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Moore's Causal Theory of Excuse

 

Techniques > Conversation techniques > Excuses > Moore's Causal Theory of Excuse

 

Michael Moore (1985) examines the question of causation as an excuse in legal cases. He notes the hazards of accepting cause as mitigation, as any crime can be argued as being caused by external factors, from provocation to a deprived or abused childhood.

The basic principle of causation is the view of a wholly deterministic universe that obeys natural laws. People are nothing more than cells, neurons, fields and fluids that are programmed to respond to external stimuli. Causation can appear as 'irresistible urges.' If a person's urges are strong or they are unable to resist them, then is it still their fault? If they did not want to do it, but 'could not help themselves', are they still to blame?

If the defendant in court admits the action, the defending lawyers in court will often play the causation card, seeking dismissal or reduction in sentence. They show that the defendant was not morally culpable, and so does not deserve punishment.

The problem with full causal theory is that this could be use to excuse any act. The question then becomes one of where you draw the line, what 'common sense' means, and where a person is judged to reasonably be able know right and wrong, and then to control themself.

One test is to ask what is just by considering whether it would be justifiable for others to do what the defendant did. Circumstances, for example, can be used to morally justify an illegal act.

'True excuses' which may be valid include:

  • Mistakes of fact
  • Mistakes of law
  • External compulsion (duress, necessity)
  • Internal compulsion (provocation, addiction)

Other defences include:

  • No voluntary action: the person was unconscious, entranced, in shock or another incapable state.
  • No mens rea: the person was ignorant of circumstances
  • No proximate cause: the person did not directly cause the harm (it was by another person or external event)

Further 'status excuses' include insanity, infancy and intoxication.

Determining true cause is always problematic. It may seem to make sense where the cause of actions is taken to be mental processes such as beliefs and attitudes. Yet this is a difficult reversal as we infer internal beliefs and attitudes from the external evidence of what people say and do. The cause hence appears after the effect.

There is problem in causal theory as it inaccurately describes legal excuses as it excludes reasoning. It largely ignores this human processes of thinking and sense-making, yet it is these that are what make us human and which give us choice.

A good test of impulse control is to ask whether the defendant would have still acted as they did if there were several armed police officers standing by. What is claimed as irresistible compulsion is not always so.

See also

Cause-and-Effect Reasoning

 

Moore, M.T. (1985). Causation and the Excuses, California Law Review, 73, 1091-1149

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