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The Philosophical No. 201 The Philosophical QyarteriY, Vol. 50, 201 Quarterly,Vol. 50, No.

ISSJ/ ISSN 00318094 0oo03-8094

October 2000 October 2000

THE PARADOX THE APOLOGY APOLOGY PARADOX


By JANNA THOMPSON THOMPSON BYJANNA
An outbreak for Bill Clinton has apologized outbreak of apology globe. Bill apology has swept swept the globe. apologized for slavery, British policy policy during Irish potato potato famine. famine . The Blair for for British slavery, Tony Tony Blair during the Irish Canadian government has apologized for breakbreakcommunities for indigenous communities government has apologized to indigenous and to Japanese Canadians for putting their families ing up their families their families for their in Canadians families ing up toJapanese putting internment during World II. The has apologized for its internment camps World War II. Vatican has for its during camps apologized failure to condemn the Nazi treatment treatment of Jews, failure for the Elizabeth for Jews, Queen Elizabeth British of the Maoris. The Japanese government apologized British exploitation has exploitation TheJapanese government apologized to Korean women who were forced prostitution during forced into prostitution World War II, during World and some former former government for officials in South Africa Africa have apologized government officials apologized for their period of apartheid. Australian their behaviour during during the period apartheid. Though Though the Australian Prime Prime Minister Minister has refused refused to apologize past treatment treatment of Aborigines, Aborigines, for past apologize for taken Australians have it to many Australians taken upon themselves make an apology. themselves make many upon apology. But hypocrisy? The does it make make sense sense to say say 'Sorry'? 'Sorry'? Can it be done without hypocrisy? exercise following paradox paradox suggests there is is something wrong with the exercise following suggests that there something wrong for of of apologizing for what our ancestors did, or something wrong ancestors did, apologizing something wrong with common assumptions such apologies. assumptions about such apologies.

I. THE PARADOX PARADOX


We should apologize ancestors did to indigenous for what our ancestors people, or apologize for indigenous people, blacks, or theJews, the Jews, or the Irish, the blacks, Irish, etc. 2. really sorry for the deeds of our ancestors are really 2. If we are ancestors then we regret sorry for regret that they did what they did. did. they they
I. I.

way we This step requires that we understand understand what 'Sorry' step requires 'Sorry' means in the way understand understand it when we apologize for our own actions. actions. We regret apologize for regret the bad deed; is taken taken as as a sign deed; we wish that we had not done it, it, and our apology sign of apology is
? T The of 17lt 77iePhilosophical 2000. Published he Editors Edi tors or Philosophical Q!larltrry, '2000. Published by Blackwell Publishers, Publishers, 108 '4 IJF, IJF, UK, UK , and Oxford 0 and 350 108 Cowley ox4 by Blackwell 350 Cowley Road, Oxrord Qttarterly, Main Street, Malden, MA 0'2148, Main USA. Street, Maiden, 02148, USA.

