"Talks a good game about freedom when out of power, but once he’s in – bam! Everyone's enslaved in the human-flourishing mines."

Giving and Accepting Apologies

“Saying ‘I’m sorry’ is the same as saying ‘I apologize.’ Except at a funeral.”
Demetri Martin

Today was the Day of Atonement. As an atheist, I find it hard to appreciate atonement in its cosmic, maybe-not-even-possible sense. But I can certainly appreciate the power of a good apology.

A few days ago, there was a…

Actually, I just realized that since this involves a real case going on at a real hospital with possible legal ramifications, it would be a terrible idea for me to describe it, so I’m going to change it around so far that it bears no resemblance to the original except a certain ambiguity around the idea of apologies.

So, a few days ago, there was a mishap at my hospital. A patient was having some pain, but was already heavily sedated already and further painkillers might be dangerous. I am still a lowly intern and wasn’t sure what to do, so I called up my attending, who told me to go ahead and administer the drugs. This was late at night, so immediately after doing that I signed the patient over to night shift and went home.

The next morning I came in and learned the patient had gotten loopy from being over-sedated and fallen down trying to walk to the bathroom. This can start a minor panic in a hospital, because we tend to have elderly people who don’t tolerate falls very well, and a bad one can mean anything from broken bones to a big lawsuit.

But in fact, the patient hadn’t gotten any broken bones or head injuries or anything like that. He had scraped his elbow. My attending came in a little after me, heard there was a fall, and freaked out that was some critical injury. I said “Oh, don’t worry, he just scraped his elbow.” The attending was very relieved, and we went into an office and discussed how to change our painkiller policies and prevent problems like this in the future.

A nurse heard the comment and when the patient’s wife came to ask about what had happened, she told the wife that the doctor had said the injuries weren’t a big deal. The wife then very reasonably filed a complaint against me, because all she knew about me was that I had administered the drug that caused the problem and that I had dismissed the resulting fall as “not a big deal”.

The complaint made its way up to a Head Honcho, who called me in for a meeting. I explained that I had consulted my attending about using the drug, and that what I had said had been said in private as an attempt to communicate that the patient was okay. The documentation supported me on both counts and I was Cleared Of Wrongdoing (thank God).

I then said I would call up the patient’s wife to apologize. The Head Honcho told me that I was quite right to want to call the patient’s wife to explain what had happened, but that I hadn’t done anything wrong and I shouldn’t sell myself short by saying “I’m sorry” or “I apologize” or any permutation thereof. It wasn’t about legal issues – the wife has already said she’s not suing us. He was just a nice guy and and thought it would be unfair to make me “confess” to something not my fault.

This incident has gotten me thinking about what exactly “I’m sorry” is supposed to mean.

First, it can mean “This problem was entirely the fault of my own moral failings. I admit to these moral failings, will try to give you whatever recompense I can, and will do everything possible to make this not happen again.”

For example, I cheat on my wife. Then I realize that was wrong and I apologize to her. It’s unambiguously my fault I cheated, and I accept that fault.

Second, it can mean “You are sad. I am sad that you are sad. I wish that this had not happened.”

For example, as per the quote at the top, I go to a funeral and tell the family I’m sorry about their loss.

Third, it can mean “You are sad. The reason seems to be very tangentially related to me or my actions, but no reasonable person would call it my fault. I am sad that you are hurt and if I could have prevented that I would have.”

For example, a doctor tries her best to save a patient, but the patient still dies. She tells the family “I’m sorry I couldn’t do more.” Or my friend in China is upset and I say “I’m sorry I can’t be there to help you get through this.” Or the hero tells the villain “I’m sorry it had to end this way” before shooting him.

Crucially but annoyingly, the first and third meaning are almost opposite each other. The first one is a way of saying “This is my fault”. The third one is a way of saying “This isn’t my fault.” They are both polite, deferential, and respectful of the pain that the victim is suffering. But only one of them admits wrongdoing.

Unfortunately, the English language really doesn’t have a great way of politely and deferentially being respectful of someone else’s pain that you are tangentially related to other than saying “I’m sorry”.

And also unfortunately, the English language really doesn’t have a great way of saying “This was not my fault” without sounding impolite, disrespectful, and like you’re trivializing the other person’s pain.

This is why myself and the Head Honcho are having so much trouble getting together a good statement to give to the patient’s wife. All of his proposed statements sound something like

“I heard you were concerned about my conduct in the case of Mr. X. I appreciate your distress, but I was not the one who chose to administer that drug, and when I described your husband’s injury I only meant that it wasn’t medically critical. The implication that it wasn’t a big deal was a misinterpretation by the nurse who gave you that statement.”

This is completely honest, yet it oozes “I am a callous businessperson who is concerned entirely with covering his own ass and doesn’t care about your pain.”

But all of my proposed statements sound something like:

I’m very sorry that your husband fell. I handed off the decision to give painkillers to a more senior doctor, but I recognize that this was partially my fault as well. Likewise, although I only meant to say that your husband’s injuries were not medically critical, I realize I could have chosen my words better. Please accept my apologies for this distressing incident.”

