Being Obnoxious: Apologies in Advance

Can you apologise in advance?

Posted Mar 08, 2012

I'm sorry if I'm being obnoxious but....

That was the first half of the first line of a recent email I received. The author of the email proceeded to be obnoxious. There is, unfortunately, nothing surprising about obnoxious people or obnoxious emails. This particular email did, however, lead me to wonder about the use of the "I'm sorry if P, but (then proceed to P) " locution.

On the face of it, the "if" is quite important. It would be mysterious to begin one's correspondence with "I'm sorry that I'm being obnoxious, but". If you don't know your email is obnoxious, then you are precluded from apologizing for it in advance. If you do know your email is obnoxious but you choose to send it anyway, what is the role of the advanced apology?

Indeed, an obvious question to ask if whether one can genuinely apologize (as opposed to merely write or speak the words "I'm sorry") for something that one has yet to do, but is about to do. That, in turn, raises the question of what it takes for an apology to be genuine in the first place.

According to philosopher Luc Bovens, genuine apologies involve a number of components. Of these, one is especially interesting in the light of my recent email correspondence. The component I have in mind is the cognitive component. According to Bovens, the apologiser must recognize that what she did was morally wrong and that she is culpable for her action.

This means she must do more than merely regret that what happened turned out badly. I can correctly believe that I did the morally right thing, even if it turned out that this had unforseen bad consequences, and I can regret that it had those consequences without believing that I am morally culpable (witness if I try and save someone's life by giving them CPR and in doing so I break a couple of their ribs. I might regret that their ribs are broken, but as long as I did the right thing, I am not morally culpable and hence need not apologize for breaking their ribs).

What is required, then, to take oneself to be morally culpable for an action? Well one might think that it is necessary that one is committed to wishing that things had gone differently with respect to that action. That is, that if the clock were turned back one would act differently than one did, and in future situations relevantly morally like the one in which one found oneself, one will act differently. If moral culpability requires such a commitment, then it looks as though one can never genuinely apologize in advance for an action one will perform. For one cannot both be committed to doing something other than some particular morally culpable action, whilst at the same time knowing that one will perform that morally culpable action.

If that were true, it would certainly explain what is mysterious about "I'm sorry that I'm being obnoxious but...". For an email that began this way would begin with a putative apology for an action that is yet to occur. But such an apology cannot be genuine.

It might, however, be too quick to conclude that one cannot both be committed to doing something other than morally culpable action, A, whilst at the same time knowing that one will do A. So it might be too quick to conclude that one cannot genuinely apologize for something one has not yet done. Bovens, for instance, points to cases of akrasia-chronic weakness of will. If I have akrasia, I might know of myself that I will perform action A under the same circumstances, even though I take myself to be morally culpable for A. Indeed, if I know I have chronic weakness of will, I might know that I would in fact do A again even if I had my time over. Yet it does seem that the chronic akratic can genuinely apologize for her actions. This suggests that it is not true that in order that I take myself to be culpable for A, I am also committed to not performing A in the future under relevantly morally similar circumstances. Perhaps I need not even be committed to thinking that if I had my time over again, I would not do A.

If that is true, then it also seems plausible that the akratic can apologize for actions that she has yet to perform. The chronic akratic may apologize for an action that she wishes she would not undertake in the future, but which she feels sure she will undertake. Why can she make a genuine apology even in the light of knowing that she will almost certainly repeat the very same behaviour in the same circumstances? If she can, it is presumably because she both wishes that she would not undertake the same actions, and she intends that she will not undertake those same actions, even if whilst so intending she knows that in all likelihood she will fail to do what she intends.

We can tell a similar story for someone gripped by compulsions. Suppose an individual is psychologically compelled to correspond in an obnoxious manner but deeply wishes it were not so. Such a person, it would seem, can genuinely apologize for having written obnoxious correspondence, despite knowing that in all probability she will write the same kind of correspondence in the same kinds of circumstances. For such a person can intend not to write such correspondence, whilst predicting that in fact she will do so. So such a person can genuinely apologize, in advance, for the fact that she will in the future write some obnoxious correspondence, as long as she sincerely intends not to write the correspondence.

What seems rather more dubious is that one can sincerely intend not to write a particular obnoxious email whilst at the very same time writing that email. I cannot intend not to do what I am in the process of doing. So I cannot genuinely apologize for the very piece of correspondence that I am currently writing.

Arguably then, the compulsive author just described cannot genuinely apologize in this email, for the contents of this very email. She cannot, in all sincerity begin an email with "I am sorry that I am being obnoxious, but".

What then, of the author of the email I received? Perhaps the fact that the email began with the somewhat different "I'm sorry if I'm being obnoxious, but" makes all the difference. One might think that the use of "if" is important, since it suggests that the writer is uncertain whether there is any action for which he or she is morally culpable. In the case of the email in question, if there is any uncertainty it must surely be uncertainty over whether the email is obnoxious (not uncertainty over whether being obnoxious is morally objectionable). But if someone has such uncertainty, he surely does not know that he is doing something morally culpable, and therefore such a person does not meet the cognitive component as laid out by Bovens. Indeed, surely such a person is not committed to acting differently with respect to their relevantly similar actions in the future, nor do they intend that if they had their time over they would act differently. If such a person had that wish, he could simply refrain from sending the email. So an utterance of "I am sorry if" is not really a usual apology at all. It is not an apology for the email having a content that could be obnoxious. Rather, the author is offering a conditional apology. She is offering an apology if it turns out that the email is obnoxious and not otherwise. Someone can be committed to the conditional claim: if it turns out that the email is obnoxious, then I am committed to holding that I would do things differently if I had my time over, and to doing things differently in the future. So someone can genuinely offer a conditional apology for actions they have yet to perform.

An important feature of the conditional apology is that the more the apologizer thinks it likely that the action he is about to perform is morally objectionable, the closer he comes to uttering a straightforwardly insincere apology rather than a conditional apology. It is because of this that one suspects that in some cases the use of the conditional apology is a deliberate piece of deception engineered to make it appear as though a genuine apology has been offered when in fact no such thing has really occurred at all. That, in the end, is what makes the receipt of such emails all the more obnoxious.