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All about apologies

Politics is about Never Having to Say “I’m Sorry”

One of the oldest ideas in life is that apology is a sign of weakness. Austen, as I’ve argued, uses apology as a form of moral correction for Willoughby–a man she paints as a libertine. One sign of this problem can be found here, in the New York Times. Perhaps some level of our distrust with politicians has to do with their reluctance to apologize.

Measuring Wall Street Apologetics – Regret-o-Meter –


Measuring Wall Street Apologetics – Regret-o-Meter –

Hah! You think ANY of them give a hoot? As the article itself indicates, their compensation remained excellent. They ALL have a responsibility to apologize. Note here the distinction between apologetics–the defence of a position, and apology–the admission of wrongdoing.

Apology and the Bottom Line

According to a report I heard on the radio today Toyota’s battered stock price rose 3% after the apology for failures by Mr. Toyoda. Who says apologies aren’t good for a company’s bottom line?

Blair Aide, Campbell, Unapologetic About Britain’s Iraq Role

LONDON — A close aide to former Prime Minister Tony Blair made a defiantly unrepentant appearance on Tuesday before the panel investigating Britain’s involvement in the Iraq war, saying Britain should “be really proud of the role that we played in changing Iraq from what it was to what it is now becoming.”


To butcher an old quote: Those who deny responsibility for history are condemned to repeat it.

Woods Needs to Put His Face on the Apology


Mr. Rhoden makes one of the most obvious points available about the apology–its face-to-face aspect. Tiger Woods trying to apologize on his website, and Mr. Rhoden's response to this response shows the inadequacy of brief, written apologies.

In Jane Austen's Sense and Sensibility, for Willoughby's apology, Austen makes him traverse many miles of English countryside in a few short hours to stand in person in front of Elinor (not the person who was directly harmed) to deliver his apology. He had earlier tried to write directly to Marianne–the young woman he did harm–but found that this was insufficient. 

Mr. Rhoden shows one other thing–how Mr. Woods wrong appears to extend beyond the merely personal. In theory, only his wife should care about his infidelity. But as we've seen with Mark Sanford in South Carolina and others, the infidelity of public figures is felt to harm society as a whole. Thus, public figures such as Mr. Woods and Mr. Sandford find themselves needing to engage in face-to-face apologies in an attempt (only maybe successful) to rescue their reputations.

Apologies, Social Contracts and “Shared Intentionality”

The shared intentionality lies at the basis of human society, Dr. Tomasello argues. From it flow ideas of norms, of punishing those who violate the norms and of shame and guilt for punishing oneself. Shared intentionality evolved very early in the human lineage, he believes, and its probable purpose was for cooperation in gathering food. Anthropologists report that when men cooperate in hunting, they can take down large game, which single hunters generally cannot do. Chimpanzees gather to hunt colobus monkeys, but Dr. Tomasello argues this is far less of a cooperative endeavor because the participants act on an ad hoc basis and do not really share their catch.


This is a fascinating and important piece of research and it connects with two ideas in my own research on the relationship between apologies and social contracts. "Shared intentionality" and the apparently unique ability of humans to imagine the thoughts and feelings of others explains why we can establish a rational basis for law–we share the idea that certain behaviors that we might do are wrong.

Shared intentionality, therefore, allows for the creation of social contracts and the apologies and acts of forgiveness that regulate them. It also points to the utility of literature as the means whereby this shared intentionality is declared and made real.

Goldman, Blankfein, and the Five Elements of A Successful Apology

After first staunchly defending its outsize profits and pay, and then bristling at calls for restraint in these tough economic times, Goldman is trying a new tack: It is apologizing for past mistakes that led to the financial crisis — and sharing at least some of its riches.


Goldman's apology via Blankfein is a total failure. Not only did Blankfein stupidly assert that his company was “doing God’s work,” but then when it came time to apologize he drew a blank, and failed to perform any of the five elements of a successful apology. (These elements are pretty standard and can be found all over the web or in apology books. What follows is my formulation of them.)

  1. Admission of fault. Instead of saying "We participated in things that were clearly wrong and have reason to regret. We apologize.” He should have personalized this apology. The use of "we" is troubling here. Obviously Goldman is a corporation, but it is precisely because it is a corporation that this element of personalization is so important. Blankfein should have said (even if it was false) "I participated…" This should have been followed up by not "We apologize," which is standard emotionless language, but "I am sorry," which serves to lower him relative to the audience for which he is performing. Note that as far as the public is concerned Blankfein is Goldman. 
  2. Request forgiveness. Blankfein isn't going to like this, but he should next have posed a question/request that asked for forgiveness, something to the effect of "Will you forgive us?"
  3. Explanation of Action. This element is important in the return of goodwill and the rebuilding of an image. This is the place to be honest and go step-by-step, in a logical manner. "We purchased CDO's and believed they were harmless; when things started to fall apart we called a meeting and concluded the situation would soon improve…" (If you get caught lying here, you're nailed.) If you're clever you'll call a reporter and come clean.
  4. Promise not to repeat. What Goldman and the bailed-out banks did was wrong. It was wrong when they did it, and it's still wrong; it will be wrong when the economy recovers and we're all giddy over how much money we can make. Make a promise you won't do it again. Then keep it. You say this ties your hands, limits innovation? If you want to be treated fairly (e.g. be bailed by ordinary people like me—by the way do you have any idea what my tax bill will be this year!) you, especially if you are Goldman, should treat others fairly.
  5. Make a compensating action. These paltry sums allocated to helping small business don't cut it. One key reason is that they were not the parties directly harmed. With the compensation of one Goldman partner you could probably buy homes for a dozen people who lost the roof over their heads from your dishonesty. So do that, for example.

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