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Motives, Reasons, and Responsibility in Hate/Bias Crime Legislation

Journal article
Authors David Brax
Published in Criminal Justice Ethics
Volume 35
Issue 3
Pages 230-248
ISSN 0731-129X
Publication year 2016
Published at Centre for European Research (CERGU)
Department of Philosophy, Linguistics and Theory of Science
Pages 230-248
Language en
Keywords Hate crime, motive, punishment, philosophy of criminal law
Subject categories Jurisprudence, Criminal law, Criminology, Practical philosophy


Hate/bias crimes, according to what we may call the literal interpretation, are crimes distinguished by their connection to a certain kind of motive. Hate crime laws and sentencing provisions state that such motives may result in penalty enhancements. According to the standard objection to hate crime laws, this position is problematic: first, criminal law should not be used to pass moral judgments on motives. Its concern should be with actions as modified by intentions, not with the values and reasons of perpetrators. Second, our motives are not directly responsive to the will, so we should not be held responsible for them. In reply to the second part of the objection, this article defends a version of the literal interpretation of hate crime that conceives of it as acting on a bad reason. Hate crime laws add punishment not for motives/thoughts, but for the decision to treat a patently bad reason (such as racism) as a reason to commit a criminal act. If the act itself is reason-responsive, we can be held responsible for what reasons we act on. Given that the truth or falsity of hate/bias on these grounds is not a disputed matter, we can justify using the criminal law to recognize the moral status of such motives.

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