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being hypocritical. remorse. If we apologize are being remorse, then we are apologize without remorse, hypocritical. place when we are by Even if remorse for deeds done by remorse is out of place are apologizing apologizing for others, regret is appropriate and necessary. others, surely surely regret appropriate necessary. 3. unjust deeds, prefer that ancestors did their unjust deeds, then we prefer 3. If we regret regret that our ancestors they had not been done. they 4. indigenous people, people, ancestors had not done what they 4. But if our ancestors they did to indigenous blacks, theJews, the Jews, the Irish, to the blacks, Irish, then the history history of our country, country, indeed the history from different from history of the world, would have been significantly significantly different probably not exist. what it has been, and we would probably This step step makes makes use of a plausible plausible point point made by by Derek Parfit Parfit about the contingency of persons.! Our actions, and events that influence influence them, the events actions, contingency persons.' determine conditions of life of our offspring, also determine not only the conditions life but also who they only offspring, they are. bring into being being individuals are. Even minor events can bring individuals who would not otherwise people otherwise have existed, after a few few generations existed, and after generations the number of people on such contingencies very large. whose existence depends becomes depends contingencies very large. A major past, like like slavery major historical historical event or institution institution of the past, slavery and the slave trade, the dispossession of indigenous people in Canada, slave trade, the United dispossession indigenous people States Australia, apartheid in South Mrica, the Irish potato famine or States and Australia, Irish Africa, apartheid potato famine the Holocaust, had an effect influpeople. It influeffect on the lives lives oflarge of large numbers numbers of people. and the enced where they they moved, whom they they met, whether they emigrated, they emigrated, as a result, children they It overall pattern of their overall pattern their lives lives - and, had. is as what children result, and, they in the unreasonable to think now alive United not unreasonable think that almost everyone alive everyone Mrica would not be States, Australia, Canada, Britain Britain and South Africa States, Israel, Israel, Australia, here if these events had not happened or practices these happened practices had not existed. Relatively minor historical occurrences, like Australian like the historical Australian and Canadian occurrences, Relatively practice of taking children away from indigenous raising or children families and raising from practice taking indigenous families away educating them special institutions, would not played such a large in have educating large special institutions, played role in determining who exists. Nevertheless since even relatively role exists. Nevertheless relatively minor determining events individuals are brought into being, being, and events can have an effect are brought effect on what individuals for AusAusmagnified over several it would rash for rash this effect is magnified be several generations, generations, tralians and Canadians to assume their coming into existence did not tralians assume that their coming depend upon these policies. these depend upon policies.

that we came 5. Most of us are think it a good are glad thing that glad to be alive. We think good thing is, we prefer prefer the world's being being such that we exist. exist. into existence. existence. That is, 6. This means that we cannot regret practices haphapregret that those deeds or practices pened on which our existence depended, probably depended. pened depended. For if depended, or probably the deeds had not been done then the world would (probably) (probably)have been such that we would not exist. exist.
I

1 D. Parfit, Reasons (Oxford; andPersons Persons Parfit, Reasons and I984), p. 352. 352. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1984),

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JANNA THOMPSON

7. for the wrongs by our 7. Therefore we cannot sincerely sincerely apologize apologize for wrongs done by ancestors, ancestors, and we should should not do so.

II. PROPOSED SOLUTIONS SOLUTIONS TO THE PARADOX PARADOX II. PROPOSED Some may may think think that the obvious last step, obvious solution solution is to endorse endorse the last step, and thus reject reject the first: for the deeds of our ancestors. first: we should should not apologize ancestors. thus apologize for But this us are fact is is that many are this suggestion attractive. The fact many of us suggestion is not very very attractive. sorry for unjust deeds of our ancestors. Being sorry is a very natural ancestors. is natural for the Being very unjust sorry sorry harm they they did. responding in this moral learning about the harm did. Not responding this moral response response to learning way, seems me, would demonstrate a lack of sensibility. lack to demonstrate moral it sensibility. way, paradox applies Furthermore, descendants of vicFurthermore, the paradox regrets of the descendants applies to the regrets tims victims of tims of dispossession, slaves, of victims neglect or atrocity. dispossession, neglect atrocity. Descendants of slaves, apartheid, of indigenous people dispossessed, or of those who were who indigenous people dispossessed, apartheid, emigrated of the potato famine, or the children of surchildren Holocaust surbecause famine, emigrated potato if vivors, in existence these injustices not done. not now be these had been would vivors, injustices reasonable, even inevitable, for these descendants regret that descendants to regret But it seems reasonable, inevitable, for injustices done their ancestors. The question is how they do this this were to their ancestors. is can injustices they question 2 while preferring preferring that the world exist. world should should be such such that they exist.2 they there is no paradox Some may paradox once we understand understand that the one say that there may say who apologizes is a state or an institution, particular is state not individuals. There institution, apologizes particular individuals. reason why why an institution cannot regret is no reason institution or community community regret what it did. The trouble is that individuals individuals have to be the ones who issue issue these these apologies, trouble apologies, and they represent are expected endorse them; and the problem rerethose they are to endorse represent expected problem mains they can do this this sincerely. particular individuals exist mains of how they Which sincerely. particular individuals far as the existence of a state state is is concerned, but it matters may matter as far matters may not matter on behalf of the state its present to those who act present citizens. In any state or to its any case, whether leaders leaders officially individuals are are apt not, many officially apologize many individuals apologize or not, apt to ancestors did regret their ancestors did or suffered. suffered. regret what their is to admit the paradoxical paradoxical result result of saying Another response response is saying 'Sorry', 'Sorry', while insisting matter. We do regret insisting that it does not matter. regret some of the deeds done being sorry this amounts by our ancestors ancestors without being that we are amounts to are alive. If this by sorry that for the unjust ancestors inconsistency, it. Not being being sorry deeds of our ancestors inconsistency, so be it. unjust deeds sorry for inconsistency leads leads to failing. Nevertheless Nevertheless the existence of inconsistency would be a worse worse failing. an uncertainty uncertainty about how our apologies should be understood. understood. It would be apologies should better if we did non-paradoxical interpretation interpretation of what we mean. better did have a non-paradoxical
2 Neil Thomason has 2 has suggested paradox may may be more accurately undersuggested to me that the paradox accurately underas being for bad things rather than about stood as being about regret things that have happened happened in the past regret for past rather apology. apology.
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APOLOGY PARADOX THE APOLOGY

