J.L. Austin famously recommended the study of excuses to moral philosophy. Austin distinguished two main types of excuses: justifications that draw on explicitly normative standards to justify one’s action as right after all, and qualified admissions that seek to mitigate due punishment by citing extenuating factors. But when put on the spot in real life situations, the accused, rather than citing extenuating factors, sometimes asks for an exemption from an applicable moral rule. When an exemption is requested, the validity of the rule is granted, but the accused asks that the rule not be enforced.
Sometimes the request to be exempted from a particular moral rule is made with reference to the kind of person the accused is. I shall call such requests identity pleas. Identity pleas seek a dispensation to be exempted from some applicable rule henceforth. They seek continued toleration – a pass to continue living in the breach. As such, identity pleas are more difficult to place within moral theory than excuses. A Kantian moral theory, with its emphasis on exceptionless universal rules, cannot admit their existence at all, based as they are on the assertion of idiosyncrasy. But they do exist in the context of real relationships, the preservation of which sometimes involves overlooking admitted incorrigibility.
Country music provides ample examples of identity pleas, as in the following song lyrics from three generations of misbehaving Hank Williams:
Sometimes it’s hard, but you’ve gotta understand, when the Lord made me, he made a ramblin’ man. — Hank Williams, Sr.
If I get stoned and sing all night long, it’s a family tradition. — Hank Williams, Jr.
I can’t help the way that I am, ‘cause the whiskey, weed, and women had the upper hand. — Hank Williams III
Regrettably for Hank Sr., his wife did not in fact understand, and kicked him to the curb. But the failure of his plea does not detract from the pertinence of the example: Hank acknowledged that his behavior fell short of settled standards for marital relations – standards he did not seek to challenge – but instead begged his wife to tolerate his rambling ways because of the kind of person he is and cannot help being.
While Hank’s wife lost patience, others make a different choice upon receiving similar pleas. Hillary Clinton claimed not to be the sort of woman Tammy Wynette sings about in “Stand By Your Man,” but she famously chose to overlook her husband’s pattern of infidelity, presumably with open eyes. Real people make these kinds of choices – the choice whether the flaws of the people in their lives are worth putting up with. Moral rules do not dictate these choices.
Once you notice that there is such a thing as an identity plea, you start to see them frequently. Dispensations are often tacitly given without being asked for. For example, family ties bind people together despite significant differences in values. Many workplaces have a person whose quirks become well known and tolerated, such as the curmudgeon who is called gruff rather than rude, as their behavior merits by normal standards. “Don’t mind him,” the new employee may be told.
So do identity pleas represent a category wholly divorced from excuses and moral evaluation? Not entirely. Identity pleas function as excuses when their proper reception can be justified on moral grounds. In these cases, they are more than bare requests for toleration. For example, people with some kinds of disabilities are unable to achieve perfect social propriety, such as a person with Tourette’s syndrome who interjects profanity at inopportune moments. In cases such as these, there is happily now a stable consensus that one should tolerate such infelicities. Failure to offer dispensation in cases such as these is considered a moral failure on the part of any individual intolerant enough to do so, and is indeed illegal in the context of employment.
Here we have a case of moral standards settling that a dispensation is in order, precisely because of the type of individual who has violated the rule. In situations such as these, the person making an identity plea has a legitimate excuse for their behavior, and it would be wrong to deny the request.
At this point, it may be suspected that the example of disability provides the key to understanding identity pleas across the board, showing them to be a subclass of excuse rather than a disjoint category. In particular, it may be thought that the issue is always ultimately whether the individual making the plea is factually unable to abide by established norms, whether due to a documented disability or a more idiosyncratic quirk in their personality. In that case, it might be argued, Hank Sr.’s plea was rightly rejected because he was merely unwilling, not literally unable, to change his ways.
I believe, however, that such a suggestion is misplaced. Pleas like Hank’s are often enough accepted despite the absence of evidence that the behavior in question is based in genuine incapacity as opposed to stubbornness or weakness of will.
How, then, shall we understand the relationship between identity pleas and moral theory? I suggest the key is to acknowledge, to a degree that Kantian morality does not, that ongoing relationships of various kinds form the backdrop of evaluation where identity pleas (and exceptions more generally) are made and evaluated. I don’t know to what extent Hank’s mother put up with his antics. Different parents take different approaches to wayward children, some cutting them off for minor offenses and others sticking with them despite appalling failures to reciprocate (as Hank III documents in his song “I’m the Only Hell My Mama Ever Raised”).
There are standards with respect to identity pleas, but also wide latitude for discretion. This discretion exists in the space of intimacy and attachment, and differs by type of relationship (child, spouse, friend, employer, teacher, etc.). Abstract moral rules and appeals to rights do not form the basis of our more intimate relationships and do not dictate whether they are worth continuing despite breaches of normally applicable standards, whether in the past or anticipated in the future. Here, the moralism inherent in the consideration of excuses loses its centrality, as each person confronts the decision of what kind of person to be, and to be with.