Excuses — we all make them. Whether it’s missing an appointment because of traffic or forgetting about a loved one’s birthday due to bad sleep, there are some shared elements to all excuses. Obviously, some are better than others — that is, some excuses are more likely to be accepted by the person whom we’ve wronged or disappointed. According to a philosopher at Cambridge University, what separates a good excuse from a bad one is the underlying motivation and morality.
Dr. Paulina Sliwa from the Faculty of Philosophy at the University of Cambridge published a new study that investigated what various excuses have in common and their broader role in society, from family and work-related matters to even criminal law.
According to the researcher, although we acted wrongly in a situation, we may be excused as long as our underlying moral intentions were adequate. For instance, you might drop someone’s shopping you were trying to help because you happened to slip — in this case, your excuse is perfectly valid. You had a moral plan (good intention) that was thwarted by an unexpected event which was out of your control.
Sliwa calls her unified account of excuses the ‘Good Intention Account’ and goes as far as saying that our everyday excuses work much in the same way as those offered in the courtroom. For instance, defense lawyers will often claim that their client may have broken the law but only after being provoked. The intention was morally adequate (upholding the law), however, anger led the defendant to lose control — or so the story goes.
“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.”
Sliwa says that when we make excuses, we are actually negotiating the level of resentment or punishment that is owed to us for failing to meet expectations, and how much we need to apologize or compensate.
“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,” Sliwa said.
“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?”
Tibi is a science journalist and co-founder of ZME Science. He writes mainly about emerging tech, physics, climate, and space. In his spare time, Tibi likes to make weird music on his computer and groom felines.