Summary — Sliwa
Earlier in the semester, after reading The Nature and Significance of Culpability by David O. Brink, we discussed the effects of excuses and justifications on culpability and blameworthiness and we distinguished excuses from justifications. According to Brink, “Justifications, such as self defense or necessity, deny wrongdoing, whereas excuses, such as insanity or duress, deny culpability or responsibility. Just as justification is the flipside of wrongdoing, so too excuse is the flipside of responsibility” (Brink, 353). This discussion of excuses and the distinction between it and justifications are important and relevant to Paulina Sliwa’s article, The Power of Excuses.
In beginning her article, Sliwa first embarks on a general discussion of excuses and notes how commonplace they are as well as how one’s excuse for what one did alters the response of others, potentially moving them from anger and resentment to compassion and pity (1). While it may seem that excuses wildly vary and are not unifiable, Sliwa seeks to create a unified account of excuses that demonstrates what excuses are and what they do (Sliwa, 2).
In order to accomplish this, she addresses two different historical and influential accounts of what excuses are. The first is called The Obligation Account, which argues that excuses “function by showing that the agent did not really violate the moral obligations we accept after all” (4). Sliwa believes that this argument does offer an explanation for why excuses shield an agent from blame and that it does well in accommodating many wide-ranging considerations that we have about excuses (5). However, there are two significant problems with this account, according to Sliwa. First, if an excuse means than an action has not violated a moral obligation, then no wrong action has taken place, and therefore, there is nothing to excuse. Second, she thinks that this account fails to recognize the differences between excuses and justifications (6). This is where the earlier reading from Brink comes into play and where it is essential to distinguish between excuses and justifications. Sliwa writes, “If, given your circumstances, it was genuinely permissible to make the choice you did, we do not invoke an excuse. Rather, we say that your action was justified” (6). An action that is justified needs no excuse (7).
The second account that Sliwa addresses is The Character Account, which, she grants, improves upon The Obligation Account, but still has some problems. The Character Account essentially says that “an objectively wrong action (or action in some way out of order) is excused if it does not manifest some defect of character” (8). This account does properly distinguish between excuses and justifications, but is misguided, even in its revised version. Sliwa points out that a lack of defect of character is neither necessary nor sufficient for an excuse. We are not concerned with how people usually act, but are rather interested in what their state of mind was when they committed a certain action (8–9).
Both the successful elements and the shortcomings of these accounts lead Sliwa to come up with her own unifying account of excuses, which she calls The Good Intention Account. This account suggests two main things: 1) Excuses point to the presence of a morally adequate motive, and 2) This morally adequate motive is a “present-directed intention” (9). Intentions are both stable and controlling, meaning they are closely connected to action. Present-directed intentions are more than desires and may be opposed to desires — they concern what to do now and lead to action in the present (10).
In general, when someone does something wrong, we tend to (and are entitled to) infer the lack of a morally adequate present-directed intention. Excuses, however, block that inference. In other words, excuses attribute the wrongdoing to some alternative feature, not to someone’s lack of moral intention. The structure of excuses, then, is traced to “the structure of our agency and its limitations” (12). Following this, Sliwa goes through several common examples of excuses in order to demonstrate how her theory can provide a unified account of them: 1) “I didn’t do it on purpose” — unintentional wrong actions that lack negligence or recklessness, 2) Moral Ignorance, 3) Moral Dilemmas, and 4) Emotional Upset (13–23).
Next, she addresses some concerns and interesting counterarguments to her theory (23–27). Then, Sliwa makes the case for why she thinks that excuses are only responsibility “modifiers.” This is in conflict with the “received wisdom” (and even with the opinion of Brink as defined above) which says that excuses eliminate all blame and responsibility (27–28). Excuses only modify responsibility because there is “moral residue” left — both psychological (guilt, remorse, etc.) and normative (apologies, compensation, etc.). She supports this belief with an example of a person who breaks his/her friend’s favorite coffee mug on accident. While washing the mug in the sink, the mug slipped out of the person’s hand and smashed into smithereens. The person did not have a lack of moral intention and was not negligent or reckless, and actually has a genuine excuse. Despite this, we still expect him/her to have some guilt over it, apologize for it, and perhaps even offer to buy a replacement mug for his/her friend (28–29). This is evidence of the moral residue, some responsibility and blame, that still exists, despite the person having an excuse. Lastly, after addressing counterarguments to her thoughts on moral residue, Sliwa makes a distinction between excuses and exemptions. Exemptions include things such as seizures, psychotic delusions, or sleep walking, things that not only remove responsibility, but that “undercut the charge that you have acted wrongly in the first place” (34).
Brink, David O. (2019). The Nature and Significance of Culpability. Criminal Law and Philosophy, 13: 347–373. Retrieved September 22, 2020, from https://doi.org/10.1007/s11572-018-9476-7.
Sliwa, Paulina. (2019). The Power of Excuses. Philosophy and Public Affairs, 47.1: 1–35. Retrieved October 20, 2020, from https://doi.org/10.1111/papa.12139.