This makes me sound like a potentially decent person and a responsible doctor. But as the Head Honcho points out, there’s a sort of dishonesty in admitting more blame on paper than I’m willing to admit in my heart. Like, it’s true that I could have chosen my words more carefully, but if someone else were to accuse me of this, I would instantly object that since I had no idea someone would overhear them, distort them, and report the distorted version to someone else, there’s no reason I should have wanted to. The level of misinterpretation that happened to me could have happened to practically anyone at any time if they had the same bad luck – that utterance was not unusually careless by normal human standards.

The miniature angel on my right shoulder tells me I should do everything I can to let this woman know that I care about and regret her suffering, even at the cost of my own pride. It tells me I should accept “heroic responsibility” – that anything that happens is my fault at least far enough that I can learn from it and use it to be a better person next time. But the miniature Robin Hanson on my left shoulder tells me that I am just signaling my own virtue and responsibility while secretly I don’t believe any of what I’m saying.

Right now I’m leaning towards the angel (not that it matters; I can recommend, but the Head Honcho will make the final decision). I think my outlook is that people are reasonable: the patient’s wife, upon hearing what really happened, will read between the lines and realize it wasn’t quite my fault, but will appreciate my phrasing it in a way that emphasizes the importance I place on her concerns. I have talked to the patient’s wife before, I respect her, and I trust her to be a good apology-accepter.

The Head Honcho, who doesn’t know the patient’s wife, might worry otherwise. Perhaps she will be the sort of person who, when I give my apology, won’t buy it. She’ll shout “You could have chosen your words better?! No sh*t, Sherlock!! You chose those words in a very hurtful way, you’re irresponsible, and I’m going to ask the hospital to fire you for not caring about offending people!!”

Not only have I just made her angrier, but I’ve also abandoned my one advantage in this situation – the fact that I didn’t really do anything wrong. By admitting to some wrongdoing, I can no longer make the defense I made above – the one where I couldn’t reasonably expected my words to be twisted in that particular way – without being accused of backtracking and flipflopping and outright lying.

II.

I feel privileged to be hanging around basically decent people like my patient’s wife, and so to have a lot of options in terms of how to apologize. You know who has it really bad? Politicians. I cringe every time I see a story in the media about politicians apologizing or not apologizing.

Politicians can either give the first sort of statement I mentioned – a very dry “It’s not my fault” sort of statement – and look like shifty sleazy people even if, in fact, it was not their fault.

Or they can try to give an apology of the same type I was considering above, and then have all their words twisted and used against them forever until they eventually have to backtrack on it and get torn to pieces for doing so.

Suppose that an attractive female Senator is bringing a motion to the floor, and a male Senator mutters to himself under his breath “I’d like to motion her to the floor.” Unbeknownst to him, his Official Senate Lapel Microphone is on and broadcasts his statement to the entire C-SPAN watching public (so, like, five people).

Of course, the entire nation instantly suspends talking about boring things like the war in Syria or anthropogenic global warming to focus on the new scandal. “Sexism In The Senate?” the cover of TIME says. “Are Female Senators Just Objects For Men’s Amusement?” asks the cover of US News. And eventually the sound of a million screeching voices and the occasional death threat convinces Male Senator With Microphone that he should probably apologize or something.

Male Senator With Microphone probably feels terrible. He embarassed himself in front of his colleagues, he offended the female Senator he was talking about, disrupted the proceedings of the Senate, annoyed millions of average Americans, and maybe in some vague way contributed to sexism. He certainly has every reason and every right to feel bad.

On the other hand, noticing – just to one’s self! – that other people are attractive seems like a harmless and rather universal thing to do, and is hardly anything to feel bad about.

The most honest apology he could give would probably be “I’m sorry I said that aloud instead of just thinking it. I didn’t realize my microphone was on at the time. I will be more careful in noticing when my microphone is and isn’t on in the future.”

But of course that would mean the end of his political career. Everyone would say he was so tone-deaf and out-of-touch that he couldn’t realize the problem was that he was sexist, and not that he got caught being sexist. And the cries for his head would grow three times louder.

He could go a little further than that and remain honest. He could say something like “I am sorry that lots of people were offended by my statement. I did not mean to hurt anyone’s feelings and I will try to do better in the future.”

And then the newspapers, in front page headlines, would gleefully point out that he had only apologized “that people were offended” and not actually admitted wrongdoing. People would shake their heads and talk about how politicians always gave stuttering non-apologies, and eight different activist groups would hold large public demonstrations demanding he show real contrition instead of trying to “deflect the issue”.

Or he could go all out. He could say “I’m incredibly sorry that I wronged Senator Y in that way. Clearly I have some sexism issues I need to work on. I promise I will never do it again and I hope the American people can forgive me for being a bad Senator and a bad person.”