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might be argued argued that no inconsistency inconsistency exists when proper proper attention is It might paid consistently regret happening of an action, proproI intension. can the to consistently regret happening of paid practice under one description description ('the ('the practice practice of of apartheid') apartheid') and not cess or practice ('series of of events on which my my existence depends') depends') regret it under another ('series regret just consistently Morning Venus, that Star and at the I can believe the is as Morning just consistently Evening Star is not Venus. However, whether my my beliefs same time that the Evening depends upon upon what I know or believe about are consistent or inconsistent depends world. If If I know that the Morning Morning Star is the same as the Evening Evening Star, the world. my beliefs beliefs are are inconsistent. inconsistent. If I know, know, or have good good reason to believe, then my practice of of apartheid apartheid is identical to the series series of of events on which my my that the practice my regret regret is paradoxical. paradoxical. depends, then my existence depends, argued that it is the sixth step step that should be rejected. rejected. UtiliIt could be argued tarians in particular particular might might make this this move. They They might might argue argue that the haphaptarians piness of ourselves co-existents weighed compared and must of and our co-existents be ourselves weighed compared with piness happiness that would now exist if the bad deeds had not been done. If it the happiness happiness that counts and not who has it, then we might might well be is total happiness forced to conclude that it would be better if history history had been different different in a forced in our But the calculations way resulted being calculations have resulted not born. that would being way merely difficult (since, presumably, required more difficult than would be (since, presumably, all other merely required have possible historical might happened historical that events possible might happened if the bad deeds had not weighed in the balance). balance). In any any case, the kind kind been done would have to be weighed utilitarianism that insists insists on maximizing maximizing total happiness happiness is subject subject to of utilitarianism serious objections (as (as Parfit Parfit also points points out, pp. 387ff.). 387ff.). serious objections it Apart from utilitarian position, seem reasonable reasonable that some does from the utilitarian position, Apart had never wish that people might sincerely something happened, even happened, something people might sincerely their though they recognize that had not, they (and their friends, family if it (and friends, family and they though they recognize caused the associates) exist. They may consider that destruction destruction would exist. not associates) They may else's to their their community (or by their ancestors someone else's community) their ancestors to community) was community (or by been rather than be if born so great that it better they had never rather than that would better they great that this most of us us should have occurred. occurred. However, I suspect this destruction destruction should suspect ancestors did. cannot sincerely take this position in respect to what our ancestors did. this take position respect sincerely alternative is to reject Another alternative argued that might be argued step. It might reject the second step. Blair leaders official such as those made by Clinton, Blair and other leaders such as official apologies by apologies about what was done by should as expressing regret as should not be interpreted by expressing regret interpreted people in the past. They are forwardrather than backward-looking. They forwardrather are backward-looking. They past. They people relation with descendants of a new relation with descendants are the beginning are meant to signal beginning of a signal the suffered or alleviate those who were harmed, or to alleviate the psychological damage harmed, psychological damage suffered 3 They are are a by members of a group with a historical grievance. a way a historical with members way of grievance.3 They by group
3 'Reparations may symbolize a society's undertaking not to to forget 3 forget or deny that a particuparticu'Reparations may symbolize society's undertaking a dignified sense of identity-in-memory sustain a lar to respect lar injustice took place, identity-in-memory dignified sense help sustain respect and help injustice took place, and to Historical Injustice', for for the the people Ethics,103 Waldron, 'Superseding 103 (1992), (I992), p. 6. Injustice', Ethics, 'Superseding Historical affected':J. Waldron, people affected':].
2000 ? The Qyarttry. 2000 ThePhilosophical The Editors Editorsof The Quarterly, Philosophical

