Open Thread on Apologies
Philosophy Talk

29 March 2008

Dear Listener:

You probably have notice the lightness of blogging recently. But things are about to change. Today's guest, Nick Smith, has agreed to blog about today's topic of Apologizing. And to get things started, I thought I'd start an open thread and invite listeners to contribute their thoughts.

I thought the episode was quite interesting myself. The one thing that still puzzle me is apologizing for things done accidentally.

It seems to me if I accidentally step on your toe, I do owe you some sort of apology, even though I didn't exactly "wrong" you. It would be odd if I were simply indifferent to your pain, certainly. At the bare minimum, I need to acknowledge your pain, acknowledge my role, however unintended, in causing you pain, and express regret at it having happened the way it did.

That doesn't quite add up to an apology, I admit. But it's something close.

Or so it seems to me.

Anyway, comment away!


Comments (4)

Guest's picture


Saturday, March 29, 2008 -- 5:00 PM

Hi Ken: I agree the apologizing for accidents p

Hi Ken:
I agree the apologizing for accidents presents an interesting problem, and I spend a few pages in the book thinking about it in the context of blame and moral causation. I'll except a few paragraphs that might be fun to discuss, but see the book for lots of examples (including some juicy bits from Montaigne and Homer).
Apologies for non-negligent accidents typically deny intentionality and therefore do not accept blame. This would be evident, for example, if I missed the aforementioned [this is an ongoing example in the boo] dinner meeting with my friend because a meteor struck me on the head while I was on my way to the restaurant. When I decide to skip the dinner in favor of viewing a film, this choice renders me responsible and blameworthy for the subsequent harm. I do not choose, however, for the meteor to strike me. As a result, we are disinclined to think that I caused the harm to my friend waiting for me because I have not done anything wrong. An act of nature, rather than my will, absorbs causal responsibility. If I attempted to apologize and accept blame after a meteor strikes me, I hope that my friend would understand that any harm she suffered was not my fault and therefore an apology accepting blame would be inappropriate. In this respect, Walt Whitman seems to consider himself a force of nature like a meteor when he declares in Leaves of Grass:
I know I am august,
I do not trouble my spirit to vindicate itself or be understood,
I see that the elementary laws never apologize?.
These examples also mark the difference between being excused, justified, and forgiven. In Anglo-American criminal law since the early nineteenth century, ?excuses admit that the deed may be wrong, but excuse the actor because conditions suggest that he is not responsible for his deed.? Thus even though an act is wrong, blame shifts away from this actor. A valid justification (like self-defense) establishes that there was no wrongdoing. Forgiveness, as I discuss in some detail later, takes many forms but typically pardons me in some sense after finding me guilty.
Common usage does not always conform to the legal definitions of the terms. If an injury was accidental, then an apology does not give the victim a reason to believe that it will not happen again because the threat is out of the apologizer?s control. Here we can notice the subtle differences between someone saying ?excuse me? and offering an apology. When requesting that you ?excuse me,? I typically assert that the harm or inconvenience I caused you is somehow justified and I seek your recognition of the legitimacy of this claim. According to legal concepts, I should probably say ?I am justified? rather than ?excuse me,? but the former sounds abrasively self-righteous. If I serve tables in a crowded restaurant and need to carry a tray through a line of customers, asking patrons to excuse me as I bump into them would seem appropriate because they would understand that I am not committing a trespass against them. My actions are justified and I seek recognition and tacit permission rather than forgiveness.
This is not to say that moral wrongs must be intentional or that morally culpable intentional actions cannot contribute to accidents. Suppose I miss the meeting with my friend because I had too many drinks the night before, forgot to set my alarm clock, and overslept. I did not intend to break our date but I failed to honor the social engagement. It is tempting to consider missing the appointment an accident, but failing to set the alarm differs from being struck by the meteor because the results can be directly traced to my failure to meet my responsibilities. I also should foresee that overindulging the night before could lead to these consequences. When unintentional negligence contributes to harm, we can apologize and accept blame specifically for that. If I am carefully driving down the road and a nail punctures my tire, causing my car to swerve and collide with another vehicle, I will probably only express sympathy to those bearing the costs of this accident because it did not result from intentional or negligent moral error on my part. I did not do anything wrong. If, however, I was driving while intoxicated or over the speed limit and this caused me to run over the nail, I should apologize and accept blame for that specifically. An offender can be caught between offering an excuse and making an apology when she is uncertain if she has committed a moral trespass or been involved in an accident. The phrase ?I?m sorry, but?? may fill this interim. If a legitimate excuse follows the ?but,? then an apology accepting blame may not be warranted.
This may illuminate another sort of exchange. Suppose I preface an apology to a friend by first explaining that just before I wronged her I missed the train, my migraine headaches struck, and I learned that she had insulted me the day prior. I continue to claim, however, that all of this is irrelevant; I was wrong for insulting her and I accept blame for doing so. If such information is irrelevant, why do we include it so often? I suspect this results from our ambiguity about the nature of apologies, which leaves us in a sort of penitential purgatory. On the one hand, we do not want to accept blame and hope the injured party will excuse us or find our actions justified. Hence we offer some evidence in support of this strategy. On the other hand, we realize that such information might appear as an attempt to diminish our responsibility and that this cuts against our ability to fully apologize. We offer the information to the offender for her to consider the possibility of our reduced agency or moral justification, but we then denounce it as irrelevant and affirm our agency so that we can try that strategy as well. In other words, we play both sides by asserting that we might not need to apologize, but if that argument is not convincing we will apologize anyway.
