Situationism and Criminal Responsibility
Mentally healthy adults unlawfully engaging in conduct that satisfies the definitional elements of a criminal offence are, with rare exceptions – e.g., in situations of “excusing necessity” (§ 35 German Criminal Code) or duress (§ 2.09 Model Penal Code) – widely regarded as prototypical subjects of individual criminal responsibility; we say they act culpably. This seemingly self-evident assessment could, however, be threatened by empirical findings that the behavior of even such mentally healthy adults is surprisingly susceptible to – in some instances only very minor – manipulations of the immediate environment in which they act. Furthermore, certain situational features can almost entirely “override” the effects of a person’s personality. Social psychological studies show the significant influences exerted by, for example, the behavior of other people, especially in group and hierarchical constellations, as well as by temperature, ambient noise, smells, time pressure, and short-term affective states. Personality traits, in contrast, correlate at best only moderately with specific actions and therefore are poorly suited to explain or predict them. Building on these findings, adherents of philosophical situationism criticize our everyday legal and moral intuitions, including our propensity to attribute personal responsibility without stopping to consider the powerful influences exerted by the situation in which the action took place.
With specific reference to criminal law theory, the aim of the project is to investigate the question of whether, given the situationist criticism, a concept of individual criminal responsibility can be upheld and, if so, with what modifications. I am particularly interested in whether it would be legitimate to grant an excuse to the perpetrator in cases involving situational influences – such as group effects – that have been shown to be especially strong. The theoretical starting point is a model of responsibility widely accepted in both the German and the international literature that is based on the ascription to the actor of certain – dispositionally conceived – cognitive and volitional capacities that enable her to control her behavior in light of normative reasons (“reasons-responsiveness” or “normative competence”). The situationist challenge offers an instructive field of application for these kinds of dispositional analyses and can help uncover and remediate remaining deficiencies.
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