`Saying sorry' ends fraternal battles, soothes hysteria, puts a full-stop to baffled remorse

I made my son apologise the other day - an apology that was intended to be for tripping up his mother with a length of dressing-gown cord which he had used to tie himself to the banister rail. Unfortunately it took him some time to get round to delivering it, which meant that the act of contrition eventually coincided with his sister executing a graceful but unwilling tumble down a shallow set of steps in the kitchen.

My wife was only mildly bemused at his repentance because it is still quite common for him to use the word "sorry" as a kind of a reflex utterance when a domestic thunderstorm breaks, whether he is at its centre or not. "Sorry" is a useful spell to ward off parental lightning (it seems appropriate here that the word apologise has its origins in Greek for speaking in one's own defence). And, in our house at least, it is a spell that is pretty effective. "Saying sorry" ends fraternal battles, soothes hysteria, puts a full-stop to that sump of baffled remorse into which children occasionally fall. It's true, of course, that we don't have to worry too much about the small print of apology - one brother is unlikely to retain a lawyer for a personal injury suit against the other, a lawyer who would seize on any expression of penitence as an admission of liability. It's also true that a child's apologies carry absolutely no guarantee that the deed will not be repeated, sometimes five minutes later. But even so the ritual of remorse is very useful.

In adult life, matters are a little more complex, naturally. Just as there is a whole taxonomy of lying, from economy with the truth to downright mendacity, there are many species of apology. The other day, for instance, the Prime Minister was reported in several newspapers to have "apologised" for Britain's failure during the Irish Famine. In fact when you looked at his remarks you could see that he had done something rather more subtle. He had acknowledged pain (which is one component of a complete apology) and he had expressed regret (which is another) but the element of personal liability was missing.

This was an accusation as much as an admission - a suggestion that "those who governed in London at the time" should not be casually associated with the current government. Some writers have objected that he wasn't entitled to apologise anyway, either because he wasn't qualified by personal culpability or because there was nothing to apologise for in the first place, "those who governed in London at the time" having done the best they could. But that is to take a far too literalistic view of apology, which is usually most efficacious when it is employed with a certain amount of indifferent generosity. (It would be rather odd, for example, to bump into someone in the street and then carefully weigh up the exact balance of culpability before saying sorry.)

And the question of whether an apology is due might be beside the point anyway. Apologies are, at least sometimes, what the English philosopher JL Austin described as "performative utterances", that is statements that should not principally be considered as a description but as an action. The most famous example he gave was the expression "I do", as used in a marriage ceremony - a remark that clearly isn't intended to inform the congregation about what the groom is up to.

Austin did acknowledge that performative utterances can be inoperative for various reasons - because the context isn't correct - but he also pointed out that insincerity doesn't necessarily disqualify the deed. If you say "I'm sorry" and are thinking "I'm not really" you have still made an effective apology. It's even possible for such insincerity - as long as it's kept hidden - to be offered as a kind of placatory gift to someone you wish to be on good terms with (this was surely the case with Tony Blair's remarks about the Irish Famine, a verbal present intended to sweeten current Anglo-Irish relations).

A real difficulty arises, though, when apologies are treated less as deeds in themselves than as a confession of past misdemeanour - an opportunity not for forgiveness but for retribution. I don't know whether it would be possible for the descendants of famine victims to sue the British government for damages, but I assume the Prime Minister was careful to avoid any form of words that might encourage such action (or indeed to check with government lawyers before saying anything at all). Because when relationships enter the realm of law, and leave human feeling behind, apologies become volatile and hazardous.

Recently the lawyer acting for President Clinton in the case of alleged sexual harassment discussed on the page opposite announced that there were three conditions for any settlement of the case: the first and most important was that "the President of the United States will not apologise for something he never did". You could understand Mr Bennett's reasoning here, but what he said actually wasn't true - only a few weeks before this statement President Clinton had done precisely that. He welcomed the black victims of an illegal experiment into syphilis treatment to the White House and said sorry to them, despite the fact that he was only a boy when the crime took place. Was this apology invalid or pointless because the President hadn't done anything in the first place? Did it have no soothing power because it had taken so long to arrive? Not if we are to believe the old men who received it. As most children know, an apology has a kind of magic in it, but it is a magic that only works if the apology is accepted in the same spirit in which it is offered.