And then he would be torn to pieces.

First, everyone will demand he resign, throwing his own words about being sexist and a bad person back at him. Then, if he doesn’t resign, they will demand he “atone” for his misdeeds by oh, let’s say doing everything that feminist lobby groups want all the time, with the threat of getting constant “I GUESS SENATOR X WASN’T REALLY SINCERE ABOUT WORKING ON HIS SEXISM” any time he can’t comply quickly enough.

And the worst part will be that he will have no defense, because deep in his heart he knows he has given up his pride, his integrity, and his right to stand up for himself in order to very temporarily quiet the hordes.

This Hobson’s Choice between three terrible options is all the average politician has when accused of anything – whether or not the original accusation is even fair (and I have a gut understanding of this, having previously been a politician myself).

So is it any wonder that the average politician usually responds by denying all wrongdoing and accusing someone else?

III.

I am okay at apologizing for intellectual mistakes. There I can get new data and realize I was wrong. This is one reason I so want to apologize for prescribing the wrong painkiller. I thought listening to my attending’s advice and giving that painkiller would be okay. Events proved me wrong. I can apologize for my misjudgment without a hint of dishonesty.

The same is true of honest mistakes, like coming to work late because I accidentally set my alarm wrong. If anything, I over-apologize for these until everyone is sick of hearing me and tries to reassure me with “Really, it’s just an alarm. Not the end of the world.”

But I’m not very good at apologizing for moral mistakes. When I think courses of action are clearly wrong, I don’t do them. When I think courses of action are clearly right, I do them, but then I tend to continue thinking they are right and don’t see anything to apologize for.

Actually, my Yom Kippur was kind of a bust. I tried really hard to repent and I couldn’t really think of anything especially bad I did. It’s not that I’m a bad person, just that my life is kind of boring. I got exasperated with a couple of people more quickly than they deserved, but I feel bad repenting for it when I know that the next time someone is equally annoying I will probably get exasperated equally quickly. I mostly just have nice conversations with nice people, browse the Internet, and do my job moderately well.

I am tempted to ask other people if I have wronged them. It might provide useful data. The problem is, I’m afraid they’re going to say yes, and they will explain the way I wronged them, and then I will say “No, you’re wrong, I acted entirely correctly in that situation”, which would sort of break the whole point of repentance.

But although I am bad at apologizing, I think I am pretty good at accepting apologies. Accepting apologies requires understanding the Principle of Charity, not to mention the Fundamental Attribution Error. It requires going into a person’s shoes, imagining whether you could have done the same thing in the same circumstances, and gradually paring away at your anger until you can picture the absolute minimum amount of wrongdoing and malice they could have had consistent with them doing what they did, which is usually the amount they actually had.

It requires thinking “Yeah, I sometimes notice other people are hot, and so me and that senator are morally equivalent, and since I don’t blame myself for sometimes admiring people’s appearances, well, there but for the grace of not having a microphone in my lapel go I.”

Or “Well, I didn’t know everything about my job immediately after I started either, so if I had called my boss and asked for help and she had been wrong, I wouldn’t want anyone to take it out on me.”

Since English has no good way to express regret and compassion without also expressing fault, I think it is appropriate to apologize for things you don’t think were completely your fault – and I also think it is appropriate to accept those apologies in the spirit in which they were offered.

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37 Responses to Giving and Accepting Apologies

  1. randallsquared says:

    And then he would be torn to pieces.

    Except that public figures do the complete, contrite apology quite a lot, and it works out quite a lot. Look at all the televangelists who win back the confidence of their congregation.

    • Yadal says:

      Televangelists would be an unusual case, wouldn’t they? I think you may have a point, but they aren’t a good argument as the fact that we’re dealing with a culture which (theoretically) emphasises forgiveness distorts the issue somewhat.

    • Kerry says:

      I think this is true of American politicians as well, so much that “Wife of male politician stands behind him while he apologises at a podium for sexual misconduct” has become a cliche. My impression is that most recover fairly successfully.

    • Scott Alexander says:

      Seems to me the key difference is that the preacher and his congregation are on the same side. I bet most Democrats would be pretty willing to accept an apology from a Democratic politician. It’s the Republicans (and various neutrals in it for the bloodlust) who would get zir.

  2. Mark says:

    I don’t know, I feel like you could easily say something like, “It was extremely unfortunate that you heard me make that remark about your husband without having had the chance to get the whole context. Your feelings were completely understandable in this light, and you have my deepest sympathy. I do hope you understand that your husband’s well-being has always been of the utmost importance to me.”

    Maybe she’d still be mad, but it wouldn’t be because it’s impossible to casually express compassionate regret without taking responsibility. It’d just be because you didn’t take responsibility.

    • Mark says:

      Also, I’d want to add that the press would probably tear into the politician for demurring from responsibility-taking not because he’d necessarily come off as heartless, but because people would take him to be morally at fault. I think a relevant topic that’s absent here is moral luck. Many, many people will really believe your guilt is proportional to the harm you cause in certain situations, regardless of foreseeability. You’re usually not a monster if you forget to put out a campfire, but you are if the campfire happens to spread and burn the forest down, so in that case you need to express enormous contrition.

