Yesterday, I wrote on the components of a proper apology.
In writing that essay, I assumed a case in which an apology is actually owed. The second and third component of a proper apology requires that the agent (2) specify what he or she did that was wrong, and (3) explain why it is wrong.
Yet, often, people are called on to apologize when they have done nothing wrong.
In some cases, it will be necessary to comply with this demand. However, this is true in the same way that it may be necessary to turn over one's wallet to a thug with a gun who might otherwise do worse harm if one did not obey.
The scope of this blog is not concerned with the practical matters of going along with the demands of evil people with power. This blog is about ethics - right and wrong. In this case, it is about the relationship between the concepts relevant to a proper apology and the more general concepts of justice – concepts that people in some parts of the world obviously do not understand.
It is legitimate to demand an apology in a case where an agent has done something wrong - that the agent recognizes was wrong - and that the agent truly cares to make amends for and to prevent in the future.
These conditions also roughly describe a case in which it is permissible to harm someone as punishment for a crime. First, they must have done a crime. Second, one must be able to describe the reasons for which punishment is justified.
The range of cases in which an apology is appropriate is substantially the same as the range of cases in which the concept of justice is applicable. An apology is often appropriate in cases when it may be appropriate to condemn and, in severe cases, to punish an agent.
I can illustrate some of the concepts and relationships that I am referring to here by pointing to a group of tribal barbarians living Afghanistan and Pakistan who have demonstrated themselves to be masters of incoherence and injustice - known as the Taliban.
This is a hypothetical case. I do not know the actual motivation for the American soldier in this case. However, neither does the Taliban. It does not seem to matter to them. As a result, examining the case in light of this hypothetical motivation makes sense.
An American soldier sneaks out of camp, kills 16 Afghans, then returns to camp and surrenders to authorities. The Taliban, then, demand revenge against all Americans.
A proper understanding of justice would tell you that the guilty should be punished and the innocent should be left alone. However, these moral Neanderthals seem to think nothing of killing innocent people - rationalizing varnishing their moral crimes with the word "justice" (because "murderer" - though it would be more honest - carries something of a social stigma).
The person who it would be appropriate to punish is one who is in a position where they owe an apology. This means that the person is one for whom it is possible (rather they do so or not) to state that an action that they did that was wrong, and an explanation for why it is wrong.
However, the Taliban are not interested in confining their violence to the guilty. By their statements, they seem willing to kill just about anybody. Personal guilt or responsibility are irrelevant - or are assumed in spite of the fact that those who are to be killed performed no action for which an apology would otherwise be due.
In fact, these Taliban have proven themselves morally worse than the soldier that they condemn.
For the sake of illustrating a point, let us assume that the soldier thought he had the right to go out and kill innocent people - including children - who are not guilty of any wrongdoing. He may have acted to punish them because some other Afghans killed a friend of his.
Even where this is the case, this soldier still recognized that his actions were one that would require that he sneak out of his camp, and one in which he would have to surrender to authorities to answer for on his return. At least he recognized that his culture was one that condemned the killing of innocent people who had nothing to do with whomever might have caused his grief.
Whereas, in the case of the Taliban, we have a group of people who condemn this soldier for his actions – yet proudly support and defend the principle that one may go out and kill innocent people in response to some (perceived) crime. They condemn the person, while they praise and threaten to practice the principle that, in this case, the soldier may well have acted on.
In the case of the mass murderer - the American soldier - we fully recognize the need to confine and punish such a person.
Well, first we recognize that it is wrong to do harm to innocent people, which is why we require that his guilt must be proved beyond a reasonable doubt. These safeguards for protecting the innocent appear to be one of the principles of civilized society that the Taliban is having a hard time grasping.
However, once it has been determined that a person is guilty, then we recognize the right and the need to confine such a person, to condemn him, and to punish him - as a way of promoting an aversion to such actions in others. These are a part of the way that civilized society maintains itself.
Now, consider this: If we have good reason to confine, condemn, and punish the American mass murderer, what does this imply about the attitudes we should have towards Taliban leaders whose attitudes towards justice are actually worse than those of the soldier who committed this crime. What should we do about Taliban leaders who promise to do the very types of actions that, in the case of the soldier, we take to provide justification for condemnation, confinement, and punishment?
Ultimately, the pre-moral culture of the Taliban is one in which they simply are not given an understanding of the fundamental rules of justice, and where reason must be an utterly foreign concept.
I have mentioned my support for the Reason Rally. I am hoping that it will serve as a tool for saving lives and reducing suffering. One of the ways that I hope that it will do this is to organize people into providing an answer and promoting alternatives to the hypocritical, violent, revenge-driven murder of innocents that seems “justified” in certain primitive cultures.
We cannot have peace where mass murderers such as this American soldier go free and unchallenged. Things are worse when whole tribes proudly, incoherently, and hypocritically boast that they embrace principles that would support the very types of actions that this soldier performed.
You cannot have peace - and you cannot maintain a civilized society - where that society is filled with people who can so easily talk about killing innocent people. There will always be unnecessary death and suffering so long as those types of ideas go unchallenged and unanswered. One of the outcomes of the Reason Rally, I would hope, is the beginnings of an organization that will seek to find ways to end that suffering.
Of course, that answer would have to be consistent with the principles described here - the very principles that the Taliban leadership apparently fails to comprehend. This is that a person is to be assumed innocent until proven guilty and that guilt requires that some action has been performed - a type of action for which a proper apology would be possible even if it is not actually given.
Where these principles are in place and enforced, civilized society is a possibility.