Ethics & International Affairs Volume 22.4 (Winter 2008): Review Essay: Apology Forgiveness and Moral Repair [Full Text]

Dec 30, 2008

Forgiveness: A Philosophical Exploration, Charles L. Griswold (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007), 268 pp., $80 cloth, $21.99 paper.

I Was Wrong: The Meanings of Apologies, Nick Smith (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008), 310 pp., $99 cloth, $24.99 paper.

Moral Repair: Reconstructing Moral Relations after Wrongdoing, Margaret Urban Walker (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006), 262 pp., $74 cloth, $27.99 paper.

The author is a program officer at the United States Institute of Peace, which does not take positions on policy issues. The views expressed here are the author's.

It is a tragic irony that as interest grows in how societies can account for past wrongdoing with the goal of promoting moral repair, relieving suffering, and shoring up justice, the incidents of wrongdoing stemming from conflicts worldwide only seem to multiply—witness, more than half a century after Auschwitz, the ongoing genocide in Darfur. This tragic reality undoubtedly inspires the passionate nature of writing within the field of transitional justice and reconciliation. Despite the Sisyphian nature of the task, it is heartening to see much strong work emerging on the topic.

Apology, forgiveness, reparations, restitution, truth-telling, acknowledgment, restorative and retributive justice, trust, repair, reconciliation: How do these processes relate to one another, how do they differ, and how do they operate at different social levels, from individuals to polities? Are they all even appropriate as responses to different types of wrongdoing? Three recent works works by philosophers Charles L. Griswold, Nick Smith, and Margaret Urban Walker help to illuminate these closely related concepts, today's coin of the realm in discussions of transitional politics. Despite the fact that each author tends to focus on one process in particular, all eleven of the processes listed above emerge in each account in one way or another, demonstrating the degree to which they are intertwined in what is a complex whole. In addition, two of the books discuss processes or forces that appear less consistently in the transitional literature: hope, in Margaret Urban Walker's study; narrative, in Charles Griswold's; and resentment and trust in both.

Taken together, the three works discussed here provide a rich introduction to some of the processes needed in transitions from injustices to more humane and hopeful relationships. All three address different levels of moral repair—between individuals, between individuals and groups, and between political collectives, the latter being between political collectives, the latter being my area of interest here. All three works benefit from a blend of disciplinary approaches, and from clear writing that does not limit their audience to those versed in philosophical vocabulary and methods of argument.

From the point of view of politics and international affairs, Griswold's study of forgiveness is, at first glance, the most interesting of the three. Along with Peter Digeser and others, I am skeptical of forgiveness in the context of massive, widespread violence, the effects of which spread across societies and over generations, and generally fall into what Hannah Arendt famously called the "unforgivable"— acts that can neither be forgiven nor punished. Unlike statements of apology and other reparative processes at the political and community level, which have a history and can be studied, forgiveness is a largely intangible process (indeed, with certain religious overtones), and virtually impossible to work into policy. Given that political reconciliation is not generally a mere "utopian" hope, but rather something that can be observed and documented in concrete circumstances, is it even necessary to engage the more elusive concept of "forgiveness" in efforts to lessen hostility between former enemies? In this respect Griswold's study is especially intriguing: How does he define forgiveness, and does he think it applies to politics? The short answer is that he does not think forgiveness is operative in politics; rather, he believes that its counterpart at the political level should be called "apology."

