So I want to talk about apology and what an apology is, how apologies are
possible, and what kinds of apologies there are. And so let me just say – like
I think there is something paradoxical at the very heart of apologizing that
is an apology is a combination of two things that don’t go together and that
that difficulty sort of is part of what generates a lot of – what’s the right
word? A lot of touchiness around the topic of apology, that is, people are
reluctant to apologize. They are upset when they are asked to apologize.
People don’t want to accept apologies. They said it’s not a real apology. So
there’s a lot of drama around apology more so than around some other things
like thanking people or I mean with kids, you’re like, “You have to say thank
you.” But like adults are fine with like thank you, you’re welcome, right? But
apology is not like that. It’s fraught. That’s the word I’m looking for. It’s
fraught. So like our recent example. Nick Bostrom had this racist email from
25 years ago that he apologized for and the internet seemed split between
people who accepted the apology, people who didn’t accept the apology. And it
kind of seemed like that was perfectly corresponding to all the people who
never would have thought he had to apologize in the first place were like,
“That was fine. That was a good enough apology.” Then all the people who were
upset by the thing were like, “That was no apology at all.” So it almost looks
like the apology didn’t do anything. So OK, apology. So now, let me say what I
think is paradoxical. Here’s one way to put it. This is the most dispassionate
and most philosophical way to put it. In order to apologize for something, I
have to avow it. So I have to claim responsibility, claim it as my own doing,
claim that it’s sort of like truly came from me to do. But I also have to
disavow it because that’s what apologizing is. It’s to say, I view it as an
unacceptable thing to have done. And one way you can square that circle is
just through inserting time. There was one time when I thought this was an OK
thing to do but now, I think it’s not an OK thing to do. But I think that that
sort of apology can often be unsatisfying to people because you’re like, “I
don’t feel at all bad about this. I mean this was the action of a past self.
It’s almost like apologizing what somebody else did.” It’s really going to
come off as an apology as an apology in so far as you can channel that past
self and really recognize that past self in some sense as your current self as
being guilty and thus needing some kind of apology. And so really, we are just
back with you have to both avow and disavow the same action. That’s the
So it seems a lot similar with, “I was wrong,” more generally.
And so, there is just a basic problem in saying you were wrong in the sense
that something needs to have changed. And if you attribute your being wrong to
say just some simple mistake then you can explain being wrong but it’s not
sort of contrite or setting yourself low or the sort of other emotional impact
somebody wants from an apology. So then an apology is not enough to just have
Right. So I mean – so I said that I was going to explain it in the most
dispassionate philosophical way here so like the not as dispassionate way that
I think maybe grips one’s experience a little better. So the characteristic
expression of an apology is I’m sorry. Say I’m sorry. Those are the words. I
mean you may say more words than that but those are the fundamental words, I’m
sorry. And an interesting fact about the phrase “I’m sorry” is it’s also use
in another situation which is to empathize. So if you tell me about something
bad that happened to you today and I’ll say, “I’m sorry,” obviously, I’m not
apologizing. I’m empathizing. But I think that apology includes empathy. That
is, apology is empathizing plus. It’s empathizing plus doing something else.
So empathizing isn’t that hard. It’s not that hard for me to say – if you say,
“This bad thing happened to me,” and I’m like, “I’m sorry,” it’s not that hard
for me to do that, even to do it sincerely. But when I am apologizing to you,
it’s when I did the bad thing, right? And so I both have to say, “I’m sorry,”
in the sense of I’m empathizing with you. Also, that’s a thing I did. And the
reason why that’s difficult is that to say that’s a thing I did is to say – is
to adapt the point of view where I see my own agency as a source of that
result. So that was my intentional action. I see it sort of first personally,
as emanating from me. So that’s one point of view on an action. And it’s not
at all difficult to take responsibility for things you did like if you ask me,
“What are some things you did today?” I will say like, “Uh, I went for a walk.
I cleaned my house. I wrote some emails.” And I’m taking responsibility for
all of those things. I’m avowing them. I’m acknowledging them. But – and I’m
saying I choose them and they are the spring – they spring from my agency so
it’s not hard to do that and it’s also not hard for me to say, “Uh, I’m
sorry,” when you tell me something bad that happened to you. But it’s hard for
me to just do those things together, because when I empathize with you, I
adapted your point of view on some bad thing. It’s almost as though I’m
saying, “Let me pretend I’m not me. Let me pretend that I’m Robin experiencing
that bad thing.” And I say I’m sorry. I’m feeling the sorrow that I would be
feeling if I were you undergoing that thing. So empathy alienates your from
yourself. It involves adapting the point of view of the other person. But
acknowledging that you did something or taking responsibility or seeing the
thing as a source of your agency, that involves not being alienated from
yourself but being centered in yourself and looking out from a first personal
point of view. And so, I think that when we say, “I was wrong,” but it’s not
enough to just say, “I was wrong,” you have to say the, “I’m sorry” part. You
have to be contrite. The bit that we are missing there is the empathy. That
is, are you really feeling the suffering that the victim of your wrongdoing is
So I think there are easy cases of unintentional or hardly blame-worthy
accidents where for example, in a crowded sidewalk, I might trip and then fall
into the person in front of me and knock their package out of their hands or
something and shock them. And now, I can simultaneously empathize and say,
“How terrible it would be to have somebody knock into you from behind when you
are on the sidewalk, knocking things out of your hand,” I could say, “Yeah,
that would be terrible.” And I could also know that it was me who did it and
say, “I definitely did it.” But I could also – it’s not very blame-worthy me
you see who did it in that case, in which case, it doesn’t count very much as
an apology by most sort of the measures of apology of issues that most make
this an issue in the world. So I was thinking, it’s more analogous to like the
problem of evil is in our best explanations of the world involve people who
are mostly doing things from their point of view as if they were a good guy
and social science and academia is full of analyses of people who see
themselves as basically good guys, although things can go wrong and they have
conflicts and then that doesn’t fit very well with the concept of evil who is
this person who is not just seeing themselves as a good guy and doing
something blame-worthy almost knowingly. And that’s more what people are
looking for in an apology. That is, people are looking for you to see
something more fundamental wrong with your approach and to feel bad about
that, something more fundamental about you. So the more it’s just an
accidental thing that was not your intention is not – it wouldn’t even make
your usual strategies blame-worthy that it doesn’t seem to count as an
apology. I think what people are looking for in an apology is some sort of an
acknowledgment that some deeper strategy of yours was wrong, not just it went
wrong a bit on the surface but it was still what you would have done anyway.
