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What Does It Take to Make an Apology?

caricature of a resigned Boris Johnson

Boris Johnson recently apologized for attending a party at No 10 Downing Street in March 2020, just after a national lockdown had been ordered. His apology has been met with general outrage and a call for his resignation. Individuals respecting the lockdown measures couldn’t see their loved ones on their deathbeds, attend funerals, celebrate weddings, and more. For instance, the queen of England had to attend her own husband’s, the Duke of Edinburgh’s, funeral in relative isolation. As of the latest, the consensus is not a matter of whether Boris Johnson will resign, but when and how he will resign.

Unsurprisingly, most parties accuse Boris of delivering a weak apology. Worse, some accuse him of failing to apologize altogether. This raises the question, “What does it take to make an apology?” Boris Johnson’s apology provides a good case study of what does and does not qualify as an apology. In what follows, I will outline three conditions for making an apology and contrast this with the related concepts of excuse, justification, and explanation. Given the notion of apology I put forth, Boris Johnson fails to make a successful apology.

Let us stipulate that an apology consists of three things: the individual who apologizes must (i) take ownership of the action and the damaging effects, (ii) regard the action as bad, and (iii) be open to making amends or reconciling in some fashion. Consider a trivial case of apology (modeled on a favorite poem of mine). Juan and Sarah are work colleagues. Juan always places his snack of choice, some tangerines, in the work cooler. As it happens, one day Sarah eats Juan’s tangerines. Juan sees the tangerine peels in Sarah’s bin, so naturally addresses the issue. Upon being confronted, Sarah apologizes. She says, “I’m sorry, Juan. Those were your tangerines, and I ate them. I don’t want to take your food and treat you that way.”

While somewhat trivial, notice a couple of things about this scenario. First, Sarah owns up to the action. She doesn’t deny that she is the tangerine-eating-culprit — she takes responsibility for the action of eating Juan’s tangerines. Particularly, she takes responsibility for a wrong action and the effects of that wrong action. Next, Sarah is open to making amends. That is, she apologizes for the sake of reconciling. If this is not clear, simply consider the opposite: Sarah says, “I apologize,” and turns around in a huff for having been confronted. Like children on a playground who only verbally apologize, this would seem to only be half an apology (or no apology at all!). So, it seems like being open to amends is necessary for an apology. Of course, even if Sarah does successfully apologize, Juan can still refuse the apology. But this does not mean that Sarah has failed to apologize. Rather, it means that reconciliation has not occurred.

So, let us consider these three conditions as necessary and sufficient for an apology. You need them all for an apology to happen; and when you have them all, an apology happens.

Now, apologies are not usually as clean-cut as in the above example. Apologies are usually muddled with justifications and excuses. Imagine the same scenario where Sarah has eaten Juan’s tangerines. Excuses are frequent companions to apologies. Sarah could reply: “Oh goodness, I had no clue those were your tangerines in the cooler — sorry I ate them!” Excuses aim to deflect responsibility for the action in question. Sure, Sarah ate the tangerines. But she didn’t knowingly eat Juan’s tangerines from the cooler. That’s not the type of action that she is willing to own up to. Thus, when present, the excuse deflates the apology. Sometimes, excuses simply replace the apology. Sarah maintains, legitimately or not, that she should not and even cannot be held responsible for the action in question. When an excuse accompanies an apology, it at least deflates it, for it calls into question the first condition of taking responsibility for the action in question.

Justifications are also frequent companions or alternatives to apologies. Sarah could try to justify her action when Juan confronts her by saying, “Yeah, I ate it. But it wasn’t so bad after all — I was starving! Sorry, Juan.” Where excuses deny responsibility for the action in question, justification takes responsibility for it. Moreover, the person who offers a justification disowns the fact that the action was bad and thus deflects the blame. Perhaps the justification is legitimate, perhaps not.

Illegitimate justifications, as we know all too well, are a common way to deflect blame. When an illegitimate justification is present, it defeats the apology. The person who says ‘sorry’ at this point has simply not taken responsibility for the wrongness of the action and the bad effects.

Now, we don’t want to conflate justifications with explanations. To see the difference, imagine that Sarah says, “Sorry I ate your tangerines. I was hungry and not thinking of you — I regret doing that.” Similar to a justification, the explanation serves to provide context. Unlike a justification, the explanation does not seek to deflect blame. Explanation is a way of making amends and helping the offended person understand. The explanation aligns with the purpose of the apology, to take responsibility and make amends of some sort. When done correctly, explanations can go a long way in making an apology and the aspired reconciliation successful.

