welcome covers

Your complimentary articles

You’ve read one of your four complimentary articles for this month.

You can read four articles free per month. To have complete access to the thousands of philosophy articles on this site, please

Moral Moments

Apt Apologies

by Joel Marks

Western philosophy begins with an apology: Socrates’ self-defense at his trial. Here he explains how he became so unpopular, to the point of being accused of a capital offense. But he’s not saying he’s sorry at all. This points up an interesting feature of apologies in general: They do not bear a simple one-to-one relation with being at fault, nor even with considering oneself to be at fault … or so I shall argue.

We must immediately be aware of homonymous usage: Socrates’ was an apology in the sense of a formal justification, rather than the more common one of an acknowledgment of guilt (that is, responsibility for having done something wrong) combined with an expression of regret. Nevertheless, even an apology of the contrite sort can fail to embody a full-blooded acceptance of blame. Suppose you make a remark that hurts somebody else’s feelings; then you have done it either intentionally or inadvertently. A curious fact is that it may be appropriate in both types of case to say you are sorry. It could be blameworthy for you not to apologize for your blameless act.

Nor is it sufficient to say something like, “I am sorry you were put off by my remark.” This formulation expresses a kind of sympathy, to be sure, but one is not ascribing any responsibility to oneself for what has befallen the sufferer. It suggests ever so subtly that, insofar as someone is to blame, the sufferer herself is responsible (for being so sensitive, for making a misinterpretation, etc.), thereby adding insult to injury.

Thus, my claim is that sometimes even when something you have done with the best of intentions turns out awry purely by accident, you are duty bound to take a share of responsibility for it. As my Seventh Grade chemistry teacher once put it after I said that my test tube had broken on the floor: “The test tube did not break. You broke it.”

What could justify such a practice? One rationale is that the assumption of responsibility will make us more alert to unintended effects of our actions in the future. Note that this is so even when an offense was not the result of carelessness, but may have been wholly conscientious.

This might also explain why there is no pat expression (in English, anyway) for accepting an apology. If someone says, “Thank you,” a ready response is, “You’re welcome.” But if somebody says, “I’m sorry,” we are strangely lacking a reply. (It is analogous to having a hearty “Gesundheit!” at hand if someone sneezes, but not a word of consolation for someone who coughs.) Does this particular inarticulateness betoken a deeper significance? Why would our language impede an automatic pardon? Maybe the answer is precisely that an apology carries the longer term commitment not to repeat the original commission.

But is our autonomy always up to this task? The expectation of non-recurrence creates a problem for apologizing where the offending action is indeed likely to happen again, and despite the agent’s best efforts. I once lived with a person who had a habit of stepping on my foot accidentally. Although I attributed it to a general klutziness on that person’s part, I could not help but be annoyed since the experience was so painful. Couldn’t he have just paid a little more attention? But life has taught me in the intervening decades, from knowledge of others and of myself, that such an expectation is often pointless – like telling an insomniac that all she needs to do is get some sleep.

So did this person owe me an apology? It went against the grain for me to be accepting of one under the circumstances; an apology seemed a meaningless gesture in light of the unlikelihood of change, and accepting it could even be counterproductive if doing so appeared to condone (and hence encouraged?) the behavior. Yet this person may have sincerely regretted his every misstep, as well as his general condition; and have tried in every way to reform or compensate, but to little or no avail.

I do not mean to deny the person’s agency or free will, nor even that he was exercising it to the fullest; but I now acknowledge that real life imposes myriad constraints, if only competing urgencies. Had the person been given the opportunity to totally change his working or family environment, or to take a training course unavailable in his locale, or even just the time to read a certain book, then he might have been able to follow through on his own desire. But this was not the case. Indeed, perhaps the thought that he was not likely to change could be counted among his insights, his achievements – the result of the ‘examined life’ in his own instance. Yet does not such wisdom make the lips brittle that would even utter an apology?

What I am suggesting, then, is that whereas earlier we saw the appropriateness of apologizing for an act that was not one’s fault, we should now recognize that the inverse is also possible: It may sometimes be inappropriate to apologize for an act (or a condition) that is one’s fault (that is, even in those cases where one has made a good faith effort to uproot it). Granted, stepping on another’s foot is a minor infraction (although the habit can be cause for despair by both parties), but it serves as a homely example of the gamut of sins, from promise-breaking to child-molesting, from philandering to wife-beating, from lying to recidivism, from crankiness to drunkenness, that can become incorrigible.

And, yes, the crucial question remains as to what manner of incorrigibility this be: a pure product of circumstance, or a failure of will? But insofar as they do constitute genuine wrongs for which one bears responsibility, yet which are beyond voluntary surcease except, perhaps, by means of some supererogatory feat, these ingrained transgressions would seem to leave the agent in the position of being unable even to apologize.

© Joel Marks 2000

Joel Marks is Professor of Philosophy at the University of New Haven in West Haven, Connecticut, U.S.A. The Moral Moments website is at www.moralmoments.com

This site uses cookies to recognize users and allow us to analyse site usage. By continuing to browse the site with cookies enabled in your browser, you consent to the use of cookies in accordance with our privacy policy. X