That’s not really an apology if you say, “I would have done it the same
anyway, but sorry it went badly for you.” What people want is something deeper
that you are sorry about in your psyche or personality or life strategy or
So that’s exactly the sort of case that I’ve been thinking about. That is,
there are circumstances under which it’s very easy to apologize and the
apology is very readily accepted. And yeah, tripping on a crowded sidewalk is
an – the example that I’ve been thinking about is you’re on a crowded subway
car and it lurches and you step on someone else’s foot because there, you’re
even a little bit less responsible because the thing lurched, right?
And – but another – just being late like you meet your friend and you’re a
little bit late.
But there was an accident.
Yeah. But like if there wasn’t one, I mean who isn’t sometimes late, right?
So I think that when you say that it’s not a real apology or that’s not what
we are looking for in the other kind of case, I think there is something right
about that. But I’m inclined to think that what’s happening in the apology, in
the easy apologies, is that I can call them clarificatory apologies. That is,
by saying, “I’m sorry I stepped on your foot,” what I’m doing is clarifying
that I had no ill will towards you, and clarifying that I wasn’t like
intentionally trying to be late to mess with you or something. And I think
that the test of that would be are there circumstances when you don’t even
have to do that sort of apology? And I think that there are like if it’s sort
of let’s say, like you’re late to meet someone because your foot get stuck in
a grading or something and they are looking at the window and they see you
with your foot stuck there, and you’re trying to pull your foot out and you
can’t so like you’re late, right? I think you might not even need to
apologize. That is, because it’s just very clear what happened. That is, it’s
very clear that it wasn’t the product of your ill will. But especially with
strangers and with causing pain to strangers, we want to err on the side of
clarifying. We want to err on the side – like even if it really is pretty
clear, it’s like pretty unlikely that you’ve been step on someone’s foot in
order to hurt them. If you didn’t apologize, they would start to wonder,
right? And so, you want to make sure that you do that clarification. And I
think that that is – so I think let’s have a different name for that kind of
apology because I think that’s what makes I easier. Part of what makes the
clarificatory apology is that there is a ready sort of prediction that it’s
going to be accepted. So you don’t feel at the mercy so much of the other
person. It’s like, “Look, let me just clarify something,” and they would be
like, “Yeah, OK. Sure.”
So I think many of these easier cases are often handled with just the word
“oops!” or even just a wince look on your face.
Exactly. I didn’t intend it.
Right. And that’s all I’m going to be need to be showing is that yeah, I see
that I screwed up a bit. You see it. You see that I see it and that’s all I
need to convey. You don’t even need a word or sense.
Right. It’s to say, “I have no ill intent towards you.” And it’s like it’s
against the background of, “You were probably inclined to assume that I have
no ill intent towards you but let me just make that absolutely clear so that
you don’t take this as maybe evidence to the contrary or something.”
But now, the ill intent issue is a problem with respect to the other harder
cases because people almost never in an apology actually say, “I really did
have an ill intent towards you.” That’s usually not the formula of an apology
in the sense that would be a different sort of response. It would be saying,
“Yeah, you and I are enemies and I was fighting you and what did you think?”
Then that’s not an apology. That’s maybe acknowledging some other sort of
situation. So the sort of apology people give, they try to explain the
behavior and be at fault even though they usually wouldn’t admit to an ill
I mean I guess I think that – I guess I think if now what we try to do is just
try to imagine the hardest case, so try to imagine the apology that’s most
difficult to perform, the most challenging apology. Well, it is going to be
one where you had an ill intent and yet, you still want to apologize. Right?
That is, you might still want to apologize and you might legitimately have had
an ill intent. But now, we’re back to my original thing, which is like, “If
all I’m saying is I had an ill intent in the past, but I don’t have one
anymore,” then that’s the clarificatory. Again, “I don’t have – you might
think I have ill intent because I did in the past but don’t worry, it’s fine
now. I don’t have any ill intent.” No! You actually have to apologize that you
have the ill intent now. What else will be the hardest case?
