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Criminal Intent and Culpability

The legal system should return to the reasonableness of biblical standards.

by Jen Foster

Part 1 

Criminal conduct, actus reus, and criminal intent, mens rea, are intimately related in law. Specifically, criminal “liability requires voluntary conduct and a culpable mental state” and sentencing is “set in some proportion to wrongdoing and fault” (Brown 2012). What constitutes voluntary conduct and a culpable mental state is often defined by modern psychology. Unfortunately, because American psychology shifts with popular opinion, reflecting the degenerating values of an immoral society, “mens rea is a fluid concept that shifts with changing social norms and expectations” (Northrop 2017).

Traditional criminal intent, largely based in English common law, allows four means to determine culpability: “purpose [or intention], knowledge, recklessness, and negligence” (Silver 2015). Trying to ascertain criminal motive can be impossible unless a direct confession is obtained. Once again, psychology is called upon to play God, to explain what Proverbs 20:5 calls the “deep waters” of a person’s heart. However, due to the failure of psychology to provide coherent and comprehensive explanations, strict liability statutes have become increasingly popular.

Under a strict liability framework, determination of guilt is based solely on the actus reus, the criminal act. Strict liability only requires threshold culpability, that is, what would a reasonable person do, know, or understand. Obviously, this assumes moral character as well as mental function, asserting that the criminal should have known better, even when faced with unintended consequences.

This reasonable person, in the eyes of the law, has traditionally reflected the Judeo-Christian value system. As Kaveny points out, “the influence of the norms of Christian ethics on the common law tradition is significant and undeniable… Common law tradition makes rich use of moral concepts” (2015). This objective reasonable standard is important to retain in an immoral, unstable culture that has become more and more unreasonable.

Psychology influences the justice system in many areas. Its contradictory assertions and attack on morality in the courthouse will be the focus here. The law’s reasonable person standard addresses what one ought to do, think, and understand. Psychology says the law cannot judge morality, attempting to establish an amoral determination of guilt and sentencing structure. Then it introduces morality through the back door, placing blame for criminal actions on society, family or peer influences.

Bowing to psychology’s pressure, “the law eschews the role of moral character in legal blame” accepting as truth it’s assertion that “the psychological process of moral blame is a fundamentally social process… attempts to address threats to the social order” (Nadler 2012). In other words, the concept of morality is a socially-constructed bully used to keep others in line.  Into this vacuum neutral matter, such as genetics, attempts to absorb the blame. Genetic determinism is gaining a following among those seeking to exonerate criminals. As Segal complains, “If all our actions are caused, it raises the question of how anyone can be held morally or legally responsible for wrongdoing since we are never free to act otherwise” (2016). This amoral theory is even uncomfortable to many psychologists, so they seek blame elsewhere.

Psychology does admit moral influences when convenient. First, psychology shifts moral blame for criminal acts to society. In this theoretical framework, society is institutionally and systemically immoral. The defendant is an innocent victim of an evil society. Much discussion is given to mitigating and aggravating factors, attempting to abrogate the defendant of much or most blame. When the circumstances of the crime are too heinous to overlook psychology tries another tactic, affirming the defendant is a moral being but asserting that, because of age or diminished mental functioning, he is immature and therefore bears diminished moral culpability. Children are a prime example of this reasoning, as explained by Northrop: “children often lack the experience, perspective, and judgement to recognize and avoid choices that could be detrimental to them, they are more susceptible to outside influences, and their character is still evolving… therefore… children as a class are less criminally culpable” (2017). While all who know children will agree that they are less mature, this has become an excuse for immoral behavior. Diminished moral culpability is considered the ultimate mitigating factor. Psychology believes it has a new ally in the latest research from neuroscience.


Part 2

Psychology has always suffered in the eyes of the law from a lack of hard science. As scientism has emerged as society’s new favorite idol, neuroscience offers psychology a much-needed justification for diminished moral culpability. Unfortunately for psychology, it is only by misrepresenting and twisting facts that they gain scientific strength for their position.

