Excuses vs Justification

In Excuses, Austin proposed a new study of excuses and offered an initial analysis of his own. His proposal was this: actors offer excuses when their actions go wrong, and when we study what went wrong with an action, as indicated by those excuses, we learn about human behavior more generally. In other words, excuses serve as a window into the workings of human action and moral judgments. As Austin introduced his study of excuses, he distinguished them from justifications. When an actor offers an excuse, the actor offers a reason why he or she is not fully responsible for the wrong action, while accepting that the action was indeed wrong. When an actor instead offers a justification, the actor offers reasons why the action was in fact not wrong, while accepting responsibility for doing the action (p. 176).


  • accept: that it was wrong
  • reject: full responsibility


  • accept: full responsibility
  • reject: that it was wrong

Several of Austin's key points regarding clarity of language when describing actions and intentions:

  • Austin distinguished between standard and special cases of action. He asserted that standard case verbs cannot be modified by adverbs. On the other hand special case verbs warrant modification by adverbs (pp. 189-190).
  • A word and its opposite do not always relate in obvious ways. According to Austin, the “opposites of ‘voluntarily’ might be ‘under constraint’ of some sort, duress or obligation or influence” (p.191). Similarly, “the opposite of involuntarily might be ‘deliberately’ or ‘on purpose’”(p. 191). A person can act impulsively and intentionally at the same time. Austin warned that naive belief in opposites may cause us to miss important ways that adverbs can be combined (p. 195).
  • The application of various adverbs help to distinguish the “machinery of action.” Phases of action are distinguished: intelligence, appreciation of the situation, planning, decision, and execution (pp. 193-194).
  • Not all excuses are acceptable. Different standards in different contexts demarcate the acceptable and unacceptable excuses. For example, Austin argued that we may be allowed the excuse of inadvertence when accidentally stepping on snail but not when accidentally stepping on a baby (pp. 192, 194-195).
  • The entire phrase in which a term of excuse is used is very important. For example, one should note and distinguish between phrases such as ‘by mistake’ and ‘it was a mistake to.” Austin showed that the placement of the adverb, and thereby what action it modifies, can distinguish between an incidental element and a purposive element of one’s action (pp. 198-199).
  • In determining what modifies what, we make a decision about whether or not the actor’s intentions and motives are included in the description of an action (pp. 200-201). Am I swinging an ax into a block of wood, or I am chopping wood? Perhaps my motive was simply to embed the ax partway into the wood as a temporary way to store the ax while I went to conduct a different chore. On the other hand, if my action is described as ‘chopping wood’, then one may conclude that I am ‘getting ready for winter’ rather than just moving on to another chore. In addition to describing intentions and motives, adverbs can demarcate between the action itself and the effects or consequences of the action.
  • Austin observed from personal experience that the origins of a word indicate “pictures or models of how things happen or are done” (p. 202). One of the oldest models of action is that a man pushing a stone. This simple model reveals a subject, object, and verb, and it implies the ideas of cause and effect. What is important for Austin here is that today we often rely on this simple model to interpret events that are much more complicated, and as a result, we may read simple ‘causes’ and ‘effects’ into the events where there are none, simply because we assume that all events have causes.

Austin, J.L., 1979, ‘A Plea for Excuses,’ Philosophical Papers, pp. 175-204.