; 2) the general relationship between causation and moral responsibility; 3) the status of accidents and surprisingly common denials of intent in the form of “I didn’t mean to X”; and 4) the problem of standing, where one person apologizes for another. I then noted the significance of identifying each moral wrong in the act to be apologized for, which entails both explicitly naming the offense as a blameworthy violation of a moral value and naming each violation rather than covering over a host of wrongs with an undifferentiated and generic statement of contrition. In addition, a regretful offender believes her actions were wrong and she would not undertake them again if confronted with similar circumstances and temptations. I then considered the various ways in which the performance of the apology can alter meaning. The problems of reform and reparation presented numerous points of discussion, as did questions regarding the emotions and intentions of the apologizer. Collective apologies, such as those from corporations or nations, compound these issues.
The book considers the many nuances and gritty details of apologetic meaning, but in general I find that asking a few simple questions can take us to the heart of the meaning of an apology: Did the offender explain what she did with an appropriate degree of specificity? Does she accept blame? Does she make clear why her actions were wrong and identify the principles she violated? Does she promise not to do it again redress the problem she caused? These questions tend to lead to further questions about the meanings of any given apology, but they can provide some insight in Spitzer’s case.
First, Spitzer’s statements obviously admit very little. Rather than “coming clean” and confessing the details of his wrongdoing, he leaves us to speculate. He could have admitted all of the relevant facts, but instead it may require years of investigations and legal proceedings to disclose the extent of his transgressions. Or he might strike a deal that effectively ends the discussion. His repeated description of the reason for his resignation as a “private failing” seems untenable given that he is a former governor and attorney general facing charges in several federal crimes, but casting the offense in this way suggests that he may deny the prostitution-related charges and instead cast the sexual relations as an affair but not a crime. This may seem like a losing argument given the facts discussed publicly to date, but Spitzer may negotiate himself into a position to sustain this claim and avoid criminal charges. If he denies relations with a prostitute, he will not apologize for that specifically.
I also wonder about the nature of his relationship with the high-priced prostitution ring. Was he an otherwise typical client, or did he somehow abuse his power as a former prosecutor to establish special authority and protections? Surely his involvement with prostitution required him to repeatedly lie and breach the trust of his family, his staff, and the general public, but these offenses go unnamed. Such spectacular moral failings often result from the aggregation of many lesser offenses, and such an accounting would provide insights into the character of Elliot Spitzer and the nature of this offense.
In addition to his failure to admit the morally salient facts of the scandal, it remains unclear why he believes his actions were wrong. He says he “did not live up to what was expected” of him, but what values did he violate? We would benefit from some precision here. Why was it wrong? Because he disrespected his wife in so many ways? Because he exposed his children to this ordeal? Because he repeatedly lied? Because he paid a financially vulnerable woman twenty-seven years younger than him to have sex with him? Because he supported an industry that he publicly denounced? Because his hypocrisy after claiming that he wanted “ethics and integrity to be the hallmarks” of his administration contributes to public cynicism toward government officials? Because he weakened the Democratic Party? Because he violated the rule of law, which is an especially grievous offense for a public official of his stature? Or was his primary failing, in his eyes, getting caught? His apology would have considerably more meaning if he explained what he did and made explicit why he believes it was wrong in these regards.
A few other features of Spitzer’s apology warrant comment. What were his intentions for providing the apologetic statements? Spitzer may have negotiated with prosecutors to offer his resignation and apology in exchange for lenience in criminal proceedings against him. If so, his apology may seem entirely self-serving rather than an attempt to advance the victims’ well-being and affirm the breached values. Such intentions can drain an apology of much of its moral value.
Spitzer also helps himself to various “emotional amplifiers” in his statements, indicating that he is “deeply sorry” and that he “sincerely apologizes.” I discuss the emotional components of apologies in some detail in I Was Wrong, but we can appreciate the difficulty of determining whether Spitzer has experienced emotions of contrition with sufficient intensity. His use of “deeply sorry” and “sincerely apologize” does little to provide us with a window unto his emotional and mental states. I generally resist the idea that apologetic emotions are retributive in nature—the apologizer deserves to suffer acute humiliation—but his remarks about “rising every time we fall” seemed so self-assured that they risked appearing to minimize the seriousness of offense. At times his statements sounded like a celebration of a hard fought campaign upon honorably conceding to a formidable foe.
This leads me to wonder about the timing of his apology. Spitzer apologized within hours of initial reports of the scandal, and he resigned while further apologizing within forty-eight hours. Spitzer leapt from one peak to the next in his career, and he was by all measures a rising star. His political career came crashing down; his family will never be the same. I can only imagine how he suffers. Here we should recognize a truth that often conflicts with our media culture: moral development does not occur with a news cycle. Spitzer has a great deal of work to do, and he will be accounting for this for the rest of his life. Here reform and redress can hold much meaning. In my view, the best apologies are like promises to change. Like promises, we cannot judge them fully in the moments they are spoken. We need time to search for the deepest values that orient our lives and begin rebuilding our future with habits that honor those principles. We are all engaged in this process, and although it may not make for good television it this the sort of persistent moral growth that creates good people.
For these reasons I do not think we should make too much of Spitzer’s apology. The words are vague and its meaning is ambiguous, like someone telling you that they love you on the first date. Such a statement could well be a life-transforming proclamation, but we would need to know much more before we could make a well-informed judgment. We will have a much better sense of the meaning of Elliot Spitzer’s March 2008 apologies if we check in with him in ten years.