Guilt and Apologies

Norm takes issue with Ben Macintyre’s argument that there is little point in an apology from a state, company, or association for a wrong committed by it in the past, unless the “breast being beaten bears some responsibility within it”. Specifically, he argues that:

“[A]n apology without some sense of responsibility, for events that occurred far beyond living memory, is purely symbolic, an empty gesture

I mostly agree with Ben Macintyre, and largely disagree with Norm.

Norm claims:

Not only individuals but also collectivities can bear responsibility for wrongs. And since collectivities – firms, universities, political parties, nations – are represented by persons, and it is only persons who can speak for them, it can happen that an individual who wasn’t a member of the collectivity in question at the time the putative wrong was committed can – perfectly meaningfully and sincerely – be the one to apologize for it.

By the same reasoning, an apology can properly be made even if none of the present members of the collectivity apologizing were members at the time of the act or policy for which the apology is being made. Institutions and communities have a life of their own, beyond the individual memberships, careers, lives, etc, of those who belong to them.

Certainly, I think that firms, institutions, and other collectivities may come under an obligation to pay compensation to persons at whose cost they have been unjustly enriched: assuming the persons who have lost and the persons who have gained can be identified with appropriate certainty. However, restitutionary justice is a very different thing from apologising. That is because an apology is, essentially, an acknowledgement of a failure to fulfil a moral obligation: of guilt.

This is so, because individuals have moral obligations: because they are true persons. “Collectivities” may or may not be legal persons. Often they are not. But even where they are, their personhood is, I think, entirely a legal construct: designed to limit liability, facilitate contracting, and so on. One thing they do not have are moral obligations. Rather, the true persons who run them – their officers, executives, or leaders – have those moral duties. To a smaller extent, those who are members but not leaders may have personal obligations to oppose the actions of the leaders, or otherwise to refuse to acquiesce in the objectional conduct. Sometimes, individuals may simply leave or otherwise disassociate from a “collectivity”, as a reaction to its actions.

I do not think that “institutions and communities have a life of their own”. Institutions and communities may contain individuals who subscribe to a set of core and common perspectives. However most institutions and communities are far from homogenous. Neither, I think, are the “lives” of institutions and communities distinguishable from the lives and values of their members. An institution may change over time: but only because the attitudes and perspectives of the constituent members of the institution or community shift, or because some individuals cease to identify with the institution or community while others join it.

This is not to say that there is no point in an institution offering an apology for a wrong committed (or permitted) in the name of a “collectivity” a generation ago, by persons who are no longer associated with that institution. To do so is not entirely pointless. A political leader might “apologise” for slavery or genocide committed by a nation in the past, because it wants to make it clear that the society he leads it is no longer the sort that would tolerate or promote either of those two practices. The “apology” may be symbolic: but it won’t be empty. The act of “apology” may be, in effect, a defining moment for the society. However, because collectivities are not persons, that “apology” can never be an admission of guilt.

This is, of course, really an argument about liberal and communitarian conceptions of personhood…