Criminal Law and Philosophy

, Volume 1, Issue 1, pp 21–39 | Cite as

Excuses, excuses

  • Marcia BaronEmail author
Original paper


Justifications and excuses are defenses that exculpate. They are therefore much more like each other than like such defenses as diplomatic immunity, which does not exculpate. But they exculpate in different ways, and it has proven difficult to agree on just what that difference consists in. In this paper I take a step back from justification and excuse as concepts in criminal law, and look at the concepts as they arise in everyday life. To keep the task manageable, I focus primarily on excuses and excusing activities, distinguishing them from justifications as well as from other close relatives, in particular, forgiving and pardoning. I draw upon J.L. Austin’s classic “A Plea for Excuses,” but expand on his account, suggesting that we offer excuses for reasons besides those he mentions. My hope is that my examination of excuses and excusing activities will help us rethink our views on just how justifications and excuses differ, views which often are worked out without much attention to how these concepts function in everyday life and to the connection between offers of excuses and justifications and the “rules of civility.”


Justification Excuse Civility Forgiving Pardoning Holding responsible Exempting Blaming J.L. Austin 



For both their challenging comments and their helpful suggestions, I am grateful to audiences at Tulane University, at a conference on moral psychology at the University of Texas at Austin, at Texas Tech University, the University of Western Ontario, the University of Toronto, a conference at the University of Minnesota honoring Thomas E. Hill, Jr., and the British Academy Conference on Philosophical Analysis and the Criminal Law. Special thanks are due to Jeremy Horder and Antony Duff, who presented comments at the British Academy conference. I would also like to thank Justin M. Brown, Joshua Dressler, Jeffrie Murphy, and Kevin Toh for their helpful comments on an early draft of this paper, and Antony Duff for his suggestions for final revisions.


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2006

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of PhilosophyIndiana University BloomingtonBloomingtonUSA

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