  3. Kerry says:

    Caveat: I’m going to use language around Jewish atonement because that’s how the post started, and I think it could be useful, not because I think non-Jews should start thinking this way.

    So before Yom Kippur we try to think of ways we’ve ‘transgressed’ against other people (‘transgression’ is an iffy translation but I think it’s the best English equivalent), and try to make them right. For an easy example, say I stole a nice wine glass from a friend’s house at a dinner party. I have to return the wine glass, buy a new wine glass of equal value or give the friend full financial compensation. The material transgression of “stolen wine glass” is repaired by the material act of “returning wine glass (or paying equivalent money)”.

    BUT there’s another part of the transgression that needs repairing, which is that I have destroyed my friend’s trust in me, and that needs to be sorted out just as much as the material object does. I can’t just go “Hey, I stole your wine glass last February, here it is back, so we’re all good now.” To repair the transgression of “stolen wine glass” I need to both return or replace the glass, and ‘return’ my friend’s trust by assuring her that it won’t happen again, that I understand why it was wrong and so it could never happen again.

    In the example with the patient, the ‘transgression’ against his wife is that she now (possibly) thinks you are incompetent and callous, and the hospital can’t be trusted to look after and care for her husband. To repair it in the context of teshuvah/Yom Kippur, you would need to restore her confidence in your and the hospital’s ability and willingness to care for him. The content of the apology, and who takes responsibility in what way, is less important than fixing “patient’s wife no longer trusts me and hospital, and is emotionally distressed” by making it so that “patient’s wife trusts me and hospital again, and is no longer distressed”. The transgression was against her trust and so the repair has to be of her trust.

    Again this isn’t a universal What People Should Think About When Apologising but I do find it useful to conceive of apologies as a way of repairing the damage I’ve done, however that needs to come about, rather than a legal disclaimer type clarification of responsibility. If that makes sense!

    • Julia says:

      I like this model. Even if you’re just signaling because you want her to feel better, her feeling better should be a main goal.

      I had a doctor screw up a bit with me recently (he didn’t tell me something about a medication that he should have told me.) The next time I saw him I called him on it, he apologized, and I felt better.

    • Nisan says:

      I’m pretty sure I agree, and I’m going to reexpress that from a different angle. I suspect this may be a case where the utilitarian strategy is the nonviolent-communication strategy. It’s *possible* that what the wife needs most in the example Scott gave is for Scott to take full responsibility. But it’s more likely that she needs to feel understood and to know that her husband is safe.

      • Kerry says:

        Yes, that’s a good way of putting it! Basically that the outcome of “wife feeling better” is more important than the specifics of how to get there (unless they’re harmful in another direction, of course, but I’m assuming they’re not).

  4. Vaniver says:

    I should do everything I can to let this woman know that I care about and regret her suffering, even at the cost of my own pride.

    So… let’s try something like this:

    I care deeply about you and your husband, and last night had to make a tough call which balanced A against B. I got advice from my attending physician, we agreed to sedate him, and this morning he fell and had a medically noncritical injury. We worry that our patients will break bones when they fall, and I chose my wording in haste to inform my attending that his injury was . I regret choosing my wording in haste, and am distressed by the suffering you and your husband are going through.

    Optionally, add on a “I still believe that we made the right call at the time.” There’s also probably a better word than “distressed,” but I didn’t want to use “regret” there because that could be interpreted as remorse which could be interpreted as a claim of wrongdoing on your part, but if it’s right next to a “I still believe we made the right call” that could diminish that claim.

    • houseboatonstyx says:

      What if it were the other way around, with the wife as the patient? Would so many emotionalistic words be used, and so much emphasis given to responsibility for the fact that the remark was overheard? (And shouldn’t the nurse who misquoted and exaggerated the remark, be held responsible for this?)

      As the concerned spouse, even though female, I’d like less flowery talk about feelings, and more facts about what happened and how the medical situation will be handled better in future. Something like this.

      I said that the skin scrape was not serious — not like the broken bones we worry about with elderly patients.

      As to the choice of more painkiller vs leaving zim in pain, my attending physician made that decision; would you like to talk to her? What are the patient’s preferences about that? Pls write them down and we’ll add it to zir chart.

      We had a conference this morning, and have scheduled more, about how to handle these situations in future. One possibility is to flag the patient to be watched extra carefully after such extra dose. Another possibility is to have a monitor device to alert us if zie gets out of bed. Please let us know if you have any thoughts on any of this.

      Something like this would give evidence of concern, rather than just claiming concern.

      • vaniver says:

        What if it were the other way around, with the wife as the patient? Would so many emotionalistic words be used[?]

