Criminal Law and Philosophy

, Volume 5, Issue 2, pp 115–146 | Cite as

Non-Tracing Cases of Culpable Ignorance

  • Holly M. SmithEmail author
Original Paper


Recent writers on negligence and culpable ignorance have argued that there are two kinds of culpable ignorance: tracing cases, in which the agent’s ignorance traces back to some culpable act or omission of hers in the past that led to the current act, which therefore arguably inherits the culpability of that earlier failure; and non-tracing cases, in which there is no such earlier failure, so the agent’s current state of ignorance must be culpable in its own right. An unusual but intriguing justification for blaming agents in non-tracing cases is provided by Attributionism, which holds that we are as blameworthy for our non-voluntary emotional reactions, spontaneous attitudes, and the ensuing patterns of awareness as we are for our voluntary actions. The Attributionist explanation for why some non-tracing cases involve culpability is an appealing one, even though it has limited scope. After providing a deeper account of why we should take the Attributionist position seriously, I use recent psychological research to argue for a new account of the conditions under which agents are culpable for straightforward instances of blameworthy acts. That account is extended to blameworthiness for non-voluntary responses. I conclude that even when the agent’s failure to notice arises from a nonvoluntary objectionable attitude, very few such cases are ones in which Attributionism implies that the agent is blameworthy for her act.


Attributionism Blame Blameworthiness Culpability Culpable ignorance Defenses Excuses Ignorance of fact Moral responsibility Negligence Non-tracing Volitionism 



For comments on earlier versions of this paper I am grateful to Alvin Goldman, Karen Shanton, discussants at Union College, and especially Douglas Husak and Kenneth Simons.


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2011

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Philosophy DepartmentRutgers UniversityNew BrunswickUSA

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