July 14th, 2008
08:36 AM ET

Jesse Jackson and the Ethics of Apologies

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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:

  1. An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, and... 
  2. When we do something that’s wrong, we ought to apologize sincerely and quickly. Jackson’s initial, misbegotten statement of remorse is now a matter of record, and that, more than all of his subsequent television interviews, is what many will remember.

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:


  • Admit your mistake quickly and take personal responsibility for it. Don't say "we made a mistake" when you mean "I made a mistake."
  • Apologize first to the person you have wronged. That is the person who matters most.
  • Speak from the heart. An insincere apology is as bad as no apology at all. People can tell when you really mean it, even if you think you're a good actor and can fool everyone.
  • Realize that "sorry" is just a word. For that word to be meaningful, you must do your level best to avoid repeating the mistake. This means coming up with a strategy and sticking to it.
  • Understand that a meaningful apology is a sign of integrity, not weakness. Anyone can blame others, or deny that he or she did anything wrong, or lie about what really happened. Only a strong, self-possessed person can own up to their mistakes, and only such a person commands true respect.

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.


  • If someone has done something wrong and apologizes to you, accept the apology graciously. However...
  • You are also justified in expecting the person to avoid repeating the behavior that required an apology in the first place.
  • Depending on the situation, you might need to make clear to the other person what the consequences will be if he or she makes the mistake again.
  • "Three strikes and you're out" is fine for baseball, but in other areas, it may take only one strike for someone to be justifiably banished from being a player. Some mistakes are so serious that you should not grant a second chance. For relatively minor slip-ups, however, or if the task at hand is unusually difficult, it might be unfair not to allow more than three opportunities to get it right.
  • If the apologist continues making the same mistake over and over, you may have to say, perhaps regrettably, "I can't in good conscience give you another opportunity to slip up," no matter how much that person continues to apologize. This may mean, for example, ceasing to make lunch plans with a friend who routinely breaks the date at the last minute, or firing an employee who can’t do his or her job.

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.


Filed under: 360° Radar • Bruce Weinstein
soundoff (6 Responses)
  1. Ratna, New York, NY


    Your mental reasoning about ethics may be right, but in this issue (Jesse Jackson) you need to look at the complexity of this case from all angles. Ethics has no steady formula and eliminates emotions! You need to look deeply at the circumstances.

    July 14, 2008 at 8:15 pm |
  2. Tracey - Boston

    Good Point Gary.

    The REV has threatened to physically harm a presidential candidate. Anyone else would be in jail.

    July 14, 2008 at 4:47 pm |
  3. Gary Chandler in Canada

    Does "REV" Jackson have a bishop? Whos monitors 'conduct unbecoming' in his 'church'? Also, why didn't the Secret Service detain him? It used to be called getting off 'Scott free".

    July 14, 2008 at 4:25 pm |
  4. Jean Gabriel

    I think Reverend Jackson meant what he said. His opology means nothing to me, just a formality. He should be proud that the black community has a role model of its own in the person of Senator Obama. But some people do not really see the community they vow publicly to serve: they serve their own selves first. It is sad to admit it but Rev. Jackson's words are the true expression of his jealousy against Sen. Obama: Obama has acheived in a short time what the Reverend could not in a life time. It is so bad! Shame on us!

    Jean Gabriel

    July 14, 2008 at 2:10 pm |
  5. Larry

    And to think that the Phil Gramm whiner story pushed this story of physical threat off the front page.

    July 14, 2008 at 1:16 pm |
  6. Sherri

    It never ceases to amaze me that public figures- well seasoned in being in the public venue- say or do rephrehensible things and get caught. If you are in a TV studio, wearing a body mic- how about just assuming it's 'hot' and speak accordingly? What a concept! This constant parade of 'celebrities' making empty and vapid apologies for bad behavior is wearing. Catch phrases ring hollow. It would appear that the old adage 'if you can't say something nice, don't say anything at all' is unfamiliar to many in the public eye. Of course they are entitled to their personal opinions and views. The public does not have to be exposed to them, however.

    July 14, 2008 at 10:06 am |