        Yeah. Most complaints have “acknowledge my emotions” at the root, and so acknowledging their emotions does most of the work in responding to complaints. (This was the primary reason I posted- Yvain wanted to say he cared about the people in the situation, and was defaulting to doing that by accepting blame. But it’s possible to just directly say that you care. Of course, it’s important to say that with body language and actions, not words. Shouting “I’m listening to you!” when someone else is trying to talk is ineffective.)

        I’d like less flowery talk about feelings, and more facts about what happened and how the medical situation will be handled better in future.

        It’s not obvious to me that they made the decision with lower EV in this situation, which is why I went with the talk about balancing A against B, and remarking that the injury was not as serious as something they were aware of / planning against.

        • houseboatonstyx says:

          Too much talk about ‘your feelings’ may be indistinguishable from ‘you are just upset, there is no actual safety issue here’ — ie, a brush-off. Which is the opposite of reassuring, thus an undesirable outcome.

          Some spouse’s feelings may be soothed by evidence of concern, rather than by claims of concern.

          Why not give the spouse a chance to express zir own concerns, then answer those, whatever they are? A good opening might be, “I’m sorry about what happened” — and then leave it there for zim to tell you about whichever aspect zie is most focused on?

  5. Yadal says:

    I’m a bit surprised a Rationalist still participates in Jewish events. I would have thought for signaling purposes in the rationalist community you’d have to break it off.

    Out of curiousity, what is your actual reasoning for participating in such events Scott? The fact you’re an athiest goes without saying, after all.

    • Shea Levy says:

      I’m neither Scott nor a capital-R Rationalist, but as an athiest Jew whose social circles consist almost completely of people for whom the fact that they are an atheist goes without saying, perhaps my perspective will be relevant here.

      Note that I am specifically speaking as an upper class Ashkenazi American Jew and the Jewish community I was a part of growing up was conservative (in the religious, not the political sense) and zionist. Changing any of those things probably changes the Jewish experience significantly beyond individual variance within that group.

      “Jew”, to me, is a cultural identifier. Much like, say, “Irish”, the Jewish culture has a strongly associated religion (Judaism), and many important annual/life cycle events have religious origins and aspects, but you can be Jewish and participate in Jewish culture without being religious. To me, Jewishness is about:

      * Family. Major holidays mean going to spend time with my parents and grandparents and aunts and uncles and cousins, b’nai mitzvot and weddings are big life celebrations with the whole mishpacha, funerals are about working to make the memory of the dead be a blessing and providing emotional and basic needs-style support to those closest to the deceased, etc.
      * Food. I never eat latkes, apples dipped in honey, stuffed cabbage, matzah, schwarma, etc. except when I do. Certain foods are intimately tied up in my experience of being a Jew, and eating them is for me a Jewish act
      * Language. Hearing English words and names that come from Hebrew roots, looking up Old Testament verses in the original to get a more faithful translation (anyone who tells you the Bible starts with “In the beginning” is WRONG, damnit), using Hebrew numbers in my head when counting things one-by-one, wincing at Jehovah/Yahweh because you do not pronounce יהוה‎, making kinda ridiculous guesses at the meanings of Arabic snippets, singing random lyrics of certain songs that were popular when I was in high school in Hebrew and not really knowing the English words, speaking in terribly broken sentences to my brother and sister-in-law when we don’t want to be understood, etc. are all profoundly Jewish experiences for me. I do analogues of most of those things for Spanish, the other non-English language I kinda-sorta know, but there is a vague emotional sense of “this is mine” associated with Hebrew that I’ve never had for Spanish
      * Music. I will randomly break out into a beloved prayer, have a silly fondness for klezmer, know the entire rap interlude to the this one Israeli hip hop song I learned in high school, and will be the first one in the circle if any of a number of circle dancing songs come on at a bar/bat mitzvah or wedding. I very rarely go to shul (only for family member lifecycle events, really), but there’s a kind of haunting beauty that certain prayers have when sung by the whole congregation that is a big part of my musical psyche.
      * Cultural zionism. I have much more affinity for America than Israel, and I bear no special love for the Israeli government, but Israeli culture is deeply important to me. The historic locations, the various mostly Western but kinda Arabic lifestyles, the natural environment, etc. all hold a special place in my heart, and I expect to visit many more times in my life.
      * Holidays. Most holidays (Jewish or not) have religious origins, but the general concept of setting aside a particular day to focus on one of your values is not inherently religious. For me, pesach is for family, purim is for silly fun, yom kippur is for self-improvement, the rare shabbat is for rest, etc.
      * History. So many of the events that led to me existing in the culture I grew up in were due specifically to the fact that my ancestors were Jewish. Violence, exile, discrimination, etc. have not really been a direct part of my life, but the marks they left are still clearly visible on my culture.
      * Differentiation. I celebrate but don’t fully get Christmas (Hannukah is really not comparable). My understanding of Christianity and its values, mythology, theology, etc. is purely academic, not the deeply ingrained appreciation of someone who grew up with it. I am baffled by Christian theology and aesthetics in a way that I am not for Judaism, even though I can intellectually recognize that neither is more sensible or grounded than the other. These things separate me from the majority of Americans, and living as part of a culture that is strongly influenced by a force you don’t fully understand the same way everyone else does is a very Jewish experience
      * Values. I think that general positive evaluations of things like family and education can (and should) have a rational basis, but the way I value those things is distinctly Jewish. I don’t really know how to describe the difference, but it’s definitely noticeable when I compare with others who value the same things.

