There was some news that Kieffe & Sons had apologized for their advertisement in which they told people like me who object to "under God" in the Pledge and "In God We Trust" as the national motto to "sit down and shut up." This caused some bloggers (e.g., PZ Myers of Pharyngula) to prematurely declare victory and to start gloating about our great success.
In fact, there was no apology and, even if there had been, a proper understanding of the moral concepts of apology, excuse, and proportionality would have demonstrated that it was almost as morally outrageous to accept a mere apology in this case.
I want to make some comments on the difference between an apology and an excuse.
An apology says, "What I did was wrong. I recognize this wrong and I recognize that you have good reason to condemn people who do what I did. I deserve your condemnation. Please know that I recognize this fact and will resolve not to be worthy of your condemnation in the future."
An excuse says, "I know that it looks like I did something wrong but, really, it wasn’t my fault. The fates conspired against me. The conclusion, however bad they seem to be, do not justify calling me a bad person. I am really a good person – in spite of appearances."
An example of an excuse is that of a person who runs his car through a crowd of pedestrians. He asserts, "I know this looks bad for me. However, the accident was not my fault. In spite of my efforts to maintain my car, the brakes failed, and that is the reason I hit the pedestrians." This is an excuse. It does not allow us to draw any negative conclusions about the agent.
One of the main properties that distinguish an apology from an excuse is that the admission of wrongdoing implies an obligation to compensate those who were wronged in some way. The person who intentionally (or even negligently) runs his car through a crowd of pedestrians deserves to be punished, and deserves to pay a lot of medical bills (or to have his insurance company do so).
Kieffe & Sons are offering no apology until they admit that they have wronged others and have an obligation to compensate those others for the wrongs done. The wrong in this case is running an advertisement for 90 days that sought to sell hostility towards secularists and atheists.
The proper compensation, in this case, would be to take some action to reverse the harm done. Kieffe & Sons could, perhaps, run another advertisement that explained how many of the truths that we take for granted today were once held by less than 14% percent of the population – from the value of democracy to the right to vote to the wrongness of slavery. In fact, if they want, they can even point out that Christianity itself was once believed by only a handful of people. Clearly it is a bad idea for the majority – simply because they are the majority – to sit down and shut up.
This would demonstrate that Kieffe & Sons are truly sorry for what they have done. However, insofar as they are unwilling to offer any compensation, this is the same as saying that they have done nothing wrong. They may use the word 'apology' – but they are not admitting to any wrongdoing. They are simply using the word as a shield to disarm critics while continuing to insist on the legitimacy of their behavior.
Here is what Rick Kieffe wrote about the advertisement:
Regrettably, the commercial that has prompted the current objection to religious sentiment ("Under God", "In We Trust") was not closely reviewed by our dealership before it went live. The commercial has been replaced.
This is what Kieffe said in a news story about the advertisement:
Rick Kieffe, owner of Kieffe and Sons Ford, said he doesn't regret running the ad, which aired on radio stations in eastern Kern County and the Antelope Valley, but he does apologize for offending anyone.
There is no apology here. Instead, Kieffe has only said, "I am sorry that you overreacted to what I wrote and were therefore offended by something that you had absolutely no right or legitimate reason to be offended by."
Just because an insult contains the words "I am sorry", this does not imply that it is less than anything less than an insult. For world-class bloggers to take this slap in the face and declare victory is embarrassing at best. At worst, it provides people like these with a license to continue to do the same thing.
It certainly is convenient for people like Kieffe that they can market hostility on the airwaves for 90 days, then end it all with a backhanded insult that draws a cheerful "Thank you," from the likes of PZ Myers.
This is actually a repeat of the embarrassing behavior that atheists exhibited when Illinois representative Monique Davis insulted atheists (declaring atheism a philosophy of destruction while executing the duties of her office). She ended by calling up the witness she had shouted at and said, "I am sorry I raised my voice. I was in a bad mood." But she said nothing that admitted to the bigoted nature of her comments. Yet, here, too, the atheist community responded by cheerfully saying, "Thank you."
I felt embarrassed for the atheist community as I watched this – as I watched them suffer the insults of a legislator from her chair in the legislature, watch her give such a feeble apology that left her accusation that atheism is a philosophy of destruction entirely intact, and watch the atheist community cheerfully wag its collective tail as if they had somehow been rewarded by this behavior.
In this type of situation, a sincere apology requires a genuine and explicit admission of wrongdoing – a refutation of the claims for which one is being criticized. "I am sorry I raised my voice" and "I am sorry that you had an unjustified overreaction to the truth" does not count as an apology.
An apology will come with an offer to do something to make up for the wrong that was done. The compensation must be proportional to that harm.
If a legislator condemns atheism as a philosophy of destruction while she is sitting in legislative session, then she must at the very least be willing to go onto the floor of the legislature and repudiate her statements saying that they were wrong, that no good person would make such statements, that she deserves our condemnation, and that she will put extra effort into fighting this type of bigotry in the future (preferably announcing some plan to do just that).
If a business spends 90 days promoting hostility towards atheists then he owes 90 days explaining to those same people why his earlier statements were wrong and why no good person would do what he had done.
Anything less than this is not an apology. Anything less than this should be treated as adding one insult onto another.
When (if) we do get a sincere apology that meets these conditions, then at that point it would be appropriate to respond with forgiveness and not to hold grudges. This posting is not a call to establish a permanent blood feud against those who insult atheists and to never find any sort of apology sufficient. This posting says that there are too vices – the vice of too much forgiveness and the vice of too little, and justice requires something that morality requires an apology that is proportional to the wrongs one is apologizing for.
In fact, we can simply assume that the size of the apology is proportional to the size of the wrong that the agent thinks she has inflicted, such that the back-handed insults the atheist community has received in recent events are just another way of saying, "We did no wrong to start with, so we owe you no compensation."