I wrote this a while ago, but it seems relevant today - these are my own personal criteria for evaluating apologies.

Apologies from a person who did or was complicit in a harmful act must be meaningful and consonant with the magnitude of the harm.

Specifically, in order for me personally to find it meaningful, the apology must include:

  • naming the harm that they did, specifically
    • Leaving others to explain or contextualize the shitty thing is not acceptable.
  • explaining how they became aware that harm was done
    • If appropriate, crediting people who attempted to intervene or report.
  • stating very clearly what exact steps they are taking to make it right, including a description of how those steps address problems they caused
    • Giving money to a cause is insufficient if giving money to a cause would not ensure that the harmful thing would not happen again.
  • stating who will hold them accountable for those steps.
    • It is not appropriate to expect those harmed to hold them accountable.
    • Everyone often in practice means no one - it is better to be specific.
    • In some circumstances it may be appropriate to pay someone (up front) to help the person with their accountability.

The apology must not:

  • trivializing the harm caused (no “I’m sorry if you were offended.”)
  • prioritize excuses, explaining their thought process, or centering themselves over the harm caused

The person apologizing must also have mitigated or attempted to mitigate harm caused by any protective steps they took or an institution took on their behalf. Even the most heartfelt apology is hard to take seriously if someone is still threatening legal action against whistleblowers or stonewalling further investigation.

If there is a specific person who has been most significantly harmed by the bad action, their views on the acceptability of a public response are important to me but not controlling of whether I think an apology is meaningful.

Clarifying Questions:

But what about some specific circumstance where these rules don’t make sense?

That’s a good question! Obviously, each situation is unique, and there may be instances where some of the items here are not going to be applicable. But if I find myself trying to rules lawyer myself into thinking that an apology merits forgiveness or public support, that’s a good opportunity to check myself.

But an apology like the one you suggest would expose someone to liability!

Good! Or shall I say - that is part of being held accountable, because it represents a person accepting at least some of consequences of their actions, to the extent that the legal system dispenses those. It also means that the apologizer is willing to give up something of value to deal with the harm they have caused, which can be an important test of their seriousness.