      None of these things are significantly religious, and, though I did have a period of denouncing everything Jewish because of the religious connotations, I would be losing a lot about my identity if I were to give it all up. I personally know quite a few non-religious Jews who feel similarly about much of this, though of course it’s not universal, and am not at all surprised that Scott still participates in Jewish events (though of course he may have completely different reasons than I do)

    • Scott Alexander says:

      I observe Mother’s Day because it seems useful to have a specific day devoted to thanking/honoring my mother, even though it is not a divinely ordained fact of the universe that it should be the somethingth Sunday in May.

      I “observe” Yom Kippur because it seems useful to have a specific day devoted to thinking about what I did wrong and how I can improve as a person, in much the same way.

  6. Deiseach says:

    Mmmm – or maybe Male Senator should consider that if he wouldn’t dream of saying such a thing about a male colleague, then maybe it’s not about acknowledging that “By Jove, X is an attractive specimen of humanity!”, it may just be sexism? And he should work on not regarding the women in the workplace as lumps of meat? That if he does feel “That one meets my high standards such that I would deign to have sex with her”, regardless of whether or not she might find him equally attractive or desirable, he maybe should work on (a) keeping his trap shut (b) not thinking about women like that?

    I know; I sound like a shrieking harridan who hates men and wants to castrate them all. No. Of course people find others attractive, and are going to comment on that, but there’s a difference in tone between “I think X is pretty/handsome” and “I’d give X one”.

    And please, gentlemen, don’t tell me you’d love it if women grabbed you and pulled you onto their laps. Believe me, you wouldn’t like it.

    • Leo says:

      I agree that he should be focusing more on law and less on how attractive his fellow Senators are while on the job, and I agree that the precise phrasing used implies he’s not taking into account what she would think of it, but I don’t think it’s fair to demand that a straight person notices how attractive people are regardless of gender.

      • Scott Alexander says:

        “I agree that he should be focusing more on law and less on how attractive his fellow Senators are while on the job”

        Really? If he were to think to himself for a few seconds during Senate down time “Man, that tie the Speaker is wearing is really nice. I should get a tie just like that for my next campaign stop,” would you feel it was your business to tell him he should be focusing more on law and less on neckwear?

    • houseboatonstyx says:

      I agree with Deiseach. A comment like, “Wow, isn’t she beautiful!” would have been quite a different thing. Though it would still have needed an apology for the open-mike blunder which disrupted the gathering, and for having his mind off the bill in question.

      As for the offensive remark actually postulated, it depends on who you are apologizing to. If he were privately apologizing to a trusted colleague or friend or his wife, an explanation and a promise to do something to prevent recurrence (such as taking it up with his therapist) might be helpful, imo.

      If it’s a public statement to opponents or opposition media that will attack anything he says, then President Bartlett’s statement about his open-mike remark was useful: “It should not have been said, and I’m not going to say anything more about it.”

    • Scott Alexander says:

      “Mmmm – or maybe Male Senator should consider that if he wouldn’t dream of saying such a thing about a male colleague, then maybe it’s not about acknowledging that “By Jove, X is an attractive specimen of humanity!”, it may just be sexism?”

      I think this might be a typical mind thing – I know woman notice / insta-focus on attractive women, but in general men do not notice / insta-focus on attractive men. I seriously do not think your brain works in a way that allows you to appreciate this fact.

      “And he should work on not regarding the women in the workplace as lumps of meat?”

      That doesn’t actually make any sense. Do you notice that in order to make it sound terrible, you’re having to completely change the story so that he’s doing a completely different thing?

      “That if he does feel “That one meets my high standards such that I would deign to have sex with her”, regardless of whether or not she might find him equally attractive or desirable, he maybe should work on (a) keeping his trap shut (b) not thinking about women like that?”

      As for a, the story was that he muttered it to himself. As for b, I don’t think you understand how hormones work

      “Of course people find others attractive, and are going to comment on that, but there’s a difference in tone between “I think X is pretty/handsome” and “I’d give X one”.”

      Usually differences in tone are things people do when they’re talking to other people – that is, they’re ways of disguising their thoughts. My brain may say “That person is the biggest idiot in history” but when I talk to them I say “You may want to reconsider your conclusion.” Certainly the Senator would have a lot to answer for if he were to say the same thing publicly. But these sorts of scandals seem to come to light mostly when someone says something in private, among people who don’t care if they censor their words, and it ends out in public by accident.