Griswold provides an exhaustive and helpful exploration of forgiveness—briefly, a reestablishment of a moral relationship between enemies, or between victim and possibility of unconditional forgiveness (often inspired by Christian or Buddhist beliefs), Griswold says flatly that "forgiveness is a concept that comes with conditions attached. It is governed by norms" (p. xv). In fleshing out these norms, Griswold espouses a tough-minded conception of forgiveness, one that avoids the "moral blindness" of simply condoning actions (p. xv). According to Griswold, an act of forgiveness between individuals includes six indispensable stages of action, which, tellingly, focus on the wrongdoer rather than the victim: the wrongdoer's acknowledgment of her deed; her repudiation of it; her expression of regret; her commitment not to repeat the deed (in some sense a commitment to a new moral identity); her ability to express sympathy and understanding for the suffering of the victim; and, last—a requirement not often seen in studies of forgiveness—the wrongdoer's ability to provide a narrative account that is "neither fiction nor excuse, and that puts the wrong-doing as well as the self that did the wrong in a context. The injured party deserve[s] answers to questions such as 'who is this person, such that she could have injured me thus? Such that she warrants forgiveness"' (p. 51). If all six elements are present, the forgiver should be able to feel increased trust in the wrongdoer, and should thus sequentially be able to forswear revenge, moderate resentment, let resentment go, and, finally, see the wrongdoer in a new, no longer wholly negative light.

Some of the elements of this process are undoubtedly present in processes of repair at the social level (as has been documented at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission hearings in South Africa, for example). In particular, the sixth requirement, a narrative, is an important part of political apology, which relies on public expression for its efficacy. Nevertheless, Griswold notes that while resentment at all levels "seeks a public" (p. 103), true forgiveness occurs only between two individuals; at the political level forgiveness is not appropriate as a tool for repair. Trying to expand it to the collective level makes it "collapse into something quite different—say, a socially mandated process for peace-making" (p. 48), quite without the necessary emotional elements. Many rituals intended to achieve conflict resolution may be effective but would not fit Griswold's definition of true forgiveness. They are, rather, "a kind of social or political procedure in which the individual is released from threat of punishment in return for abjuring further violence," which may "achieve restoration of civic collaboration but not necessarily a change of sentiment"(p. 170). While a change of heart in public rituals to further reconciliation is not ruled out, the emphasis is rather on behavior.

Griswold sees apology—defined as public acknowledgment of wrongdoing by a political entity, such as a state or a political party—as appropriate for the political sphere for a couple of reasons. First, as harms committed at the political level are typically violations of community norms, public expressions of acknowledgment and willingness to repair must often go beyond trying to give victim groups reasons for restored trust; they may also be critical to recognizing and repairing the norms that have been violated. Second, the "moral bar" for apology and acceptance of apology is lower than for forgiveness: it does not aim to cause forswearing of resentment, but rather of revenge ("redemption of the soul ought not to be the aim of politics" [p. 172]). Political apology can— indeed, usually must—take a more symbolic form than forgiveness, which demands concrete steps from both sides and also involves the victim and wrongdoer directly. The language of forgiveness is not common either in the legal or the international relations literature, and Griswold cites Barry O' Neill's observation that no expression of apology in the international sphere has ever been answered by a statement of forgiveness.

Crucially, Griswold asserts that apology is no mere substitute for forgiveness, a thinner moral process; rather, it is significant in and of itself, for a society "hospitable to public apology not only values speaking truth to power, but also power speaking truth to the less powerful" (p. 190). If forgiveness is, as Arendt has argued, the only force that allows deeds to be undone, political apology is a sign of a human belief in progress, "a narrative that appeals to the possibility of progress" (p. 192).

Griswold's endorsement of apology over forgiveness in the search for repair at the political level raises two questions. First, are these processes really distinct, one appropriate to the individual and one to the political level? Griswold does not address the fact that the two processes emphasize action by different actors, one the wrongdoer (apology) and one the victim (forgiveness). However, ultimately both processes do demand something of those who have been wronged: the extension of forgiveness or the acceptance of apology, which could be a moral problem in that the onus of action for both processes falls on the victim. Asking that a victim extend forgiveness in the absence of sufficient gestures of penitence, or accept an apology that seems weak, insincere, or motivated by self interest would constitute the continuation of the injustice.

