Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Explanations Verses Excuses

Universities are fine breeding grounds for excuses. Students have excuses for why they have not done the assigned reading, or handed in their paper on time. Faculty members have excuses for not getting grading done fast enough, or submitting academic papers. Administrators have excuses for announcing deadlines late and insane administrative policies. There are an awful lot of excuses around, in academic contexts.

In a recent class, the topic of the difference between explanations and excuses came up. I have discussed explanations in some detail elsewhere, while discussing types of arguments. (N.B. The series of Better Reasoning posts will be continuing soon.) As noted else where, explanations provide reasons why, or how something came to be the case. Excuses often are fairly similar to this -- "My paper was eaten by my dog", "My writers block was caused by some trauma", "The policy is to produce more transparency", etc. It should be clear that most excuses, in so far as that they are also explanations, are usually instances of causal explanations. However, this raises the question of what is the principled difference between an explanation and an excuse?

To begin with, it is clear that there are many causal explanations that are not instances of excuses. For instance, if someone claims that the power outage caused them to miss the news, this is unlikely to be an excuse (unless there is some particular reason why that person should see the news). Thus, what is needed is an analysis of what are the special features that make a particular instance of a causal explanation an excuse.

A complete philosophical analysis of this difference is beyond the scope of what can be achieved here. However, there are still some useful general observations that can be made, that may clarify the matter somewhat.

When an excuse is offered, it is usual for the person offering the excuse to be requesting some kind of special concession, or indulgence. The student with the late paper, hopes that they will not be penalised for missing the deadline. The deadwood academic hopes that their work for the year will still be considered satisfactory. The administrator hopes that they will not to be judged a complete moron. The hope of some kind of absolution is an important feature. If one calls the utility company to apologise for paying the bill late, because it fell down behind the fridge, one is offering an explanation. If one agrees to pay the penalty fee, then this is not an excuse. However, if one begs to have the transgression overlooked and that the penalty fee be waived, then this would constitute an excuse.

One interesting feature of excuses is that, from time to time they may be reasonably be granted. People have children that fall ill, vehicles that fail to work properly and the like. In such cases, a little leniency can be appropriate. However, this sheds light on another feature of excuses, as opposed to explanations.

If a student has a rough semester, for reasons outside their control, then cutting them some slack may be appropriate. However, should this happen semester after semester, then a different policy may be more appropriate. Similarly, if a faculty member fails to get any papers accepted one year, that is not good, but can be overlooked. However, if they publish nothing for years, or worse, do not even submit anything, then it is time for punitive measures to be put into place. The point here is that excuses lose their effectiveness when they appear again and again.

Another feature of excuses is the extent to which they are appropriate under the circumstances. If a defendant in a criminal trial claims that they committed their crimes, as they were told to do so by their room mate, then such an excuse is hardly appropriate. Similarly, if a student does not study for a test, due to playing computer games, this is not an appropriate excuse. However, if the same student has been sitting in the hospital with a sick relative, then this may be another matter. Analogously, if a professor, or an administrator excuses inadequate performance in some area, due to some event that happened years ago, then this is not really appropriate. This contrasts with an analogous case where the faculty member is completing some other important project, then this may be more reasonable.

Perhaps the very worst cases of excuses makers are those who repeatedly fail to do what they should, but time after time offer a range of ever changing excuses. These are the folks who are truly culpable and should be given the very least possibility of being allowed to continue in such behaviors. I have seen students and other individuals, who are true experts in just this sense. This is the reason why it is important to keep track of when excuses are made, when they are granted and how often this happens over time. Eventually, an individual who achieves very little, other than being a constant source of excuses, should be shown the door!

The CP


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