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Kantian moral psychology and criminal behavior

Mark D. White (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)

Journal of Criminal Psychology

ISSN: 2009-3829

Article publication date: 16 March 2012




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 offered answers 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.


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.


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.


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.



White, M.D. (2012), "Kantian moral psychology and criminal behavior", Journal of Criminal Psychology, Vol. 2 No. 1, pp. 67-76.



Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2012, Emerald Group Publishing Limited

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