Apology, Forgiveness, and Moral Repair

| December 2008
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Forgiveness: A Philosophical Exploration, Charles L. Griswold (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007), 268 pp., $80 cloth, $21.99 paper.

I Was Wrong: The Meanings of Apologies, Nick Smith (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008), 310 pp., $99 cloth, $24.99 paper.

Moral Repair: Reconstructing Moral Relations after Wrongdoing, Margaret Urban Walker (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006), 262 pp., $74 cloth, $27.99 paper.

The author is a Program Officer at the United States Institute of Peace, which does not take positions on policy issues. The views expressed here are the author’s own.


It is a tragic irony that as interest grows in how societies can account for past wrongdoing with the goal of promoting moral repair, relieving suffering, and shoring up justice, the incidents of wrongdoing stemming from conflicts worldwide only seem to multiply—witness, more than half a century after Auschwitz, the ongoing genocide in Darfur. This tragic reality undoubtedly inspires the passionate nature of writing within the field of transitional justice and reconciliation. Despite the Sisyphian nature of the task, it is heartening to see much strong work emerging on the topic.

Apology, forgiveness, reparations, restitution, truth-telling, acknowledgment, restorative and retributive justice, trust, repair, reconciliation: How do these processes relate to one another, how do they differ, and how do they operate at different social levels, from individuals to polities? Are they all even appropriate as responses to different types of wrongdoing? Three recent works works by philosophers Charles L. Griswold, Nick Smith, and Margaret Urban Walker help to illuminate these closely related concepts, today’s coin of the realm in discussions of transitional politics. Despite the fact that each author tends to focus on one process in particular, all eleven of the processes listed above emerge in each account in one way or another, demonstrating the degree to which they are intertwined in what is a complex whole. In addition, two of the books discuss processes or forces that appear less consistently in the transitional literature: hope, in Margaret Urban Walker’s study; narrative, in Charles Griswold’s; and resentment and trust in both.

Taken together, the three works discussed here provide a rich introduction to some of the processes needed in transitions from injustices to more humane and hopeful relationships. All three address different levels of moral repair—between individuals, between individuals and groups, and between political collectives, the latter being between political collectives, the latter being my area of interest here. All three works benefit from a blend of disciplinary approaches, and from clear writing that does not limit their audience to those versed in philosophical vocabulary and methods of argument.

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Category: Issue 22.4, Review Essays

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