Being a Philosopher Means Never Having to Say “I’m Sorry” – Part 2

Last week[1]ok, like two months ago. I talked about when an apology was necessary and appropriate. Leaning heavily on Dr. Pamela Hieronymi’s “Articulating an Uncompromising Forgiveness,” I argued that the action or behavior must be (i) a serious moral wrong, (ii) by a legitimate moral agent, (iii) directed at another who ought not be wronged. I gave some examples of actions that might seem like they warrant an apology that actually don’t. This week, I’ll argue that anything that wants to call itself an apology must preserve the three conditions listed above. I’ll call out some common types of apologies that fail to be “genuine” (fail to meet the conditions) and finally talk about what a good, genuine apology looks like.

Oftentimes when people attempt to apologize, what they are actually saying is that the situation in question doesn’t meet the three criteria, that it isn’t something that warrants an apology.

The most common false apology, at least in my experience, attempts to reject (i) by way of explanation. “The reason why I did x was because…” What this false apology is attempting to do is establish that the action had a sufficient and reasonable basis such that the “offense” is totally understandable. 

“I’m sorry I screamed at you,” the false apologist might say, “I had just stubbed my toe.” The problem with this type of apology is it assumes the permissibility of an action is individual, rather than communal. Put another way, while the screamer might think screaming at an innocent bystander is ok because he’s in physical anguish, the bystander might (and probably will) disagree. Indeed, we generally say that lashing out at someone is bad. It’s only when we ourselves are doing the lashing that we find a way to justify otherwise reprehensible behavior.

A popular term for this kind of apology is “gaslighting.” If you pay attention, most apologies you give and receive will follow this structure. Someone does something wrong, they realize it is wrong, and then they give the reasons why they (possibly only allegedly) thought it was right. In my opinion this is not only a false apology, but the opposite of an apology. It admits of no wrong. It cares little for the wronged. 

Another common type of “apology” is one that rejects (ii), arguing that the agent is not sufficiently responsible. “I’m sorry I ate the last piece of wedding cake from the freezer,” this type of apologist might say, “I was so drunk last night.” Or, in another variation, “you shouldn’t be mad at him for not showing up,” a well-intentioned friend may insist, “he’s such a flake, he does this all the time.” This type of apology (or appeal for forgiveness) is equally callous towards the wrong and the wronged as the explanation type above. Even if we were to excuse the behaviors of a drunk on the basis that they are intoxicated, does being drunk make the fact that the last keepsake of a beautiful memory was consumed less painful? I argue that it does not. 

Furthermore, as I argued last week, appeals for forgiveness of this type deny the humanity of the individual, which is a fundamental moral error.[2]I could say much more about the moral imperative of honoring humanity. For me it’s something like the a priori grounding for morality, similar to Kant’s categorical imperative or one of … Continue reading As I discussed in my last post, to reduce someone to below the status of a moral agent is convenient and effective, but it does not constitute forgiveness. Recalling the proverbial scorpion and the frog, that it’s in the scorpion’s nature to sting doesn’t negate the harm caused by stinging. Additionally, we are not scorpions. We are people. We contain multitudes, including a wide range of possible behaviors and attitudes, many of which are at our discretion. 

Another type of apology which I find entirely loathsome is the meta-apology. “Please pretend this never happened,” or “Please treat me the same as before I did the thing,” or even “Please feel bad for me because of how bad I feel.” In this construction (iii) is denied, as the wrongdoer attempts to subordinate the harm caused to their own suffering. Imagine a friend betraying a deep trust by telling a secret. One might, in response, stop telling that friend secrets. “Please don’t ice me out,” the untrustworthy friend might beg, “it would crush me to think you don’t trust me anymore.” Moral harm is not a zero sum game. That the untrustworthy friend might feel bad about the consequences of their own actions doesn’t excuse or supersede the harm they caused. 

One increasingly common feature of our current social construction is the race to the bottom or “oppression olympics.” Yes, someone’s life might be hard, but at least they aren’t a minority. Or they might be a minority but at least they aren’t a minority living in Syria. The implication seems to be that because someone else has it worse, the bad in your life doesn’t matter. However, if I have a loved one die, the fact that you had two loved ones die doesn’t replace my loss, make my grieving easier, or alleviate my pain. Apologies of the kind that beg not be appropriately responded to are similar to this line of thinking.

Another flaw with this kind of apology, as alluded to above, is that it confuses response, the equal and opposite reaction to an action, with punishment. If I lie to someone, and they decide not to trust me, that’s not a punishment, it is merely a (totally appropriate) response. For something to be a punishment it must necessarily be extraneous, above and beyond the appropriate reaction. In the case of the liar, telling other people not to trust the liar might be a punishment. Or, in the same case, deciding to exclude the liar from an event would be properly understood as punishment. While telling others about the lair and excluding them from events might be prudent, these actions are certainly not equal nor opposite reactions.

Having established the kinds of “apologies” which fail to be apologies at all, we are left to ask what a good apology actually looks like, and what we must do to genuinely forgive someone.

First, a good apology admits that wrong was done. It doesn’t attempt to minimize or negate the harm done, but acknowledges that the harmed party is legitimately, genuinely hurt.  Sometimes, this acknowledgment alone is enough to soothe the one wronged. Second, a good apology takes responsibility for that harm. It doesn’t try to explain away or distance oneself from the harm, but rather takes ownership. Finally, a good apology doesn’t attempt to undo the harm caused. It doesn’t ask that if the wrongdoer say some words or does some action that the harm be forgotten. It acknowledges that there is nothing the wrongdoer can do to unstrike the bell, that the one harmed is paying, and will continue to pay, the “price” for the wrong done. 

A good apology sounds something like, “I understand why what I did was hurtful. I understand that I hurt you, and I understand that I cannot unhurt you. I wish I had done differently, because my actions caused you harm.” A good apology does not, you will notice, ask for forgiveness. Instead it creates the conditions whereby the harmed individual can have a good reason to forgive.[3]More can be said about good versus bad reasons for forgiving someone, but I think this post has run long enough.

Understanding that a good apology does these three things, the wronged party has a good reason to forgive: because the person is genuinely sorry. Where resentment is the appropriate response to a false apology (the resenter insists that they were wronged, even if no one else acknowledges this fact), true apologies make room for forgiveness. Whether or not one chooses to forgive is another thing altogether.

By examining the different flaws in typical attempts to apologize I have hopefully achieved two things. One, I’ve shown the way to genuinely, powerfully apologize. I’ve shown that an apology is not a request for forgiveness, nor an excuse, nor a shirking of responsibility. It is an embracing of harm and being harmful. Second, I’ve shown when and why we have a good reasons to expect more from a pseudo-apologist, and when and why we should forgive. 

When we forgive someone for bad reasons, meaning forgive someone who isn’t actually sorry in the ways I’ve adumbrated here, we deny our own moral standing. We deny that we ought not be wronged. While this betrayal of self is convenient, it tells both the self and the other that it is acceptable to harm. By knowing when and why to forgive we can create a space that respects our individual agency while also making room for others to respect us in the same way. Apologizing sincerely and forgiving authentically allow us to live together peacefully and enrichingly. It is this mutually beneficial cohabitation towards which we should all strive.

Hasten the day.


1 ok, like two months ago.
2 I could say much more about the moral imperative of honoring humanity. For me it’s something like the a priori grounding for morality, similar to Kant’s categorical imperative or one of Korsgaard’s sources of normativity. However, this is not the place to make those arguments.
3 More can be said about good versus bad reasons for forgiving someone, but I think this post has run long enough.