Social Philosophy and Policy

Research Article

Reconsidering the Relationship among Voluntary Acts, Strict Liability, and Negligence in Criminal Law

Larry Alexandera1

a1 Lam, University of San Diego

This essay, as will become obvious, owes a huge debt to Mark Kelman, particularly to his article “Interpretative Construction in the Substantive Criminal Law.” That debt is one of both concept and content. There is rich irony in my aping Kelman's deconstructionist enterprise, for I do not share his enthusiasm for either the “insights” or the political agenda of the Critical Legal Studies movement. I do not believe that either the law in general or the criminal law in particular is radically indeterminate, rife with internal contradictions, or an expression of the interests of a dominant economic class. And although, like Kelman, I believe that the freedom/determinism, act/character, and rule/principle dichotomies must ultimately be dealt with in order to have a completely satisfactory account of criminal law, I also believe that these dichotomies loom just as large in other areas of law and in normative theory generally. They are problems for Crits as well as for liberal-legalists.

In any event, my intentions in undertaking this deconstructionist enterprise are modestly reformist, not revolutionary. I do not intend to shift any paradigms, but to work with well-established ones. I will assume that criminal law seeks to accomplish some blend of retributive response to and deterrence of culpable choices, choices to defy moral norms that are also legal norms. (I omit consideration of criminal laws premised on immoral norms.) I will also assume that a culpable choice is one that reflects negatively on the values held by the chooser. Beyond these quite modest assumptions, I need not and will not venture in this paper, realizing, of course, that much has and can be written about the proper aims of punishment and the proper account of culpability.