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making a commitment to justice, justice, of recognizing recognizing members of a disadvandisadvanmaking taged group as equal citizens, or they are an expression of intention are the to they expression equal citizens, taged group act more justly justly than did people people of past. of the past. These ideas about how to understand understand what official official apologies apologies mean, or ought mean, are plausible, they cannot tell the full story. tell but full to are plausible, they story. If the inought tention to act justly justly in the future future is signalled by saying 'Sorry', signalled by saying 'Sorry', then the of the uttered convey upon ability uttered to this message words convey this message surely surely depends depends upon ability their being interpreted as an apology as an expression of regret for what as for their being expression regret interpreted apology past. To use the distinction by J.L. Austin distinction made byJ.L. Austin in How How to to was done in the past. Do Things with Words, making an apology can a perlocutionary act be inwith Do Words,making Things apology perlocutionary particular situation. effect in a particular certain effect situation. But its its ability tended to have a certain ability to have that effect upon it being the kind of illocutionary act that it is - in kind effect depends depends upon being illocutionary of an apology. In any case, many of those who this case, having force the force this having apology. any many of past, for example, Australians for wrongs of for have apologized for the those Australians wrongs past, example, apologized private apologies, justice who offered offered their their private signalling a new era of justice apologies, were not signalling for people. As ordinary citizens they were not in a position citizens for wronged they wronged people. ordinary position to do this. they did intend to say they sorry. that were this. But they say they sorry. meaning of saying might be argued Nevertheless it might 'Sorry' is not argued that the meaning saying 'Sorry' properly described second and/or third steps of the paradox. in described the third steps paradox. Perhaps Perhaps properly is is not regret simply our recognition what we mean to convey but that convey regret simply recognition that acts performed is not appealcertain performed in the past past were wrong. wrong. But this this idea is certain acts appealway of understanding understanding our action as ing. is a way as an apology, ing. What we want is apology, and as apologizing surely understood as as exsurely anything anything that counts as apologizing has to be understood regretting that somepressing regret. regret. More promising promising is the suggestion suggestion that regretting pressing happened. It thing prefer that it had not happened. occurred does not mean that we prefer thing occurred wish it had not.4 merely means that we wish not. 4 People for something wish for merely People can wish something incompatible their preferences, preferences, for for something impossible or even nonincompatible with their something impossible sensical. like a bird, bird, that daylight lasted sensical. I can wish that I could fly fly like daylight in winter lasted as long long as daylight Fitzwilliam Darcy. summer, or that I could marry daylight in summer, marry Mr Fitzwilliam Darcy. my ancestors their evil deed, even So why wish that my ancestors had not done their why can I not wish it? though I think think it likely likely that my my existence existence depends upon it? though depends upon are wishes There are wishes. Some wishes imaginawishes and wishes. wishes are are fanciful, acts of imaginafanciful, acts desire that the wish wish may tion that do not commit the wisher wisher to a desire true may come true or to a regret for did not happen, regret that the event wished for happen, or even to a belief was) possible possible for for it to happen. by how exhilarating that it is is (or struck by (or was) happen. I am struck exhilarating it how or pleasant to ski after tea. would be to soar soar above the treetops, ski after tea. Or I pleasant treetops, what like in express an opinion about I would like to do or an imagined be express opinion imagined my world necessarily a possible possible one). world (not for my (not necessarily one). It would be inappropriate inappropriate for friends that take friends to suggest I take hang-gliding lessons, to give me a lecture on lecture suggest hang-gliding lessons, give I astronomy, or tell that cannot marry a fictional character. It me fictional tell character. would be astronomy, marry
4 Tim 4

