A picture of the word 'sorry' written in the sky.

The Four Levels of Apology

Apologies are crucial for relationships. Apologizing allows for forgiveness and anger reduction, among other things (McCullough et al 2014). It took my spouse and I awhile to realize that we did not understand ‘I’m sorry’ in the same way. So, eventually, we agreed to distinguish between four levels of apology. These levels capture each of our concepts of ‘apology’ (as well as some related concepts). Later on, we drew up another set of distinctions to gauge the badness of what we apologize for. In this post, I’ll explain the distinctions and how they help our relationships.

1. Four Levels of Apology

My spouse and I like speaking precisely. “Precision of language!” we tease one another (Lowry 2002). So how precise are we when it comes to apologies and responsibility?† Well, depending on how responsible we feel, we will offer one of four levels of apology:

  1. Compassionate: “I’m sorry about X even though X is not, in any relevant way, my fault.” For instance, I might say “I am sorry to hear about your grandmother’s passing” even though I played no part in your grandmother’s death (Lazare 2005, Chapter 2).
  2. Agnostic: “I’m sorry about X, and I think it’s possible that I am responsible for X, but I honestly don’t know whether or not I’m (even partly) responsible.” This is similar to a conditional apology: “If I am responsible for X, then I am sorry.”
  3. Partial: “I’m sorry about X and I take myself to be at least partially responsible for X.” In this case, I was only part of the event in question. Other factors also contributed to the event.
  4. Full: “I’m sorry about X and I’m (for our intents and purposes) fully responsible for X.”

2. Four Levels of Badness

In the heat of an argument, we can easily lose perspective. So sometimes, after I have apologized and reconciled with my partner, we find ourselves asking, “How big a deal was that, really?”

This question might be interpreted as a few different questions. First, this question might be about whether some action was really as bad as it seemed initially. Second, the question might be about whether one of us really made some sort of error. With these two variables in mind, an answer to our question begins to emerge.

Was it Bad? Was it a mistake?  So is it a big deal?  Then let’s call it
✔︎ Probably not Negligible
✔︎ Potentially Unfortunate
✔︎ ✔︎ Human
VERY! UNCONSCIONABLE! Of course! Inhuman

The Four Levels

Perhaps you want to know more about what I mean by ‘negligible’, ‘unfortunate’, ‘human’, and/or ‘inhuman’?” in the table above. That’s fair. Here’s the rough draft of what I have in mind.

  • Negligible. I made an error, but it’s not really bad. So it’s not a big deal. Making a fuss about it is more of error than the error itself.
  • Unfortunate. I caused something non-negligibly bad, but what I did wasn’t really a mistake. Perhaps I had to act quickly and my circumstances imposed uncertainty. I did as good as anyone should with the time and information that I had, but my action had a bad outcome nonetheless.
  • Human. I made a mistake and it caused something non-negligibly bad. This sucks. Still, the error is pretty common and well-understood. For example, we’re selfish, biased, bad at diagnostic reasoning, etc. The good news is that because this behavior is well-understood, we can probably take steps to prevent me from doing it again in the future!††)
  • Inhuman. It’s pure, undiluted evil for which there can be no recompense.†††

3. An Example

These days, my spouse and I use the apology distinctions pretty much every time we apologize.

Nick: I’m sorry honey.

Hannah: What level?

Nick: Level 3.

And we add further precision to the conversation with the badness distinctions.

Hannah: Thanks honey. I guess it’s not a big deal. It’s just unfortunate.

According to the distinctions, I’ve apologized and admitted that I think I’m at least partially responsible. So my apology assures Hannah that I accept some responsibility. And Hannah suggests that I haven’t, strictly speaking, made a mistake. So Hannah’s response de-escalates our interaction further.

4. Conclusion

So what do you think of our distinctions between levels of responsibility and badness? We find them helpful. If you also find them helpful, then maybe you can help someone by sharing them. And if you have thoughts on how to make these distinctions more helpful, then feel free to let me know.

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† For what it’s worth, I don’t think free will is necessary for responsibility. (And, if I am honest, I am agnostic or skeptical about free will, depending on the day.)

†† I am inspired here by the forward-looking approach to action and responsibility from Gregg Carusso (2013). The book is below, but here are some more digestible forms of the view: TEDx talk, interview on Philosophy Bites podcast, interview on Informal Hour podcast.

††† To be honest, I’m not convinced that the ‘inhuman’ category is real. I get the sense that all human error — no matter how severe — will make sense in some (albeit twisted) way. And although I can imagine something that is extremely undesirable, I just can’t imagine something that is pure evil. So even if someone’s behavior is very erroneous and very bad, it would still wouldn’t be inhuman is the sense I have in mind.

Featured image: “Sorry in Sydney” from Butupa. CC BY 2.0

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Nick Byrd

Nick is a cognitive scientist at Florida State University studying reasoning, wellbeing, and willpower. Check out his blog at byrdnick.com/blog