Paulina Sliwa: The Power of Excuses

Type 1

Gabrielle Johansson
3 min readOct 21, 2020

Module 4: When should we hold people responsible for criminalized behavior?

In her article entitled, The Power of Excuses, Paulina Sliwa endeavors to argue in favor of a unified understanding of excuses being “considerations that acknowledge that the agent acted wrongly but deny that the wrongdoing resulted from a lack of morally adequate intention” (35). Sliwa argues that though there are many different ways to understand the complexity and variance of excuses such as the Obligation account, the Character account, and her own Good Intentions account. Excuses, in her conception of them, all have a common feature which, when valid, modify the degree of responsibility, or culpability, of a defendant. Sliwa’s article shows an argument about when culpability should be excused, and wrongfulness be modified in the court of law. In other words, we should hold people to be responsible if they lack proper excuse as defined in the article.

Though some are skeptical that there could be any unifying factor which synthesizes all forms of excuses, Sliwa offers a comprehensive rebuttal. For example, going into this article, I was skeptical that there could be an overarching theory of excuses because one of the most obvious features of excuses are their contexts, which, in any given court case, will always be different. Like Victor Tadros, I think it might be difficult to practically use a general understanding of excuses because of excuses’ particularity. I am still not convinced in the practicality of this article though she does offer a really good argument.

That being said, Sliwa makes the argument 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” which she will later build upon in her Good Intention Account (Sliwa 2). She does not say that excuses debunk all wrongfulness, she says that excuses help others consider the fact that the crime done was not done with the typically associated culpable mens rea. Since excuses can argue the absence of mens rea, excuses also render blame inappropriate (Sliwa 3). This is the Obligation Account. With excuses, the moral obligations thought to have been violated by the suspected culpable wrongdoer are not actually committed. This is one way that excuses can affect responsibility and blame.

Sliwa distinguishes two types of excuses within the Obligation Account. The first is “considerations that show that the agent has simply not made any choice at all and thus cannot have violated a moral obligation” (Sliwa 5). In such (probably relatively rare) circumstances, the agent might be shoved or involuntarily react to something. More importantly, the second type of excuse is “considerations that concede that the agent made a choice but show that it was compatible with her moral obligations” (Sliwa 5). In other words, there are reasons which prevail to excuse mens rea such as duress or accidents by determining the deed done as non-wrongful because it was done without mens rea.

Sliwa sees some problems with the Obligation Account. Most importantly is the fact that the Obligation Account fails to factor in how “more generally, tiredness, stress, and other emotional upset plausibly do not bear on what moral obligations we have, nor do they prevent us from acting intentionally. Yet they can excuse” (Sliwa 7). Here is the difference Sliwa offers between intentionality, willful expressions, self-control, or loss of self-control in what she terms the Good Intention Account.

In the Good Intention Account, excuses indicate morally adequate motives, specifically present-directed intentions which are the intentions of the moment (Sliwa 9). Importantly, the Good Intention Account is not as simple as “I didn’t mean to…” or “I didn’t think this would happen…” but it considers other features of mens rea such as recklessness, moral ignorance, and negligence (Sliwa 13–14). A key phrase is “morally adequate” which can be evaluated by “assessing them relative to a relevant moral goal” (Sliwa 16). She then notes the application of the Good Intention Account to issues of self-control or a lack of self-control such as in moral dilemmas and emotional upset (Sliwa 18–23).

To reiterate, excuses do not clear the agent of all blame or responsibility but instead modify the extent to which the agent is morally responsible (Sliwa 2). The last portions of Sliwas article talk about this issue and some counterexamples to the Good Intention Account. Since excuses modify the responsibility of the agent, there is often a “moral residue” which can come either as psychological or normative. Psychological, in the sense of guilt and remorse and normative in the sense of an apology or an attempt to make amends (28).