The Power of Excuses

Philosophy and Public Affairs 47 (1):37-71 (2019)
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Excuses are commonplace. Making and accepting excuses is part of our practice of holding each other morally responsible. But excuses are also curious. They have normative force. Whether someone has an excuse for something they have done matters for how we should respond to their action. An excuse can make it appropriate to forgo blame, to revise judgments of blameworthiness, to feel compassion and pity instead of anger and resentment. The considerations we appeal to when making excuses are a motley bunch: tiredness, stress, a looming work deadline, a wailing infant, poverty, duress, ignorance. What unifies these various considerations as a class? In virtue of what can they all excuse? And what does their normative force consist in? This paper aims to develop a unified account of excuses: what they are and what they do. In a nutshell, I argue that excuses are considerations that show that an agent’s wrongdoing does not manifest a specific motivational failing: namely, the lack of a morally adequate present-directed intention. What do excuses do? I suggest that they function as responsibility-modifiers. They alter how the wrongdoer, the wronged party, bystanders may morally respond to a wrong, without negating that it remains appropriate to respond in some way.
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