Well, if you are apologizing for an ill intent then – I mean the question is,
are you saying you were wrong to have the ill intent before, without a
mistake, and how deep a mistake was it? Like I could say, “Well, I had an ill
intent before you because you were a stranger and you did this other thing so
I was perfectly justified in having an ill intent toward you. But now, I don’t
anymore.” But that wouldn’t really considered an apology you see. So …
Right. No, no, because they don’t change your mind.
Right. So the issue seems to be that you need to like be reconsidering
something more fundamental in your moral stance or evaluation or strategy
toward life, and that you are admitting that something went deep or wrong
there that you are sorry for not just in a calculating, “Oops they made the
wrong calculation. I didn’t carry the two or whatever.” Somehow, your moral
stance was off and that you are now sorry for that.
Right. But I think it has got to be a little stronger than that. I think it
has got to be your moral stance is off. That is ...
Well, I could see. I can still recognize in myself. Then you would be saying
like, “I could see in myself this tendency to have the wrong moral stance and
it’s vivid in me and I’m making this move to sort of shut that down a bit and
to no longer let it act as powerfully as it did before. But there it is right
in me and we can all see it and I admit it’s there.”
Right. And so like let’s further move it, just take that as the very hard case
of apology. OK? The very hard cases, the one where you’re like, “I do have an
ill intent. I have it and at the same time I’m ashamed of having it. But it
really is there and I want you to forgive me for having this ill intent
towards you. It might include a commitment to try to be less ill intention
towards you in the future. That would make sense, right? But still in the
moment, I’ve got to be acknowledging the very thing that I want to be forgiven
for as in some sense present and in need of forgiveness.” So, then the issue
is now, take that hard case and I think the interesting – one interesting
question is, what is the relation between the clarificatory apology, the easy
ones, and that one? And I have this thought about that. That the function of
the clarificatory apology, that is the reason why I say, “I’m sorry I stepped
on foot,” or oops or have – is to say to you, to remind you, that I stand in a
relation to you where real apology, the hard case, is on the table. That is,
I’m prepared to genuinely apologize to you if I should ever do anything really
bad and deeply ill intentioned. I am going to allow that I might have to
perform that really hard kind of apology. That’s all the clarificatory apology
really does is it kind of says hard apology is a possibility between us.
That makes some sense. Now, we’ve been focused on this pair-wise interaction
here. And I think most of the recent publicity cases of apologies involved
third parties in an essential way that makes the problem different. And so,
I’d like us to explore apology with a third party. So often, the cases of
apologies with third parties are cases of people who are at some distance from
each other. They’re less about somebody tripping somebody else and more about
somebody somewhere else just reading what somebody else may have written 25
years ago say, and thinking an apology is due there. So – and of course, then
this person didn’t have an ill intent toward this particular person who never
even heard of before. It’s more some undirected generic ill intent that’s the
at issue. And then often, there are just many such people who would be these
people who are the offended parties and many people often opt into that
category. And now, this is a much harder case of apology because in some
sense, you are never going to get them all to accept it but you still might
feel like you should try to get some of them to accept it. But now, its a lot
less clear sort of they know you less well, you know them less well, and there
are a lot different judgments about what sort of style is appropriate and
there’s not much chance to have a back and forth conversation to clarify. And
this is just a much harder case of apology.
And for many people in that case have expressed this sort of rule that they
think “never apologize”. They say, “Well, in this sort of situation, there’s
just no point.”
Enough of those other people who just take advantage of your apology to make
it not worth the bother. And of course, that looks kind of harsh. You might
think, “Well, if you’ve done something that hurt somebody, surely some
response is appropriate.” And now, we have the question of what to do there.
And I think that when people think of the situation, they still think about in
a pair-wise sense, although it’s between you and all these other stranger,
maybe multiple people. And what I don’t think people take into account enough
is the fact that often, the key phenomena is that you are embedded in a
network of connections with these other people and there are many
intermediaries out there in that network who have a stake in making peace here
or getting a resolution. And that’s part of what in fact apologies do is they
help these intermediaries make peace across a wider network and it’s less
about sort of the direct pair-wise interaction between the person who is
apologizing and whoever might be offended. So for example to be concrete, say
myself and a university. If other people in the university community, say are
offended by something they think I wrote then the university administration
and my colleagues will be interested in making peace. So people will contact
my associates or the administration and complain about what I had done and
then these intermediaries will want to have a response. They want to be able
to say back to them, “This is what we did and this is what has happened.” And
they will come to me and say, “What can you do for us? How can you help us
placate these people?” And often, I think that’s when an apology does. It’s
the thing that intermediaries can take to the other side and say, “This has
happened. We are hoping that will be good enough or at least something.” And
that’s what they might be asking of you to show good faith that you are
willing acknowledge and accept and do something. And those intermediaries are
central to the actual process of construction and distribution of apologies.
Right. So I think that on some level, it’s because people do understand this
that they say extreme things like never – both that they say extreme things
like never apologize and also why they are so reluctant to accept public
apologies, because they’re like – it’s like, “Look, nobody is actually sorry
about anything. We are just going to placate some idiots by saying some words
and then hopefully if this placates them then we don’t actually need to punish
this person in some other way. So we can get like this cheap form of
punishment instead of a more expensive form of punishment by like fooling some
people.” And they are not really fooled but it’s more like they may be think
that some other people are going to be fooled or something like that. And
enough people are just thinking that other people are foolish enough to be
fooled that we can just throw some words out there that everybody knows that
nobody means and kind of get – let this go by.
