Thursday, August 10, 2017

More on the effects of approval seeking

 I got some well-argued pushback in the comments to my post "The insidious effects of approval seeking." I can't do the argument against my claim full justice here so please read the original comment thread for more context. For the time being, I will focus on this remark:
If we recognise that we have inadvertently caused suffering, then it is possible to offer a sincere and unreserved apology without engaging in approval-seeking.
When is it reasonable to apologize for having inadvertently caused suffering.

Apologies should be sincere. If someone keeps attacking me and I want them to stop I can reasonably take steps to make them stop. If, for example, my sister starts huge fights every time I visit her I might stop visiting. That will stop the fighting but may also cause her pain. Do I apologize for that? I might, especially if I later decide my response inflicted more suffering than was warranted. Maybe I will think that, because I love my sister, I should endure her ongoing rudeness for the sake of family unity. Then again, maybe not. I may decide that her behaviour is simply unacceptable and that I'm justified ion no longer seeing her. It's a complex decision. The important thing is that it is a decision we can make and I should feel free to make according to my best judgment, right or wrong, and not according to her feelings.

Something odd happens when we conclude that we should not make such decisions because someone might get hurt. There is a difference between A) apologizing for making a decision that caused pain because we later decide that decision was unwarranted and B) apologizing for making a decision simply because that decision caused pain and no other reason. If Sharon elects not to get married and that causes her mother severe pain because she had placed a lot of hope in her daughter getting married and having grandchildren it does not necessarily follow that she should apologize. If she later decides that her mother was right and that it was only rebelliousness that led her to take this stand she now regrets then she should apologize. She should not apologize simply because her mother is hurt. To do so would be to submit to a tyranny of feelings where little fascist bullies could stop anything they didn't like by simply failing to learn how to manage their feelings. (And something like that is happening on some university campuses now.)

It seems to me that we might apologize for inadvertently causing suffering when two conditions are met: 1. I could and reasonably should have anticipated that my actions would cause others pain and 2. my actions were not justified. There might also be cases where I am going to do something that I believe justified that I know or should know will cause others pain and where I could reasonably help them prepare for this so as to lessen their pain. But merely apologizing because others are upset seems wrong to me.

A further thought. My interlocutor also said,
That's excluding the nervous tic ersatz apologies I issue when I catch someone's gaze in the street or have to engage in any negotiation of personal space.
Sometimes it's useful to use apologetic language out of decency and respect or others. Someone might say, "I'm terribly sorry but I'm going to have to ask you to move," in order to smooth over a potentially tense situation. The person who is saying this is sort of apologizing but not really as signified by the words "I'm going to have to," meaning "you're moving whether it causes you distress or not". We also say, I'm sorry it has to be this way." That's related to other kinds of apologies the way a soother is related to a mother's breast; it calms and comforts without providing any real substance.

That said, there is something odd but important about what my interlocutor perceptively describes as "nervous tic ersatz apologies". I must admit I am guilty of these. These may sometimes smooth things over but more often it strikes me as unnecessary. By issuing such apologies we train ourselves to walk on eggshells worrying about other peoples' feelings rather than expecting those people to grow up and learn to control their feelings.

Final thought: It is impossible to live without making some decisions that will cause others pain.

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