Volume 1, 2007
Moral Functions of Public Apologies
Under certain circumstances the act of apologizing has moral import. It requires a commitment to truth, adherence to moral standards, and a willingness to acknowledge and regret one's own moral failures. In this paper I examine the moral import of apologizing within the U.S. legal system and as a response to historical acts of injustice. In both of these contexts apologies are expressed in a public forum, which adds an interesting dynamic to their moral significance. Within the legal system the judge, representing the interests of the community, may use apologizing to directly address the harm done to victims, as an indicator of recidivism on the part of offenders, and to help create an atmosphere of respect for law in the community at large. Different moral aspects of apologizing come to the fore in the context of historical acts of injustice. Interesting philosophical questions arise, e.g. the legitimacy of moral judgments across time and culture and the very possibility of group action. And skepticism is commonly expressed about the value of such apologies: aren't they empty words that provide no real benefit to victims or the descendants of victims? Aren't they irrelevant to the future? I identify what I hope are convincing reasons to believe that historical apologies can in fact have considerable moral value and a significant impact on the future.