Embarking on a Crime

In Enrique Villanueva V. (ed.), Law and the Philosophy of Action. Rodopi. pp. 101-24 (2014)
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When we define something as a crime, we generally thereby criminalize the attempt to commit that crime. However, it is a vexing puzzle to specify what must be the case in order for a criminal attempt to have occurred, given that the results element of the crime fails to come about. I argue that the philosophy of action can assist the criminal law in clarifying what kinds of events are properly categorized as criminal attempts. A natural thought is that this project should take the form of specifying what it is in general to attempt or try to perform an action, and then to define criminal attempts as attempts to commit crimes. Focusing on Gideon Yaffe's resourceful work in Attempts (Oxford University Press, 2010) as an example of this strategy, I argue that it results in a view that is overly inclusive: one will count as trying to commit a crime even in the far remote preparatory stages that we in fact have good reason not to criminalize. I offer an alternative proposal to distinguish between mere preparations and genuine attempts that has its basis not in trying, but doing: a criminal attempt is underway once what the agent is doing is a crime. Working out the details of this schema turns out to have important implications for action theory. A recently burgeoning view known as Naive Action Theory holds that all action can be explained by appeal to some further thing that the agent is doing, and that that the same explanatory nexus is at work even when we appeal to what the agent is intending, trying, or preparing to do -- these notions do explanatory work because they too refer to actions that are in progress, albeit in their infancy. If this is right, than the notion of 'doing' will also be too inclusive for the purposes of the criminal law. I argue that we should draw the reverse conclusion: the distinctions between pure intending, trying, preparing, and doing serve an important purpose in the criminal law, and this fact lends support to the view that they are genuine metaphysical and explanatory distinctions.

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Sarah Paul
New York University, Abu Dhabi


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