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Justification and Excuse


Techniques > Conversation techniques > Excuses > Justification and Excuse

Justification | Excuse | See also


When there has been a wrong-doing of some sort and somebody is accused, they may focus their defence on justification or excuse, which are quite different.


Justification is about giving 'reasonable reason' for what was done (or not). It considers the context and concludes that fair play was served.

In court, a justification defense concentrates on the act rather than the actor. It shows the act to be beneficial to society in some way. It shows it as sensible and just and what a good person would do. It offers exonerating circumstances that say 'It was right to do this in this particular situation.

Self-defense is a very common justification. Other justification arguments include (Dressler, 1988):

  • 'Rights' approach: It is sometimes morally justifiable to enforce a legal and moral right (even killing another person).
  • 'Lesser evil' or 'superior interest' approach: In balancing all interests, the choice taken was the best of a limited set of options, all of which were unpalatable in some way.
  • 'Forfeit' approach: The supposed victim has, by their actions, forfeited their normal rights (such as being an aggressive intruder).


In court, an excuse defense concentrates on the actor rather than the act. It accepts the act may have harmed society in some way, but seeks to show that the person is not really to blame.

Excuses may show that the person's choice was limited and that the 'right' alternative was not available.


There can be a fine line between justification and excuse. It may be justifiable for a person to take an unused ladder that was leaning against a wall to use in saving someone from a burning building. It would not be justifiable if they grabbed the ladder and left the person who was using it stranded on a narrow ledge, yet may this be excused.

See also

Moore's Causal Theory of Excuse, Types of Reasoning


Dressler, J. (1987). Justifications and excuses: A brief review of the concepts and the literature, Wayne Law Review, 33, 1133–76.

Dressler, J. (1988). Provocation: Partial justification or partial excuse?, Modern Law Review, 51, 467–80.

Milhizert, E.R. (2004). Justification And Excuse: What They Were, What They Are, And What They Ought To Be, St John's Law Review, 78, 725-895

Wright, F. (2008). The Theory of Justification and Excuse, and its Application to Self-Defence, Journal of Commonwealth Law and Legal Education, 6, 1, 55–73



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