Taking Wrongs Seriously: Apologies and Reconciliation

Taking Wrongs Seriously: Apologies and Reconciliation

Taking Wrongs Seriously: Apologies and Reconciliation

Taking Wrongs Seriously: Apologies and Reconciliation


Since the end of the Cold War, and particularly during the last fifteen years, the human need to amend immoral wrongs has been expressed in political discourse as a propensity to apologize for acts of past injustice. Can apology, by bringing closure to conflicts and by opening new possibilities for communication and mutual understanding, cultivate reconciliation and ameliorate the present? Taking Wrongs Seriously examines the increasingly potent role of apology as a social force. Contributors explore in a comparative and interdisciplinary framework the role and function- as well as the limitations- that apology has in promoting dialogue, tolerance, and cooperation between groups confronting one another over past injustices. Fourteen essays draw on a variety of disciplines- including history, international relations, transition studies, sociology, legal studies, psychology, and religion- to explore the real and symbolic transactions that lie at the core of apology. There is no similar introductory text on this subject that includes multiple disciplinary perspectives as well as such a wide geographical and historical spectrum of case studies.


Elazar Barkan and Alexander Karn

1. the Practice of Justice: An Ethical Imperative

In his Republic, Plato flirts with the notion that humans are diverted into the path of justice only by coercion and force of law. Given the opportunity to commit injustice and avoid punishment, reasonable humans choose to act in their own interest, because that is what nature deems good. Rehearsing the tale of Gyges, who one day finds a magic ring which confers on him the power of invisibility, Plato (as Glaucon) concludes "that a man is just, not willingly or because he thinks that justice is any good to him individually, but of necessity, for wherever any one thinks that he can safely be unjust, there he is unjust." Although we may praise in public the individual who exhibits self-restraint when presented with an opportunity to live "like a God among men," privately, Plato suggests, we regard this character as "a most wretched idiot." We do not—indeed, cannot—expect to see justice practiced voluntarily, since humans, unless confronted by the possibility of exposure and punishment, are unwilling either to speak truthfully or pay their debts (for Plato, the twin hallmarks of justice).

Of course, Plato (as Socrates) ultimately rejects Glaucon's proposition, arguing instead that humans submit freely to justice and law because they profit by doing so. There are ample rewards for those who restrain themselves in the face of temptation and make amends in the case of transgression. Justice, in this scheme, represents more than a middle road—as Plato's Thrasymachus characterizes it—between what is best (that is, to do evil and escape punishment) and what is worst (that is, to suffer injustice without remedy). Instead, the practice of justice becomes a certifiable good, an exercise in right behavior, inextricably linked for an idealist like Plato to the unfolding and refinement of history and reason. Philosophers, having identified the nexus between justice and right, need only to map its terrain for their fellow citizens in order for society to blossom fully and prosper. in the ideal state . . .

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