I was talking to a lady in her 60s who was losing weight, and exercising. She said to me; “All my life, my husband was an iron man. I felt terribly embarrassed, like everyone in the room was looking at me and thinking – how could he be with her”. She confided that she wanted to lose weight for completely superficial reasons, really dumb reasons of caring what people thought about what she looked like. She asked me if this made her a bad person, that she was doing things for the wrong reasons. We just covered Valid and invalid excuses, the territory of excuses overlaps quite heavily with the territory of goals. We make excuses and decisions to do some things and not other things because of our goals. Earlier in the conversation, my friend also shared the usual “get fit, be healthy” attitude that is the more noble reason to be getting fit.
I wouldn’t be the first to name this concept. There is a class of excuse that is known as the noble excuse. A noble excuse is the excuse for the action that you are making that sounds the most noble of the possible excuse space. Which is to say; there are often reasons for doing something that extend beyond one or two reasons, and beyond the reason you want to tell people right away.
When I tell my friends I didn’t go for a run this morning because I “Don’t want to be late for work”. That’s so noble. It had nothing to do with me being out late the night before, it’s raining, the grass is wet, I have hayfever, I didn’t get enough sleep, missed my alarm and woke up late. No it’s all for caring about being late for work.
Also coming in the form of Noble justifications, a noble excuse is tricky because it acts as an applause light. It tells the guilty brain, “okay you can stop looking now we found out why”, it’s safe to say that they don’t really help us, so much as save face among others or even to ourselves.
Speaking of a noble excuse
“Is that the real reason or is that just a noble excuse”
“Let’s not settle on the first noble excuse, what other reasons could there be for these events”
“I wish I could give a noble excuse for being late, but the truth is that I have a bad habit of leaving home late and missing the bus. Next week I will be trying out setting my watch to a few minutes faster to try to counteract my bad habit.”
“That’s a pretty embarrassing mistake, is there a noble excuse that we can pass on to the client?”
Dealing with a noble excuse
Not all noble excuses are bad. If you notice someone making a noble excuse, it usually doesn’t hurt to double check if there isn’t another reason behind those actions. There’s not a lot to understanding noble excuses. It’s about being aware of your excuses and connecting them back to their underlying goals.
Think carefully about the excuses you are making.
Meta: this took an hour to write.
Cross posted to lesswrong: http://lesswrong.com/r/discussion/lw/oqe/noble_excuses/