Tuesday, August 21, 2012

A Desirism Account of an Apology

I have defended desirism by arguing that it provides the best accounts of the practice of morality.

By this, I do not mean our moral intuitions such as the wrongness of slavery or the right of women to vote. I an referring to elements such as the role of praise and condemnation, the excuse, "ought" implies "can", and the criteria for culpability.

If I had used the moral intuitions test - the traditional test for moral theories - and I was writing 250 years ago, I would have had to show how slavery was permissible and women should not be allowed to vote. Our moral sentiments change over time (which, itself, is something that desirism handles well since moral sentiments are the products of malleable desires).

On the other hand, the elements of praise, blame, culpability, excuse, and the like have been a part of morality since our animal ancestors started the practice. They are how we identify a set of behavior as "morality". Consequently, an examination of these features will likely give us a more solid foundation for a theory that claims to be about morality.

The specific practice I will discuss today is that of the apology.

Desirism holds that morality is directly concerned with using social tools such as praise and condemnation to promote desires that tend to objectively satisfy other desires and inhibit desires that tend to thwart other desires. A right action is the action that a person with good desires (and lacking bad desires) would perform. A prohibited action is an action that a person with good desires would not perform.

In desirism terms, an apology is a statement whereby an agent acknowledges that he acted in a way that a person with good desires would not act. This, then, implies that the desires of the agent himself deviate from the desires that a good person would have - consequently, "I am a bad person (or, at least, not as good as I should be)." It acknowledges that others have good reason to condemn such a person in order to promote better desires in the community as a whole. In fact, the agent (in all probability) has reason to condemn himself as a way of promoting better desires in the community as a whole. The agent further acknowledges that some sort of punishment may be appropriate, and will often decide to punish himself by offering to "make it up to" the victim or to offer penance in some way.

None of us are perfect. We all have some flaws that will cause us at time to act in ways other than a good person would act. I would invite the reader to consider such a case in his or her own life in this discussion and, when done reading, perhaps make a sincere apology to somebody. it would also explain why, in some cases, apologizing is so difficult.

The elements of an apology are as follows:

(1) The apology itself.

A sincere apology begins with the apology itself. "I am truly sorry." To count as a sincere apology, the statement, "I am truly sorry" must be a true statement. The elements that would make this claim true are discussed below.

(2) A statement of personal responsibility. where the agent describes exactly what he or she did wrong.

Example: "I should have stayed and helped you get ready for the guests rather than run off to play golf." or "I should not have taken the car without permission, " or "I should not have taken the last piece of cake."

Often, this does not have to be explicitly stated. The apology itself takes place in a context where everybody involved know what is under discussion. Yet, where there is any room for doubt, it may be useful in making an apology to state exactly what you did that a good person would not have done - in order to remove all confusion.

Some people are tempted to follow this up the apology with a "but" clause.

"I am sorry for what I did, but . . . "

In most cases, as soon as the agent says "but" their statement quits being an apology and instead becomes an excuse. The clause that follows the "but" is an explanation as to why the act was not wrong and why people have no legitimate reason to condemn those who performed that type of act.

There is one notable exception to this - a type of case where an apology and an excuse fit together, which desirism can handle quite well. This is the case of a "greater good" apology.

The "greater good" excuse is one in which one admits performing an act that would normally warrant condemnation, and that agents ought to have an aversion to performing. An example of a "greater good" is a case where a parent and child are out in the country. The child is stung by a bee and develops an allergic reaction. The parent's car will not start, but a car nearby has the keys in the ignition. Therefore, the parent takes the car and delivers the child to a hospital.

The agent in this case owes the owner of the car an apology. "I am really sorry that I you’re your car, but I had to get my child to the hospital. It was an emergency."

The apology is owed because the people generally have many and strong reasons to promote an aversion to taking the property of others without consent. To take the car, the agent would have had to overcome this aversion. There is a reason for this aversion - even though it can sometimes be overridden by a great concern - is to motivate the agent to pursue options other than taking property without consent. It motivates the agent to avoid being in a situation where he may need to take the property of another and to look for options other than taking the property of another.

The apology admits in this case that there is a legitimate need for an aversion to taking the property of others and that the agent even had such an aversion. It says, "Do not let this special circumstance weaken the overall aversion - which we still have many and strong reasons to promote."