How does this help us analyze Boris Johnson’s apology? The presence of justifications or excuses calls the apology into question. Indeed, illegitimate justifications or excuses defeat the apology. Turning to his statement, the Prime Minister repeatedly and directly stated “I apologize.” He made note of his regret at the damage caused by his actions. He ended by encouraging the investigation, indicating his openness towards making another statement. We might be charitable and presume this means he is open to making amends. These all meet the conditions of an apology. So far, so good.

When taken as a whole, however, he made both excuses and justifications. Consider one of his excuses: he “believed implicitly that this was a work event.” Really? This classifies as an excuse. If we were to liberally elaborate, the above statement amounts to the following: “you are saying I attended a party and could blame me if this was the case. But that was not what I was doing! I attended a meeting. You can’t hold me responsible and blame me for that action.”

Additionally, the Prime Minister made a justification. He claimed it was “technically legal.” This classifies as a justification. Whether it was a party or work event, it was legal and he is not therefore blameworthy. In the justification, he takes responsibility but denies the action was bad.

I won’t get into the details of whether Boris Johnson offered any legitimate excuses or justifications. Neither have I commented on whether leaders have different kinds of responsibilities, or simply heightened responsibilities for the citizens they serve. But, as is clear from the tangerine-theft, the presence of any excuses and justifications at least deflates and calls the apology into question. And this is no different with Boris.

Rio Tinto and the Distinction between Saying ‘Sorry’ and Being Sorry

photograph of Rio Tinto train cutting through landscape

“…we haven’t apologised for the event itself, per se, but apologised for the distress the event caused.” – Chris Salisbury, Rio Tinto Iron Ore CEO

In late May, mining giant Rio Tinto shocked Australia, and the world, by blasting an ancient and sacred Aboriginal site to expand an iron ore mine.

The blast destroyed a cave in the Juukan Gorge, located in the Hammersley Ranges in Northern Western Australia, that was one of the oldest of its kind in the Western Pilbara region, and was the only known inland site on the entire Australian continent to show signs of continual occupation through the last ice age (between 23,000 and 19,000 years ago) during which, evidence suggests, most of inland Australia was abandoned as the continent dried out and water sources disappeared. The cave site itself was found to be around 46,000 years old.

The blast received ministerial approval in 2013, consent obtained under Western Australia’s out-dated heritage laws drafted in 1972 to favor mining interests. Following the 2013 approval, archaeological work carried out at the site discovered it to be much older than originally thought, and to be rich with artefacts and sacred objects.

The 1972 Heritage Act does not allow for renegotiation of approvals based on new information; however, the act is due to be replaced by new legislation, and various factors have caused the renewed heritage act to be delayed. The new draft bill currently in preparation includes a process of review based on new information. In its response to the new draft legislation Rio Tinto has submitted a request that consent orders granted under the current system should be carried over.

The blasting of the site was conducted without prior notification to traditional Indigenous owners, or the state government, and has caused deep distress to the Puutu Kunti Kurrama and Pinikura people (PKKP). Among some of the precious and rare items recovered from the site prior to the blast was a 4000-year-old plaited length of human hair from several people which DNA testing revealed to belong to the direct ancestors of the living PKKP people.

“It’s one of the most sacred sites in the Pilbara region … we wanted to have that area protected,” PKKP director Burchell Hayes told Guardian Australia.

Peter Stone, Unesco’s Chair in Cultural Property and Protection said that the destruction at Juukan Gorge was among the worst in recent history, likening it to the destruction of the Bamiyan Buddas in Afghanistan and the ancient Syrian city of Palmyra.

Rio Tinto claims it was not aware of the importance of the site, nor of the traditional owner’s wish for it to be preserved. But the PKKP Aboriginal Corporation rejected Rio’s suggestion that its representatives had failed to make clear their concerns for the site, and their wish for it to be preserved. “The high significance of the site was further relayed to Rio Tinto by PKKP Council as recently as March,” Burchell Hayes said.

Following the blast, Rio Tinto issued an apology to the PKKP people. “We are sorry for the distress we have caused,” Rio Tinto Iron Ore chief executive Chris Salisbury said in a public statement.

Several days after the public apology a leaked recording from a private Rio Tinto staff meeting found its way to The Australian Financial Review which reported that Salisbury told staff ” … we haven’t apologised for the event itself, per se, but apologised for the distress the event caused.” In a subsequent interview, Salisbury did not contradict the report, and repeatedly refused to directly answer when asked if the company was wrong to blow up the site, only repeating that they were sorry for the distress.

So, what is going on here — what can we make of Salisbury’s remark that the company had apologized not for the event itself but the distress it caused?

