Apologizing has been complicated over the years by the threat of liability. This has led to apologies that have been carefully parsed to remove any real regret or accountability. “So many apologies are constructed by legal or P.R. people” as a defensive mechanism, not as a sincere expression of remorse, Ms. Weeks said.

This can be true for politicians, doctors and business executives, but also for you or me if we’re, say, involved in a traffic accident. Should we say we’re sorry? Is that admitting fault?

In fact, it was a traffic accident in the 1970s that led politicians to try to resolve some of these problems. According to Jonathan R. Cohen, a law professor at the University of Florida, a Massachusetts state senator’s daughter was killed while riding her bicycle, and the driver who hit her never apologized.

The father couldn’t believe that the driver had never expressed contrition, Professor Cohen said, and was told that the driver had dared not risk even saying “I’m sorry,” because it could have been seen as an admission in the litigation surrounding the girl’s death.

When the state senator retired, he worked with his successor to introduce and win passage of legislation that allowed a “safe harbor” for people to offer “benevolent gestures expressing sympathy or a general sense of benevolence,” said Professor Cohen, who has written extensively on the intersection of law and apologies

Now, a majority of states have enacted “I’m sorry” laws — some that address just medical malpractice, while others apply to all civil cases.

The acceptance of personal responsibility sometimes seems to be an artifact of the the US political past. So Obama’s acknowledgements in the State of the Union address of mistakes he and his administration have made were very welcome and refreshing.

But it’s not just our politicians who have gone wrong, as the NYTimes article indicates. It’s very sad that our society has come so far in its inclination toward litigation and finger-pointing that we struggle to offer sincere apologies for anything but the most mundane wrongs.

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