Just as a lawyer who does not know the legal defenses is not a competent lawyer, so an ethicist who does not understand the ethical excuses can hardly be said to fully understand his area of expertise. An ethical theory that does not account for excuses is incomplete. Excuses are so much a part of our daily discourse and relationships with each other that we probably take them as much for granted as the air we breathe. Unfortunately, we have thought, talked, or written too little about excuses. One reason why we have not taken up the invitation of J. L. Austin to investigate excuses is because of its difficulties.
The first is a descriptive one. Just what excuses are actually being used and from among those, which ones are persuasive or valid? Since ethics is largely a system of voluntary compliance and those actors who do not comply try to hide their non-compliance not only from others but from themselves, they may not be personally aware they are acting unethically or that they are using excuses for themselves. Getting excuses out in the open and getting them labeled is a preliminary first step to discovering how often and in what ways they are used. That requires more open discussion about the validity of excuses among the actors who are giving excuses, victims who have been harmed by the unethical action, those observers who are witnesses, and by ethical theorists.
The second difficulty is linguistic. Excuses carry a negative connotation. We may avoid talking about excuses because we think any time an excuse is used, we are avoiding responsibility in a questionable way. Excuses, however, have value in pointing out difficult social and personal problems and