Punishment and Blame for Culpable Indifference


In criminal law, the mental state of the defendant is a crucial determinant of the grade of crime that the defendant has committed and of whether the conduct is criminal at all. Under the widely accepted modern hierarchy of mental states, an actor is most culpable for causing harm purposely, and progressively less culpable for doing so knowingly, recklessly, or negligently. Notably, this hierarchy emphasizes cognitive rather than conative mental states. But this emphasis, I argue, is often unjustified. When we punish and blame for wrongful acts, we should look beyond the cognitive dimensions of the actor’s culpability, and should consider affective and volitional dimensions as well, including the actor’s intentions, motives, and attitudes. One promising alternative mental state is the attitude of culpable indifference. However, we must proceed carefully when permitting criminal liability to turn on culpable indifference and similar attitudes, lest we punish vicious or unvirtuous feelings that are not sufficiently connected to wrongful acts, and lest we punish disproportionately for attitudes that reflect only a very modest degree of culpability.

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