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)

If someone wrongs us, we usually think that they owe us an apology. When a person owes us an apology, it seems natural to say it is because they are blameworthy for that wrong. According to Khoury and Matheson (forthcoming), though, blameworthiness may cease if a person’s psychology changes sufficiently – e.g. they go from being a thoroughly bad person to a thoroughly good person. If continued blameworthiness is necessary for owing an apology, then those who cease to be blameworthy cease to owe that apology. However, this view faces a troubling objection. Suppose a person commits an atrocity, never apologies, but then goes through a temporally incremental but overall dramatic change of character. It seems counterintuitive that the person doesn’t owe an apology, even if they have changed significantly. If owing an apology presupposes blameworthiness, then it seems that blameworthiness for atrocities may never cease. In this paper, I argue that continuing to owe an apology does not presupposes continued blameworthiness. In doing so, I clarify the nature of apology, what it means to “owe” an apology, and the conditions on becoming and remaining blameworthy. I emphasise that just because it is conceptually possible for a person to cease being blameworthy for an atrocity does not mean anyone actually does cease being blameworthy for such acts.


“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 chapter sets out to answer two questions. First, why do corrective duties follow from wrongdoing? Although it is widely agreed that they do, we also need to know why they take the form of compensation. This question concerns the forward-looking direction of influence between wrongs and correction, the way that wrongdoing shapes our corrective duties. The second question concerns the less frequently discussed backward-looking direction of influence, the way corrective actions affect wrongdoing, and specifically the possibility that corrective responses can make otherwise wrongful acts permissible. To address these questions, I draw a distinction between two types of corrective action: negating and counterbalancing. I argue that the distinction explains the widely held intuition that corrective actions are generated by wrongdoing. It also explains why some corrective actions are usually preferable to others. Negating reduces interference in the victim’s life in a way that counterbalancing does not, so negation has priority over counterbalancing, all else being equal. Second, the distinction allows us to explain when and why corrective action affects permissibility.


Authority, Accountability, and Reparations

Jennifer Page (Zurich)

When a small number of government officials commit acts of wrongdoing in blatant violation of state policies, is the state responsible? What about when one government official acting on her own does so? This paper conceptualizes individuals seeking redress from the state for wrongdoing by state officials within a contractualist framework, and gives an account of when and why the state bears responsibility. When state officials act in their official capacity, the authority they wield is not theirs; they are agents acting on behalf of a principal, the state. Accordingly, when state authority is used in the service of wrongdoing—even if it is abused—the state owes it to claimants to be accountable to them. This account of state responsibility, the State Authority Thesis, is defended against alternative accounts. Implications for law, and the special responsibilities of legislators to hear and respond to reparations claims, are also considered.


“Should Rights Infringers Pay Compensation?”

Lisa Hecht (Stockholm)

In this paper, I discuss the grounds on which a rights infringer could incur compensatory obligations to the victim of an infringement. From Feinberg’s classic cabin case we learn that the victim is owed compensation and the rights infringer is the most plausible candidate to pay compensation. However, little has been said as to what the grounds for compensation are. I discuss two possible grounds for assigning compensatory obligations to the infringer, namely the Responsibility Principle (RP) and what I call the Morally Tainted Entitlements Principle (MTEP).

I explain how the MTEP is different from the familiar Beneficiary Pays Principle which we find in the literature on benefiting from injustice and which might at first glance look like a promising principle to apply in infringement cases. The MTEP explains why beneficiaries of infringements should pay compensation to the victim. I further argue that infringers do not owe compensation on ground of the Responsibility Principle.

Thus, being a beneficiary, but not being responsible, can ground an infringer’s compensatory obligations. With this clarification, we can explain why infringers sometimes owe compensation and sometimes not. Only infringers who are also beneficiaries of the infringement owe compensation.


“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.