Week of: 
April 25, 2010
First Aired: 
March 30, 2008
What is it: 

Can you be sorry without intending to change your behavior in the future? Without being ashamed? Do other cultures have different concepts of sorrow and guilt? John and Ken unapologetically explore the language and philosophy of contrition with Nick Smith from the University of New Hampshire, author of I Was Wrong: The Meanings of Apologies.

Listening Notes: 

John starts off the show by reviewing the philosophical relevance of apology: what are apologies supposed to achieve? When are they necessary? What kinds of apologies are there, and does apology differ from ritual, repentance, and regret? John and Ken then ask their guest, Nick Smith, how he became interested in studying the meaning of apology and briefly discuss its relevance in legal proceedings.

John, Ken, and Nick then go into more depth on the meaning of apologizing. What distinguishes a true apology from a generic expression of regret, an exercise in polite excusing, and a strategy for gaining social favor? They discuss the moral values associated with apology and the implications of its moral nature. Can you apologize for accidents? Can groups apologize? Can a sincere apology really make up for concrete harms?  

In the last section, Ken, John, and Nick start off by discussing apologizing in the political world. What does it take for them to be more than trite tools for social manipulation? How can individual political figures apologize on behalf of a group they represent? How closely do they have to be tied to the group they represent for the apology to be meaningful? Do they have to take personal responsibility?  They then discuss how can apologies work in a pluralistic setting, where people don't agree on the values whose breaching requires apology. They conclude by touching on some fundamental ethical differences in how we can look at apologies, depending on whether we evaluate them from a utilitarian verses a Kantian standpoint.   

  • Roving Philosophical Reporter (Seek to 5:00): Zoe Corneli goes to a San Francisco mall to find out about buyers' remorse and buying remorse.
  • 60-Second Philosopher (Seek to 49:55): Ian Shoales compares apology in the classic world, where it was a form of defense, to apology in today's world, where everything seems to cause offense.

Nick Smith, Assistant Professor of Philosophy, University of New Hampshire

Related Resources: 

Online Resources

  • P. Gries and K. Peng (2002). "Culture Clash? Apologies East and West."  Journal of Contemporary China. (download)


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