Griswold seems to anticipate the ethical problems inherent in urging victims at the political or group level to extend forgiveness or accept apologies when he notes that making either process into a political project could, in extreme cases, lead to the kind of emotional and intellectual coercion seen in reeducation projects at certain moments in China's and Cambodia's recent history, a process of coercion reminiscent of enforced religious conversions, or at the very least reduce these processes to a kind of "theatrical gesture on the political stage" (p. 181). His insistence that the search for restoration of moral relations originate with the wrongdoer, or the representative(s) of the wrongdoers (in some cases their descendants and beneficiaries), via apology, goes a long way to averting this danger.

While the problem of documenting and assessing forgiveness as a political force is avoided by focusing on apologies, which can be documented—even, in theory, studied for their conveyance of sincerity— the reception of apology, like the offering of forgiveness, remains resistant to affirmation or study. Only the simplest forms of acceptance of apology at the diplomatic level, and for very specific harms (for example, the 2001 spy plane incident between the United States and China), can be documented. Otherwise, the effects of apologies on broad publics and on intangible goods, such as increased trust, reduced negative stereotyping, and greater mutual respect, remain opaque. They can be measured, to some extent, via surveys and polling, but these tools are better suited to measuring the immediate rather than the long-term effects of processes that may accomplish their ends slowly, over generations, and become entwined with other political processes that may strengthen or undermine the force of the original gesture. Even when a process of reconciliation can be charted following political apology, the link between public apology and reconciliation in political and social life is extremely difficult to demonstrate.;1

The Role of Law

Unlike Griswold and Walker, Nick Smith is trained in law as well as philosophy, and this shows in his approach to apology: his study is the only one to refer frequently to law, its philosophical relationship to apology, and, often, the limits that legal liability places on the use of apology. Smith is deeply skeptical of public apologies, and defends his skepticism by providing transcripts of a number of public statements by individuals, companies, and government officials and leaders. The quality of these apologies is, indeed, generally lamentable. Smith dissects the texts to show how they avoid acknowledgment and responsibility for wrongdoing, deliberately obfuscate the issues, or even offer justifications, with the apologizer seeking to protect himself or herself rather than repair a moral wrong. Nevertheless, some examples are morally satisfying: Most surprising, perhaps, is F. W. de Klerk's apology for apartheid. Bill Clinton's 1997 apology in Tuskegee, Alabama, for syphilis experiments carried out on African Americans also tends to satisfy the conditions Smith lays out for a "categorical apology."

Overall, though, such apologies are few and far between. Smith's definition of categorical apology requires first that the wrongdoing is put on public record, which he, like Nicholas Tavuchis (whose seminal definition of apology in Mea Culpa: A Sociology of Apology and Reconciliation may be clearer than Smith's), sees as perhaps the central accomplishment of robust apology. Other elements that should be present in full apologies include acceptance of blame, appropriate standing to accept responsibility, identification of each harm and its underlying moral principles, shared commitment to these principles, recognition of the victim as moral interlocutor, performance of regret and emotions, evidence of self-reform, and gestures of redress. These elements, Smith feels, are most clearly seen in interpersonal apologies, where he emphasizes a dialectical process, as opposed to Griswold's creation of a narrative.

Smith envisions collective apologies as successful mostly within small groups and for clearly defined, small-scale wrongs, such as in a hypothetical case in which a university department of philosophy is found guilty of sexism. A primary component in his definition of apology is the presence and display of emotion, including remorse, sorrow, penitence, and sympathy/ empathy. Smith focuses on the efficacy of group apologies by relatively small groups, noting that in the case of large groups and/or current generations making apologies on behalf of their forebears these emotions may not be deeply felt by the person actually making the apology, who may well not have been involved in the group's wrongdoing. In addition, group emotions are hugely challenging to capture as objects of study. For example, when Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper apologized on behalf of the Canadian government for the abuse of native Canadian children in residential schools, he spoke as a group representative. The emotions that he felt, even if they were shared by some members of this group, would be very difficult to convey and document at the group level. These factors make emotions, essentially personal, inappropriate as a measure of a group apology's success. Further, Smith may be incorrect to emphasize emotions in assessing political apologies instead of the expression of recognition and respect, which are more often associated with political life today, particularly in multicultural societies. 2 These may be easier for victims to gauge; they are also easier for institutions (and individuals) to model as well as to express or embody. For example, the state apology process in Canada, in addition to Harper's apology, included setting up a truth and reconciliation commission headed by a respected native Canadian jurist, Harry LaForme.

