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The Logic of Excuses and the Rationality of Emotions

45 Pages Posted: 2 Sep 2008 Last revised: 8 Sep 2008

John Gardner

University of Oxford - Faculty of Law

Date Written: September 1, 2008


I have previously defended a way of thinking about excuses (in the criminal law and in ordinary life) according to which being excused is a way of living up to standards of reasonableness, not a way (as J.L. Austin and H.L.A. Hart once thought) of being exempted from those standards. This suggestion keeps excuses distinct from denials of responsibility, a distinction which Austin and Hart collapsed. But it may be thought that my suggestion causes a collapse in the opposite direction: it collapses excuses into justifications as the price of keeping them distinct from denials of responsibility. For how could something be reasonable and yet unjustified? Answer: nothing can be both reasonable and unjustified. But an unreasonable action could be performed on the strength of a reasonable motivation. Then the motivation is justified but the action is merely excused. In this paper I explore this possibility in more detail with a particular focus on emotional motivations. I try to establish the logical space for reasonable emotions that lead to unreasonable actions. In the process I both confirm (in part) and challenge (in part) the temptation to assess our emotions as contributors to the practical side of our lives. I speak in favour of a view according to which emotions are highly answerable to reasons but not only, and in a way not primarily, to practical reasons.

Keywords: Emotions, excuses, criminal law, rationality

Suggested Citation

Gardner, John, The Logic of Excuses and the Rationality of Emotions (September 1, 2008). Oxford Legal Studies Research Paper No. 35/2008. Available at SSRN: or

John Gardner (Contact Author)

University of Oxford - Faculty of Law ( email )

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