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
Anistons 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 Anistons husband! See? Jolie isnt
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 Jolies case, you still
have the benefits of your misconduct, and dont intend to do anything
other than apologize to make things right. If the apology originates,
for example, with the wrong-doers desire to look good to others,
then its ethical value is nil. Such an apology roughly translates as,
Im 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
Im sorry I invaded Poland.
Im sorry our network
news was so biased toward Barack Obama.
Im 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, Im not
sorry about what I said, because I meant it, but didnt 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, Im sorry I stole Brad Pitt
away from you, Jen, might well mean,
because hes 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 criminals remorse at his sentencing hearing
is sincere but deceitful: Im 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 wouldnt 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 Picketts 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 wrongdoers 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 Im sorry anymore, so I do it for them, Alford wrote. My idea is that if I say Im sorry, then at least the words have been released into the universe. I suppose if its 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 its 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 isnt a sign of weakness, but it isnt
always a sign of ethics, either.