Sliwa, Type 1 Summary/ 3 Critical Engagement

Bryn Horner
4 min readOct 21, 2020

Paulina Sliwa outlines the general theory of excuses. She begins by stating that she will be highlighting two accounts of excuses. To Paulina, excuses “function as responsibility- modifiers,” and “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” (2). She argues that the two excuses she proposes have major problems, and develops her own idea of an excuse- the Good Intention Account. She furthers her argument by stating that “that excuses do not negate moral responsibility but modify the way in which an agent is morally responsible for her wrong” (2).

The first excuse she studies is the Obligation Account. She begins by explaining that excuses can prevent blame on people who have committed an action that violates a “moral norm or obligation” (3). The idea that although it may look like someone is blameful, but the excuse they provide renders it “inappropriate in virtue” to blame them, becomes the Obligation Account (3). The author quotes Jay Wallace to explain the idea of this account: “…excuses function by showing that the agent did not really violate the moral obligations we accept after all. […] To hold s morally responsible for x, when an excusing condition obtains, would involve the false belief that s’s x-ing violated a moral obligation we accept; this gives us a reason for not holding people to blame when the excusing conditions are present” (4). As they state and as I agree, our actions must be choices for them to relate to our moral obligations. This comes from the mens rea part. If the intent was not behind the action, i do not believe that it violated a moral obligation. Like we have learned previously they use the excuse that if A pushes B and as a consequence B pushes someone else and they fall and get hurt. B did not intentionally hurt that person, but it was a consequence of someone elses action, which is therefore his excuse and makes it irrational to blame him. Sliwa also finds fault in this account, arguing that it fails to distinguish excuses and justifications while also excuses from considerations that forestall the need for excuses. I agree with her statements that disagree with this argument. For example, considering the situation may sometimes disregard the need for an excuse. Also, the situation may also just be justified, like you are justified in saving your life, you do not need an excuse for something like self defense.

The second excuse is the Character Account. The character account understands the distinctions between justifications and excuses, which is a step past the Obligation Account. This account “connects excuses to the wrongdoer’s character” (8). This account focuses on the idea that it is excusable if the agent was not acting properly like themself in the moment in question. This may be in a situation where out of nowhere they are triggered to act out of character, not a premeditated violation of moral obligation. Paulina tweaks this by zoning in on the idea of character traits- she argues that when we are determining whether something is excusable, “we are not interested in how she usually acts” (8). I agree with the character account in the sense that ideas such as provocation should rid people of moral blameworthiness. If someone keeps poking at me, I believe that I would tell them to stop. If they do not stop, the next step would be an action forcing them to stop. I think that this is where it becomes cloudy. Am I excused from moral blameworthiness because they provoked me? I would say so. However, I violated a moral obligation by hitting them, however they violated a moral obligation first by poking me. Do two wrongs make a right? Nope.

Sliwa continues to come up with her own account- the Good Intention Account. To summarize, Sliwa states: “excuses point to the presence of a morally adequate motive, rather than the absence of a reprehensible one. Second, I suggest that it’s a particular type of motive that matters for excuses: a morally adequate present-directed intention” (9). The Good Intention account focuses on the idea that excuses can change the motivation behind the act and highlight the real intention of the wrongdoer. Sliwa uses examples to highlight this idea such as a student cheating on an exam so that she will not disappoint her parents. Although she is violating a moral obligation by doing so, it is not morally reprehensible to want her parents to be proud of her. The intent behind the action matters, because it shows that she was not morally corrupt in her action. Sliwa uses the term, “I didn’t do it on purpose!” to constitute an example for this account. This account of Good Intention explains that someones wrongdoing may really be excusable and unintentional- “I slipped, tripped, lost my balance, or I was ignorant about some crucial feature of the situation” (13). An act is not always excusable, but it shows that they are lacking a morally adequate present-directed intention.

Sliwa’s argument is mostly strong. The supporting points lead to her conclusion and her disagreements with other accounts form her new account. I agree with the idea that in certain situations, the intention behind the act is important to discover whether an excuse is neccesary. For something that is justified or has considerations, an excuse is not necessary. An excuse can rid someone of blameworthiness where it works, however the excuse must be used in the correct context.

Sliwa, Paulina. “The Power of Excuses.” Philosophy & Public Affairs.