In taking the line that it did not know about the site’s significance, and attempting to insulate its apology from an admission of responsibility, Rio Tinto is trying to avoid moral blame. But does the separation hold? Can an agent be sorry for causing distress without ipso facto being responsible for causing it? And if so, does Rio’s attempt to excuse its actions from moral blameworthiness succeed?

The attribution of moral blame is not straightforwardly connected to the objective wrongness of an action carried out or caused by an agent. One way to assess the connection in any given case is to consider what conditions would have to be present for an agent to be held morally responsible, that is, to be blameworthy for an action.

It is possible to identify cases in which an agent is blameworthy even if an action is not in itself wrong; or, conversely, in which an agent is not blameworthy even if an action is wrong.

To give a relatively simple example, Jane intends to poison Joe by putting a white substance, which she believes to be arsenic, in his tea. It turns out Jane was mistaken, and the powder was only sugar; nothing happens to Joe so there is no objective moral wrong committed, however Jane’s intention to poison him is blameworthy. Conversely, if Jane accidentally poisons Joe by putting what she believes to be sugar, but what in fact turns out to be arsenic, in his tea, she is not (necessarily) blameworthy though the act of poisoning Joe is itself an objective moral wrong.

Here we can see that the salient elements for establishing blame are intention and knowledge. In the first case, Jane’s intention is morally blameworthy, even if the outcome is neutral. In the second case, though Jane has no intention to harm Joe, further questions arise about how Jane came to make this mistake, and whether she should reasonably have been expected to know that the substance she put in Joe’s tea was in fact arsenic rather than sugar.

In the case of Rio’s destruction of the Juukan Gorge cave we cannot know if it was Rio’s intention to blast the site over the strong objection of the PKKP owners, though some suspect that it was.

For an action to be morally wrong yet the agent not blameworthy, the agent must have an excuse for carrying it out which absolves them of responsibility. As Holly Smith suggests, “Ignorance of the nature of one’s act is the preeminent example of an excuse that forestalls blame.”

The question, then, is epistemic — for an agent to be held responsible, certain epistemic conditions need to be fulfilled. The first condition is that there is an awareness of the action (that the agent knows what she is doing); second the agent has to have been cognizant of the moral significance of the action; third the agent has to have been aware of the consequences of the action.

The first condition is obviously fulfilled, as the action of blasting the site was deliberate. The second condition of cognizance of the moral significance, together with the third condition of cognizance of consequences is, by Rio, under dispute.

In another statement, made subsequent to the leaked tape of his remarks, Salisbury said he had “taken accountability that there clearly was a misunderstanding about the future of the Juukan Gorge.”

It isn’t clear what having ‘taken accountability’ means, but the claim that it was a misunderstanding is an attempt to avoid blameworthiness by claiming that an epistemic condition is not fulfilled.

However, ignorance can itself be morally culpable. If (in the above example) Jane did not read the box when she could have, say, or if she ignored reasonable suspicions that someone had replaced the sugar with arsenic, then her ignorance does not excuse her of blame for poisoning Joe. It must be noted that there is disagreement among philosophers on this point; while some argue that an agent can be blamed for their ignorance, others maintain that, however criticizable it is, ignorance nonetheless exculpates the agent from moral blameworthiness.

On the former view, if Rio is culpable for its ignorance, that ignorance fails to shield the company from moral blame. This, to me, seems correct — and I would argue that even if we take Rio Tinto at its word that it was not aware of the significance of the site and the PKKP people’s wish for it to be preserved, the company has failed in its responsibility to the traditional owners and is indeed blameworthy.

I might add that taking Rio at its word here seems to me exceedingly generous, and I remind the reader that the PKKP people strenuously denied the suggestion that they had not made their wishes known to the company.

So, regarding the dubious distinction between apologizing for the distress caused but not for the action which caused it, Rio Tinto may say it is sorry, but without an accompanying willingness to accept responsibility, its apology is hollow. It appears the company has apologized from an ostensible obligation to do so, but shows little genuine remorse for this act of cultural destruction.

In Canada, Apologizing for Forced Adoption

A school photo from a Canadian residential school.

For decades in the 20th century, the US, Canada, and Australia took thousands of indigenous children from their families and either put them in residential schools or found non-indigenous adoptive parents for them. These practices ended in the 1970s, but only now are governments in Canada and Australia trying to make amends. Former Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard apologized in 2013, while the government of Manitoba apologized for forced adoptions in 2015.  At the beginning of this month, the Canadian government agreed to pay reparations to victims of the “Sixties Scoop”—the forced adoption of indigenous children in the 1960s and 70s. 750 million Canadian dollars will be paid out in legal settlements.  

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