      • Joe from London says:

        Just posting to say that the line “Do you notice that in order to make it sound terrible, you’re having to completely change the story so that he’s doing a completely different thing?” instantly became one of my favourite things ever to show up on the internet. Kudos.

    • Brian says:

      “And please, gentlemen, don’t tell me you’d love it if women grabbed you and pulled you onto their laps. Believe me, you wouldn’t like it.”

      In American culture — I can’t speak for Irish — it’s not too difficult to find men showing experiences like this off as status markers. I of course can’t peek in the minds of every man that does this and claim that they universally enjoy it, but I can speak to the cultural expectation, and that’s fairly unambiguous: if an age-appropriate woman makes physical advances without prompting, that’s interpreted as evidence of sexual prowess and not as a violation. You’ve been visited by the Ass-Grab Fairy? Way to go, man.

      Now, it’s fairly obvious to me that this is thanks to differences in the sexual scripts attributed to men and women: men experience such advances less and culture therefore treats them as exceptional. Likewise, men are generally expected to do the initiating, so if you’re a guy and a woman crudely comes on to you, then that must mean you’re extra potent.

      I wouldn’t care to speculate how this might change in a culture where the sexual expectations for men and women were symmetrical. But they’re not, and so a simple reversal test isn’t going to be very illuminating under the circumstances.

    • Anonymous says:

      Because finding someone attractive means they are a lump of meat.

  7. Alex says:

    The senator scenario was hilarious. I especially loved the headlines.

    This is a fantastic post and I have also struggled with making apologies. I must admit I was hoping for either a brilliant solution to the problem of atonement or an analysis of why admitting fault is so tightly bound to expressing compassion in the English language.

    I think it has something to do with the way that people think of causality. For some reason, people tend to assume that anything that happens is because of a sentient agent. If something bad happens, then it has to be someone’s fault. Hence, if you are the only person involved in an unfortunate incident, the person to blame can only be you. Add in the fundamental attribution error and we have – If you are the only person involved in an unfortunate incident, then you are to blame, and you are guilty of a personal moral failing. Admitting that the consequences of your actions were bad is the same as admitting your moral failing.

  8. Neil in Chicago says:

    I’ll try to be brief about the Day of Atonement, but I’m surprised no one has set you straight.
    Incidentally, Judaism is defined primarily behaviorally. That is, almost all the “commandments” say “do this” or “don’t do that”. Very few have anything directly to do with what you think or feel or believe. There are plenty of atheist Jews.

    Yom Kippur is for atonement of sins between man and God. Sins between man and man must be made good by making peace and restitution between men. God does not enter into it at that level. “You broke it, you own it.”
    The custom is to ask forgiveness of everyone during the ten days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, and one of the Yom Kippur prayers announces forgiveness of anyone who has transgressed against you, so that you are not the occasion of their leaving something unrepaired.

    Personally, I don’t think theism has much directly to do with ethics. I do think any ethical person would appreciate the official line on forgiveness.
    (And undoubtedly, better educated Jews could clarify whatever mistakes or critical omissions I didn’t even know I’d made.)

  9. Crucially but annoyingly, the first and third meaning are almost opposite each other. The first one is a way of saying “This is my fault”. The third one is a way of saying “This isn’t my fault.” They are both polite, deferential, and respectful of the pain that the victim is suffering. But only one of them admits wrongdoing.

    Unfortunately, the English language really doesn’t have a great way of politely and deferentially being respectful of someone else’s pain that you are tangentially related to other than saying “I’m sorry”.

    And also unfortunately, the English language really doesn’t have a great way of saying “This was not my fault” without sounding impolite, disrespectful, and like you’re trivializing the other person’s pain.

    This seems like a feature of the English language, not a bug: it’s very valuable to have a way of sounding like you’re acknowledging blame without actually doing so.

    (Hmmm… when I put it that way, I realize I really should start saying “I’m sorry” more often.)

    • sam rosen says:

      I’m not so sure about this Chris. Eloise and I are very fastidious about the distinction between “I’m empathizing with you” and “I’m sorry.” And it makes our lives easier and saner.

  10. Jack says:

    That’s fascinating. A random selection of thoughts.

    I likewise tend to be perfectionist and massively overapologise for minor factual mistakes because I expect myself to have been perfect.

    And likewise don’t know how to deal with moral “mistakes”. One thing that’s helped is to accept that it’s often more complicated than I think, so if someone thinks I’ve done something wrong, I can sincerely say that I’m sorry I hurt them, and that I’ll think about it, even if I don’t instantly change my moral framework. Often my framework doesn’t update until a lot later, but that means there’s a category of moral questions marked as “pending” not “right” or “wrong”.

    I’m sorry you’re being complained against, that’s scary. I hope it does resolve itself easily!

