I apologise a lot. Whenever I write an email, I apologise for the tardiness of my response (“I’ve just been so overwhelmed; please forgive me!”). Whenever I pass a sarcastic comment that offends someone, I apologise for the offence. Whenever I forget someone’s birthday or anniversary or other significant life event, I apologise for being so thoughtless.
These infractions are, of course, relatively minor. Other people have to apologise for far more serious things. Recent revelations about historic sexual harassment (and in some cases assault) in Hollywood and media have led to a lot of public apologies. Many of these apologies have been criticised. They are said to be insincere and calculated. Too little, too late. And yet the apologies have to be given. Without them, people would descry the lack of moral accountability on the part of the wrongdoers.
I’ve watched these debates from the sidelines. I’m curious as to why apologies are so hotly contested and carefully evaluated. I share the sense that it is important to apologise when you have done something wrong, but I’m not sure what the criteria for a morally appropriate apology actually are. What are people looking for from an apology? What is their moral function? What standards can we use to evaluate them? As I listened to people confidently deconstruct and critique the current spate of public apologies, I realised how little I know about the ethics of apologies.
So I decided to do some reading. Nothing too elaborate. I asked people on Twitter for some recommendations and did some research. I read a handful of articles on the philosophy of apologising. This reading brought some clarity to my thinking, but also revealed important disagreements and points of contention among philosophers concerning the nature, function and propriety of apologies. I thought I would use this post to share some of what I learned. I will do so by asking and answering three questions: (i) What is the nature and purpose of an apology? (ii) Is there a paradox of apologies? and (iii) What makes for an effective apology?
1. The Nature and Purpose of Apologies
Let’s start by trying to clarify what an apology actually is. The most common understanding of an apology is that is an acknowledgment of wrongdoing, directed at a specific person (or persons), often coupled with a commitment to repair or rectify the wrong, and usually containing an explicit or implied request for some response from the person to whom it is directed. Apologies are consequently necessarily interpersonal: they are directed at other people. They are very different from public acknowledgements of wrongdoing. I could stand up in front an audience and expostulate on my moral failures for several hours, but this would not amount to an apology unless it was directed at someone else who had been a victim of these failures.
Why are apologies directed at other people? Because they are given in recognition of the fact that those people have been negatively affected by your actions, and so have good reason to resent you for those actions (or, if you don’t like ‘resent’, you could replace it with ‘negatively evaluate’). The purpose of the apology is to get them to reconsider this negative evaluation — to switch from an attitude of resentment to one of forgiveness. Indeed, forgiveness is often viewed as the main purpose behind apologies, though, as we shall see below, they may serve other purposes too.
Apologies should be distinguished from excuses, though the two are closely related. An excuse is also usually directed at another person. It provides an explanation for the wrong done to that person, and is offered in the hope that the person will withdraw their negative evaluation once the excuse has been given. The crucial difference is that an excuse is an attempt to ‘explain away’ the wrongdoing. If the excuse is well-grounded, it absolves you of any culpability. It says to the other person ‘look, you may think I did something do you that deserves your moral censure, but actually you are wrong; I’m not to blame’. An apology is given in full recognition of the fact that you are culpable. You are asking the victim for mercy; you are not trying to explain away what you did. There is a thin line between apology and excuse, and people often stray from one side to the other.
Apologies are peculiarly powerful. Adrienne Martin’s excellent article on the power of apologies starts with this observation. She thinks its odd that a simple formulation of words carries so much weight in our social dealings. She argues that this is because apologies have ‘reason-giving power’: if done right, they give victims good reasons to change how they think about wrongdoers. She favours an account of this reason-giving power that is based on Peter Strawson’s work on reactive attitudes. Strawson argued that we are sometimes justified in directing negative moral emotions (disgust, indignation, resentment) towards others if they have transgressed some norm of social and moral life. One reason for this is that when someone has transgressed a norm we become rightfully wary that they may do it again. The power of apologies, according to Martin, lies in the fact that they help to mitigate this threat of future transgression. They indicate that the person recognises the transgression and is willing to take steps to make sure it does not happen again.
2. Is there a paradox of apologies?
Oliver Hallich has written a number of articles defending the notion that there is something paradoxical about apologies. His arguments can be a little complex, and to fully wrap your head around them you have to follow the back and forth between himself and other contributors to the literature, but the gist of it is that there is a tension between the ‘attitudinal’ and ‘directive’ aspects of an apology:
Attitudinal Aspect: To be appropriate, an apology must be offered in a spirit of humility, i.e. the apologiser must recognise that they have done wrong to the victim, that the victim is entitled to their feelings of resentment, and that they (the apologiser) has no right to forgiveness.
Directive Aspect: Apologies are directive speech acts, i.e. they are uttered with the intention/aim of achieving forgiveness.
