Wednesday, June 15, 2005
On this day:

On Apologies

In response to a post yesterday, in which I called the Senate apology for failing to pass anti-lynching laws "futile," a reader commented: "I'm glad to see the Senate do this. It shows remorse for a time when their colleagues lacked the courage to do it."

This raises a pretty interesting ethical topic. In the event that a moral wrong has been done by one individual or group to another, what parties are morally capable of delivering and of accepting an apology?

I wrote my opinion as a comment to the original post (I've added some minor grammatical edits):
While [the Senate] resolution may have been a nice gesture to alleviate some lingering ill feelings from the country's civil rights struggles, I still maintain that the apology was misguided.

It seems to me that for an apology to be credible, it must be issued by the person or persons responsible for the original grievance. Following that assumption, members of the U.S. Senate today are not qualified to speak for their predecessors of 50-100 years ago. For them to pretend to do so is only to invite cynicism.

There are obvious exceptions to [such a] "rule of apologies." The most obvious [would] apply to children and others who can't be held entirely responsible for their own actions. Arguments can and have been made that U.S. Senators have been known to act like imbeciles on occasion, but I don't think anyone would say that they shouldn't be held responsible for their own actions, for good or bad. Thus, the "kid and idiot" exception doesn't apply. general, I think that collective apologies for bygone failures are pointless. We can't speak for those who came before us. Their words and actions [can] speak only through the pages of history. We can praise them or deplore them, as the case may be, but we do not have the moral capacity to speak for them. To do [so] does little good, and may even do some harm by undermining traditional rules of conduct regarding apologies, e.g. by confusing the issue of who is morally capable of either delivering or accepting them.
I'd be interested to hear what others think about this. Feel free to comment.