The logic of excuses and the rationality of emotions

Journal of Value Inquiry 43 (3):315-338 (2009)
Sometimes emotions excuse. Fear and anger, for example, sometimes excuse under the headings of (respectively) duress and provocation. Although most legal systems draw the line at this point, the list of potentially excusatory emotions outside the law seems to be longer. One can readily imagine cases in which, for example, grief or despair could be cited as part of a case for relaxing or even eliminating our negative verdicts on those who performed admittedly unjustified wrongs. To be sure, the availability of such excuses depends on what wrong one is trying to excuse. No excuse is available in respect of all wrongs. Some wrongs, indeed, are inexcusable. This throws up the interesting question of what makes a particular emotion apt to excuse a particular wrong. Why is fear, for example, more apt to excuse more serious wrongs than, say, pride or shame? This question leads naturally to another. Why are some emotions, such as lust, greed, and envy, apparently not apt to furnish any excuses at all? Can one not be overcome by them? Can they not drive one to wrongdoing as readily as fear and grief? Or is that not the point?
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