Criminal Law and Philosophy

, Volume 10, Issue 4, pp 745–762 | Cite as

The Relevance of Intention to Criminal Wrongdoing

  • Dana Kay Nelkin
  • Samuel C. Rickless
Original Paper


In this paper, we defend the general thesis that intentions are relevant not only to moral permissibility and impermissibility, but also to criminal wrongdoing, as well as a specific version of the Doctrine of Double Effect that we believe can help solve some challenging puzzles in the criminal law. We begin by answering some recent arguments that marginalize or eliminate the role of intentions as components of criminal wrongdoing [e.g., Alexander and Ferzan (Crime and culpability: a theory of criminal law. Cambridge University Press, New York, 2009), Chiao (Crim Law Philos 4:37–55, 2010), Walen (Crim Law Philos 3:71–78, 2009)]. We then turn to some influential theories that articulate a direct role for intentions [e.g., Duff (Answering for crime: responsibility and liability in the criminal law. Hart Publishing, Portland, 2007), Husak (Crim Law Philos 3:51–70, 2009)]. While we endorse the commitment to such a role for intentions, we believe that extant theories have not yet been able to adequately address certain objections or solve certain puzzles, such as that some attempt convictions require criminal intent when the crime attempted, if successful, requires only foresight, and that some intended harms appear to be no more serious than non-intended ones of the same magnitude, for example. Drawing on a variety of resources, including the specific version of the Doctrine of Double Effect we have developed in recent published work, we present solutions to these puzzles, which in turn provide mutual support for our general approach to the role of intentions and for thinking that using others as means is itself a special kind of wrongdoing.


Double effect Intention Intend/foresee distinction Means principle Criminal law 



We are very grateful to Alec Walen and Doug Husak for organizing the Workshop on Deontology and the Criminal Law and for the opportunity to think and write about these issues. We owe many thanks to Larry Alexander, Alex Guerrero, Heidi Hurd, Doug Husak, Matthew Liao, Jeff McMahan, Jonathan Quong, Victor Tadros and Ralph Wedgwood for their questions and suggestions, to all of the conference participants for thought-provoking discussion, and to Alec Walen for very helpful written comments on the paper. We are grateful to Chirag Barai for his exceptional research assistance. Finally, we are indebted to Michael Moore for his excellent commentary.


  1. Alexander, L. (2000). Insufficient concern: A unified conception of criminal culpability. California Law Review, 88, 931-954.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. Alexander, L. (2014). The means principle. In K. K. Ferzan and S. J. Morse, eds. Legal, moral, and metaphysical truths: The philosophy of Michael Moore. Oxford: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  3. Alexander, L., & Ferzan, K. K. (with Morse, S. J.) (2009). Crime and culpability: A theory of criminal law. New York: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
  4. Chiao, V. (2010). Intention and attempt. Criminal Law and Philosophy, 4, 37-55.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  5. Dolinko, D. (1991). Some thoughts about retributivism. Ethics, 101, 537-559.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  6. Dolinko, D. (2012). Review of “Crime and culpability: A theory of criminal law.” Criminal Law and Philosophy, 6, 93-102.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  7. Dressler, J. (2006). Understanding criminal law, 4th edition. Newark: LexisNexis.Google Scholar
  8. Duff, R. A. (1996). Criminal attempts. Oxford: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  9. Duff, R. A. (2001). Punishment, communication, and community. New York: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  10. Duff, R. A. (2007). Answering for crime: Responsibility and liability in the criminal law. Portland: Hart Publishing.Google Scholar
  11. Foot, P. (1984). Killing and letting die. In J. L. Garfield and P. Hennessey, eds. Abortion and legal perspectives. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press.Google Scholar
  12. Hart, H. L. A. (2008). Punishment and responsibility: Essays in the philosophy of law, 2nd edition. Oxford: Oxford University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  13. Husak, D. (2009). The costs to criminal theory of supposing that intentions are irrelevant to permissibility. Criminal Law and Philosophy, 3, 51-70.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  14. LaFave, W. R. (2010). Cthriminal law, 5th edition. St. Paul: West Publishing.Google Scholar
  15. Moore, M. S. (1997). Placing blame: A theory of the criminal law. New York: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  16. Moore, M. S. (2009). Causation and responsibility: An essay in law, morals, and metaphysics. Oxford: Oxford University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  17. Nagel, T. (1986). The view from nowhere. New York: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  18. Nelkin, D. K. (2011). T. M. Scanlon, Moral dimensions: Permissibility, meaning, blame. Philosophical Review, 120, 603-607.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  19. Nelkin, D. K. (2012). Moral luck. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Summer 2013 Edition), E. Zalta (Ed.),
  20. Nelkin, D. K., & Rickless, S. C. (2014). Three cheers for double effect. Philosophy and Phenomenological Research, 89, 125-158.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  21. Nelkin, D. K., & Rickless, S. C. (forthcoming). So close, yet so far: Why solutions to the closeness problem for the doctrine of double effect fall short. Noûs. doi:  10.1111/nous.12033.
  22. Quinn, W. S. (1989). Actions, intentions, and consequences: The doctrine of double effect. Philosophy and Public Affairs, 18, 334-351.Google Scholar
  23. Rachels, J. (1975). Active and passive euthanasia. New England Journal of Medicine, 292, 78-80.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  24. Reinhart, C. (2008). OLR research report: Crimes with mandatory minimum prison sentences, updated and revised,
  25. Robinson, P. H. (1997). Structure and function in criminal law. Oxford: Clarendon Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  26. Scanlon, T. M. (2008). Moral dimensions: Permissibility, meaning, blame. Cambridge, MA.: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  27. Tadros, V. (2005). Criminal responsibility. Oxford: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  28. Walen, A. (2009). Comments on Doug Husak: The low cost of recognizing (and of ignoring) the limited relevance of intentions to permissibility. Criminal Law and Philosophy, 3, 71-78.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  29. Walen, A. (2013). Transcending the means principle. Law and Philosophy, 33, 427-464.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  30. Yaffe, G. (2010). Attempts: In the philosophy of action and the criminal law. Oxford: Oxford University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2014

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.University of California, San DiegoLa JollaUSA

Personalised recommendations