The tension arises from the fact that if the apologiser were really acting in a spirit of humility, they would not be seeking forgiveness. If they were really remorseful or repentant, they would recognise that the victim is justified in feeling the way they do, and so they have no right to be looking for the very thing that apologies are hoped to provide. After all, if you acknowledged that someone was feeling justifiably happy, you wouldn’t try to intervene and change their feelings. The only way to dissolve the tension, according to Hallich, is if the victim seeks the apology; otherwise, the wrongdoer should be turning away in shame.
There are several responses to this paradox, but Hallich dismisses them all. For example, some people respond by arguing that apologies are not necessarily about forgiveness. They are about admitting guilt or wrongdoing, or expressing remorse for what one has done. But Hallich is unpersuaded by this because he thinks that you can admit guilt and express remorse without apologising. Remember, apologies are always directed at a specific person. There is no reason why you couldn’t admit guilt or express remorse without directing your utterances at the victim of your wrongdoing. Hallich’s reasoning seems right to me on this score. Apologies ought to be kept conceptually distinct from other forms of public accountability.
Nevertheless, I’m not persuaded by all of Hallich’s arguments. One view, which I’ve already noted and is defended in Adrienne Martin’s article, but which is dismissed by Hallich, is that apologies are not about forgiveness but rather about ensuring ongoing membership in a moral community. The apologiser is not looking to be forgiven for a past act of wrongdoing, but rather asking not to be excluded from the moral community to which he/she belongs, and, perhaps, not to be excluded from some relationship with the victim, in the future. They are saying that they have learned their lesson and they will try to avoid transgressing norms of respect in the future (‘try to’ being key here since no one is perfect). Hallich dismisses this by saying that a truly humble and repentant wrongdoer would not try to reestablish themselves as equal members of a moral community after a transgression. They would realise that by doing wrong by their victim they have forfeited some of the rights to equal status, at least with respect to their moral transgression. So, for example, a person who wronged another by leaking confidential information about them to a third party would, if they accept they are in wrong, realise that they have forfeit any right to be viewed as a trustworthy person in the future.
Hallich moderates his position a little, arguing that the wrongdoer does not forfeit the right to equal status forever. They can, over time and through reform, reestablish equal status. But, again, apologies are not essential to this process of reform and reestablishment. I think this might be a little misleading and a little harsh. This is for two reasons. First, I think that for certain transgressions, instant reform may be possible. In fact, in some cases, realising that you have done wrong by someone may, in itself, be enough to disincentivise future transgressions. In those cases, it seems to me that an apology could be an important signalling tool. Second, I think that people need to be given reassurance from their moral communities that they will be given the opportunity for moral reform, i.e. that they are not, forever and always, beyond the moral pale. Issuing and accepting apologies could play an important signalling function in these cases too. They can set the terms for conditional reacceptance into the relevant moral community. Victims can effectively say to the wrongdoers ‘Okay, I’m glad you’ve acknowledged the wrongdoing; you realise you have some work to do; if you do it, I will not exclude you from the community of moral equals forever.’ Obviously, this is very much contingent on the gravity of the wrongdoing. There may be some cases where wrongdoers truly are beyond the moral pale (though, for a variety of reasons, I think we should reach that conclusion very reluctantly).
3. What makes for an effective apology?
At this stage, the inquiry takes a more Machiavellian air. We’ve covered some of the moral debates about the nature and purpose of apologies. But suppose you actually had to apologise to someone? What’s the best way to do this? How can you ensure forgiveness or re-acceptance into the community of moral equals? David Boyd’s article, ‘Art and Artifice in Public Apology’, is a useful practical guide. Boyd reviews a lot of empirical literature on what makes for an effective apology, and then draws the findings together into a linear model for distinguishing the ‘artful’ apologies from the ‘non-artful’ ones. As an added bonus, Boyd uses this model to evaluate a number of famous public apologies, including Tiger Woods’s apology for his extra-marital affairs and Lloyd Blankfein’s apology for Goldman Sachs’s role in sub-prime mortgage crisis. Tiger Woods does surprisingly well.
Boyd’s model says that there seven distinct steps to an effective apology. There is an artful and non-artful way of dealing with each of these steps. As follows:
1. Revelation: You must admit that something has happened and try to account for it. The artful way of doing this is to offer an explanation; the non-artful way is to offer an evasion, i.e. to avoid acknowledging your actions. There are different methods of evasion: (i) dissociation, i.e. where you avoid associating yourself with the relevant actions; or (ii) diminution, i.e. trying to diminish the severity or gravity of what you did.
2. Recognition: You must show some awareness of the harm that you have done to others. The artful way of doing this is to empathise with their plight. The non-artful way is to be estranged from their plight, i.e. to ignore or overlook the harm done.
