Nick Smith, "Justice through Apologies: Remorse, Reform, and Punishment" (Cambridge UP, 2014)


Most people say "I'm sorry" a lot. After all, we make a lot of mistakes, most of them minor, so we don't mind apologizing and expect our apologies to be accepted or at least acknowledged. But how many of our apologies are what might be called "strategic," that is, designed to do nothing more than placate the person we have wronged and essentially exonerate ourselves? In other word, how many of our apologies are genuine? It's a good question, but it raises another: what is a genuine apology? Does it involve an admission of guilt, remorse, a promise never to do it (whatever it is) again, compensation for the wrong? That's a good question too, but it, too, raises a question: how can we tell a strategic apology from a genuine one? Gnashing of teeth? Wailing? Weeping? Statements against interest? As Nick Smith points out in his insightful Justice through Apologies: Remorse, Reform, and Punishment (Cambridge University Press, 2014), we don't usually ask any of these questions when giving and taking apologies, and even when we do, our answers don't make much sense. This thoughtlessness is particularly troublesome when apologies are used or required in high-stakes legal contexts. What can an apology mean when a judge compels a criminal to give one in exchange for a lesser sentence? What can an apology mean when a huge corporation issues one in a civil case knowing full well that doing so will likely reduce the damages it will have to pay? How can an apology be genuine--or even distinguished from a strategic apology--when the apologizer has so much to gain if they apologize and so much to lose if they don't? All good questions. Listen in.

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Marshall Poe

Marshall Poe is the founder and editor of the New Books Network. He can be reached at

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