Paul's Criminal Justice Page

Paul's Justice Blog

 !! INTERNET EXPLORER USERS - IE is blocking a script for a scrolling navigation menu. Allowing the script improves website functionality !!

Paul's Justice Page > CJ Ethics > Pt 1 Moral Foundation of Criminal Guilt 

Morality of Law Overview

This section looks at the conditions under which society can hold an individual responsible for acts it considers crimes

Insanity Defense
Social Adversity Defense
Criminal Law

Buy CJ Ethics

Author, Title & summary

Criminal Justice Ethics topics and pages

In "The Morality of the Criminal Law," David Bazelon (former judge of the Court of Appeals for Washington D.C.) examines the relationship between law and moral values, arguing that the law should do more than merely enforce order. He takes up the question of what should be a crime, and addresses the mental and social conditions of criminal responsibility. Recounting his own struggles to define a usable standard for the insanity defense, he goes on to speculate about whether unjust or oppressive social conditions ought to reduce criminal responsibility in the way that mental illness does.

Insanity defense


Social Adversity, Crime & Justice


Bill Lawson follows up on Bazelon's concerns about the relevance of social inequalities to criminal guilt. "Crime, Minorities, and the Social Contract" looks specifically at the obligations minorities have to obey the laws when the state fails in its obligation to protect citizens from urban crime. In general, a contractarian view of legal obligation treats it as a debt that citizens owe one another in return for the benefits (such as peace, predictability, and security) that come when most citizens obey the law and the state protects citizens against those would break the law. Lawson contends that important features of this two-way bargain are not kept for poor inner-city residents. His reading of social contract literature leads him to "the unsettling conclusion that the fear of being a victim of crime for many urban residents releases them from an obligation to obey governmental dictates and consequently from any moral or legal obligation to obey the law." 

Social Adversity, Crime & Justice


Introduction: Contractarian Ethics


In her challenging article, “Mens Rea,” Jean Hampton tries to spell out clearly what is guilty about a guilty mind, and why the guilty are appropriately blamed and punished. The nature of the guilty mind is more puzzling than it might immediately seem to be. Consider that a criminal disobeys the law in order to satisfy some desire of his (say, for wealth). Now, if he doesn’t know that he should obey the law, then he is ignorant that he is doing wrong (if not insane) and blameless. If he does know he should obey the law, then how did his desire get him to go against what he knew he should do? If the desire was too strong to resist, then the criminal “couldn’t help it” when he broke the law and is, again, blameless. If his desire wasn’t too strong to resist, then he must have acted on it because he decided he should do what he desires. But, if he knew that he should obey the law, how did this happen? Was he irrational enough to believe something contrary to what he knew, or did he become ignorant that he should obey the law? Either of these seems to render him blameless again. 

Overview of Criminal Law 

Readers who are interested in exploring these topics further can visit Findlaw and The Jurist: The Law Professors’ Network. Within the ‘topics’ section will be resources about criminal law, and The Jurist contains links to web pages that law professors have developed for teaching criminal law. The heading ‘legal theory’ at both pages accesses many resources that discuss the relationship of law to race and gender. 

The section concludes with a case study, Leo Katz's "The Crime That Never Was," about impossible attempts. This article asks us to think about what it is that the law aims to punish. Normally, the law punishes attempted crimes even though they fail and thus produce no harm. Certainly the one who attempts a crime but fails is just as evil as one who attempts and succeeds. But what is an attempted crime? Suppose Bob shoots Frank, wanting to kill him, but Frank was already dead, having died minutes before of a heart attack. Has Bob committed attempted murder? Suppose Jane tries to poison Jill, giving her a substance she believes is poison, but which is really harmless. Has Jane committed attempted murder? Is Joe guilty of attempted murder if he is doing voodoo rituals that he thinks will bring about Kim's demise? Katz's case is about a man who tries to smuggle a painting across international borders, except that, unbeknownst to him, the painting is a forgery and taking it out of the country is not illegal. Is he guilty of a criminal attempt? Katz writes three opinions to the case that represent different balancing between the necessity of punishing inner evil (the one who tries voodoo believing it will kill his enemy is just as inwardly evil as the one who shoots a living person and misses) and protection against acts likely to be dangerous.

Up ] Ethics Overview ] [ 1: Morality of Law ] 2: What Should Be A Crime ] 3: Police Ethics ] 4: Courts & Lawyers ] 5: Penology & Punishment ] 6: Emerging Issues ] Appendix: Ethical Codes ]

Home ] Up ] Critical Criminology Journal ] Class, Race, Gender & Crime ] Rich Get Richer ] Classes & EMU Info ] Paul? ] Private Prisons ] Corporate Crime ] Careers & Jobs ] Photo Gallery ]


Search Web Search Search

Support this site

Amazon Hostway

Copyright © 2000 - 2010 Paul Leighton. Permission is freely given to link to these pages or use them for non-commercial purposes, including distribution of printed copies at or below cost. For other uses, please contact the owner