Sources of Morality and Apologies

In Apologetic rhetoric on May 18, 2009 at 12:23 am

Lately, I’ve been wondering if the French philosopher Henri Bergson’s concept of “two sources of morality” may be helpful in either analyzing/evaluating apologetic rhetoric or in understanding why people apologize (that is, what aspect of a kategoria or accusation motivates a person to apologize).

When we look at Bergson’s (1932/1954) concept of morality we see some overlap with our understandings of apologies. Bergson pointed out, it is impossible to “attend to the thousand and one cares of the day, do one’s shopping, go for a stroll, or even stay home, without obeying rules and submitting to social obligations” (p. 19). For Bergson, then, morality was tied in part to social obligation.

This idea of social obligation is similar to the idea of a social contract (Lazare, 2004) or hierarchy of values (Burke, 1969) that underlies apologies. Essentially, such a social contract implicitly defines acceptable behaviors or values for a community and serves as terms and conditions for membership within the group. When someone violates one of these values, she or he upsets the natural order of the society, resulting in mystery for the group, as well as a sense of guilt and a loss of membership for the individual. To mitigate mystery and achieve reinstatement in the group, the offender must expunge the guilt through a ritualistic process of apologizing and, as a result, reaccepting the values and restoring social order.

Even if we accept the idea of “how” people restore social order (that is, by apologizing, which is a reacceptance of a society’s values), we are still left with a question of “why”? In other words, what influences an individual to apologize and restore stability?

According to Bergson, there are two sources of morality that shape individual morality, that influence them to preserve the stability of a society. The first is “a system of orders dictated by impersonal social requirements” (84). This system of orders acts as “a push, a pressure on individuals to do that which is necessary to sustain the operations of society” (Dragga, 1997, pg. 165). The second is “a series of appeals made to the conscience of each of us by persons who represent the best there is in humanity” (84). This second source of morality “operates as a pull, a dynamic aspiration, and it is always embodied in a human being deserving aspiration” (Dragga, 1997, pg. 165).

Based on the similarities between our current theories of social contracts and Bergson’s idea of morality tied to social obligation, can his two “sources of morality” be used to analyze why people apologize? Can we look to see which is more successful in eliciting an apology–either the “system of orders” (push) or the call for apology from a “human being deserving aspiration” (pull)? Can we use these two sources to analyze the word choices and rhetorical stances in apologetic exchanges? Or, are these two sources of morality useful in analyzing the lasting impact of an apology–this is, does the value affirmed in an apology become a “system of order” or does the apologizer become a person who “represents the best of humanity,” which influences the larger society’s actions?

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