Thoughts, Crimes, and Thought Crimes

38 Pages Posted: 3 Jun 2020 Last revised: 24 Mar 2021

See all articles by Gabriel Mendlow

Gabriel Mendlow

University of Michigan Law School; University of Michigan at Ann Arbor - Department of Philosophy

Date Written: March 1, 2020


Thought crimes are the stuff of dystopian fiction, not contemporary law. Or so we’re told. Yet our criminal legal system may in a sense punish thought regularly, even as our existing criminal theory lacks the resources to recognize this state of affairs for what it is — or to explain what might be wrong with it. The beginning of wisdom lies in the seeming rhetorical excesses of those who complain that certain terrorism and hate crime laws punish offenders for their malevolent intentions while purporting to punish them for their conduct. Behind this too-easily-written-off complaint is a half-buried precept of criminal jurisprudence, one that this Essay aims to excavate, elaborate, and defend: that the proper target of an offender’s punishment is always the criminal action itself, not the offender’s associated mental state conceived as a separate wrong. Taken seriously, this precept would change how we punish an assortment of criminal offenses, from attempts to hate crimes to terrorism. It also would change how we conceive the criminal law’s core axioms, especially the poorly understood but surprisingly important doctrine of concurrence.

Keywords: criminal law, criminal justice, philosophy of law, legal theory, jurisprudence, moral philosophy, ethics, terrorism, hate crimes, criminal attempts, mens rea, punishment, freedom of thought, mind control

Suggested Citation

Mendlow, Gabriel, Thoughts, Crimes, and Thought Crimes (March 1, 2020). Michigan Law Review, Vol. 118, No. 5, 2020, U of Michigan Public Law Research Paper, no. 687, Available at SSRN:

Gabriel Mendlow (Contact Author)

University of Michigan Law School ( email )

625 South State Street
Ann Arbor, MI 48109-1215
United States

University of Michigan at Ann Arbor - Department of Philosophy ( email )

Ann Arbor, MI
United States

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