I mean you’re describing fears that some people might have at this process but
I don’t accept this as just the default description of this process.
You used the word “placate” and that’s what placate mean.
Well then, I used the wrong word.
OK. I thought that’s really what you meant is like...
I meant like they would be less aggrieved, more satisfied. That is, they are
getting something that they wanted. That that’s what I meant by placate. I
didn’t mean to falsely give them something, if that’s what placate means. I
didn’t realize. I thought placate just meant to some degree, mollify them
Right. But like – so let’s talk about – look, supposed I’m upset at you and
you’re just like, “Look, just tell me what words I need to say to make you
feel happy. I’ll say any words you want in whatever order you want me to say
them. Do you want me to raise my right hand? Would that make you feel better?”
That’s what that sounds like. It sounds like...
That’s a fear. But that doesn’t have to be the actuality. That is, this
process of intermediaries can construct – can help induce as real and as
useful an apology as could happen without them. I don’t think it’s obvious
that it’s going to be a wrong thing or a fake one or insincere.
The only way for intermediaries to be relevant is for there something to be
going on either between you and the intermediary or between the intermediaries
themselves that something other than just you sincerely apologizing. And if
that is all that’s happening then we don’t need to invoke the intermediaries.
Why can’t you just sincerely apologize to whoever is getting the thing?
I don’t think it’s true that intermediaries can’t be useful– so we talked last
time about middle man in general and people’s disapproval. And I think people
often think that middle man or middle people and social networks are useless.
But I think it’s actually useful here. So again, we have two parties here who
hardly know each other, who don’t have much of a personal connection and we
have sensitivity to the phrasing and generation and sincerity. And so, that’s
a substantial obstacle to them, a person merely apologizing. They don’t know
exactly who is offended how exactly, and what sorts of issues are central to
them and which sorts of phrasing would set them off. It’s a very difficult
situation there that an intermediary might be able to help with.
Well, it’s not so much that they are helping with it, right? It’s that they’re
the intended beneficiary of the whole thing. So let’s just imagine it’s three
people just to make it simpler, right?
So there’s A, B, and C. And A has now insulted C but A and C don’t know each
other very well. But A knows B and B knows C.
So let’s make it even more concrete. Say, there’s a party. B held the party. A
and C went to the party. A said something to C that A didn’t realize it
offended C. C then said to B, “Your friend A said this terrible thing to me, I
But A and C didn’t know each other very well. And then B might serve as the
intermediary to tell A, “I’m sorry. You might not have realized but this thing
you said to C really bothered C.” And might also be able to tell C some
context about A, the kind of person A is and the kind of thing they may have
interpreted it as, et cetera. And then B could be actually useful in
intermediating between A and C here because it’s that central part that A
That makes a lot of sense. And then that would allow A to sincerely apologize
to C. And in some sense at that point, B would be relevant to the story. That
is, B would tell A enough stuff about C and tell C enough stuff about A to
allow this sincere apology to transpire. But I take it that in that like
that’s not the way you are understanding the third party. You are
understanding the third party is in some sense, the true beneficiary of the
No. I don’t mean to say that. I mean just in general I would say, when people
are embedded in social networks, the social networks do often function to
smooth and mediate interactions between people. That is, people – for example,
children or teenagers sometimes A is interested in B romantically but then A
will ask their friends, “What does B think of me? Would B be friendly if I
were to invite them to something?” And then B may here that A is interested
and they ask, “Well, what do you think? Do you like A?” Right? And then the
set of network, the network they are embedded in can help A and B deal with
the sensitive issue because they can each confide in the others. This is a
common thing that social networks do outside of the context of apology but it
seems especially useful in the context of an apology.
Right. So I mean – but when you say, this is a thing that people don’t
understand, I take it that what you’re thinking of is that there are some
people who are spectators to the apology who don’t understand that behind the
scene that they are not the real target of the apology. That the real target
of the apology is some third party and the reason why that third party is
being targeted by the apology is like yet another party who asked that. So
that in effect, the “public apology” is really not as public as it seems. It
isn’t directed at all to people who hear it. It’s directed at like a subset of
people who are upset with each other.
So for example, in a university environment, if I said something that upset
other people at my university, part of what – I mean the substantial part of
what other people at the university will be upset about is feeling associated
in the larger public eyes with me.
So that larger audience is in some sense, a primary audience. That is – but in
order for peace to be made here, these intermediaries can be helpful. But the
intermediaries would rather not be in this process. It might be this is a cost
to them, but still by being intermediaries, they can help this thing be
resolved more smoothly and that’s an overall benefit.
Yeah. But I guess in that case, I’m really not seeing how it pushes in the
direction of sincerity. That is, like suppose you wouldn’t have apologized if
it weren’t for the fact that these associates didn’t want to be associated
with the bad thing you were perceived to have done. But so now, you are going
to apologize only because these associates have put pressure on you or you
want to make them happy or whatever. Right? And so you’re now apologizing to
this general public that you wouldn’t have apologized to otherwise. We are
presupposing because we are presupposing that the associates are essential to
the story and essential to understanding why the apology is taking place.
Right? But that it seems to me is going to be an insincere apology.
I just don’t see why you need to assume it would be insincere.
