This fallacy occurs when it is uncritically assumed that an explanation given for an action is an attempt to excuse or justify it. This fallacy has the following form:
Premise 1: Explanation E is offered for action A.
Conclusion: Therefore, E is an attempt to excuse or justify A.
This is a fallacy because an explanation of an action need not involve any attempt to excuse or justify that action.
This fallacy can be committed by accident due to a failure to distinguish between an explanation and an excuse or justification. This occurs because it can be easy to confuse explanations and arguments. Explanations are attempts to provide an account as to how or why something is the case or how it works. Arguments, in the logical sense, are attempts to establish that a claim (the conclusion) is true by providing reasons or evidence (premises). What can add to the confusion is that explanations can be used in arguments, often to establish an excuse or justify an action.
To illustrate, if someone said, “John missed class because he was in a car wreck”, this would be an explanation rather than an argument. However, if someone said, “John’s absence from class should be excused because he was in a car wreck”, then this would be an argument. This is because John being in a car wreck is being offered as a reason why his absence should be excused.
When what is being explained is linked to strong emotions or values, people can unintentionally commit this fallacy. Especially if they dislike the explanation being presented. For example, if foreign terrorist attacks against the United States are explained in terms of being reactions to United States foreign policy and economic activity, some people are likely to get angry and think the explanation is intended to excuse or justify the attacks.
The fallacy can also be committed intentionally to “prove” that someone is trying to justify an action when they are only offering an explanation. As with the unintentional use of the fallacy, this commonly occurs in matters of strong emotions or values. For example, a politician or pundit might intentionally use this fallacy to convince their audience that an expert who is explaining the motivations of a terrorist group is excusing or justifying the actions of the group.
It is also a mistake to assume that an excuse or justification is only an explanation, although that sort of error is not as common as confusing explanations with excuses.
Defense: To avoid committing this fallacy by accident, the best defense is to examine the alleged excuse/justification and determine if it uses the language and tone of excusing or justifying an action. It is especially important to not read into an explanation when you are angry or dislike the explanation. An explanation can also be a bad explanation without being an attempt at excusing or justifying something.
To guard against others using this fallacy against you, you also need to look carefully at the wording and tone of the explanation. You should also consider that the explanation might be intentionally distorted in order to make it seem like it is an attempt to justify or excuse.
Hosni: “While it has been common for many American politicians to claim that terrorists attacked America because they hate our freedoms, the reality seems to be that they have been primarily motivated by American foreign policy.”
Sam: “I can’t believe that you are defending the terrorists! How can you say that the 9/11 attack was justified?”
Hosni: “I said no such thing.”
Sam: “Yeah, you did. You said that they were motivated by American foreign policy. That means you think we made them attack us and they were right to do so!”
Karen: “I think that Bill is doing badly in the class because he finds the subject matter boring. During my recitation sections he just spends his time texting, no matter how often I ask him not to. I know he can do good work-my sister showed me some of his work in his major, and it is good. But my sister says that he’s not interested in philosophy.”
Drew: “I know that Bill is your sister’s boyfriend, but you don’t have to defend him.”
Karen: “I’m not. I’m just saying why he is doing badly.”
Drew: “Don’t get defensive. I’m fine with teaching assistants who advocate for students. I was quite the advocate in my day, you know.”
Drew: “Of course. Now I’m the cruel professor. Hah, hah.”