Criticism and Apology

Something I've been thinking about a lot lately is the relationship between apology and criticism, which I take to be two distinct intellectual activities.

Apology, as I'm using the term, is the activity of finding and presenting reasons or justification for the beliefs, actions, or practices of some corporate entity or individual. It's what you do when you research your political party's position -- or your favored candidate's track record or policy with regard to gun-control -- and offer that research to those who are skeptical of the normative status of that position, record, or policy. It's also, of course, what you're engaged in when you search for and offer reasons to think that theistic belief is rational (or perhaps rationally required), or that the resurrection is metaphysically possible.

Criticism, on the other hand, is the activity of finding and presenting reasons that challenge the rationality or justification of some target domain of the beliefs, actions, or practices of some individual or corporate entity. It's what you do when you challenge an institutions policies regarding the circumstances under which they are required to report suspicions of child abuse, or an individual with respect to their position on abortion or euthanasia.

What interests me is both what these practices or activities have in common, and what sets them apart:

  • Apology and criticism are both forms of inquiry, they both involve the discovery, presentation, and exchange of reasons (or reasoned argument). They both, thus, presuppose common intellectual ground with the object of one's efforts.
  • Apology and criticism are both regulated -- in idea circumstances -- by the aim of uncovering the truth and bringing the practices and actions of some entity in accord with that truth.
  • On the other hand apology is often entirely outward facing: it attempts to justify to an external audience the behavior (practices, etc) of some entity in terms they would accept as reasonable. By contract, criticism (whether it be self-criticism or criticism of some group that one is a part of) has an inward aim. It attempts to change behavior, policy, or action rather than justify it.

One thing that I think about a lot is whether we -- as individuals -- have duties to be critical or apologetical in certain circumstances, and what those circumstances are. For instance: I believe that I have an obligation to present groups and institutions that I am a part of in their best light. In some ways, I represent these groups (or at least represent myself as tacitly accepting the ideals, practices, actions, etc. of the group), and I think it is thus a duty of mine to uncover and present what I take to be the best / most respectable reasons for why that entity behaves in the way it does. Interestingly, though, we don't always have choices regarding which groups we're a part of. I'm American, and, while I suppose I could in some sense change that fact about me, I think it's my duty to answer for the cultural, political, and social norms and practices of America as a whole. I also think, of course, that I have strong obligations in the opposite direction: that is, to critically examine those practices in ways that could help shape them in more positive ways.

But when should we criticize, and when should we apologize? Are these roles incompatible? Are they merely aimed at different audiences? Or should we ideally integrate those roles into a single perspective, so that we are presenting unified views to the communities we're a part of and to the outside world?

For what it's worth, the tentative answer to these questions that I'd like to explore is something like: intellectual integrity is a virtue that's sensitive to the different obligations that we have to different audiences in virtue of the social roles we occupy. Developing this virtue and properly exercise it will require us to engage in both sorts of intellectual practices at different times, though it'll be difficult to spell out -- in a general way -- what exactly the relevant factors are in determining when its appropriate to engage in either. In any event, this is something I'm going to be working on in the coming weeks, so these are questions I'll continue to explore. If you have any thoughts (or concrete cases to think through) feel free to post them in the comments.