Subjective and objective culpability

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For a criminal prosecution to succeed, the accused must be shown to be culpable (see: Criminal culpability). However, culpability is not a straightforward term to define. The problem is illustrated by the debate about subjective and objective culpability.

A strict 'subjective' view of culpability says that what one is culpable for is one's intentions, rather than the events they occasion. On this view, if I try to hit someone, and he ducks at the last minute and I hit a wall instead, I am as culpable of assault as if the blow landed on my victim's nose. On this view, the crimes of 'murder' and 'attempted murder' are identical.

On the other hand, a strict 'objective' view considers only the effects of my intentions. If I throw a brick at a window with the intention of breaking it, and miss, and nothing is damaged, then I am guilty of a less serious crime than if I had broken the window.

A subjective view is probably the more logical. It could be argued that if I intend to carry out some action, and put into effect a plan to carry it out, then I am guilty of that action, even if it fails and no harm results. After all, the success or failure may come down in the end to luck, and the severity of a crime ought not to depend on luck.

English law contains elements of both these views, but on the whole it favours an objective view, for a number of reasons.

  • It is easier to prosecute on the basis of outcomes, rather than intentions.
  • The law has to set standards of behaviour, not of mental state.
  • It accords better with the views of society, which need to be considered even when they are illogical.
    UK LAW
    Criminal Law