Beyond the Ideal Political Apology

  • Alice MacLachlan
Part of the Rhetoric, Politics and Society Series book series (RPS)


The practice of apologising has recently become a recognisable feature of public and political life. As philosophers and theorists of apology attempt to understand and assess this practice, it is perhaps natural that we would turn to more familiar models of apology — namely, the norms and ideals that govern our practices of apologising to one another in private, interpersonal contexts. Indeed, several authors have sought to employ these norms to describe the perfect or ideal apology, as a standard for evaluating admittedly imperfect (and often very bad) practices of both personal and political apologising. I argue that this move is mistaken, for several reasons. First, it is far from clear that we can have a coherent, singular model of the ideal or best apology. Second, in modelling political apologies on interpersonal ones, we neglect the importantly political nature of the former, distorting the meaning and function of political apologies while holding them to an impossible standard.


Political Action Human Condition Public Sphere Hate Crime Political Life 
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    Robert R. Weyeneth, ‘The Power of Apology and the Process of Historical Reconciliation’, The Public Historian 23, no. 3 (2001): 20.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
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    Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition, 2nd ed. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1958), 246.Google Scholar
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    Luc Bovens articulates this regulative ideal as a ‘genuine apology’, while Nick Smith outlines what he calls ‘the Categorical Apology’: Nick Smith, I Was Wrong: The Meanings of Apologies (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008).Google Scholar
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    Mathias Thaler argues a similar point, stating: ‘I thus contend that political apologies are to be assessed on a consequentialist basis: their sincerity must be measured according to the consequences they trigger.’ Mathias Thaler, ‘Just Pretending: Political Apologies for Historical Injustice and Vice’s Tribute to Virtue’, Critical Review of International Social and Political Philosophy 15, no. 3 (2012): 267. I agree with much of what Thaler has to say on the topic, although I refrain from adopting a broadly consequentialist approach. We might still wish to praise a political apology for expressing and conforming to certain ideals and principles — using public and non-individualistic measures for what it means to express and conform to those ideals — even if, ultimately, the consequences of that apology are minimal.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
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    As Elizabeth Spelman says, apology is a vehicle ‘for vice nested in virtue’, and it allows the apologiser to ‘wrap herself in a glorious mantle of rehabilitation’. Elizabeth Spelman, Repair: The Impulse to Restore in a Fragile World (Boston: Beacon Press, 2002), 96–97.Google Scholar

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© Alice MacLachlan 2014

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  • Alice MacLachlan

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