Editor's Note: Dr Weinstein discusses ethics every Friday on American Morning. Some of the material in this article appeared originally on BusinessWeek.com
Bruce Weinstein, Ph.D.
The Ethics Guy, BusinessWeek
What are the ethics of giving and accepting an apology? I’ll answer this question, first with respect to the Jesse Jackson story, and then more broadly as the issues applies to all of us.
In a written statement last week, Jackson said, “For any harm or hurt that this hot mic conversation may have caused, I apologize.” This is a classic non-apology apology, since it is a thinly attempt to blame others for the problem. The phrase “hot mic conversation” implies that Fox News was wrong to broadcast Jackson’s remarks, and “any harm or hurt [my remarks] may have caused” suggests that the culprit is not Jackson himself but all of the hypersensitive people out there who feel offended.
What Jackson should have said was, “I take full responsibility for my inappropriate comments, and I am deeply sorry that I said them.”
No one is asking Jackson to be a perfect human being. From time to time, all of us say things that we shouldn’t. The right response to such gaffes, however, is not shifting the blame to others but owning up to the mistakes and doing our level best not to repeat them. Jackson spent a considerable amount of time and energy yesterday asking the public to excuse his behavior. The lessons here are two-fold:
For his part, Senator Barack Obama took the high road and, in accepting Jackson’s apology (such as it was), Obama showed that doing the right thing is the best PR tactic of all, even if the reason to do the right thing simply because it is the right thing to do. Perhaps it would have been praiseworthy for Obama to address the issue himself, rather than to use a spokesperson to do so, but after all, he is running for President and has bigger fish to fry.
This story raises broader questions about the ethics of apologies that are worth addressing:
• What makes an apology meaningful?
• Does apologizing make us look weak?
• How should you respond if you can't avoid repeating the mistake?
• What may we rightfully expect from someone who apologizes to us?
To answer these questions, it will be helpful to keep two ethical principles in mind: Be Fair and Be Loving. Fairness requires, among other things, that the punishment should fit the crime, and some forms of wrongful conduct are so serious that a mere "I'm sorry" isn't enough of a response. To be loving and compassionate in our professional and personal lives calls upon a different set of skills: we should do what we can to honor a person's sincere apology, even though our anger pulls us in the opposite direction.
With these two principles in mind, I propose the following guidelines for giving and accepting apologies:
WHEN YOU *OWE* AN APOLOGY:
Don't be afraid to ask for help. If you can't do something well on your own, invite others to work with you on the problem. If the problem is beyond your grasp, consider asking someone else to take it on, if it is appropriate for you to do so.
WHEN YOU ARE *OWED* AN APOLOGY:
The 1970 film Love Story featured the memorable line, "Love means never having to say you're sorry." Even if this were true, there are many other areas where we do have to say we're sorry-and mean it. The challenge for all of us is to admit we've made a mistake, to do our best to ensure that we don't do it again, and to forgive others who sincerely regret their own poor judgment. No one is perfect, but most of us do have the capacity to right our own wrongs and to accept the imperfections in others.
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