For Smith, apology may at best provide only one element of repair; and other processes, such as truth commissions, are needed in order to disentangle moral responses. This is especially the case in the event of political wrongs that cause largescale, long-term, and/or multigenerational suffering. Along with Martha Minow, he cautions us not to look for gestures that "close the ledger" on widespread harm, warning us that this is probably not possible, but rather to see apologies "as another ritual within the infinitely complex nexus of life’s meanings" (p. 26). In fact, Smith notes that there are other declarative acts besides apology that can provide moral repair for damage, including denunciation of past policies, regret for harm done, and the determination to pursue different policies in the future, as long as the speaker has the requisite status to make such future-oriented promises. In addition, an apology by the perpetrator of a specific wrong may mean less than a more symbolic apology by someone with, again, higher status. Victims of torture in Abu Ghraib, for example, might prefer either an apology or an acknowledgment of wrongdoing and a promise of institutional reform by a high-ranking representative of the U.S. military rather than a personal apology from the low-level guards who actually abused them.

Of particular value in this very readable text (entirely appropriate for undergraduate teaching) is Smith's discussion of the importance of cultural norms in apology, such as in differing cultural norms governing public displays of emotions, and the role of gender. (Smith notes that "some communities discourage emotional displays altogether," whereas "Others celebrate emotions" [p. 105].) Smith refers only passingly to studies showing that women apologize more often than men, but his limited discussions here should nevertheless inspire the already strong scholarly interest in the role of gender in transitional justice and peace-building. For researchers in this area, there is scope to address not only expressions of apology by women but also the question of whether the reception of apology, or the requests for forgiveness by perpetrators, vary according to gender. 3

A Pragmatics of Repair

Walker's book spans the interests of the other two, bringing forgiveness and apology into the spectrum of gestures that can serve as mechanisms of "moral repair." Whereas Smith tends to draw on current events, Walker's book is highly humanistic and perhaps the most interdisciplinary of the three, drawing on literature and history. One great contribution is the practicality and realism implicit in Walker's conceptualization of "a pragmatics of [moral] repair" (p. 199). The author is careful not to undermine her case for the importance of moral repair by promising more than the concept can deliver, and points out that in hard cases repair is usually only partial, insisting that partial gestures can make a difference even when total repair is not possible. She also points out the commonness of most acts of repair, which are essentially the same whether used to put right everyday interpersonal wrongs or large-scale collective wrongs, such as genocide or the enslavement and cultural dispossession of peoples.

Consideration of legal, criminal, punitive, and retributive justice is mostly absent from Walker's book, while practices of restorative justice are widely discussed. The absence of the former considerations is surprising given that, in her discussion of repair for slavery and other injustices stemming from racism in the United States, Walker advocates prosecuting outstanding cases of violence from the era of the civil rights movement in instances where the perpetrators are still alive.

Walker focuses on the needs of victims more than do Smith or Griswold, which she identifies as voice, validation, and vindication. Importantly—and in contradistinction to those "realists" for whom the overlap between victims of communal violence and its perpetrators is too great to permit meaningful distinctions, as well as "postmodernists" suspicious of the very categories "victim" and "perpetrator"— Walker insists that victims of violent abuse can generally be identified as such. Those who also played the role of perpetrator still deserve repair in their capacity as victims.

