Kantian moral psychology and criminal behavior

Date16 March 2012
Pages67-76
Publication Date16 March 2012
DOIhttps://doi.org/10.1108/20093821211210503
AuthorMark D. White
SubjectHealth & social care,Public policy & environmental management,Sociology
Kantian moral psychology and criminal
behavior
Mark D. White
Abstract
Purpose – What leads a person to commit a crime, an act which not only violates moral norms and rules
but also what are often considered to be among the most serious legal ones? A wide variety of social
scientists, including psychologists, economists, and sociologists, have offeredanswers to this question.
The current paper aims to take a different approach, offering an explanation drawn from the moral
psychology of a pre-eminent philosopher, Immanuel Kant.
Design/methodology/approach – While best known for his duty-based ethics and the categorical
imperative, Kant had a very rich conception of character, strength, and willpower that can inform the
understanding of why persons choose to commit criminal acts. This short paper begins with a brief
description of Kant’s moral psychology, and then surveys a number of topics within the criminal law to
which this can be applied, such as normative considerations in criminal penalties, Hart’s distinction
between internal and external points of view on the law, mens rea and mental illness, how people regard
different criminal prohibitions, and how punishment does and should affect people’s choice.
Findings – The paper emphasizes the effect of the normative status of criminal laws and penalties on
the choice and action of morally imperfect persons, which contrasts with the overly simplistic models of
criminal behavior of other social scientists, which are based on calculations of costs and benefits alone.
Originality/value – The paper introduces Kant’s rich but little-known moral psychology into the
discussion of criminal psychology, bringing a different angle to topics such as motivation and
responsibility that are primary areas of focus for psychologists, criminologists, and philosophers.
Keywords Immanuel Kant, Moral psychology,Ethics, Weakness of will, Criminal behaviour, Psychology,
Criminology
Paper type Conceptual paper
Introduction
What leads a person to commit a crime, an act, which not only violates moral norms and rules
but also what is often considered to be among the most serious legal ones? A wide variety of
social scientists, including psychologists, economists, and sociologists, have offered
answers to this question – as have philosophers. The current paper offers an explanation
drawn from the moral psychology of one such philosopher, Immanuel Kant. While best
known for his duty-based moral philosophy, symbolized for many by his famous categorical
imperative, Kant had a very rich moral psychology as well, including an elaborate
conception of character, strength, and willpower that can inform our understanding of why
persons choose to commit criminal acts.
This short paper begins with a brief description of Kant’s moral psychology and then will
survey a number of topics within the criminal law to which this can be applied, such as
normative considerations in criminal penalties, H.L.A. Hart’s distinction between internal and
external points of view on the law, mens rea and mental illness, how people regard different
criminal prohibitions, and how punishment does and should affect people’s choice.
DOI 10.1108/20093821211210503 VOL. 2 NO. 1 2012, pp. 67-76, QEmerald Group Publishing Limited, ISSN 2009-3829
j
JOURNAL OF CRIMINAL PSYCHOLOGY
j
PAGE 67
Mark D. White is based in
the Department of Political
Science, Economics and
Philosophy, College of
Staten Island, The City
University of New York,
Staten Island, New York,
USA.

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