Apology constitutes an essential part of the hard work of being an imperfect moral agent, over time and amongst others. Apology is one component of our “reparative responsibilities” (Bell 2012), of responding well to one’s past wrongdoing, and is more broadly part of the ongoing effort to come to terms with what one’s deeds will mean for one’s life (Williams 69). So how is this work achieved? In this paper I argue that the basic structure of apology is more puzzling, because more paradoxical, than has been recognized. I argue that in apologizing one must at once identify with one’s wrong action, in order to take moral responsibility for it, and at the same time dis-identify with it, in order to morally reject it. That is, I must at once own and disown what I did. While the paradox of forgiveness has been widely discussed, the paradoxicality of apology has been almost entirely overlooked. I end the paper by proposing that the paradox need not undermine the practice; rather, there is, I suggest, an internal connection between apology’s very instability and the possibility of moral change.
PhD student Mariam Matar will respond.
Presented by the NYC Wittgenstein Workshop