Oakley this suggestion. Oakley made this suggestion.

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THE APOLOGY APOLOGY PARADOX

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inappropriate point out that the wish inconsistent with some is inconsistent for them to point wish is inappropriate for wishes of my beliefs and preferences. However, some wishes do express preferbeliefs express prefermy preferences. ences. If in a conversation politics I say wish there I that there were conversation about politics that say greater equality in our society, or NATO had not Belgrade, that NATO bombed society, Belgrade, I greater equality I what would like to shall understood as a preference saying like shall be understood as expressing expressing preference saying preferred. If I have said said something be the case or what I would have preferred. something on if another utterance, or I am ignorant another occasion that seems to contradict contradict my ignorant my utterance, about relevant facts, then it is for others to accuse me of is appropriate for others relevant facts, appropriate inconsistency or ignorance. A of preference, unlike a of fancy, unlike wish wish fancy, inconsistency ignorance. preference, commits the wisher wisher to preferring preferring that the wish should or to preshould come true, true, prethus the world had such had come true, and thus to ferring that the that it world been ferring to the logical implications of these preferences. hard interpret wish that is hard It these interpret logical implications preferences. my ancestors injustice as wish ancestors had not committed an injustice as anything anything other than a wish my in of preference. preference. In having having this this wish an act of fancy wish I am not engaging fancy or engaging did not expressing a view about an imaginary they did do the in which world they expressing imaginary deed. I prefer prefer that they done this world. in not it world. had this they It is not plausible plausible to interpret concerning the deeds of our regrets concerning interpret our regrets ancestors fancy. But there way of arguing ancestors as a wish of fancy. there is another way arguing that apoapocommit us preferring a deed logizing does not been done, at had not us to that logizing preferring feel uncomfortable least usually understood. Many people feel uncomfortable or even this is usually least as as this Many people apologetic about benefiting from an injustice even they had no rewhen from they apologetic benefiting injustice that sponsibility for it. They are sorry that good things they possess for it. are the they now possess sponsibility They good things sorry that past injustice. They do not regret they came to them because of a past they have regret injustice. They these things, things, but that they they came to have them in the way way they they did. An apothese apointerthis kind logy could be interpreted kind of regret. regret. So interexpression of this logy interpreted as an expression for the deeds of our ancestors preted it is not, strictly ancestors or preted strictly speaking, speaking, an apology apologyfor is an expression of regret that they happened. an apology it Rather concerning apology concerning they happened. expression regret we deeds of the past, past, and the regret regret expressed owe our existence and that is expressed other things things we enjoy preference is for for ancestors. Our preference injustices of our ancestors. enjoy to the injustices deeds. these a possible possible world in which our existence did not depend on these deeds. depend It seems to me that this this is is the best solution. solution. Nevertheless it requires requires that reinterpret what we are we apologize or regret past inwhen we must reinterpret are doing regret past apologize doing were us we what justices. It implies that we are not doing many of us thought are many thought justices. implies doing doing apologizing for deeds themselves and preferring that they had for the themselves they preferring doing apologizing the not happened. happened. For this this reason, will find it implausible. However, find reason, many implausible. many we what paradox requires us to reinterpret are doing when apologize for we are us apologize for doing paradox requires reinterpret deeds of the past, past, and the reinterpretation reinterpretation I am recommending seems not so recommending drastic rejected. drastic or counter-intuitive as those I have rejected. counter-intuitive as

La Trobe University La Trobe University


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