Habit, Crime, and Culpability

Johnson, Eric A. | April 3, 2023

Courts and scholars long have distinguished the wrongdoing component of criminal liability from the culpability component. In the old days, wrongdoing was thought to be crime’s physical, objective component— the “evil-doing hand.” Culpability, by contrast, was the mental, subjective component—the “evil-meaning mind.” Nowadays, most scholars agree with Holmes that even the wrongdoing component requires proof of the actor’s mental state. If the wrongdoing component requires proof of the actor’s mental state, though, what’s the point of the culpability requirement? For now, the dominant answer appears to be that the culpability requirement is a concession to human weakness. In this Article, I will develop a different view. I will argue that the culpability requirement is less a concession to human weakness than to the varieties of human rationality. Building on insights by philosopher Michael Bratman and others, I will argue that rationality can take at least two fundamentally different forms. The wrongdoing requirement is concerned only with conduct’s time-slice rationality—with the act’s downstream risks and utilities as measured from the moment of the act. Conduct that isn’t time- slice rational, however, still can embody a second kind of rationality, namely, temporally extended rationality. This second variety of rationality is present, for example, when an actor’s conduct is attributable to desirable habits of thinking, feeling, or behaving. The culpability requirement is best understood as addressed to this second kind of rationality. It absolves just those actors whose conduct, though wrongful, nevertheless is a product of desirable habits.