When sorry isn't enough

Philosopher Luc Bovens explores the limits of an apology 

In an interview after the 2006 football World Cup final where Zinedine Zidane had infamously head-butted Marco Materazzi, the French midfielder said that while he apologised to his fans for his actions, he didn't regret what he had done. When asked whether he would do it again Zidane said: 'I have said all I have to say.' 

red cardWas Zidane's apology disingenuous? Most of us would perhaps think so. But why? What makes an authentic declaration of contrition? Luc Bovens, a professor of philosophy at LSE, has set about untangling some of the puzzling features of the social phenomena of apologies and forgiveness.  

Professor Bovens ventures that there are four components of a genuine apology – that you recognise that what you did was wrong, feel bad about it, commit to not doing it again and that it should be delivered in a humble manner.  

He says: 'We have a lot of saying sorry in the press, but what most of these people are saying is that they are sorry for the consequences of what they did and not for what they did. And we just don't buy this as a sincere apology.'  

He cites the example of the Danish newspaper Jylland Aftenposten which caused controversy when it published cartoons about the Islamic prophet Mohammed that many Muslims considered to be highly offensive. The newspaper's editor apologised for hurting the feelings of Muslims but did not apologise for publishing the cartoons. Instead he defended the action as an issue of the freedom of the press. Unsurprisingly many Muslims did not accept this as an apology. 

But the link between apologising and culpability is complex. Professor Bovens points out that there are certain moral dilemma type situations either where saying sorry for consequences might be exactly the right thing to do or where no apology is necessary.  

'Say your professional integrity means that you had to fire a colleague who is also your friend. This is what I call a hard choice,' he says. 'You did the right thing but there is a duty to say something to your friend. It doesn't seem the right thing to apologise for what you did, but something like "I'm sorry for what you are going through" does seem to be the right thing to say.' 

Other tricky situations can present what he calls either tragic or authentic choices. In the former there is simply no right moral answer and whatever you do you are at fault. In an authentic choice, moral considerations overwhelmingly point to one course of action but these conflict with non-moral considerations that point in a different direction. In these instances you might acknowledge the moral culpability of your actions and yet stand by them – and this may stand in the way of a genuine apology. 

And in Zidane's case? Professor Bovens sees this as an authentic choice. The moral demand on Zidane was to not act in an unsportsmanlike way but this was outweighed by what his honour demanded of him. 

'Zidane says, in his defence, "First of all I'm a man"'. Professor Bovens continues, 'I think what he is saying is that he considers this to be the way he ought to live his life – defending his honour trumps conflicting moral demands. Is it meaningful for him to apologise? He does recognise that what he did was wrong and that provides sufficient reason for an apology to the world, though not to Materazzi. But he clearly doesn't say that if the clock were turned back he would behave differently. '  

In tragic or authentic situations Bovens questions whether what might be more fitting is not an apology for what one did but an expression of regret for having been placed in such a situation or an expression of sympathy for the suffering caused by one's choice. This tension is seen in Zidane's comments. 

Zidane states: 'I reacted, and it of course is not a gesture that one should do. I must say that strongly.' However he says that he has no regrets, since to have regrets 'would be like admitting that [Materazzi] was right to say all that [allegedly insulting Zidane's mother and sister].' 

Zidane certainly doesn't adopt the necessary attitude of humility to his victim for a genuine apology. Professor Bovens says: 'When you wrong someone you treat them with less respect than is due to him or her. By humbling yourself you grant the victim an excess of respect and so restore the balance of respect. However, Zidane makes it clear that Materazzi has forgone a claim to respect in virtue of his own wrongdoing – his verbal insults.'   

This attitude of humility is also important for the offender's rehabilitation. According to Professor Bovens, if we start from the viewpoint that everyone is owed respect as members of a community of moral equals, then an offender places himself outside of that community if he treats someone with less respect than is due to them. The offender thereby incurs a loss of moral stature – he foregoes certain claims to respect. The offender then has to turn to his victim and ask her to restore his moral stature, to accept him again as a full member of the community of moral equals and so regain all claims to respect. 

Does Professor Bovens think Materazzi expected an apology from Zidane?  'No', he says. 'I think Materazzi just thought, these are games people play. A nasty move in chess is not something you need to seek forgiveness for – it's just a move in the game.'


Useful links

Luc Bovens' article Apologies| [PDF] is published in the Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society, Vol CVIII, Part 3, 2008 and another Must I be forgiven? in Analysis, April 2009

For full details of Luc Bovens' research and publications, see his profile in the LSE Experts Directory: Professor Luc Bovens|