Reconciliation #1 – Genuine and Disingenuous Apologies

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Area: Literature/Language Arts
Grade Level: High School & Beyond, Middle School
Topics: apology, culpability, ethics, guilt, humility, regrets, remorse
Estimated Time Necessary: Two Hours (can be broken out over several shorter sessions)

Lesson Plan

Examine when apologies are genuine or disingenuous.
We explore four suggested conditions for genuine apologies. When offering an apology, one might think we must recognize that what one did was wrong, be willing to mend one’s ways, have regrets, and show humility.

This lesson plan can be read in conjunction with “Chapter 4. Reconciliation” (pp. 69-82) in the freely available teaching resource Coping: A Philosophical Guide (Open Book Publishers, 2021) with discussion questions (pp. 124–5) and additional teaching materials (p. 119–20). 

1. Disingenuous Apologies

Start with the Harley Schwadron cartoon in which a TV presenter says that he’d “like to apologize to any morons our TV editorial may have offended.” This is clearly a disingenuous apology as it both belittles those who were offended and uses ableist language to do so.

Discussion Questions:

  • Can you think of any cases in your own life in which either you offered, or someone offered you a disingenuous apology?
  • Can you think of any cases in the news in which a politician or celebrity offered a disingenuous apology? What was disingenuous about it?

The goal of this discussion is to get the students to identify at least some components of a genuine apology. I would expect them to come up with at least some of the following points. A person who apologizes

  1. … should recognize that what they did was wrong, not just that it was unfortunate that it made others feel bad.
  2. … should have the intention to change their ways. An apology doesn’t count for much if one is about to do the very same thing again.
  3. … should feel bad about what they did. We would expect some remorse or at least regrets as well as sympathy for the harm or hurt that was caused.
  4. … should apologize with the right attitude. That is, one should not gloat or be arrogant when apologizing. Instead, we expect some humility in the delivery of an apology.

Next Step: Once you have some of these elements on the board, you can turn to each separately.

2. Recognition that What one Did was Wrong

There are many choices in life that are wrong in hindsight. You think hard about what you are about to do, you consult with others, and you make a responsible choice. But there are always things that are up to chance, and things can still go horribly wrong. In hindsight, you should have acted differently. Here is an example: A doctor pursues a particular treatment for a minor ailment, but the patient dies due to an unforeseeable allergic reaction.

Discussion questions:

  • Can you think of any cases in your own life in which what you did was wrong in hindsight?
  • Did you feel that you needed to apologize?
  • Should the doctor apologize to the relatives of the patient? Or should one only apologize when one was genuinely culpable?

Sometimes we are faced with hard choices in life. Whatever we do, we will be letting someone down. A famous case in literature and film is Sophie’s Choice: A mother is forced by a Nazi concentration camp guard to choose between one of her two children. If she refuses, she will lose both.

Discussion question:

  • Can you think of cases in your own life in which you had to make hard choices? Do you feel that you need to apologize to the party that you let down?

I expect that students will disagree about these issues. Some students will think that we should only apologize when we are genuinely culpable, and not when our actions were only wrong in hindsight or when we had the bad fortune to be confronted with hard choices. Other students will think that the very fact that our actions caused harm or hurt in the world is sufficient reason to apologize.

3. Changing one’s Ways

If someone apologizes, one expects that they have turned a new leaf. That is, one would hope that they at least intend to change their ways.

Discussion questions:

  • If someone offers you an apology, but you doubt that they will mend their ways, should you accept their apology?
  • Maybe you trust that, after apologizing, they will not offend against you anymore, but you suspect that they will continue offending others in similar ways. Is that good reason not to accept their apology?  Would you accept an apology when you have no respect for the person’s moral character?
  • When you accept an apology, do you thereby commit yourself to going back to the relationship as it once was? Or might you accept an apology and yet not have any intention to ever see the person in question again?

4. Remorse, Regrets and Sympathy

In 2006 Zidane was playing for France in the World Cup football (for North American readers, soccer) final. He headbutted Materazzi, who was playing for Italy, after Materazzi had alleged heckled him on the pitch. In an interview, Zidane said that what he did was wrong, but that he had no regrets. He apologizes to his fans but not to Materazzi.

Discussion Question:

  • Does it make sense for Zidane to apologize and yet have no regrets for what one did?

5. Humility

There is a famous Elton John song “Sorry Seems to Be the Hardest Word”. This leads to the following discussion question: If we recognize that what we did was wrong, we are determined to change our ways and we regret our actions, why might it still be so hard to offer apologies?

Here are three directions to explore in response to this question:

  1. I placed this question under the heading of humility because I expect students to say that someone may be too prideful to say sorry. They may feel superior to the person whom they have hurt and saying sorry would threaten their place in the social hierarchy.
  2. They may feel that they would make themselves vulnerable by saying sorry, because person accepting the apology might respond by making demands on them.
  3. Wrongdoings are often mutual, especially in close relationships. Both parties may be willing to apologize but feel that they should not be the first to apologize. For instance, Zidane might be willing to apologize to Materazzi, if Materazzi were to apologize first.


This lesson plan was created for PLATO by: Luc Bovens, University of North Carolina Chapel Hill. Artwork by Fiorella Lavado.

This work is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 4.0

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