Workshop Abstracts: Apology and Compensation

“How Saying Sorry Can Restore Relationships After Wrongdoing: Is Apology a Normative Power?”

Christopher Bennett (Sheffield)

Apology has an effect in human life because it has the potential to bring about changes in relationships in the aftermath of wrongdoing – in particular it can be said to have a role in helping to ‘restore’ relationships or to bring about reconciliation, or at least to make such things possible. But how should we understand these changes? We can distinguish accounts of apology that treat these changes as wholly psychological – for instance that apology creates a willingness for parties to work together again – from accounts that treat these changes as primarily normative, and which see the psychological changes brought about by apology as at least sometimes deriving from a recognition of the new normative situation that exists between the parties. I will argue that a full understanding of the role of apology in social life requires an understanding of its capacity to bring about changes in the normative relationship between the affected parties. But if this is the right way to understand apology, it raises a further question: how should we understand this capacity that apology has to change the normative relationship between parties? In seeking an answer to this further question we will start with the idea that apology has a role in altering obligations that were incurred by wrongdoing. But what precisely does this involve? I will consider two main possibilities. Firstly, that an apology changes the normative situation and restores a kind of equilibrium between the parties because it involves discharging obligations incurred by the wrongdoing, where these obligations specifically consist in an obligation to apologise. And secondly that apology is a normative power like consent or promise, one that involves the power to alter obligations incurred by wrongdoing by means of prescribed actions carried out at will. The discussion will concentrate on examining what can be said for this second possibility


“Ambivalence and Ambiguity in Apologies”

Elinor Mason (Edinburgh)

Many, if not most apologies are fake, insincere or lame in some way. This is partly because we are morally flawed. However, apologies are genuinely hard, and it is easy to make mistakes about what is required. I argue that apology is not a first order moral duty, and it is not primarily about culpability. Rather, it is a response to wrongdoing (including inadvertent wrongdoing) that is appropriate as part of particular relationships, and that different relationships require very different apologies. The apology is an attempt to restore what was broken in the relationship. This is attempted by offering something, and what it is appropriate to offer varies according to the relationship. Likewise, what a sincere apologiser is committed to varies with context.

Sometimes, apology is a way of accepting liability. That is all that is required in many impersonal relationships – the offer is compensation, and the hope is to transactionally restore a working relationship. Sometimes compensation is not applicable, but apology indicates respect and asks for recognition of that respect, hence restoring a sort of social equality. Sometimes apology is more emotional, involving an offer of love, and the hope of restoring something (not always the full relationship) that was damaged by the wrong. It is easy to muddle these various things up, as a public apology that offers respect or love when it should offer compensation, or a private apology that offers compensation when it should offer love.


“Apologising for Atrocities”

Benjamin Matheson (Stockholm)

Rationally accepting an apology changes the normative landscape. If a person wrongs us but then apologises and we rationally accept that apology, then their apology may lead to forgiveness. By forgiving that person, we discharge certain obligations, expectations, and reasons that person may have had. But are some actions so bad that one may never rationally accept an apology for such an action? If some actions are unforgiveable, then there are actions for which apologies may be offered but for which apologies may never be rationally accepted. A leading candidate for an unforgiveable action is an atrocity, such as the many horrors that constitute The Holocaust. Even if atrocities are forgivable by a route that does not involve apology, it remains open that an apology for an atrocity may be such that it can never rationally be accepted. In this paper, I investigate whether it is ever rational to accept an apology for an atrocity. I argue that one may rationally accept an apology for an atrocity, but the apology will typically not take the form of an utterance such as “I’m sorry”. Rather, apologies for atrocities will typically involve actions rather than words. On the account of apology that I offer, rational acceptance of apology for A-ing requires identifying that a person instantiates the property of being apologetic for A-ing. While I argue that this property is multiply realisably, crucial to one realisation base of this property is regretting A-ing and taking responsibility for A-ing. And I argue that actions will typically be better evidence of that property than words.


“National Apology”

Per-Erik Milam (Twente)

Many nations have perpetrated grave injustices against foreign peoples, internal minority populations, and other groups. Among the injustices attributable to existing nations are genocide, conquest, hostile occupation, religious persecution, material exploitation, discrimination, and various forms of economic and political interference. Fortunately, because they persist with a sufficiently stable political structure, many national governments are in a position to take reparative measures for their past misconduct. Among the actions available to them is the practice of political apology. In this paper, I argue that governments should institute a regular practice of national apology. In particular, I suggest that some nations should designate an annual day of apology in which their head of state publicly apologises for an instance of past misconduct by the state.

