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I Was WrongReview - I Was Wrong
The Meanings of Apologies
by Nick Smith
Cambridge University Press, 2008
Review by Patrick Beach, M.A.
Mar 3rd 2009 (Volume 13, Issue 10)

In I Was Wrong, Nick Smith rejects the question of whether a given speech act is or is not an apology but instead focuses our attention on the myriad of meanings that an apology can have.  For example, words that are on the surface apologetic can establish a factual record of the harms done, accept blame, endorse a shared value concerning the offense, recognize our interlocutors as full-fledged moral agents, accept causal responsibility, express categorical regret for harms done, identify and endorse the moral principles underlying each harm, and hold a promise to reform. 

These are the central elements of what Smith refers to as a "categorical apology" and his point is that words that are on the surface apologetic can fail in many subtle ways to meet these criteria and so fall short of expressing full apologetic meaning.  Unless one is paying attention, therefore, one may take for an apology what amounts to merely an expression of regret that harm was done or a deflection of moral responsibility.

 He divides his study into two parts of approximately equal length.  The first part of the book illuminates individual apologies as potentially having the full meaning of categorical apologies.  In those chapters, Smith spends a good deal of effort on giving real life instances of apologies that meet his criteria and even more examples of how those apologies can fail.  For example, Smith notes that some apologies are so lacking in causal and moral detail as to amount to little more than expressions of sympathy ("I'm sorry that you were hurt") and that some apologies are coerced (as by a judge prior to sentencing) and hence will hold little meaning in terms of expression any shared values between the agent and her victim.

Smith highlights the place of apologies in a variety of cultural and religious traditions, and he gives some attention to the role of gender in making and receiving apologies.  His aim in those passages is to further battle the notion that apologies fit a neat mold of all or nothing performances.

In the second part of his book, Smith takes up the notion of collective categorical apologies.  The question here is whether, in addition to the individual apologies that might come from the members of a group (such as the government or a corporation), we can further make sense of apologies that come from the group itself.  As Smith rightly notes, these often lack much of the categorical meaning that's available when it's an individual who apologies.  For example, with an individual apology can become more or less clear if the individual endorses the moral principles that have been violated or takes causal responsibility for the harms done.  Collectives, though, may have documents endorsing particular moral principles, but it may still be unclear whether any individual in the collective endorses those principles.  Indeed, it's unclear whether collectives can endorse moral principles above and beyond those endorsed by the individuals who compose that collective.

While Smith details many ways in which the apologies attributed to collectives can fail to have the full meaning of apologies coming from individuals, he also notes that collective apologies can have some advantages beyond the apologies offered by individual members of the groups.  He notes, for example, hat collectives can have "structural" properties which presumably sometimes make it difficult to track the causality necessary for moral responsibility to individuals.  In such cases, apologies from the collective can extend beyond the apologies from individual members of the collective. 

Even so, the second part of Smith's book is largely negative.  The examples he gives are almost exclusively cases of apologies falling far short of categorical apologies and which are often seen as public attempts to shield individuals from taking personal responsibility (even though such apologies are often cast in precisely those terms).

Smith's work is well researched and the examples he uses are in general highly engaging. In the chapters on individual apologies, however, many of the examples come from contexts in which the collective nature of the apology is clearly the most salient feature.  For example, in both sections of his book, Smith highlights President Clinton's apology for the Rwandan genocide on the behalf of the international community. 

While I applaud Smith's attempts to give detail to real-life apologies from a wide variety of contexts, many of his examples from the first part of the book seem to serve better as examples from the second half.  Smith makes a sustained effort at drawing on real-life examples and limiting his dependence on armchair thought experiments, both in the apologies given and people's reaction to them.  Many of those, examples, therefore, will come from high-profile cases and many of those occur as part of collective apologies.

Despite the thoroughness of his discussion, however, Smith occasionally misses a crucial aspect of some of those exchanges.  For example, Smith rightly notes that the most meaningful apologies involve life-long commitments to not reoffend and thus the apologetic act counts as a promissory note against future behavior.   He fails to note, however, that when an agent goes to make financial amends she ought to take money with her.  Without making good on the immediate harm, it doesn't seem possible for the apology to express a long-term commitment to not reoffend.

Most of the text is engaging, but the short chapter that covered apologies to animals, infants, machines, the deceased, and yourself, took away from the force of his narrative rather than adding to it.

Smith is currently working on a second volume, extending his study of the meanings of apologies to civil and criminal law, and I look forward to reading it.

© 2009 Patrick Beach

Patrick Beach is an Adjunct Professor of Philosophy at Boise State University.  He holds an MA from Miami University and is writing his dissertation on moral luck to complete his Ph.D. at Syracuse University.  In addition to his interest in ethics, he's also interested in metaphysics and logic.


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