3. Responsiveness: This refers to how soon after the revelation of wrongdoing you apologise. The artful way is to be timely, i.e. to respond very quickly. The non-artful way is to be tardy, i.e. leave a long gap between the wrongdoing and the apology. (Note: it’s interesting that Boyd’s framework focuses on the date of revelation as opposed to the date of the original wrongdoing; I tend to think the latter would be better)
4. Responsibility: You must admit that you are responsible for the wrongdoing. The artful way to do this is to internally attribute responsibility, i.e. to locate responsibility within yourself. The non-artful way is to externally attribute, i.e. to locate responsibility in external factors beyond your control. There are two different ways of doing this: (i) dispersal, i.e. blame many others as well or (ii) displacement, i.e. lessen what you need to take responsibility for.
5. Remorse: You must express/convey remorse and shame for what you did. The artful way to do this is to express guilt. The non-artful way is to use guile to conceal any pretense of guilt.
6. Restitution: You must try to repair the damage done to the victim(s) as best you can. The artful way to do this is to offer compensation. This need not be monetary in nature. You could try to restore someone’s reputation or career. The non-artful way is to abrogate, i.e. avoid any efforts at compensation.
7. Reform: You must make some effort to change yourself (or your organisation) in order to ensure that the same thing does not happen again. The artful way to do this is to demonstrate change, i.e. to show that you are actually doing something. The non-artful way is to be complacent, i.e. to not demonstrate any changes.
Boyd’s framework is perhaps a little bit too ‘neat’ (the desire to name every step and sub-step using a word that starts with the same letter feels a little forced), and his instructions are clearly aimed at those in the public eye (as opposed to those us with more mundane lives), but it is still instructive. It can tell us something about why people react negatively to certain apologies. Consider, as an example, Louis CK’s recent attempt to apologise for his past sexual misconduct. This apology attracted much attention and criticism at the time with some people arguing that it wasn’t really an apology at all. The full text is available here. I encourage you to read it before proceeding any further.
Now, full disclosure, I was (and probably still am to at least some extent) a fan of Louis CK’s comedy and was surprised and disappointed to learn of his misconduct (even more surprised since apparently the rumours had been circulating for years). That may well colour my evaluation of his apology. I think Louis does well on some of Boyd’s metrics. He admits to and explains his wrongdoing; he does not evade it. He acknowledges that the accounts presented by the victims are true. He also clearly adopts an internal attribution of responsibility, not blaming the victims or anyone else for his mistakes. Some people challenge this reading by suggesting that he is deflecting blame onto his celebrity and power over the women by constantly mentioning their admiration for him. I tend to think that there is a more charitable reading: by acknowledging the power dynamic he could be recognising the fact that the ‘consent’ he received from these women (assuming he did receive it) was not morally transformative. He also clearly recognises the harm he has done to the women in question, saying that ‘he cannot wrap his head around the hurt [he] brought on them’. He goes even further by recognising the harm he has done to peripheral others who have been affected by his actions (e.g. those who starred in and funded his recent movie). Finally, he tells us that he is remorseful and cannot forgive himself for what he has done, which indicates a level of guilt.
But this is also where he starts to score less well. There is some diminution of responsibility through the claim that he always ‘asked first’ (and this is probably to avoid admitting legal liability). One thing that I’ve heard other people say, and that I tend to agree with, is that although Louis says many of the right things, the language is somewhat formulaic and robotic. He says he is remorseful and acknowledges the hurt done, but does he really feel it? It is very difficult to convey these emotions effectively in the written word, but I have to say that I do get a sense from the apology that Louis realises that there are certain things he ought to say and so he says them, but the sincerity is not obvious. There is also the fact that Louis was not timely with his apology. As mentioned, the rumours about this misconduct had been circulating for years, and some of the incidents in question go back nearly 15 years (if I have my facts right). He admits that he ran from the issue in the past, so he is obviously very late to the game in admitting his wrongdoing. Ironically, Boyd might score him well on responsiveness since he was pretty quick to respond to the revelation in the New York Times, but I score him less well on this front because I measure timeliness in a different way. He also doesn’t make any clear attempt at restitution or reform. He says he will step back from the limelight for a while and ‘listen’, but it’s not clear what this means. That said, reform is ultimately something that is best demonstrated through actions, not through words, so perhaps it is too early judge him on this front. Also, any attempt at restitution in this case might be judged insensitive or inappropriate.
Another problem with the apology is that he doesn’t actually say sorry to any of the women he harmed (i.e. he doesn’t use the words ‘I am sorry for what I have done to you’). People have really taken him to task for this in the media. But I’m not sure how important that really is. As per Martin’s account above, I don’t think the power of an apology lies in the formula of words so much as in what it tells us about the character of the offender. And as per Hallich's argument, you could separate apologies from other forms of public accountability and expressions of remorse. That said, the cultural meaning that attaches to the words ‘I’m sorry’ may be such that avoiding their use does tell us something significant about someone’s moral character.
Of course, I don't want to offer an apologia for Louis CK's apology, I just want to outline a way in which to assess it and the many others that are currently doing the rounds.