The factual components of apologetic statements often leave victims with insufficient information to evaluate whether harm was intentional, negligent, or accidental. U.S. National Park Director Bob Stanton, for example, offered this statement after a fire intentionally set by his agency to manage a forest grew out of control and destroyed more than two hundred homes: ?I want to express on behalf of the National Park Service our deepest apology to the men and women of Los Alamos and all of New Mexico.? We are unclear if the destruction was truly accidental (perhaps because lightning or an unforeseeable wind contributed to the blaze) or if the agency was somehow negligent and thus morally culpable for the blaze. Until we know more, the moral status of the apology remains opaque. We can also notice here that I need not intend the precise harm in order to accept blame for it, for example if I aim to shoot person A but misfire and shoot person B. Shooting B would be accidental, but I have still committed a moral trespass because presumably I should not be shooting at anyone. I should, therefore, distribute my culpability to unintended consequences. In such a case, I would owe apologies to both A and B, and the apologies would differ in light of the mental states attached to the distinct wrongs of intentionally trying to shoot A and shooting B while aiming for A. Matters would be different still if I am a police officer with moral justification for shooting A but B unforeseeably jumps into my line of fire. If I have not done anything wrong, I cannot convincingly accept blame for B?s injury.
This brings us to perhaps the most common rhetorical strategy for deflecting moral responsibility within apologetic statements: the caveat asserting ?it was not my intention to?.? Although I will consider the importance of the motivations for apologizing later, here I am concerned with the offender?s characterization of the mental states motivating the actions allegedly causing the harm under scrutiny. Many offenders attempt to deny intentionality in order to mitigate blame, for example by claiming that they ?didn?t mean to? cause the harm. If I did not intend the harm, then it seems like an accident for which I am not morally responsible. I found the frequency of this strategy rather astounding, and a few of the most egregious examples should bring to mind many more. Assistant U.S. Attorney Kenneth Taylor, after referring to potential jurors from eastern Kentucky as ?illiterate cave dwellers,? asserted that the ?comment was not meant to be a regional slur.? ?To the extent that it was misinterpreted to be one,? he explained, ?I apologize.? After MSNBC commentator Michael Savage stated to a caller, ?Oh, you?re one of the sodomites?[y]ou should get AIDS and die, you pig,? he offered the following: ?If my comments brought pain to anyone I certainly did not intend for this to happen and apologize for any such reaction. I especially appeal to my many listeners in the gay community to accept my apologies for any inadvertent insults which may have occurred.? In both instances the offenders attempt to convert a clear and grievous moral trespass into an accident for which we should not blame them. Such instances leave us to wonder what the offenders? true intentions could possibly have been if not to cause offense. If not to berate the potential jurors and the caller, why would Taylor or Savage utter these slurs? Rarely do offenders offer a window onto their allegedly misunderstood mental state and provide a convincing alternative intention. This also reminds us that the mental state of the offender before and at the time of the offense holds significance not only because it bears on her moral responsibility, but also because it fills in important details about the factual record. The offender?s mental states can provide some of the most important historical facts that a victim seeks to understand, and in this respect the analysis of the offender?s mind can be an important component of corroborating the historical record as discussed earlier.
A related ploy involves claiming that the injuries resulted from an accidental word choice for which we should excuse the transgressor. Consider former House Republican leader Dick Armey?s statement after referring to openly homosexual Representative Barney Frank as ?Barney Fag?: ?The media and others are reporting this as if it were intentional, and it was not. I repeat, this was nothing more than the unintentional mispronunciation of another person?s name that sounded like something that it was not.? Frank?s reply expresses an appropriate skepticism: ?There are various ways to mispronounce my name, but that one, I think, is least common.? After Senator Trent Lott?s apparent endorsement of Strom Thurmond?s 1948 segregationist platform at the celebration of Thurmond?s 100th birthday in 2002, on several occasions Lott attributed the controversy to ?a poor choice of words,? explaining that ?his words were wrong? and ?conveyed things [he] did not intend.? Tom DeLay has blamed his offenses on speaking ?in an inartful way,? and Senator Orrin Hatch described one of his offenses as a ?mix-up in words.? Representative John Cooksey cited an errant ?choice of words? as the culprit in his stating that civil liberties should be suspended for anyone wearing a ?diaper on his head.? ?If I offended Arab Americans, I regret my choice of words,? Cooksey stated, as if he questioned whether his slur offended anyone. Representative Robert Doran claimed that he was ?not even aware that those words had come together in a sentence? after calling a Soviet news commentator ?a disloyal, betraying little Jew.? In a further attempt to separate the core of their moral self from the wrongdoing, Lott and others often describe the accident as a ?mistake of the head ? and not the heart.?
Attempts to convert moral offenses into unintentional accidents seem especially common when the accused wishes to explain that, despite appearances, she is ?not a racist.? [lots of examples in the book of this] In each of these examples, the offenders attempt to dissociate racist behavior from their ?true? innocent selves by claiming that the offense was unintentional, accidental, or otherwise not a reflection of their ?hearts.? Offenders often fail to accept blame for their actions when resorting to this tactic, instead attempting to convert moral errors into morally neutral accidents within the very language of their apologies. I should also mention here how many offenses of this sort result from attempts at humor where the offender takes imprudent risks and then attempts to limit the damage caused by her poor judgment by claiming that she ?was only joking.?
Finally, we should note how these issues bear considerable importance for a Kantian given the centrality of intentions when assessing the moral worth of an act. Although a utilitarian may find the offender?s mental state of secondary relevance compared with the consequences of her actions, the deontologist should believe that intentions are essential to assigning blame and evaluating the moral status of an apology.

