Criminal Law and Philosophy

, Volume 2, Issue 2, pp 137–162 | Cite as

Individualizing the Reasonable Person in Criminal Law

  • Peter WestenEmail author
Original Paper


Criminal law commonly requires judges and juries to decide whether defendants acted “reasonably.” Nevertheless, issues of reasonableness fall into two distinct categories: (1) where reasonableness concerns events and states, including risks of which an actor is conscious, that can be justly assessed without regard to the actor’s individual traits, and (2) where reasonableness concerns culpable mental states and emotions that cannot justly be assessed without reference to the actor’s capacities. This distinction is significant because, while the “reasonable person” by which category-1 cases are assessed is a disembodied and impersonal ideal that consists of nothing but the uncompromising values of the jurisdiction, the reasonable person by which category-2 cases are measured must necessarily incorporate some of an actor’s individual traits or risk blaming the blameless. Courts and commentators have thus far approached the task of individualizing or subjectivizing reasonableness in category 2 by trying to determine in advance which individual traits are generally relevant and which are not. I propose an alternative approach that, in addition to applying to negligence and voluntary manslaughter cases alike, derives its content from the social practice of blaming. I propose that a reasonable person in category-2 cases consists of every physical, psychological, and emotional trait an actor possesses, with one exception—the exception being that he possesses proper respect for the values of the people of the state as reflected and incorporated in the statute at hand.


Reasonable person Individualization Provocation Negligence Blame 



I am indebted to Larry Alexander, Joshua Dressler, Kim Ferzan, Doug Husak, Stephen Garvey, Ken Simons, Stephen Sugarman, and two of this journal’s anonymous reviewers for commenting on an earlier draft.



  1. Aristotle. Nichomachean ethics. Hugh Tredennick, trans. 1976. Middlesex: Penguin.Google Scholar
  2. Lee, C. (2003). Murder and the reasonable man. New York: New York University Press.Google Scholar
  3. Model Penal Code and Commentaries, 1985. Philadelphia: American Law Institute.Google Scholar
  4. Moran, M. (2003). Rethinking the reasonable person: An egalitarian reconstruction of the objective standard. Oxford: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  5. Pillsbury, S. (1998). Judging evil: Rethinking the law of murder and manslaughter. New York: New York University.Google Scholar
  6. Renteln, A. D. (2004). The cultural defense. Oxford: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  7. Ripstein, A. (1998). Equality, responsibility, and the law. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
  8. Robinson, P. (2007). Criminal law case studies (3rd ed.). Minneapolis: West Publishing.Google Scholar

Contribution in Book

  1. Simester, A. P. (2000). Can negligence be culpable? In J. Horder (Ed.), Oxford Essays in Jurisprudence (4th Series) (pp. 85–106). Oxford: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar

Article in a Journal

  1. Alexander, L. (2000). Insufficient concern: A unified conception of criminal culpability. California Law Review, 88, 931–953.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. Burke, A. (2005). Book review. Michigan Law Review, 103, 1043–1080.Google Scholar
  3. Dressler, J. (1982). Rethinking heat of passion: A defense in search of a rationale. Criminal Law and Criminology, 73, 421–470.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  4. Dressler, J. (1995). When “heterosexual” men kill “homosexual” men. Journal of Criminal Law & Criminology, 85, 726–763.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  5. Dressler, J. (2000). Thoughts on Alexander’s unified conception of criminal culpability. California Law Review, 88, 955–963.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  6. Dressler, J. (2002). Why keep the provocation defense? Minnesota Law Review, 86, 959–1002.Google Scholar
  7. Fletcher, G. (1974). The individualization of excusing conditions. Southern California Law Review, 47, 1269–1309.Google Scholar
  8. Fletcher, G. (1985). The right and the reasonable. Harvard Law Review, 98, 949–982.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  9. Gardner, J. (2001). The mysterious case of the reasonable person. University of Toronto, 51, 273–308.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  10. Garvey, S. (2005). Passion’s puzzle. Iowa Law Review 90, 1677–1745.Google Scholar
  11. Garvey, S. (2006). What’s wrong with voluntary manslaughter? Texas Law Review, 85, 333–383.Google Scholar
  12. Hart, H. L. A. (1968). Negligence, Mens Rea, and criminal responsibility. In H. L. A. Hart (Ed.), Punishment and Responsibility (pp. 136–157). Oxford: Clarendon Press.Google Scholar
  13. Heller, K. (1998). Beyond the reasonable man? A sympathetic but critical assessment of the use of subjective standards of reasonableness in self-defense and provocation cases. American Journal of Criminal Law, 26, 1–109.Google Scholar
  14. Husak, D. (1996). Reasonable risk creation and overinclusive legislation. Buffalo Criminal Law Review, 1, 599–626.Google Scholar
  15. Kahan, D., & Martha, N. (1996). Two conceptions of emotions in criminal law. Columbia Law Review, 96, 269–374.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  16. Macklem, T., & John, G. (2001). Provocation and pluralism. Modern Law Review, 64, 815–830.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  17. McMahan, J. (2005). Self defense and culpability. Law and Philosophy, 24, 751–774.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  18. Michaels, A. (2000). Rationales of criminal law then and now: For a judgmental descriptivism. Columbia Law Review, 100, 54–92.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  19. Mison, R. (1992). Homophobia in manslaughter: The homosexual advance as insufficient provocation. California Law Review, 80, 133–177.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  20. Morse, S. (1984). Undiminished confusion in diminished capacity. Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology, 75, 1–55.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  21. Nourse, V. (1997). Passion’s progress: Modern law reform and the provocation defense. Yale Law Journal, 106, 1331–1448.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  22. Nourse, V. (2003). Reconceptualizing criminal law defenses. University of Pennsylvania Law Review, 151, 1691–1746.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  23. Robinson, P. (2001). Criminal law scholarship: Three illusions. Theoretical Inquiries in Law, 2, 289–322.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  24. Robinson, P. (2003). Prohibited risks and culpable disregard of inattentiveness: Challenge and confusion in the formulation of risk-creation offenses. Theoretical Inquires in Law, 4, 367–395.Google Scholar
  25. Simons, K. (1992). Rethinking mental states. Boston University Law Review, 72, 463–554.Google Scholar
  26. Simons, K. (2001). Dimensions of negligence in criminal and tort law. Theoretical Inquiries In Law, 3, 283–331.Google Scholar
  27. Simons, K. (2003). Should the model penal code’s Mens Rea provisions be amended? Ohio State Criminal Law Review, 1, 179–205.Google Scholar
  28. Tadros, V. (2002). Recklessness and the duty to take care. In S. Shute & A. P. Simester (Eds.), Criminal Law Theory (pp. 227–58). Oxford: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  29. Terhune, C. (1997). Cultural and religious defenses to child abuse and neglect. American Academy of Matrimonial Law, 14, 152–192.Google Scholar
  30. Westen, P., & James, M. (2003). The defense of duress in criminal law. Buffalo Criminal LawReview, 6, 833–950.Google Scholar
  31. Westen, P. (2005). An attitudinal theory of excuse. Law and Philosophy, 25, 289–375.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  32. Westen, P. (2007). Two rules of legality in criminal law. Law and Philosophy, 26, 229–305.CrossRefGoogle Scholar


