What's your excuse? Paulina Sliwa explores how to make a good excuse work

Sidney Fellow Paulina Sliwa's recent paper, The Power of Excuses, argues that intentions are the key to making sense of our everyday morality.

Most of us have at some point come up with an excuse (or two!) to explain and justify behaviours that we're not proud of, to escape the consequences of our acts, and make our undesirable behaviour more socially acceptable.

Tiredness, stress, a looming work deadline, a wailing infant, poverty, a migraine, ignorance; the things we appeal to when making excuses are myriad. But what do these various excuses have in common that allows us to recognize them all as plausible? Do they differ from the excuses used in criminal law, like duress or coercion? And what does having an excuse get us—does it really exonerate us?

Paulina suggests that the answers lie in what they all tell us about our underlying motivation. When excuses are permissible, it's because they show that while we acted wrongly, our underlying moral intentions were adequate.

Recent work in psychology suggests that intentions have a distinctive motivational profile, with philosophers and psychologists both arguing that they are key to understanding how we make choices. Paulina argues that intentions are the key to making sense of our everyday morality.

Paulina goes on to explain that appealing to excuses has its limits. "Successful excuses can mitigate our blame but they don't get us off the hook completely. Saying we were tired or stressed doesn't absolve us from moral responsibility completely, though they do change others' perceptions of what we owe to make up for it and how the offended party should feel about our wrongdoing."

This means that when we make excuses we are trying to haggle, to negotiate whether we deserve anger and resentment, or punishment and how much we need to apologise or compensate. This is why it can be so annoying if someone makes spurious excuses—and also probably why we continue to make excuses in the first place.

Paulina said, "A successful excuse needs to make plausible that your intention really was morally adequate—but something beyond your control prevented you from translating it into action. That's why considerations like the following often work: I am sorry for forgetting the appointment—I had a terrible migraine / I haven't slept for the last three nights / I was preoccupied with worries about my mother's health; or I'm sorry I broke your vase—I stumbled over the rug. They all indicate an adequate underlying moral motivation that was thwarted by external circumstances.

"Things that will never work are appeals to weakness of will 'I just couldn't resist' or 'it was too tempting' don't work. Nor do appeals to things that are obviously immoral.

"The same is true of legal excuses: not every appeal to duress, coercion or provocation will be successful—it will depend on the details of the case.

"Philosophy can give us a better understanding of our mundane, everyday moral phenomena. There are a lot more puzzles to think about in relation with excuses: what's the difference between explaining someone's bad behavior and excusing it?"

Paulina Sliwa's paper, The Power of Excuses, has been published in the journal Philosophy And Public Affairs.  

News item posted Friday, 5th July 2019

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