Guest's picture


Wednesday, April 2, 2008 -- 5:00 PM

The show on apologies solicited calls or emails on

The show on apologies solicited calls or emails on the worst apology received, but none were offered. Mine occurred when sailing with a curmudgeonly friend off Sucia Island in the San Juan Islands near Puget Sound. The engine was having trouble, so my friend turned it off and was engrossed in analyzing the engine lights and what they signified. I noticed that with the engine off we were not only drifting close to some rocks but that another boat was motoring straight at us. I started to tell my friend about this but he angrily shouted at me that he was busy and not to bother him. I persisted and we moved the boat. I later told him I didn't appreciate his yelling at me. His apology: "I'm sorry you felt that way." In my view, that was no apology at all. Apologizing to someone for how the apologee feels is like saying: "I'm sorry you were so unreasonable as to feel that way." It's a non-apology, because, in Nick Smith's terms, there is no acceptance of blame.

Guest's picture


Wednesday, April 23, 2008 -- 5:00 PM

I didn't hear the show. I just stumbled upon this

I didn't hear the show. I just stumbled upon this site. But what about a person who is constantly apologizing (at least, saying the words, "I'm sorry") when they have not done anything?

Guest's picture


Sunday, June 21, 2009 -- 5:00 PM

Long time reader, brand new poster - just wanted t

Long time reader, brand new poster - just wanted to say hi for now :) I found you guys through>good old google