Paulina Sliwa (Vienna): "An Anatomy of Apology"

Event date
15 June 2023
Event time
15:00 - 17:00
Oxford week
TT 8

Paulina Sliwa (Universität Wien)

Notes & Changes

Abstract: What do we want from an account of apologies? It should tell us how apologies work. It should identify what is distinctive about the speech act of apologies. Equally importantly, it should also tell us something about the standards governing apologies. Why do some apologies – “I’m sorry but [insert litany of excuses]” – fall drastically short? What is it that makes for good apologies? It should elucidate why apologies are sometimes morally indispensable and why, at other times, insisting on an apology can be petty. Finally, it should situate our practice of apologising within the wider practice of holding each other morally responsible and draw out its relationship to blaming, making excuses and justifying ourselves, taking responsibility, and forgiving.


My aim in this paper is to develop such an account of apology. I will start by discussing three prominent proposals for what characterises apologies qua speech acts: that to constitute an apology a speech act needs to express guilt or remorse, that it needs to make a request for forgiveness, and that it needs to express a particular commitment, for example, to act differently in the future. I will argue that neither of those identifies a constitutive feature of an apology: that is, a speech act does not have to express guilt or remorse, nor request forgiveness, nor express a commitment to act differently in the future in order to constitute an apology. Nor do these proposals capture the norms governing apologies: what makes for good apologies.


The criticism motivates my positive account: the normative footprint account. In a nutshell: apologies communicate our acceptance of the normative footprint of the wrong we have done to someone. Wrongdoing changes the normative landscape in a characteristic way. It creates reparative rights and duties – the duty to acknowledge the wrong done, to explain, to compensate –it changes the feeling and relationship rights and duties in play. Te function of apologies, I suggest, is to communicate our acceptance of the normative footprint of the wrong we have done to someone. In this way, apologising is a way – indeed the paradigm way – of taking responsibility for one's wrongdoing.


Why should we believe the normative footprint account? My defence of it rests on showcasing its explanatory powers. Tinking of apologies as speech acts whose function it is to communicate acceptance of the normative footprint, captures and sheds light on a variety of their features. It also brings out the norms governing apologies. Good apologies match the normative footprint of a wrong. Apologies can fall short both by over- and undershooting. Finally, the normative footprint account gives us an elegant way of locating our practice of apologising within our wider practice of holding each other morally responsible.

Paulina Sliwa, presents the final paper of Trinity Term 2023: "An Anatomy of Apology"

This seminar takes place in the Bostar Hall, University College, at 3:00pm on Thursday June 15.



Bostar Hall is reached through University College's Radcliffe Quadrangle. Find staircase 11 and walk past four doors straight to find the room to your left.


This event is open to anyone. No registration needed.

Pre-reading is desirable but not a requirement to attend


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