Monday, September 14, 2009

Institutional Apologies

The British government has apologized for its treatment of Alan turing, the genius who created the machine that allowed the British to crack the German Enigma code during WWII, the most complex that had ever been developed at the time and was considered completely secure. He was an intellectual giant working at the intersection of logic, philosophy, mathematics, and computer science before there were computers. He ought to be a point of great national pride, yet he is, in fact, a subject of great national embarrassment. When the government found out he was gay, they treated him abominably, the MI6, the U.K.'s version of the CIA hounding him and the court declering that he would need to be chemically sterilized, it led him to suicide.

After a popular movement calling for an apology gained momentum, garnering both publicity and celebrity support -- yes, the British actually have intellectual celebrities, imagine that -- the Prime Minister made the apology on behalf of the government.

While Turing was dealt with under the law of the time, and we can't put the clock back, his treatment was of course utterly unfair, and I am pleased to have the chance to say how deeply sorry I and we all are for what happened to him. Alan and the many thousands of other gay men who were convicted, as he was convicted, under homophobic laws, were treated terribly. Over the years, millions more lived in fear in conviction. I am proud that those days are gone and that in the past 12 years this Government has done so much to make life fairer and more equal for our LGBT community. This recognition of Alan's status as one of Britain's most famous victims of homophobia is another step towards equality, and long overdue.

But even more than that, Alan deserves recognition for his contribution to humankind. For those of us born after 1945, into a Europe which is united, democratic and at peace, it is hard to imagine that our continent was once the theatre of mankind's darkest hour. It is difficult to believe that in living memory, people could become so consumed by hate – by anti-Semitism, by homophobia, by xenophobia and other murderous prejudices – that the gas chambers and crematoria became a piece of the European landscape as surely as the galleries and universities and concert halls which had marked out the European civilisation for hundreds of years.

It is thanks to men and women who were totally committed to fighting fascism, people like Alan Turing, that the horrors of the Holocaust and of total war are part of Europe's history and not Europe's present. So on behalf of the British government, and all those who live freely thanks to Alan's work, I am very proud to say: we're sorry. You deserved so much better.
The question is what it means for an institution to apologize. When an individual apologizes to another person whom s/he has wronged, the apology does four things: (1) it takes responsibility for the action, you cannot apologize for something if you do not claim ownership of the wrong, (2) it empathizes, an apology requires an acknowledgement of the suffering of the other and a sense that you understand the harm you have done, (3) it expresses regret, the sense that right now you wish you could turn back the clock and chosen to have done differently, and (4) it promises, it makes the forward looking claim that in similar circumstances, you will act differently.

But what about cases like this one, or apologizing for slavery where the person doing the apologizing on behalf of an institution was not the one to have commited the act and those who were directly harmed are no longer alive? Can such an apologizing act really apologize?

The key here is that it is the institution, not the individual, that apologizes. For an instittution to say it acted wrongly, it must be the case that an individual can act. This is a live question in the world of business ethics. Thinkers like Manual Velasquez argues that corporations do not act, individuals only act since only individuals have bodies. But others like Peter French argue that corporations make decisions, decisions that may not be identical to those of any one individual -- take corporate board decisions, for example. These decisions are then put into action using the means of the corporation. Just as someone who has been paralyzed would be guilty of murder for paying a hitman, so too the corporation may be held responsible for its acts for paying individuals in its employ to carry out its will.

So, we can say that governments act. This means that governments can act wrongly. But what does it mean for a govenrment to apologize? It can accept blame, that seems clear. It cannot express empathy or regret, though, as while it may make decisions, surely institutions do not emote. We can talk of the morale of a group, but that does not seem the same as having extra-personal emotions. It can say that the current people occupying spaces in the organization are individually unanimous in empathizing and regretting the actions of the institution at a previous time, but that seems different in important ways.

What it can do, though, and this seems to be where these sorts of public apologies on behalf of institutions are meaningful, is make the claim that lessons have been learned and deciusions and behavior will change. Demonstrate that safeguards and procedures have been put in place to make sure that horrors of that sort will never gaain be possible and that the institution is now on the other side of guarding those who were harmed instead of further harming them or abandoning them.

As such, these apologies seem to be half apologies. They accept responsibility and offer reasons to believe that they have changed. This makes them valuable acts even if they are not full apologies.