Say, I’m not inclined to apologize to you but then my mom is like, “I’m going
to cry really hard if you don’t apologize to Robin.” I’ll be like, “OK, fine.
Then I’ll apologize to Robin.” And then I apologize to you. Doesn’t it follow
that my apology is insincere?
No, it doesn’t. So just more generally, I would say we all do great many
things in the context of social environments where our anticipation of how
people might react to what we do influences what we do, that doesn’t make what
we do insincere in general.
So let me bring in something, a category that you’ve been thinking about a lot
lately, the sacred. So I think apologies are kind of sacred. I think almost in
a pretty like literal sense of like they actually have a very strong religious
connotation. They’re especially I think important to Christians, but
particularly to Catholics but also to Jews like on Yom Kippur like there’s a
very important holiday where you’re in effect atoning for all your sins and
you’re supposed to apologize to anyone you’ve wronged. So religions in general
actually place a really big importance on apology. And I think that – so I
think we see apology as sacred. And so you’ve noticed, when something is
sacred, we tend to think it’s not OK for it to be subject to social influence.
And so, I think the thought that I’m apologizing to you because I was
pressured to do so by my mom seems like a violation of the sacred, the
sacredness of apology because I’m subjecting it to an external influence,
whereas the apology is supposed to come from my heart. It’s supposed to spring
purely from me and from my – the purity of motive in the case of apology is
incredibly important to people in a way that if you are like were thinking
people, purity of motive is not beneficial to people. I think thinking is no
as sacred as apologizing.
So for an awful lot of things we do with each other especially the sensitive
important ones, even sacred things, we use a lot of social context to help
learn what to do and how in many very useful ways. And it’s often relatively
hard to separate out the learning and the pressure that we get for sure. I
mean religion is a very social thing that people in fact have apparent social
pressure. That is, they feel pressured to go to church and synagogue and to
dress certain ways there and to talk certain ways there. And then they’re
supposed to not seem resentful of this pressure. They are supposed seem
grateful that the social world is instructing them and helping them to see
things that they then see. I even think – in romance as well, people are eager
to get social clues and input of people around them and who might like them
and who not and how they should behave, what ways would be seem rude and what
ways would be accepted. And that’s the kind of thing that people need with
apologies. That is, if without this social network, you simply stated what to
you seem like a straightforward to apologize as in the recent example that we
were discussing. It may well not seem at all satisfactory because you didn’t
actually use your social network to try to get a better sense of what they
were offended by and what kinds of issues they had and what kind of things
they were afraid, the attitudes they were afraid you might have, and all those
things are useful just like somebody who is awkward and has never dated before
could in asking someone else to date really screw it up and make them not say
yes, right? I mean that social pressure that forces you to ask for a date in a
certain particular way and otherwise you do it the sincere way. There’s just a
whole bunch of different ways and you just can be ignorant of understanding
how somebody else might react to any particular way you chose.
Yeah. But like depending exactly on how you did it like someone could well be
incredibly crept out by your having investigated what are the ways that you
would be likely to say yes to being asked for a date before asking for a date.
And that’s exactly the same thing, which is that if sacred is a certain
specific way and we don’t accept a certain kind of external difference, I
think you’re right, other kinds we do accept and it’s pretty hard to pin down,
which is the OK ones and which is the not OK.
So there’s a standard advice on a first date, “How should I behaved?” and
somebody says, “Just be yourself.”
Right. We want to...
It’s funny because like for those of us who are older know just how wrong that
advice could be. But it’s also the presentation you need to be making in the
first date. You don’t look at your script and say, “What’s the next thing I
plan to say here? I rehearsed it this way. You did it this way. Can I go back
to my rehearsed way?”
It’s the TV show, The Rehearsal I guess, right?
So these are part of our sort of conflicts or hypocrisies we have about social
behavior is that they in fact need to be pretty well-informed and influenced
by our social network in order to be effective and smooth and yet, they seem
to need to be spontaneous and independent of all such things.
Right. But so if we go back to like the never apologize crowd, like I think –
so first of all, I think that apologizing to strangers is hard. It’s actually
– you might think it should even be hard to apologize to the stranger whose
foot you stepped on. You don’t know anything about that person, right?
They don’t like their foot being stepped on.
Right. Exactly. You don’t know that they don’t like their foot being stepped
on. And – but I think that we – the bar is low there and so like if you
stepped on someone’s foot with your high heel shoe and you like broke their
toe, you might need to like go with them to the hospital or whatever, right?
So the bar would be raised if you did more damage. But...
Imagine there were two – a city divided into two ethnicities that were hostile
to each other and you happen to offend the other ethnicity and they are primed
to suspect offenses all the time that are being done intentionally. Now, the
bar could be higher even though that they’re stranger, there is all this
reason to suspect that it might not have been an accident.