A brief explanation of the latest research in neuroscience is required to understand how psychology attempts to use neurodevelopment in the courtroom. There are three interacting prongs of neurodevelopment: “structural data, functional data, and network development” (Somerville 2016). These three neurological domains work together to help humans think and act. Neuroscience asserts that “behavior arises from complex circuit interactions in the brain” (2016). Science does not attempt to chart the seat of the will, what the Bible calls the ‘heart’, and is therefore missing a large part of the puzzle. However, understanding how God created the mind to function as a clearinghouse for the will can be clarifying for the justice system.

The most recent discovery that neuroscience has brought to light, and which psychology wrests from its context, is that brain development is incomplete in children and even young adults. By misrepresenting and withholding neuroscience data, neurodevelopment is used to justify psychology’s diminished culpability theories. As Steinberg prematurely asserts, “by virtue of their inherent psychological and neurobiological immaturity, [adolescents] are not as responsible for their behavior as adults” (2013). Furthermore, he boldly assumes the reason “neuroscience evidence was probably persuasive to the Court” was because it “aligned with common sense and behavioral science” (2013).

The one problem with the justice system and psychology adopting the diminished moral culpability excuse for criminal behavior is that it requires academic dishonesty. The truth is, neurodevelopment never stops growing and changing. Neuroscientist L. Somerville explains, “the very notion of defining brain maturity is a misguided objective, as the brain never stops changing across the entire lifespan” (2016). He goes on to admit that in order for neurodevelopment to be useful to law and psychology for the purpose of establishing diminished culpability, one could easily highlight one-third of the data, hiding or deleting two component parts altogether. Specifically, psychology needs to highlight the brain’s network development, but ignore how it functions in context with structural and functional data. If that isn’t enough dishonesty, psychologists must also ignore the many cases wherein maturity is proved to be unique to each individual, like a fingerprint. It is not an objective standard.

If the justice system follows the proposition set up by psychology, the fallacy will have immediate social consequences. If there is no neurological standard of maturity, there is no psychologically accepted standard for culpability. Following diminished culpability as an excuse to the logical conclusion will bring societal anarchy and chaos which the justice system will be unable to punish.

Neither the Bible nor neuroscience demonstrate a universal age of maturity by which culpability can be standardized for criminal liability. The Bible does describe a moral being who continues to grow and develop over a life-time; neuroscience now confirms this. Another standard, an objective moral standard by which all mankind is judged and sentenced, must be utilized. A sane, consistent judicial system demands this. Culpability must be tied to the criminal act, judged by moral norms.

God’s wisdom allows for traditional criminal intent and strict liability statutes. Where it is possible to ascertain criminal intent, sentencing can reflect the defendant’s voluntary conduct and moral culpability, as in Exodus 22:14. Where that is impossible, laws must be based on the act which was done and penalized accordingly. The Bible assumes human responsibility for behavior, regardless of chronological age or maturity. Indeed, in some cases, there is harsher punishment for the fool (the immature) than the wise (the mature). (See Proverbs 17:10 & 19:29) This turns diminished culpability on its head!

The Bible also assumes that all men have the law of God written on their hearts. All men know, to some extent, what is appropriate and what is inexcusable. (See Romans 2:15) To use the words of Thomas Jefferson, “nature’s law” is written on all hearts by “nature’s God”. This mixing of enlightenment theory and biblical moral norms (Gish 2013) is the basis of the United States laws’ reasonable person.

By uncoupling psychology’s dubious assumptions from mens rea, the justice system can rid itself of a false perspective on culpability. Psychology would lead the law down a road of lawlessness. Neuroscience has illuminated that danger by showcasing the impossibility of tying culpability to a golden standard of maturity, apart from morality. Instead, the actus reus must guide determination of guilt. Criminal intent must be based on the objective moral norms of the reasonable person standard, not the so-called evolving standards of decency which serve the finicky tastes of an immoral society.

  • 3 October 2019
  • Author: Guest Blogger
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3/25/2020 5:34 AM

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