Apologies have always been a struggle for me. Not only do I rarely feel the need to apologize, but I have a hard time accepting apologies from other people. My typical response when someone apologizes to me is, “what do you mean?” In the next two posts I will attempt to answer that question. First, I will identify the features of an offense that make it warrant an apology, compared to the times when an apology is unnecessary or inappropriate. Then, I will examine the different things (that aren’t apologies) that can be meant by “I’m sorry,” including “please pretend this never happened,” “please feel bad for me,” and (the one I loathe the most) “the reason why I did the thing was…”. I will argue that none of these statements are actual apologies because they attempt to reject the features that make an offense warrant an apology in the first place. Hopefully, by looking at when apologies are necessary, and what can be—versus what should be—meant by “I’m sorry,” I will make it both easier to genuinely apologize and easier to accept a genuine apology.
I will lean heavily on the work of Dr. Pamela Hieronymi, specifically her “Articulating An Uncompromising Forgiveness” (2001). Those of you who check my citations know I am a huge fan of Dr. Hieronymi. Those of you who watch The Good Place are familiar with her work; she was the ethics consultant for the show. This particular essay is, in my opinion, far less technical and easier to read than some of her more recent work.e.g. “The Wrong Kind of Reason” (2005), “Controlling Attitudes” (2006), or “Reflection and Responsibility” (2014). All can be found for free on her website For those interested, you can access the final version of the paper with a free (or paid) Jstor account, or access the pre-print version without any signup or fee here.
When is an apology warranted? According to Hieronymi, a situation warrants an apology when three conditions are met:
- (i) the act in question was wrong; it was a serious offense, worthy of moral attention.
- (ii) the wrongdoer is a legitimate member of the moral community who can be expected not to do such things. As such, she is someone to be held responsible and she is someone worth being upset by.
- (iii) You, as the one wronged, ought not to be wronged. This sort of treatment stands as an offense to your person.
To further clarify, let’s look at examples where one (or more) of these conditions are not met, i.e. situations where an apology is unnecessary or inappropriate.
First, times when the act in question was not wrong. Unlike me, some people seem to have no trouble apologizing. One of my friends often apologizes simply for taking up space. Whether it’s in her own home, in shared spaces like the gym, or public spaces like the sidewalk, if she feels like someone else might want to occupy the same space she is, however briefly, she will apologize. When I say to her “stop saying ‘I’m sorry’” I not only mean “you are worthy of space,” but also “taking up space isn’t wrong.” I mean, setting the psychological aspects aside, that condition (i) is not met. The same can be said for trifles like leaving the side door open, forgetting to put gas in the car, or missing a lift. In those latter cases, what I think people mean by “I’m sorry” is something like, “I acknowledge my mistake,” or “my bad.” Of course, taking up space isn’t a mistake, as much as some might feel like it is. In that case, the appropriate thing to say would be nothing at all.
Sometimes, though the wrong is grievous, the wrongdoer is not an appropriate moral agent. Imagine a child calling you a particularly heinous slur. While we might want the child to both feel they should, and understand why they should, apologize (because it is in the process of learning to become a legitimate member of the moral community) it would be odd to get mad at the child for not apologizing. Or, imagine a barking dog. While the barking might be annoying, inconvenient, even embarrassing, it would be odd to get mad at the animal and expect it to feel (or display) some sort of regret. That’s just what dogs do, they bark. In either case, condition (ii) is not met.
I have a bad habit of reducing peoples moral standing as a coping mechanism. For example, if someone lies to me, I reduce them in my mind to the status of Liar. Liar, in this case, doesn’t mean someone who could tell the truth and doesn’t, but rather someone who can’t tell the truth at all, maybe even to themselves. Once I’ve reduced someone in this way, I assume that whatever they’re telling me probably isn’t true. This way, I am typically able to avoid the harmful affects that could come from trusting them. Additionally, I avoid being incensed by the very fact that they’re lying to me because, of course they are. Dogs bark, liars lie.
Practically, this approach is useful and reliable. Philosophically, it denies the personhood of the liar; denies the multiplicity of their character, and denies their potential for growth and change. Interestingly, there are some people who, despite the fact that they lie all the time, I still expect to tell the truth, get upset when they don’t, and get into trouble as a result of taking them at their word. I don’t know why it’s easier to dismiss some people more than others, but my intuition is that this behavior is categorically wrong. Perhaps certain psychological conditions can excuse an individual from moral agency, but the distinction between a clinically pathological liar and typical liar are blurry for me.
Finally, my favorite, condition (iii). One example of this condition failing to be met is when you deserve it. If I call someone a bastard, and they spit in my face, I don’t have a realistic claim to an apology from them. I totally deserved it. Or, if they were in fact being a bastard, they can’t correctly expect me to apologize for saying so.
I said before that I rarely apologize… and I don’t apologize for saying it! Most of the time I don’t apologize because either conditions (i) or (iii) are not met. (I do not think it’s possible for someone like myself to coherently reject condition (ii).) As posts like these probably make obvious, I spend plenty of time thinking about what I say, what I do, and what I feel. When I identify a bad reason or a harmful effect, I do my best to change. I spend so much time considering if something is wrong, and why, that I rarely do something wrong, even by other people’s standards. On those infrequent occasions that I do, I can typically point to a way in which the person deserved it. I’m not the nicest or most congenial person, but I am certainly not mean or cruel. Thus, I either don’t do something that is actually a moral wrong (condition (i)) or the person totally deserved it (condition (iii)). Yes, I am the worst.
