Unconscious Mens Rea: Criminal Responsibility for Lapses and Minimally Conscious States

In Dennis Patterson & Michael Pardo (eds.), Philosophical Foundations of Law and Neuroscience. Oxford University Press (2016)
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In a recent book, Neil Levy argues that culpable action – action for which we are morally responsible – is necessarily produced by states of which we are consciously aware. However, criminal defendants are routinely held responsible for criminal harm caused by states of which they are not conscious in Levy’s sense. In this chapter I argue that cases of negligent criminal harm indicate that Levy’s claim that moral responsibility requires synchronic conscious awareness of the moral significance of an act is too strict, and that tracing conditions cannot be successfully used to bolster Levy’s account. Instead, current legal practices indicate that criminal responsibility requires the capacity for diachronic agency and self-control, not synchronic conscious control.

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Katrina L. Sifferd
Elmhurst University


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