Criminal Responsibility

SAGE Encyclopedia of Criminal Psychology (Sage Publishing, 2019), pp. 269-72

5 Pages Posted: 28 Jun 2019 Last revised: 30 Sep 2019

See all articles by Ken Levy

Ken Levy

Louisiana State University, Baton Rouge - Paul M. Hebert Law Center

Multiple version iconThere are 2 versions of this paper

Date Written: June 22, 2019


This invited entry offers a brief overview of criminal responsibility.

The first part starts with a question: is Clyde criminally responsible for killing his girlfriend Bonnie? The answer: it depends. Particular circumstances determine whether Clyde is guilty of murder, guilty of manslaughter, not guilty because he has a good excuse, or not guilty because he has a good justification.

The second part addresses the complicated relationship between criminal responsibility and moral responsibility. Until recently, both concepts were considered to be more or less interchangeable. But there is a growing movement, which I refer to as "responsibility skepticism," which maintains that moral responsibility is either physically or metaphysically impossible. If the responsibility skeptics are right (that moral responsibility is impossible), then what are the implications for criminal responsibility and just criminal punishment? Should we abandon these as well? Or can they survive without moral responsibility? I try to answer these questions.

The third part addresses social causation. The criminal justice system tends to be "dispositionalist"; it tends, that is, to assume that criminal responsibility resides entirely within the defendant. Dispositionalism, however, overlooks the fact that who we are and what we do are significantly determined by environmental influences. I then try to show that this "situationist" alternative to dispositionalism should not radically alter our approach to criminal punishment.

The final part briefly discusses the difficulty in evaluating criminal responsibility when the defendant is both an offender and a victim - especially when the defendant is an offender *because* of his victimization.

Keywords: criminal responsibility, moral responsibility, causal responsibility, responsibility skepticism, blame, murder, manslaughter, excuse, justification, mitigation, justice, fairness, social causation, behavioral explanation, determinism, indeterminism

Suggested Citation

Levy, Ken, Criminal Responsibility (June 22, 2019). SAGE Encyclopedia of Criminal Psychology (Sage Publishing, 2019), pp. 269-72, Available at SSRN:

Ken Levy (Contact Author)

Louisiana State University, Baton Rouge - Paul M. Hebert Law Center ( email )

420 Law Center Building
Baton Rouge, LA 70803
United States

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