Criminal Law and Philosophy

, Volume 4, Issue 2, pp 135–159

Mistake of Law and Culpability

Original Paper


When does a defendant not deserve punishment because he is unaware that his conduct breaches a penal statute? Retributivists must radically rethink their answer to this question to do justice to our moral intuitions. I suggest that modest progress on this topic can be made by modeling our approach to ignorance of law on our familiar approach to ignorance of fact. We need to distinguish different levels of culpability in given mistakes and to differentiate what such mistakes may be about. I discuss the advantages and disadvantages of this approach with special attention to how to contrast offenses from defenses. The alternative I tend to favor probably should not be implemented in existing penal codes. As a result, we are likely to remain dissatisfied with the decisions made by our criminal justice system about the exculpatory effect of ignorance of law.


Culpability Retributivism Desert Ignorance of law Consequentialism Desert Blame Morality Offenses and defenses 

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2010

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Rutgers UniversityNew BrunswickUSA

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