Sliwa “The Power of Excuses” Type 3: Critical Engagement

Kailey Houck
3 min readOct 19, 2020

Paulina Sliwa explores the conception of an excuse in moral philosophy. Specifically, she aims to “develop a unified account of excuses,” by exploring what they are and what they do. (Sliwa 1) Her argument is 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.” (Sliwa 2) She claims that excuses are “responsibility-modifiers,” meaning 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.” (Sliwa 2) Her argument begins by explaining two different theories of excuses, pointing out each’s flaws, and concluding with her own theory of what an excuse is.

The first theory Sliwa explains is Jay Wallace’s Obligation Account, which holds that “…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.” (Sliwa 4) She explains this to mean that excuses show that moral obligations were not violated, because moral obligations govern our choices. The Obligation Account covers claims such as “I didn’t mean too… “I didn’t realize…” “It wasn’t my intention…” (Sliwa 5) Sliwa refutes this theory by arguing that it has trouble allowing that agents can have an excuse even when they act impermissibly. An example of this is someone subject to police intimidation who gives false testimony in court, which leads to the conviction of an innocent person. The coercive nature of the interrogation may constitute an excuse, but the Obligation Account does not allow for this.

The next theory Sliwa explains is David Hume’s Character Account, which holds that “an objectively wrong action (or an action in some way out of order) is excused if it does not manifest some defect of character.” (Sliwa 8) Holly Smith expands upon thus view, stating that “an excuse functions, we might say, to block the natural inference from a wrongful act to the agent’s having a reprehensible motive for performing that act.” (Sliwa 5) This means that a lack of a reprehensible motive is not necessary for an excuse, which leaves out instances of motives that are morally criticizable (such as a student cheating on a test so not to disappoint her parents), but do not constitute excuses.

Sliwa concludes by arguing for her Good Intention Account which explains the relationship between excuses and moral responsibility. She explains that when someone commits a wrong, we may generally infer that they lacked a morally adequate present-directed intention. Sliwa argues that excuses block that inference. (Sliwa 9) She states “excuses are considerations that show that the agent’s wrongdoing does not reflect her lack of a morally adequate present-directed intention.” (Sliwa 9) Sliwa then explains how the Good Intention Account captures a wide range of excuses, from unintentional actions to moral dilemmas, and provides several examples of such. She concludes by repeating her definition of what excuses are and what they do, that being “excuses are responsibility modifiers” and that “they do not negate moral responsibility for what they have done.” (Sliwa 35)

The argumentative structure of Sliwa’s The Power of Excuses is simple. She states her claim, presents two counterclaims and refutes them, and concludes by stating her claim and explaining how it is the best option.

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