Yeah. Right. And I think that that’s right. I think that the more that you
think there is some – there is even the possibility of some fundamental enmity
between me and you or my group and your group, the harder it becomes to
apologize. And so the never apologize people, I think what they’re really
revealing is that secretly, they’re worried about that enmity thing. That is,
they are worried – so if I’m right that the clarificatory apology, all that it
does is it puts the other kind on the table. It says, “We are in this sort of
relationship where I might have to apologize to you for ill will, for doing
something really bad. And then we might say, “Look, a public apology is never
going to be more than clarificatory because you’re not actually going to be
able to go to each individual person and ask their forgiveness. But what you
are doing, what you are saying when you publicly apologize is you’re saying to
all the people who hear your apology, ‘I take myself to be in a position with
respect to you that I might one day have to really ask you for your
forgiveness.’” And that’s a thing that I see as being on the table. And it may
be that the never apologize people really don’t think that that is on the
table. That is, they think that there’s a large group of people out there
whose forgiveness they could never ask because there are standing enmities
that would – where all that I could ever say is that little speech you had
said at the beginning where it’s like, “I have ill will towards you. We are
enemies. We hate each other. That’s how it is.” Right? Where do we go from
there? There’s a kind of “where do we go from there” thought. And that never
apologizers are secretly revealing that they see that out there, the
possibility of the “where do we go from there” as showing up and thus, there
are just people out there I can’t do clarificatory apologies to because I know
that apology isn’t on the table.
There must also be people who have never accept the apology rules.
Absolutely. Those are – people also are revealing the same thing. They think
there are fundamental enmities that cannot be overcome.
And they’re just thinking the chance that this person might really be hostile
and is just trying to cover it over is high enough that it’s just not safe to
ever accept an apparently sincere apology.
Right. I mean I don’t know that anyone has a literally never accept any
apology, but they might have a rule of never accept any public apologies or
Or accept a usual apology. It would need to be specially unusual for your to
overcome your default of...
Right. Right. Right. The default might be, don’t accept public apologies. And
right, absolutely. What those people are revealing there, they are showing
that they have this sort of enmity view. And so, there is something to be very
revealing about that position on both sides, the never apologize and the never
But I mean one thing it reveals that I think most people don’t notice is that
they are not in fact embedded in a network of intermediaries eager to deal
with this somehow. Because if you are embedded in such a network, your
inclinations, the never apologizer, their inclination is to never accept it,
isn’t going to be accepted by the intermediaries. They are going to say, “Come
on. We are part of the same university. We need to try to deal with this. You
got to give me something more than that.” And they will be pressured there to
find something more.
Right. But I think that what they might think is, “Yes, I am embedded with
some intermediaries but that’s not going to be enough to overcome the enmity.”
That is, if you and I are sworn enemy and we hate each other and we are really
committed to that. We are sure to stick to it no matter what. Right? We are
committed to that hatred. Then that commitment might be stronger than any
commitment that I have say, to my ally. I might hate you more than I love my
ally. And so yeah, I might be embedded in a network of potential
intermediaries who are like, “Come on, just apologize to Robin.” And I’m like,
“No. I don’t like you guys as much I hate him and so I’m not going to do it.”
So it’s not that they are not embedded in a network of intermediaries. It’s
that they are not embedded in one that’s sufficiently strong to counteract the
enmities that they see are out there.
And that’s an interesting fact about the world, who is or is not embedded in
such networks. So famously within say, a company, we were talking about last
time reading Moral Mazes, right? If a higher boss says, “You guys need to make
peace or I’m firing you,” then people will make peace or they will leave the
job. But that will be a pretty large penalty. And then my understanding is
like in small towns or tight communities, typically there is enough strong
connections that somebody higher up, the major, the rabbi, whoever says, “I
need you guys to make peace,” and then you do, in some sense, that’s the
nature of I don’t know, strong communities which is different than say, the
idealized independent person in our society. You and I read Independent People
recently. So Bjartur could not be so easily pressured into making an apology
but people in denser networks, stronger networks, are and we might like
approve of that. So you were disapproving I’m saying, “Well, how sincere could
it be if it was pressured by this network?” But we might say, “Yes, but even
it isn’t that sincere, isn’t that better if a community does get people to
make peace?” How sincere do we need peace to be compared to conflict?
Yeah. I mean I’m not sure of the answer to that question is. I’m not sure that
conflict is – I’m not sure I always want to avoid conflict. But I guess I do –
I am certain that I see your point about the intermediaries actually. So maybe
here’s how I would put it. Apology presents a problem, a fundamental problem,
which is I have – basically, I got to assert a contradiction, something very,
very, very close to a contradiction like I avow it and I disavow it. Right?
And then we need like that – I’m going to need help to try to say that. To try
to say it and like not laugh at myself as I’m saying it because I’m like – the
words are collapsing as they come out of my mouth. One way – one kind of help
that I can get is something like grace from God or something like that, right?
The embedding of apology in a religious framework is sort of to say, there’s
some kind of magical thing that can happen in my soul and in your soul and
let’s not go into the details too closely but like actually this is something
that many religions talk about, is that apology has – it’s a quasi-religious
encounter between two individuals or a quasi-mystical encounter where somehow
I’m both able to see that this fault is mine and also able to avow it at and
one and the same time and I’m able to do that partly through the grace of your
forgiving me. Let’s just allow that to be one case. But now, we want to say,
OK, but what about the times when that magic doesn’t happen? And we still have
the problem where I genuinely did a bad thing and you’re really upset by it.
And then you might say, well, you might want like outer helpers. That is,
third parties that somehow stand in the place of the magical grace and make
the reconciliation possible maybe partly by way of we are so divided from each
other but if – like this often happens in movies and stuff with like parents
and the two parents are so angry at each other and then the kid shows up but
they both love the kid so they can’t hate each other that much, right? On soft
level, that’s what the intermediary amounts to is that both parties are
invested in not being enemies with the intermediary and that helps them not be
enemies with each other. And so that there really are two solutions to the
paradox of apology, one of them is let’s say religious and the other one is
social, and it may be that the people – another way to think about the never
apologizers is that they are very committed to the religious solution.