Yet, in most cases, when an agent uses the word "but" after an apology they are not actually apologizing at all. They are giving an excuse.

Another form of non-apology is where the agent does not admit to something he or she has done that an agent with good desires would not have done. Often, this type of "apology" is actually an insult. "I am sorry that you are too stupid to understand what I really meant and were thereby insulted by what I said," or, what amounts to the same thing, "I am sorry you were offended."

(3) An explanation as to why the action was wrong - demonstrating that the agent understands the nature of their mistake.

It often helps, in an apology, if the person making the apology not only identifies exactly what she did that was wrong, but why it was wrong.

An agent who does explain exactly why the act she did is worthy of condemnation may just be going through the motions. She does not believe her act was wrong, she is not truly sorry, but she hopes that an apology will put an end to at least some of the criticism and condemnation.

The best way to demonstrate tht one actually does understand the reason for the condemnation and for the apology is to explain it.

"I am sorry that I was late. You need to know that you can rely on me to be there when I said I would, and I let you down. I don't want you to always be worrying whether I will be good to my word. I was wrong. I'm sorry. It'll never happen again."

(4) A statement of the steps that will be taken to prevent similar events in the future.

When a person confesses to doing something that a person with good desires would not have done, a person confesses to having desires that are different from those that a good person would have.

This means that he is at risk of performing similar actions in the future.

Desires cannot be switched on or off at will. A person cannot simply decide that, "Today, I am going to start to like opera" or "Today I will begin preferring the taste of broccoli over the taste of chocolate." Likes and dislikes do not emerge in this way.

However, the person making an apology will be expected to take steps to prevent performing similar acts in the future.

One way that an agent can do this is by destroying opportunities to engage in the types of behavior that are being condemned. For example, a person who is guilty of overspending the household income can adopt the rule, "I will leave the credit card at home unless I need it for a specific purchase, in which case I will only purchase the things I have put on a list."

It is a well-known fact about human psychology that some desires become stronger as their satisfaction becomes more proximate. Odysseus, who knows he will be unable to resist the sirens' song when he hears it, can bind himself to the mast to prevent himself from answering that call.

In many cases, rules become habits and habits become preferences. A person who gets into the habit of waking up at first light might find themselves cultivating an actual aversion to staying in bed after sunup. A person who wears a suit every day to work may put on a suit every day once he retires. Consequently, a person can adopt a rule to act in ways that a person with good desires would act and, over time, actually acquire a proper aversion to deviating from that norm.

(5) A statement about how one intends to make up for the mistake.

Another element common in an apology is an offer to "make it up to" those who were wronged.

An apology is already an admission that others have many and good reasons to condemn or even punish those who perform an act like that the agent performed. It is a small step from here to the decision on the part of the agent to name his own punishment. It could be as minor as "let me buy you a drink," to as major as, "I will do everything in my power to replace your car." It could mean turning oneself in to the authorities and pleading guilty, accepting as legitimate and deserved whatever punishment is handed out.

These types of responses serve a social good. When an agent himself admits that he deserves condemnation and punishment for his actions, this reinforces those attitudes in the community. Their own attitudes will shift somewhat against the attitude that brought upon the deserved punishment. When the agent himself accepts condemnation and punishment, it reinforces the attitude in the community that the type of action deserves condemnation and punishment.


These are the elements of a sincere apology. The agent apologizes, identifies the act that he performed that a person with good desires would not have performed, explains why people generally have many and strong reasons to condemn acts of that type, and accepts the condemnation and, where possible, the punishment.

An apology limits the harm of a wrongful act by compensating the victim and promoting good values (or what the people in a particular place and time take to be good values). It reduces the need to apologies. In fact, reducing the punishment and condemnation for those who apologies acknowledges the fact that the person who admits to the wrong and tries to change it is a better person than the person who denies the wrong and refuses to change. The person who sincerely apologizes actually deserves less condemnation and punishment.

We see in this the way desirism makes sense of the elements of the apology. It is particularly relevant in explaining those cases in which an apology and an excuse may sit side by side. Many other moral theories do not even make an attempt to explain the elements either of the apology or the excuse.

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