Justifications and excuses

Marcia Baron

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

24 Citations (Scopus)


The distinction between justifications and excuses is a familiar one to most of us who work either in moral philosophy or legal philosophy. But exactly how it should be understood is a matter of considerable disagreement. My aim in this paper is, first, to sort out the differences and try to figure out what underlying disagreements account for them. I give particular attention to the following question: Does a person who acts on a reasonable but mistaken belief have a justification, or only an excuse? One disagreement I highlight concerns the extent to which justification is primarily about agents rather than about actions (viewed in isolation from the agents performing them). Those who think, as I do, of “His action, X, was justified” as “He was justified in doing X” are far more likely to allow that justification requires reasonable belief and does not require truth, than are those who think of “His action, X, was justified” as “Although actions of this type usually are prohibited, X is in these circumstances in fact permissible.” In addition to (and sometimes in the course of) sorting out the differences and tracing them to some underlying disagreements, I defend the reasonable belief view of justification against some objections, and argue that, whether or not we continue to use the term “justified” in a way that does not require truth (and does require reasonable belief), we need the concept. Contrary to the claims of some who reject the reasonable belief view of justification, justification thus understood does not reduce to excuse.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)387-406
Number of pages20
JournalOhio State Journal of Criminal Law
Issue number2
Publication statusPublished - 2005


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