I think the religious and social solutions are two sides of a pretty similar
process. And so one way to think about this is in this moment of your
thinking, do I accept the apology or do I apologize, you have a conception of
yourself and the situation. And the more of an independent person you are, the
more you’re going to prioritize your current self-conception. But religion
says, your conception of yourself is not the highest thing around here. God’s
conception of you should trump your conception of you and His conception of
this situation is conception of the situation that should trump yours. And let
me read you the scripture that says, “You guys should have the following
stance toward each other,” and you submit to that that’s higher than you and
you accept a new framing of your situation that’s given to you by this
religious authority. And in some sense, social pressure is a lot like that
too. People who live in strong communities don’t have their own concept of
themselves in the situation as the strongest thing in their world. They are
quite often willing to change their concept of themselves in the situation by
their world around them telling you that, “No, you’re wrong. You need to think
about it this other way.” In stronger community cultures, that happens more.
You are more responsive to the community around you telling you you’re
thinking about it wrong. You just need to think about it this other way.
Right. So an apology culture or a forgiveness culture is also just going to be
a less independent culture. It’s a culture of less independent-mindedness.
Independent-mindedness will be correlated with the rejection of apology.
Did Bjartur ever apologize to anyone?
I don’t think so.
I mean his whole life, he never apologized to anyone.
Not even when he reconciles with his daughter. There’s no real – there’s no
acknowledgment of the reconciliation as the repair of a breach.
Or some fault on his own part.
Right. Let alone a fault. So like there’s not even an acknowledgment that
there was breach. It’s almost like, OK, now you’re coming with us or whatever.
And we can see that as a criticism of independent people. I mean you can see
that book as in part, criticising independent people but also showing their
positives but it’s being fair in some sense of a world that induces apology
will be a world where people feel more inclined to defer to a religious or
social reframing or conception of their situation, which includes that they
should apologize or that they should accept an apology.
But how can you even tell? I mean we want to draw a distinction between
sincere and insincere apologies, right? And in a world where a lot of
apologies or where apologies are typically the products of social pressure,
how can one tell first personally whether one’s apology is sincere?
Well, let’s talk about authenticity. I mean maybe we could have a whole
podcast on it but there are these simple kinds of authenticity that say,
authentic is who you really are and not authentic is when you are socially
constructed and you are doing things in response to social pressure. And when
psychologists, et cetera, have actually studies authenticity and said, “When
do people actually feel most authentic?” it seems like they feel most
authentic when the persona they have is the one that would be the most
socially approved. It’s not who they naturally are. It’s the one they can most
easily embrace without embarrassment. And just in general, we tend to deny how
socially constructed we are. That is, who we are and our habits and styles are
greatly influenced by the social world we’ve been in and that’s just the
nature of humans. But we tend to deny it and we tend to make this sharp
distinction between what we would naturally be if there no social pressure and
what we might be pressured to do in any one situation. But we tend – we
neglect how constructed both of those things are by our long social practice.
In any one moment we have in our mind, this is what I would do if not for the
social pressures. We could see at any one moment a particular pressure and we
could see the two variations there. But what we don’t see is both of those
things are the result of a long social interaction and they would have been
different have we been in a different society.
At that point, I start to get like confused though because then like take the
anti-apologizers who we were at one point describing as independent people,
people like Bjartur, right? I guess you will want to say, “No, he is just as
socially constructed as everybody else and they are just conforming to their
authentic idea of themselves as very independent but that’s who they find
socially accept – it’s socially acceptable to project.” And so then, we are
not going to be able to divide communities into two kinds because every
community is of the same kind, namely, conformity.
But in some communities, one is to project the image that one conforms
relatively little and that gets realized in particular behaviors and then the
other community wants us to project the image that one conforms a lot.
But you just said like we don’t like to admit that we conform. And so, you’re
saying that’s not a general fact about human beings. It’s just a fact about
our culture. In another cultures, people do like to admit that they conform.
They know that they conform. But I think we are also somewhat reluctant to
commit but more community-based cultures more admit that they are subject to
social pressure. But even then, they may be reluctant to admit just how much
any one thing they do is.
Right. I guess we need some kind of difference here between what makes people
embrace and what makes people reject apology. And I thought the difference we
were using was something like how communal the society is.
So to make it concrete, if you are imagining an instance here, apology, you
might imagine say the apologizers sitting in the room with their friends
laughs at the thing they said and saying that, “I’m just making that up.” So
you might imagine some concrete behavior where if they realized that, you
might imagine them like say, “I want to do it again next time and I’ll get
away with it again because I’ll apologize again ha ha ha.” Right? And so, that
could be the difference that you are actually concerned about is that’s what
it means to be sincere and insincere is do they laugh about it with other
people? Do they plan to keep doing what they were doing before? Those would be
consequences you could care about in the sincere versus insincere distinction.
I guess if I think about the case of Bostrom like – and I’m imagining the
people who are dissatisfied with his apology, I mean there might be a variety
of people who are dissatisfied for a variety of different reasons but I’m not
imagining that people think – that in order to be dissatisfied, you have to
think he is laughing with his friends or something.