Moral repair, for Walker, is "restoring or creating trust and hope in a shared sense of value and responsibility" (p. 28). She recognizes that in essentially "unforgivable" crimes, including where perpetrators refuse to express remorse, the onus for creating trust and restoring relationships is on individuals other than the original victims and perpetrators, and on communities. Her focus on "moral communities" is particularly important. In relation to the all-too-common situation in which perpetrators of gross and systematic human rights abuses refuse to acknowledge, apologize, or try to make amends, Walker notes that individuals other than the perpetrators—members of their "moral communities"—are available as interlocutors; after all, "the fixed points of our moral universe are not held in place by just one individual" (p. 165).

Walker, unlike Griswold, does not limit forgiveness to individuals. However, her conception of forgiveness, based on traditional philosophical understandings of overcoming resentment, restoring relationship, setting a wrong to rest in the past, and release of both self and wrongdoer, still seems to me to describe an individual state of mind, and as such one that is very difficult to identify and assess. In addition, Walker cites the example of South Africa as an "honest agreement to go on in civility and cooperation without demanding that further accounts be settled, prices paid or apologies tendered" (p. 156). I am not sure that reaching a modus vivendi is the same as forgiveness, nor do I think this definition of forgiveness takes into account the limited choices at hand in the wake of political disaster.

Further, in the case of South Africa, Walker may be confusing stoicism or exhaustion from fighting with forgiveness. It is particularly hard to believe, for example, that many who have suffered such terrible damage as the death under torture of a child or spouse would be willing to "set a wrong to rest in the past" or to seek new or restored moral relationships in the absence of gestures from the perpetrators' side. It is also demonstrably not true that victims and survivors of mass violence who choose not to forgive are inevitably "damaged in an irreparable way" (p. 189). Many Holocaust survivors, for example, have led positive lives but believe, first, that forgiveness (especially on behalf of those who did not survive) would be immoral, and, second, with the sociologist Jeff Olick, that reconciliation may only be possible in succeeding generations—when it would take place not with the perpetrators themselves but with their descendants. 4

Despite her optimism and pragmatism, Walker, like Arendt, sees some wrongs as unforgivable, so that a call for forgiveness in her definition cannot serve as a panacea for all forms of resentment: "Holding wrongs unforgivable is a way to mark the enormity of injury and the malignancy of wrongdoing as exceeding anything that could be made to fit back into a reliable framework of moral relations. . . . We define a moral community both by what and whom it comprehends and what it marks as beyond the pale" (pp. 189–90).

Taken together, these three studies affirm the value of gestures of moral repair. As Walker asserts, the other option—responding to great societal wrongs with public silence, and being satisfied with the thinnest kind of coexistence—may seem to work in the short run, but is not "morally adequate to the burdens and benefits of shared life" (p. 206), and moreover leaves civic relationships in a fragile condition where underlying mistrust and resentment could lead to renewed hostility. The studies by Walker, Griswold, and Smith provide reasons for hope in showing us the many resources within ordinary human interaction that can be brought to bear on the task of overcoming legacies of grievous wrongdoing, even as each author cautions against belief in the possibility of complete and final repair.


1 For studies that attempt to measure the impact of "reconciliatory" processes, see James Gibson’s study of the effect of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa, Overcoming Apartheid: Can Truth Reconcile a Divided Nation? (New York: Russell Sage Foundation, 2004); and William Long's and Peter Brecke's longitudinal, comparative study of the return, or not, to violence, War and Reconciliation: Reason and Emotion in Conflict Resolution (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2003).
2 See, e.g., Charles Taylor, "The Politics of Recognition," in Amy Gutmann, ed., Multiculturalism: Examining the Politics of Recognition (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1992).
3 One of the few perpetrators to confess to wrongdoing, express remorse, and apologize at the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia was a woman, Biljana Plavsic, now serving a prison sentence in Sweden. The gender aspect of this unusual case is one of several that should attract more attention, especially given how very few examples there are of apology by contributors to widespread human rights violations and other forms of collective violence.
4Jeff K. Olick, The Politics of Regret: On Collective Memory and Moral Responsibility (New York: Routledge, 2007), p. 148.

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