Criminal Law and Philosophy

, Volume 4, Issue 2, pp 135–159 | Cite as

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 



I would like to thank members of workshops at Fordham Law School and Harvard Law School for a number of valuable comments. Special acknowledgement to Gideon Yaffe and Peter Westen for some very helpful suggestions on earlier drafts.


  1. Alexander, L. (1993). Inculpatory and exculpatory mistakes and the fact/law distinction: An essay in memory of Myke Bayles. Law and Philosophy, 12, 33.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. Alexander, L. (2009). Facts, law, exculpation, and inculpation: Comments on Simons. Criminal Law and Philosophy, 4, 241.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. Aristotle. Nicomachean ethics, Books III–IX.Google Scholar
  4. Bishop, J. P. (1877). Commentaries on the criminal law (6th ed.). Boston: Little, Brown and Co.Google Scholar
  5. Blumenthal, R. (2009). Crack code, then park? Or maybe just forget it. New York Times, p. NJ12.Google Scholar
  6. Crocker, L. (2008). Justification and bad motives. Ohio State Journal of Criminal Law, 6, 277.Google Scholar
  7. Davies, S. L. (1998). The jurisprudence of wilfulness: An evolving theory of excusable ignorance. Duke Law Journal, 48, 341.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  8. DeRose, K. (1992). Contextualism and knowledge attributions. Philosophy and Phenomenological Research, 52, 913.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  9. Duff, R. A. (2007). Answering for crime: Responsibility and liability in the criminal law. Oxford: Hart Pub. Co.Google Scholar
  10. Duff, R. A. (2010). Criminal responsibility and criminal liability. In: A. Duff, & S. Green (Eds.), Philosophical foundations of criminal law. Oxford: Oxford University Press (Forthcoming).Google Scholar
  11. Farnsworth, E. A. (2004). Alleviating mistakes. Oxford: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  12. Fletcher, G. P. (1978). Rethinking criminal law. Boston: Little, Brown and Co.Google Scholar
  13. Gardner, J. (2004). Fletcher on offences and defences. Tulsa Law Review, 39, 817.Google Scholar
  14. Guerrero, A. A. (2007). Don’t know, don’t kill: Moral ignorance, culpability, and caution. Philosophical Studies, 136, 76.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  15. Holmes, O. W. (1881). The common law. Boston: Little, Brown and Co.Google Scholar
  16. Husak, D. (1994). Ignorance of law and duties of citizenship. Legal Studies, 14, 105.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  17. Husak, D. (1995). Varieties of strict liability. Canadian Journal of Law and Jurisprudence, VIII, 189.Google Scholar
  18. Husak, D. (1996). The sequential principle of relative culpability. Legal Theory, 1, 457.Google Scholar
  19. Husak, D. (2005). On the supposed priority of justification to excuse. Law and Philosophy, 24, 557.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  20. Husak, D. (2008). Overcriminalization. Oxford: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  21. Husak, D. (2009). The costs to criminal theory of supposing that intentions are irrelevant to permissibility. Criminal Law and Philosophy, 3, 51.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  22. Husak, D. (2010). The de minimis ‘Defense’ to criminal liability. In A. Duff, & S. Green (Eds.), Philosophical foundations of criminal law. Oxford: Oxford University Press (Forthcoming).Google Scholar
  23. Husak, D., & Callendar, C. (1994). Wilful ignorance, knowledge, and the ‘equal culpability’ thesis: A study of the deeper significance of the principle of legality. Wisconsin Law Review, 29, 41.Google Scholar
  24. Husak, D., & von Hirsch, A. (1993). Culpability and mistake of law. In S. Shute, J. Gardner, & J. Horder (Eds.), Action and value in criminal law (p. 157). Oxford: Clarendon Press.Google Scholar
  25. Kahan, D. (1997). Ignorance of law is an excuse—but only for the virtuous. Michigan Law Review, 96, 127.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  26. Katz, L. (1996). Ill-Gotten gains. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.Google Scholar
  27. Leonard, G. (2001). Rape, murder, and formalism: What happens if we define mistake of law? University of Colorado Law Review, 72, 507.Google Scholar
  28. Levy, N. (2007). The responsibility of the psychopath revisited. Philosophy, Psychiatry, and Psychology, 14, 129.Google Scholar
  29. Parry, J. T. (1997). Culpability, mistake and official interpretation of law. American Journal of Criminal Law, 25, 1.Google Scholar
  30. Robinson, P. (1985). Causing the conditions of one’s own defense: A study of the limits of theory in criminal law doctrine. Virginia Law Review, 71, 1.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  31. Rosen, G. (2003). Culpability and ignorance. Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society, 103(1), 61.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  32. Rosen, G. (2004). Skepticism about moral responsibility. Philosophical Perspectives, 18, 295.Google Scholar
  33. Segev, R. (2006). Justification, rationality and mistake: mistake of law is no excuse? It might be a justification!. Law and Philosophy, 25, 31.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  34. Simons, K. W. (2009). Mistake of fact or mistake of law? Explaining and defending the distinction. Criminal Law and Philosophy, 3, 213.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  35. Smith, H. (1983). Culpable ignorance. Philosophical Review, 92, 543.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  36. Thomson, J. J. (1999). Physician-assisted suicide: Two moral arguments. Ethics, 115, 497.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  37. Westen, P. (2008). Impossible attempts: A speculative thesis. Ohio State Journal of Criminal Law, 5, 523.Google Scholar
  38. Yaffe, G. (2009). Excusing mistakes of law. Philosopher’s Imprint, 9(2), 1.Google Scholar
  39. Zimmerman, M. (1997). Moral responsibility and ignorance. Ethics, 107, 410.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2010

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Rutgers UniversityNew BrunswickUSA

Personalised recommendations