Not quite laughing. But in fact, I saw basically, he posted some update to his
webpage describing how things had been going for him lately. And there was one
phrase where he said, “Sometimes the world is like that buzzing in your ear
distracting you.” And that they were offended that that’s how he described
this recent affair as that buzzing in his ear. So that was way they were
afraid that – was his attitude.
Right. Right. So like I guess the way that I tend to think about it is like
when I try to imagine to be as charitable as possible to the people who are
unhappy with the apology, the way that I think about it is they just saw him
as getting out ahead of this kind of PR nightmare. Someone was going to
release this email. He wanted to be one to do it and the apology was meant to
placate in the usual sense of that word. That is, it’s meant to like quench
the fire before it gets too big, which is to say – and it’s meant to keep his
affiliations with his allies in good shape not because he secretly has
contempt or hates anybody but he just wants this thing to go away. But that –
the idea of wanting there to be peace and wanting to get over the conflict is
just very, very close to the very idea of insincerity. That’s what’s
challenging to me here about apology.
Well, so there is this person’s actual state of emotion or mind and then
there’s this state of emotion or mind that could be reasonably to attributed
to him given the behavior and it could be that you’re mainly worried about
that second one in terms of how that would encourage other people. You don’t
want someone to seem to get away with it and seem to be insensitive and not
taking it seriously. You don’t want everybody to see it as having been done
that way and gotten away with it. And you might be less concerned about their
actual state of emotions than the lesson we are going to learn from this case.
I think in a certain fundamental sense, we can’t really care that much about
the actual internal state of other people that we will never ever get to see.
We’ve got to be somehow concerned about the internal state that other people
will plausibly attribute to them and then how that will affect other people’s
I mean it’s weird that we care about it in any sense. That we care – you’re
right when you bring it up, why would I care about the internal state. Why
would a whole bunch of people who are never going to meet Nick Bostrom care
about what does he really feel? But then also, why did they care about what
other people might think he really feels? Why does anyone care about that? But
somehow, we become fixated on something that’s totally inaccessible to us in
so far as he is at a great distance from us.
So the usual social norm or law perspective is the idea that there are certain
things people do and they do wrong then we need to see a history whereby that
they lose something and everybody sees that and everybody learns, “Hey, if you
do this certain thing, you may lose something too,” and we will then sort of
accept the right expectations about it and that’s plausibly what people want
out of these cases is for the world to learn the right lesson about what
happens if you do certain things.
Right. But I think that perspective on it is really not compatible with seeing
the apology as sincere. The idea is like look, they need to see me as losing
something like maybe of losing face by mean of the apology, because otherwise,
if this doesn’t satisfy them then they need to do something worse to me that’s
very visible so that I seem to have been punished so that it seems like the
lesson will publicly be learned that this can’t be done or something.
So for example in law, I think judges often want to see contrition and
admission of guilt on the part of the convicted.
And they will even give them a lower sentence for that. And part of that is to
support the legitimacy of the legal system. So we have a series of cases and
each time the person who is convicted doesn’t admit their guilt and we remain
in doubt about how effective and accurate it is this legal system, if most of
the time somebody convicted says, “OK, you got me. Yeah, I was wrong.” Then we
can confirm that the system is actually convicting the guilty. And that’s part
of why we want like the end point of an accusation process and a punishment
process is to be the person accepting the whole thing and validating our
choices all along.
Right. But it’s interesting – I mean – so that’s interesting because then it
sort of suggests that like somewhere along the way, we meet this thing, the
real hard case of the apology where the person is like, “I avow it and
therefore I disavow it.” That thing is – we need that at some clincher point
in the story. We can’t live without that. And it’s the thing that is also not
clearly possible but we kind of need – we need a presentation of it and we
need to have reminders by way of the clarificatory apology. We need to have
reminders of that thing, that magical kind of apologies being on the table.
So you make me wonder what other things there are like this. But in a sense,
you might say there are these – so we talked once before about like romance
and what people want out of each other. And that this magic combination of I
want from you what you give to me and vice versa is actually kind of hard to
arrange. But that at sometimes, we just decide we believe we have it and go
on. And similarly, you are pointing out that maybe an apology is in some
fundamental sense hard to arrange. But at some point, we decide we have it and
we go on. And there are a number of these sort of magic things that when we
look at them, we are not sure how they could exist but then we decide they
exist and go on. Motivation is like that too. We might say, how could somebody
actually be motivated to do a job? I mean really, how could that work? I mean
they could pretend to be motivated or lie about being motivated. But could
somebody actually be motivated? But then they say they are and we agree and go
on. There are just a number of these social acts or social labels or
categorizations in the world where it’s magic. It’s sacred. It’s – we at some
point look at each other and declare it true and then it is true as far as we
are concerned and we go on.
Yeah, or maybe we are just – it’s like what my kids’ teachers call an emerging
skill for humanity. We just haven’t – we haven’t quite gotten there yet. In
some future day, human beings are going to be doing apologizing and loving and
all this stuff like amazingly well and we are just – and they’ll look back at
us and be like, “Those guys tried really hard.”
We faked it until we made it. That’s how humanity.
That’s the history of humanity you see.
I think we’ve done an hour so far.
We’ve done over an hour. Yeah.
All right. Well, good evening.