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Daniel Coren

John, this is a great question about which I’ve not thought a ton, so please accept my apologies if my suggestions seem (as they are) underdeveloped (and if they use less Latin [and no Greek]).

I see two ways to go here, a narrow way and a broad way, depending on how apologies and acceptances are understood.

Broad way: As the word “sorry” is used, it’s not just agents who apologize. Often people apologize for another’s pain at an event. When people say “I’m sorry for your loss”, for instance, they almost never mean they are responsible for the event in question. What they are saying is something like, “I see your pain”. That’s my take, anyway. And if that’s right, then accepting the apology is just a kind of gratitude, I think: “Thanks for seeing my pain.” But are such things really apologies and acceptances of apologies?

Narrow way: Apologies can only be made by someone (at least partially) responsible for the pain or problem for which the apology is made. Then “Thanks for seeing my pain” seems too weak to capture acceptance. For the apology seems to express not just seeing another’s pain but also regret at what was done: “I see your pain and I wish I hadn’t (at least partially) caused it”. Perhaps the acceptance becomes something more like, “I see that you’re pained at my pain, and that you regret what you did”. Unlike the broad case, that’s not (necessarily) gratitude-involving. Nor is it constitutive of forgiveness -- I think you mentioned that in your post. I think it is just an expression of acknowledgment of the agent's (1) relevant regret and (2) acknowledgment of pain caused by the agent.

A further thought: there are not just acceptances of apologies. There are also conditional acceptances, and maybe even revise-and-resubmits (and, of course, rejections, as you nicely pointed out in your post). If an apology is demonstrated and/or expressed (I take it apologies are not merely or even necessarily verbal) by S1 in a way deemed unsatisfactory by the person to whom the apology is directed (S2), then S2 might reject the apology. Or S2 might ask S1 to reconsider how they apologized, the way they framed the issue, etc. – a revise-and-resubmit. Or S2 might say they will accept S1’s apology if S1 helps to repair the problem S1 created (or do/say something else that shows real sincerity) – a conditional acceptance. There can be varying degrees of R&Rs for apologies, too, I take it, fitting degrees to which S1’s apology fails to meet the standard set by S2.

If S2 can argue that what S1 intended as an apology was not really an apology, there's also the question of whether S2 can accept what S2 believes, but in fact was not, S1's speech/act expressing an apology. Acceptance cannot occur in such cases, right?

Those are some of my inchoate thoughts, anyway! Thanks for your fascinating post.


John Fischer

Thanks Daniel for your thoughtful suggestions.

Also, here's a link to officer Michael Dunn, who acknowledges but does not (yet) accept Stephen Ayers' apology. Note tha Dunn connects accepting and apology closely with forgiveness. Perhaps his as-yet lack of forgiveness explains why he doesn't (yet) accept the apology? I do however think that simply accepting (and not just acknowledging) an apology does not imply forgiveness.

I think there's a middle ground between recognizing an apology and forgiveness. It is plausible that this middle ground is "accepting an apology." But how to characterize it?

John Fischer

Here's another link that might be of interest, if anyone's out there reading!! It reports Pope Francis's apology to the Canadian indigenous people. Many have had difficulties accepting this apology:

Randolph Clarke

How about something in the neighborhood of: I acknowledge your contrition and count it as paying some of the debt you incurred with your offense? That would seem to allow that one continues to blame the offender.

Daniel Coren

That suggestion seems plausible to me. Is the damage to the relationship part of the debt incurred? Is relationship-repair also required for apology-acceptance, in contrast with acknowledgment?

Or is repair reserved for forgiveness?

Michelle Ciurria

Alice MacLachlan (2013) says that an apology should do, at least, the following three things: (i) identify the wrong, the wrongdoer, and the victim; (ii) disavow the act as wrongful/take responsibility; and (iii) express a commitment to some form of repair. An apology that falls short on any of these criteria is prima facie inadequate.

But MacLachlan also recognises that structural inequalities can affect the acceptability and credibility of an apology. Apologies, she notes, “take place in social spaces, marked by various asymmetries of social and political power, and thus vary widely in their expressions of power” (2013b: 11). Apologies can be used strategically to silence an oppressed person or group, burnish an oppressor’s reputation, facilitate reconciliation without remediation, and accomplish other nefarious ends. Apologies are also perceived differently depending on the social identities of the apologiser(s) and the recipient(s). These contextual factors are all relevant to the acceptability of an apology. An adequate apology should not only meet conditions (i)-(iii), but should disrupt inequalities of power, not reinforce them. (You will see similarities here between MacLachlan’s contextual approach and my own in “An Intersectional Feminist Theory of Moral Responsibility.” Her view, like mine, is what I would describe as ameliorative).

MacLachlan, A. (2013). Government apologies to indigenous peoples. In Justice, Responsibility and Reconciliation in the Wake of Conflict (pp. 183-203). Springer, Dordrecht.
MacLachlan, A. (2013b). Gender and public apology. Transitional Justice Review, 1(2), 126-147.

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