Friday, March 28, 2008

Nick Smith's "I Was Wrong"

Nick Smith is Assistant Professor of Philosophy at the University of New Hampshire.

He applied the "Page 99 Test" to his new book, I Was Wrong: The Meanings of Apologies, and reported the following:

On page 99 I’m in the thicket of discussing the sorts of emotions appropriate to apologies. Let me put that in context, and apply it to Elliot Spitzer’s recent apology.

I devoted much of the book to the inexact science of parsing the distinct spheres of meaning from each other. I began by considering how an apology can explain the history of an injury. Contested facts often lie at the heart of moral conflicts, and the offender’s explanation of the nature of her wrongdoing can in certain circumstances be the most significant and hardest-earned aspect of an apology. I then braved the knotty question of the relation between apologies and responsibilities. I subdivided this into concerns regarding 1) the distinction between accepting blame and expressing sympathy, as we often find in the form of “I am sorry that X happened to you”; 2) the general relationship between causation and moral responsibility; 3) the status of accidents and surprisingly common denials of intent in the form of “I didn’t mean to X”; and 4) the problem of standing, where one person apologizes for another. I then noted the significance of identifying each moral wrong in the act to be apologized for, which entails both explicitly naming the offense as a blameworthy violation of a moral value and naming each violation rather than covering over a host of wrongs with an undifferentiated and generic statement of contrition. In addition, a regretful offender believes her actions were wrong and she would not undertake them again if confronted with similar circumstances and temptations. I then considered the various ways in which the performance of the apology can alter meaning. The problems of reform and reparation presented numerous points of discussion, as did questions regarding the emotions and intentions of the apologizer. Collective apologies, such as those from corporations or nations, compound these issues.

Spitzer helped himself to various “emotional amplifiers” in his recent statements, indicating that he is “deeply sorry” and that he “sincerely apologizes.” I discuss the emotional components of apologies in some detail on page 99, but we can appreciate the difficulty of determining whether Spitzer has experienced emotions of contrition with sufficient intensity. His use of “deeply sorry” and “sincerely apologize” does little to provide us with a window unto his emotional and mental states. I generally resist the idea that apologetic emotions are retributive in nature—the apologizer deserves to suffer acute humiliation—but his remarks about “rising every time we fall” seemed so self-assured that they risked appearing to minimize the seriousness of offense. At times his statements sounded like a celebration of a hard fought campaign upon honorably conceding to a formidable foe. So page 99 is pretty useful.

Read an excerpt from I Was Wrong, and learn more about the book from the Cambridge University Press website.

Visit Nick Smith's faculty webpage and personal website.

--Marshal Zeringue