    I don’t know what you should say in this situation. Assuming it’s a forgone conclusion you say _something_, my instinct is to be as straightforward as possible. Don’t take on extra blame because (a) however sincerely you try, it’s likely to sound insincere and (b) it _might_ rebound negatively on you later (if not for this case, then for a similar case in the future). How about a statement like — I apologise for the problems […] I used my best judgement and followed the instructions of my attending doctor, but they weren’t perfect, and the hospital is considering to see if they need to be updated. I’m sorry you heard an unfortunate comment — I meant that he wasn’t injured by the fall, but it was unnescessarily callous for you to have heard that. Maybe that’s too honest, but I think it strikes the right notes of what did go wrong, but wasn’t unprofessional, and but not claiming too much mistakes.

    As an analogy for the senator, something I’ve struggled very much to describe. Imagine he, eg. had a sexual fetish for master-slave relationships and commented on someone’s race. There is NOTHING WRONG with such a fetish. But he should be expected to know better than to let it leak out into public that he sees someone who’s supposed to be a professional colleague in a way primarily related to his own biases, especially biases that historically have used to exclude people targetted by them from public life entirely. Similarly, the same applies if his fetish is for “attractive women” — it’s just more common.

    I think part of the reason it’s so complicated is that different people will differ very much in how bad they think his comment was. Some people will think it’s totally unacceptable, beyond the pale (and the only chance is a sincere apology). Others will think it’s understandable, (and he should make a pro forma apology for letting it be public). So it may not illustrate their view on “how to apologise”, but their view on how offensive the comment was. That probably does mean the senator is screwed either way, but that’s not just because apologies are hard to do right.

  11. Michael Vassar says:

    If you and your community adopt good norms WRT how one signals virtue and responsibility, adhering to those norms can cause you to act virtuously and responsibly even if you don’t believe in the things you are doing in order to be responsible, at least if you do them in a non-half-assed manner.

  12. Shmi Nux says:

    “how to say sorry without apologizing” and similar searches bring up a variety of options. Below is my digest, based on the results.

    In your (purely hypothetical) case, you clearly do feel bad for the patient’s wife, so whatever you say to her should emphasize that you empathize (say that 5 times fast!). A better version of “Gawd, it must have sucked for you to be told that your husband’s doctor did not care about him”. Then make it clear that you do car about your patients (even if they are not really your patients), that’s why you do what you do to begin with. Admit that this unfortunate accidental miscommunication was not a good thing and that you will be thinking about ways to reduce the odds of it happening again, and will discuss them with your superiors. Then ask her what she thinks you and the hospital in general could have done better (an outside view can be useful on occasion) and thank her for caring not just about her husband, but also about all other patients who may benefit in the future from her suggestions. or something similar that does not stretch the truth into a blatant lie.

    At no point you actually have to apologize, only empathize and express gratitude.

  13. MugaSofer says:

    “The miniature angel on my right shoulder tells me I should do everything I can to let this woman know that I care about and regret her suffering, even at the cost of my own pride. It tells me I should accept “heroic responsibility” – that anything that happens is my fault at least far enough that I can learn from it and use it to be a better person next time. But the miniature Robin Hanson on my left shoulder tells me that I am just signaling my own virtue and responsibility while secretly I don’t believe any of what I’m saying.”

    Did you just call Eliezer Yudkowsky an angel?

  14. lmm says:

    I find that as I grow older I become more tolerant of (or resigned to) human failings. So I can sincerely apologise for the times when I got exasperated with annoying behaviour, because I have genuine hope that I would be less quick to anger if the same thing happened in the future.

    I’m surprised if your moral judgements don’t at least drift over time, if only as more information becomes available. Even if you’re using the same metaethics, it’s possible to apologise for the times when you made different object-level decisions to those you would now, or the times when you made the best decision you could given what you knew at the time, but having learned more you see it was now the wrong one. Though that may be falling into heroic responsibility again.

  15. ElTighre says:

    Huh, I’m really feeling you on how your understanding of “sorry” makes it hard for you to apologize for moral mistakes. My working theory has always been that most people are results-oriented in their thinking over being process-oriented, so they’ll apologize for any actions which end up hurting someone else (steelmanning their position would consist of them being sorry they weren’t smart/rational enough to find the solution which would keep anyone from being hurt).

    On the other hand, if you’re process-oriented like us, have devoted effort to divining the optimal processes in any given moral situation, and feel you can’t be found at fault for not somehow having done better, then you hit this situation where the only thing you can “apologize” for is that the world was being crappy.

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  17. MugaSofer says:

    “This Hobson’s Choice between three terrible options is all the average politician has when accused of anything – whether or not the original accusation is even fair (and I have a gut understanding of this, having previously been a politician myself).”

    You’ve been talking about the plight of us non-cunning-social-justice-rhetoric-manipulators people a lot recently. Any chance you’ll ever share these advanced social skills you learned during your Five Thousand Years?

    Obviously, some of these techniques may be evil. But you have unparalleled access to the rationalist community, so I’m guessing the instrumental value could be high.

    Oh, and I’m crazy curious, of course. Hmm, I think I’ll ask this on a few posts in the hope it’ll be seen.