For something to be unlike these examples—for something to warrant an apology—all three conditions must be met. While the latter two seem pretty straightforward, and I’ve given examples of when the first one doesn’t apply, there is a looming question; when is something a serious moral offense? Especially given the current popularity of relativism, it can be hard to give a definitive answer.
Last year a student expressed some discontent during my weightlifting class. The specific complaint was that I mentioned a professional lifter’s marital status, and never (or rarely) played videos of female lifters, both of which amounted to sexism.
On the first charge, I played a video of Jenny Arthur and introduced her as national champion, American record holder, five-time world team member, two time world medalist, 2016 Olympian, and wife of Norik Vardanian, son of Yurik Vardanian. The late Yurik was (and is) known for his technical mastery. He coached his son, Norik, who is also widely regarded as a beautifully technical lifter. Norik coaches Jenny and that heritage is reflected in Jenny’s increasingly dazzling technique, though her lifting style is very much her own. This was not intended to demean or detract from any of her accomplishments, merely to gesture towards the concept of coaching lineage and some observable similarities between lifters from different countries, weight classes, and genders. However, I am not insensitive to the detrimental effect of couching the achievements of a woman in the history of a man.
To the second charge, it may well be the case that while I often played female lifters for my 7AM class, I rarely, if ever played them for my 7PM class. Instead of thanking the student for the correction and observation, or even just responding neutrally, I objected. I insisted what I said and did was not sexist. I then relayed the story to a friend who I knew would reassure me I was in the right. If you’ve read White Fragility, what I did was line for line exactly what DiAngelo describes as the “fragile” response. On that note, I don’t tell this story to elicit comments like, “you’ve always been very fair and non-sexist in my experience.” While that’s very nice of you to say (and hopefully true), the point if the story is to beg the question: Should I, in this case, have apologized?
Ultimately, I did. As is probably obvious, I still don’t think mentioning that one lifter is married to another is a moral wrong. It’s trivia, it’s cute, and it’s instructive. If my “apology” had just been that explanation, it wouldn’t have been much an apology at all. I would be denying condition (i). If I were a bit more callous, I could’ve denied condition (iii), saying something like “it’s my class and I’ll say, and play, whatever I want.” Thankfully, though sometimes painfully, that’s simply not the kind of person I am. So where is the genuine wrong?
One of the things that people come to me to work on, and which I endeavor to teach, is courage. It must have taken a tremendous amount of courage for that student to push back against an extremely popular person in a position of authority. It was wrong of me, as an alleged leader, not to affirm that good behavior. Indeed, I should’ve thanked them for their bravery.
Additionally, it was wrong, or at least foolish, to insist that I did in fact play videos of female lifters all the time. When class is going I am mostly watching the physically present lifters. If one tells me they want to see more female representation on the screen, it would be prudent of me to take them at their word. They are likely paying much closer attention to the screen than I am, and I suffer no harm or loss as a result of playing W64 instead of M81. After a period of reflection, I rightly acknowledged that speaking up was brave, thanked them for making the observation and apologized for not responding in this way initially.
All of this is to say, the rightness or wrongness of my behavior was not obvious to me alone. It was only when viewed through the lens of another person that I could see where and why I was in the wrong. The lifter, who was much more temperate than I, graciously accepted my apology, for which I am grateful.
As this story demonstrates, when looking for for instances of moral wrong, it’s often insufficient to only use one’s own sense. Taking the viewpoint of the Other is instrumental. Much, much more can be said about the nature of morality generally. Some things might be wrong no matter what the opinions of the victim or villain are. Some things might not actually be wrong that the Other feels actually are. Committing to always honoring the feelings of the Other might tether one to a kind of political correctness that is, frankly, exhausting. However, in general, I believe that being sensitive to the claims of others are going to lead you to fewer judgmental errors than assuming you are always in the right; when it comes to moral harm, a false positive typically has a more desirable outcome than a false negative.
If the original question was “How do you know when something is morally wrong?” one answer is, “When the other person tells you it’s wrong.” This is not foolproof. After all, we can easily imagine a situation where there is a dire moral wrong and no one says anything about it. But, in general, if someone tells you you’ve done some kind of wrong, the action or attitude probably warrants some consideration.
This is not to say that every time someone expresses discontent with an action, that action falls under the moral scope. Again quoting Hieronymi (though this time a later work), moral demands are “the demands placed on us by our need to live peacefully with others.” Necessarily, for an action or attitude to fall under the moral purview, it must involve two or more “people” (some, like me, would say this includes animals) and there must be a conflict that aims at resolution. Merely establishing different points of view is not the kind of thing that can be considered a moral concern. I’ve now opened up a serious can of worms, so I’m going to slam the lid shut and save untangling this horrifying, writhing mass for another day.
Next week, I’ll talk about the different things people mean when they say I’m sorry, and why most of them aren’t actually an apology. I’ll also identify the necessary features of a genuine apology, and what we need to do to genuinely forgive someone. Hasten the day!