What’s the difference between a good excuse and a bad excuse?
Excuses are a normal part of our day-to-day lives. You might have missed your morning alarm, or the traffic was terrible, which was why you came to work late. You might have been too tired to cook or get groceries, which is why you ordered takeout.
We make excuses to help justify bad choices or mitigate other’s perceptions if we do something counter to their expectations, but what makes an excuse good or bad?
This is the question tackled by Dr. Paulina Sliwa, a researcher from Cambridge University, who examined excuses and their underlying motivations to determine why particular explanations are considered legitimate and acceptable.
The study, published in the journal Philosophy and Public Affairs, is the first of its kind to show that we use excuses like a lawyer mounts a defense in a courtroom. The excuse is meant to prove that our underlying motivations and intentions were morally sound.
An excuse is acceptable if the original intentions were good but something got in the way of acting on them.
Dr. Sliwa calls this the Good Intention Account, and it shows why people are more inclined to accept certain excuses over others.
Another important element to the excuse is why we offer one. Besides proving that our actions were well intended, we want to defend our actions and change a person’s perception of our bad behavior.
“Successful excuses can mitigate our blame but they ’don’t get us off the hook completely,” said Sliwa. “Saying we were tired or stressed ’doesn’t absolve us from moral responsibility completely, though they do change ’others’ perceptions of what we owe to make up for it and how the offended party should feel about our wrongdoing.”
Not only are we trying to prove our morality with excuses, but we also negotiate down our sentence, which in this casenis how much anger or compensation is merited for the mistake.
“A successful excuse needs to make plausible that your intention really was morally adequate – but something beyond your control prevented you from translating it into action,” said Sliwa. “Things that will never work are appeals to weakness of will ‘I just couldn’t resist’ or ‘it was too tempting’ don’t work. Nor do appeals to things that are obviously immoral.”
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