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Motive, Intention, and Morality in the Criminal Law

NCJ Number
Criminal Justice Review Volume: 28 Issue: 2 Dated: Autumn 2003 Pages: 317-335
Whitley R. P. Kaufman
Date Published
19 pages
This article argues in favor the orthodox doctrine that the motive for committing a crime is irrelevant to the determination of criminal liability.
The orthodox doctrine holds that motive is irrelevant to criminal liability unless it is specifically made relevant as part of the definition of a crime (for example, in hate crimes) or unless there is an established criminal defense that requires the establishment of a motive (e.g., duress). Those who oppose this doctrine argue that a person's motive for committing a crime should affect the person's blameworthiness. Norrie (1993, 1998) has argued that the distinction between motive and intention reflects a fundamental contradiction in the law. LaFave and Scott (1986), citing the intractability of this disagreement, suggest that the difficult task of distinguishing motive from intention should be abandoned and that it should be acknowledged that the criminal law "takes account of some desired ends but not others." In arguing in favor of retaining the orthodox doctrine, this article states that the difficulty of identifying a person's subjective motive for an action would complicate adjudication. The court would not only be required to determine whether the person violated a criminal statute, but also whether the motive for doing so met an acceptable standard for "goodness." Although the determination of intention is necessary to distinguish between an unintended accident or an intended injury or death, this is a far less complicated inquiry than exploring the psychological and character factors that relate to motive for a behavior. Still, the critics of the orthodox doctrine maintain that it violates society's basic moral standards, i.e., that people who cause harm in order to achieve a greater good should not be held accountable for the harm. In arguing for the orthodox doctrine, however, the author maintains that respect for the law requires that individuals be held accountable for a deliberate violation of the law, regardless of the motive for breaking the law. A legislature may well decide that certain motives justify or excuse intentional killings, but it is a mistake to argue that eliminating the orthodox doctrine to allow judges to consider motives would result in a "principled" solution to difficult cases. Two case examples are presented in discussing the distinction between motive and intention. 31 references