At what point does someone’s history excuse (or no longer excuse) their actions?
Show notes and links:
Terminology: ‘Justification’, ‘Defence’ and ‘Mitigation’ (University of Portsmouth)
Justifications, Excuses, and Mitigating Factors of Crimes (LegalMatch)
Full episode text
An excuse – something that lessens the blame or responsibility – can be a very slippery thing. Even more so in legal terminology. In the United States at least, an excuse is halfway between a justification and mitigating factor. While this extends far beyond just criminal actions, I’ll be focusing mostly on legal examples.
A justification means that no crime is committed. Even if the act may normally be a crime, there’s something that means it is not by legal (if not moral) description, a “crime.”
On the other end of the spectrum, mitigation means there’s a special circumstance that should minimize or reduce punishment. It doesn’t take away any of the blame or responsibility, but it does have an impact.
Somewhere between these two is an excuse. In legal terminology, this is where the action is still judged to be a crime, but with less culpability than it may otherwise have.
History, especially with a particular individual, is often used as an excuse or mitigating factor. It seems, at least to me, that the dividing line often comes in the directness of the history. For example, an abuse survivor that kills their abuser is often considered to be justified in their actions. However, an abuse survivor that kills an individual that looks like their abuser is more likely to have their history considered a mitigating factor, if anything.
So perhaps it’s not so much just personal history excusing an action as it is the context of a situation. When it comes to excusing an action (or no longer accepting an excuse), it really does seem to come down to proximity and recency. With a healthy dose of avoiding rationalization.