Topic: Society

The Ethics of Apologies

The tabloid headline screamed out, “Angelina Apologizes to Jen!” This, in reference to the endless soap opera surrounding siren-actress Angelina Jolie spiriting away TV cutie-pie Jennifer Aniston’s heartthrob-creep husband, Brad Pitt to begin her avocation of adopting every child she stumbled across in her travels. How nice! She apologized for stealing Aniston’s husband! See? Jolie isn’t so bad after all!

Yes, she is. An apology is not, as some commentators, pastors, and former finger-wagging U.S. Presidents would have it, an all-purpose corrective for bad conduct. It is not especially impressive or effective when, as in Jolie’s case, you still have the benefits of your misconduct, and don’t intend to do anything other than apologize to make things right. If the apology originates, for example, with the wrong-doer’s desire to look good to others, then its ethical value is nil. Such an apology roughly translates as, “I’m sorry that what I did, which I really wanted to do and enjoyed the heck out of at the time, makes me look bad, and thus could impede my success and pleasure at a later date.” As in….

“I’m sorry I invaded Poland.”

“I’m sorry our network news was so biased toward Barack Obama.”

“I’m sorry I made millions defrauding the public and got away with it.”

These are PR apologies, in the same general category but more effective than the infamous “non-apology apology,” which typically goes like this: “I apologize for anyone I may have offended with my comments.” It means, “I’m not sorry about what I said, because I meant it, but didn’t expect it to get me in so much trouble.”

Another kind of unethical apology is the deceitful variety, an apology that relies on the ambiguous meaning of the word “sorry.” After all, “I’m sorry I stole Brad Pitt away from you, Jen,” might well mean, “…because he’s an A-1 jerk-wad, and I was doing you a favor without intending to.” (Given what we know about Brad, this may well be the “apology” Aniston got.) Very frequently, the criminal’s remorse at his sentencing hearing is sincere but deceitful: “I’m so sorry I robbed that bank (because I messed it up and got caught. If I had escaped to Mexico with a cool million, I sure as hell wouldn’t be sort, let me tell you.)

Apologies can be ethical, of course. They play an important role in ethical conduct, because they represent acceptance of responsibility and accountability, a tacit agreement to bear the full consequences of a mistake or a wrongful act, and genuine remorse. This was what General Robert E. Lee did when he accepted fault for Pickett’s Charge at the Battle of Gettysburg, and what Robert McNamara has done in apologizing for his role in the Viet Nam war. But whenever an apology for an ongoing wrong is not accompanied by an effort to voluntarily make amends or restitution as well, it is ethically suspect.

Apologies, as children quickly learn, are cheap. They can soften the sting of richly-earned unpleasant consequences, or forestall them entirely. Only when an apology is followed by a wrongdoer’s sincere efforts to rectify the harm as much as possible, or when it identifies the wrongdoer as the one who has to accept criticism, scorn and punishment, is it truly ethical.

New York Times Op-Ed contributor Henry Alford recently wrote a piece describing how he apologizes for people too rude to apologize to him. “No one says I’m sorry anymore, so I do it for them,” Alford wrote. “My idea is that if I say I’m sorry, then at least the words have been released into the universe.” I suppose if it’s beneficial to the ethical ether for the words “I apologize” to be uttered by the wronged rather than the wrong-doer, then a deceitful or insincere apology is better than nothing.

Maybe. But it’s important to know the difference between an ethical apology and one that is just words or pretense. In the John Ford classic film “She Wore a Yellow Ribbon,” Captain Nathan Brittles, the hard cavalry officer played by John Wayne, says, "Never apologize, it's a sign of weakness." Duke is wrong about that, but at least his character, as usual, has the integrity not to apologize for the wrong reasons as well as for the right ones. Apologizing isn’t a sign of weakness, but it isn’t always a sign of ethics, either.

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