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Craig Henderson - photoCRAIG HENDERSON

Responsibility and emotion within the context of the criminal law

My research is concerned with how the criminal law attributes legal responsibility in cases where the defendant has committed a blameworthy act due to the influence of strong emotion.  I intend to propose, throughout the course of my research, an argument outlining a just conception of excusing conditions, the scope of which action due to certain emotions, will fall under.

In order to do so it will be necessary to analyse how emotion is seen to diminish moral responsibility before contrasting with the legal conception of responsibility with a view to showing how emotion enters the legal picture by rendering an act (to some degree) involuntary.  To this end I will be looking at pieces such as Matravers’, ‘Responsibility and Justice’, Strawson’s ‘Freedom and Resentment’ & Smart’s, ‘Free Will: Praise and Blame’ in order to understand the implications of whether we view responsibility in a metaphysical sense or as a purely pragmatic social relationship.  It is vital foundation for this piece of research to define what exactly the criminal law means when it holds an agent responsible and to consider in what ways it, rightly, differs from moral responsibility in this regard.

With regards to emotions the three which I have tentatively identified as useful to focus on are shame, disgust & anger.  Each of these emotions bring with them different issues when considered in relation to the criminal law.  For instance, genuine shame is often seen as having a morally educative dimension both in the sense that it shows an awareness of wrongdoing and possibly highlights that a criminal act committed is not in keeping with the agent’s character.  Shame then, is unique to this piece of research in that it is relatively distinct from the previous discussion on responsibility, however this nonetheless raises interesting questions on the relationship between emotion and the criminal law.  For instance, do feelings of shame indicate moral progress in an agent?  Should they lessen the severity of a sentence and is this justifiable? 

With regards the section on disgust I anticipate a brief discussion on how strong feelings of disgust impact legal responsibility and blameworthiness, as expected given the initial discussion at the beginning of the piece.  Additionally, the research will include the interesting question as to whether certain emotions can present to us unique moral knowledge and whether the criminal law should have a scope for such ‘emotional knowledge’ after discussing the arguments for and against the existence of this.

The final emotion which I propose to discuss will be anger – specifically when viewed as the triggering emotion because of provocation under the loss of self-control defence.  In this section I will look at issues such as whether anger is an acceptable reaction to any situation, and whether any morally defendable legal system can make a concession, in the form of specific excusing conditions, for actions occasioned by such an emotion.