The target of this demand is states that i) have a history of frequent wrongdoing, ii) have been sufficiently continuous over that history, iii) are stable and well-governed enough that they can make good on their apologies, and iv) demonstrate commitment to the moral and legal principles that would motivate such apologies and make them meaningful. The potential benefits of effective political apology have been recognised both by governments and political theorists. I argue that regularity can enhance the value of a political apology in four ways. First, it could help to develop and maintain apology as a norm of public discourse—i.e. as one of the ways in which the society expresses its political will. Second, because an apology requires critical reflection on the nation’s history, regular apologies could combat problematic ideological trends and the uncritical valorisation of national heroes, documents, and events. Third, in response to the challenge of coordinating an apology and the concrete demonstration of its commitment, a practice of national apology could create an annual policy opportunity and a deadline for implementing it. Finally, this practice could make it easier for political apologies to perform the transformative role that some have identified as a key benefit (Celermajer 2009, Mihai 2013, MacLachlan 2014).


“Wrongdoing and Corrective Action”

Adam Slavny (Warwick) 

This paper investigates the relationship between corrective duties and wrongdoing. It seeks to address a number of questions, including (1) what kind of corrective actions are prescribed by corrective duties and why?; (2) What types of corrective action are dependent on prior wrongdoing?; and (3) what implications do the corrective actions available ex post have for moral permissibly? I argue that the corrective duty that most closely resembles the prior duty to avoid harm is the requirement to negate some detrimental effect. Negating can be contrasted with counterbalancing: the latter makes the victim equally well off whilst the former makes the victim identically well off. The victim’s interest in being made identically well off means that the possibility of negating rather than counterbalancing has implications of moral permissibly ex ante. Finally, the duty to apologise can be seen as corrective as one of its important functions is to provide the victim with an opportunity for forgiveness or reconciliation, in which she has a weighty interest. The paper considers which of this range of corrective actions are dependent on prior wrongdoing and which can exist independently. Answering this question will help us understand the centrality of wrongdoing to corrective duties.


“Democratic Theory Errs in Neglecting Reparations—And How”

Jennifer Page (Zurich)

Reparations and apologies are often considered a central component of transitional justice. For a successful regime change to democracy, it is first necessary to “close the books” by redressing past atrocities. However, within democratic societies, there are distinct reasons for reparations and apologies. Governments sometimes enact unjust laws, and in doing so, abuse their political authority. In tackling the problem of unjust laws, democratic theory has produced a rich tradition of theorizing civil disobedience. But, even though resisting an unjust law may result in getting the law overturned, this itself does not address the identifiable harms to individuals or groups caused by the law during its tenure. Those who have been harmed may seek recourse in the courts, but in common law countries, the state is not civilly liable due to sovereign immunity—as captured in the maxim, “the King can do no wrong,” this is the principle that the government cannot be sued without its consent. Herein lies the problem that democratic theory frequently neglects: In a deep sense, the state is unaccountable for injustice that takes place from behind the shield of law.

Reparative justice—viz., voluntarily paying reparations and apologizing to those harmed by unjust state policies and practices—responds to this lacuna in democratic theory. Reparations and apologies do not solve the problem of the state’s non-accountability for injustice per se, for at the root of the matter is the fundamental nature of sovereignty. Nevertheless, as I argue, reparative justice is an appropriate democratic response when political subjects call state power to account.


“Compensating Justified Harm to the Innocent”

Lisa Hecht (Stockholm)

The paper explores how compensation claims of innocent victims of justified harm and victims of rights violations compare. I defend the Parity View according to which for equal harm victims of violations and of justified harm have equally strong and urgent claims to compensation. The rival is the Priority of Violations View which holds that for equal harm the compensation claim of violation victims is stronger than of victims of justified harm. I defend the Parity View against two challenges, the Moral Residue Challenge and the Strict Liability Challenge. Answering the challenges does not yet vindicate the Parity View. Cecile Fabre presented a defence of the Priority View that would escape my rejoinders to the challenges. I argue that the principle to which she appeals only contingently supports her position. Thus, we still lack a strong defence of the Priority View and have reason to endorse the Parity View.


“Liability and the Grounds of Reparations”

Jimmy Goodrich (Rutgers/Stockholm) 

What’s the connection between arguments for reparations and theories of liability to compensate? In this essay, I argue that most standard theories of liability to compensate do not recommend reparations. If this is right, then we must do one of three things: (1) give up on a “robust” theory of reparations, (2) find a new theory of liability, or (3) dispense with the idea that theories of reparations and theories of liability to compensate are importantly connected. Insofar as one is attracted to the theoretical framework that’s been developed by liability theorists, I don’t think (3) is a particularly attractive option. To pursue strategy (1) is something like giving up. Perhaps that’s what we must do at the end of the day, but I hope not. I’m therefore most inclined to pursue strategy (2). In that spirit, I’ll outline an account of liability to compensate which may support a “robust” theory of reparations. I’ll then consider some of its flaws. My pursuit of (2) will be inconclusive, but hopeful.