Owning up and lowering down: The power of apology

Journal of Philosophy 107 (10):534-553 (2010)
Abstract
Apologies are strange. They are, in a certain sense, very small. An apology is just a gesture—a set of words, a physical posture, perhaps a gift. But an apology can also be very powerful—this power is implicit in the facts that it can be difficult to offer an apology and that, when we are wronged, we may want an apology very much. More, even we have been severely wronged, we are sometimes willing to forgive or pardon the wrongdoer, if we receive a sincere apology. In this paper, I want to begin to figure out how a mere gesture can be so powerful. The philosophers who discuss apology generally do not go into much detail, and they discuss it almost exclusively in connection with forgiveness. 2 I, too, will discuss apology’s power to provide reason to forgive, but in order to provide the resources to examine another power. Some apologies, I will argue, fail to provide reason to forgive, but nevertheless do provide the recipient a reason to maintain a relationship with the wrongdoer, or to allow the wrongdoer to remain in her community. To be clear: the “powers” I am interested in are reason-giving powers, or powers to make certain beliefs, attitudes, or actions rational. Apologies also, no doubt, have a sort of bare causal power. The sight of a vicious, racist, cruel war criminal on his knees and in tears, sincerely begging forgiveness, may inspire in us pity or even compassion, in spite of what we believe we have reason to feel. “I can’t help but feel sorry for the bastard,” we may say, even while believing that..
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