  1. Code of Alabama §13A-2-2(3).Google Scholar
  2. Alaska Statutes § 04-21-080(a)(3).Google Scholar
  3. Arizona Revised Statutes § 13-105(9)(c).Google Scholar
  4. Arkansas Code Annotated § 5-2-202(3).Google Scholar
  5. California Penal Code § 450(f).Google Scholar
  6. Connecticut General Statutes §§53a-3(13), 53a-19.Google Scholar
  7. Delaware Code, tit. 11, §231(c) .Google Scholar
  8. Hawaii Revised Statutes §702-206(3).Google Scholar
  9. Idaho Code §18-4101(G).Google Scholar
  10. Illinois Compiled Statutes, titl. 720 §5/4-6.Google Scholar
  11. Iowa Code §235B.2(12).Google Scholar
  12. Kentucky Revised Statutes §501.020(3).Google Scholar
  13. Annotated Laws of Massachusetts ch. 265, §13L.Google Scholar
  14. Minnesota Code § 609.20(1).Google Scholar
  15. Mississippi Code Annotated § 17-17-67(3).Google Scholar
  16. Revised Statutes Missouri § 562.016(4).Google Scholar
  17. New Hampshire Revised Statutes §626:2(II)(c).Google Scholar
  18. New Jersey Statutes §2C:2-2(b)(3).Google Scholar
  19. New York Consolidated Law Service Penal §15.05(3).Google Scholar
  20. North Dakota Code, §§ 12.1-05-08, 12.1.16-01, 12.1.16-02, Scholar
  21. Oregon Revised Statutes § 161.085(9).Google Scholar
  22. Pennsylvania Compiled Statutes, tit. 18, § 302(b)(3).Google Scholar
  23. Wyoming Statutes §6-1-104(a)(ix).Google Scholar
  24. Model Penal Code §§ 2.02(2)(c)-(d), 3.04(3), 210.1-3, 220.1(3), 223.5, 250.2(1), 250.2(2), 301.1.Google Scholar


  1. Attorney General for Jersey v. Holley (2005), 3 WLR 29.Google Scholar
  2. People v. Cassasa (1980), 49 N.Y.2d 668, 404 N.E.2d 1310.Google Scholar
  3. Director of Public Prosecutions v. Bedder (1954) 1 W.L.R. 117 (H.L.).Google Scholar
  4. Director of Public Prosecutions v. Camplin (1978) 2 W.L.R. 679 (H.L.).Google Scholar
  5. Girouard v. State (1991), 321 Md. 532, 583 A.2d 718.Google Scholar
  6. Maher v. People (1862), 10 Mich. 212.Google Scholar
  7. North Dakota v. Cox (1985), 532 N.W.2d 384.Google Scholar
  8. North Dakota v. Ronne (1990), 458 N.W.2d 294 .Google Scholar
  9. Regina v. James (2006) 1 All ER 759.Google Scholar
  10. Regina v. Luc Thiet Thuan (1996) 2 All ER 1033 (P.C.).Google Scholar
  11. Regina v. Rongonui (2000) 2 NZLR 385.Google Scholar
  12. Regina v. Smith (Morgan) (2001) 1 AC 146 (H.L.) .Google Scholar
  13. United States v. Roston (1993) 986 F.2d 1287, 1294.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2007

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Frank G. Millard Professor of LawMichigan Law SchoolAnn ArborUSA

Personalised recommendations