Apologising for the Wrong Thing

A little addendum to yesterday’s monster post.

Ivan Oransky reports that, before deleting her Twitter account, Hope Amantine had apparently also said in a tweet that the story was “not meant to offend”.  I’ve noticed that a lot recently: a person does something wrong, is publicly called out for it, and apologises for any offence caused.  Greenpeace apologised for any offence caused when they trampled over the Nazca lines.  Gary Barlow apologised for any offence caused by the stories about his tax-dodging.  (Not for offence caused by tax dodging, but for offence caused by the world having come to know of it, natch.)

I hate it when people say that.

It reduces moral discourse to one of whether or not Smith was sufficiently courteous.  Moral discourse is richer than that.  Hell, moral discourse has got almost nothing to do with that.

More, I doubt anyone was offended in any of those cases.  That wasn’t the problem.  Lying was; trampling humanity’s patrimony was; dodging tax was.  Apologising for causing offence is a non-apology, and leaves the real moral problem utterly unremarked.

I just wanted to get that off my chest.  As you were.

  • Vikas Jagwani

    I am currently take a
    communication and ethics class right now and we were asked to comment on a blog
    post and share our views. According to some of the recent reading I have done,
    this looks like a Utilitarian perspective. Individuals tend to usually apologize
    for the wrong things in the media world, so that their fans or their friends
    can think of them making a small mistake and forgiving them. Utilitarianism is
    an ethical standard which holds that “actions are right in proportion as
    they tend to promote happiness, wrong as they tend to produce the reverse of
    happiness.” (P. 87) so whenever we are faced with a moral dilemma, we are
    obligated to choose the course of action that will allow us to maximize
    happiness and maximize unhappiness. When applied to communication, the central
    question posted by a utilitarian ethic would be this: In comparison to
    alternatives, will a specific communication act (or strategy) be productive of
    more happiness than unhappiness for all people affected by the act or
    strategy?. Lying is likely to be wrong not because of something inherent within
    the act itself but because the act is likely to produce harmful consequences
    for the people involved.

    R. L., Valde, K. S., & Whedbee, K. E. (2008). Ethics in human communication
    (P. 87). Long Grove, Ill: Waveland Press.


    • Well, possibly. It might be that a utilitarian calculus has been done, and a decision made that an apology for a would be more optimific than an apology for b, even though it’s b that caused the moral problem.

      But I doubt it. If this were so, then it could be that people ought sometimes to apologise when nothing at all has been done, or even when the right thing has been done. That seems to be either mistaken, or to misunderstand what apologies are about.

      I suspect, rather, that it’s a combination of dimwittedness and – in a corporate setting – PR. It’s actually got the square root of sod all to do with morality.