Competing Theories of Justification: Deeds vs. Reasons

Document Type

Book Chapter

Publication Date



Every jurisdiction recognises that special circumstances can justify conduct that otherwise would be an offence. Unlawful aggression by another can trigger a right to use force in self-defence or in defence of another or of property. The existence of the justifying circumstances means that, while the harm prohibited by the offence does occur, it is outweighed by the avoidance of a greater harm or by the advancement of a greater good. This chapter compares the ‘deeds’ theory of justification with the ‘reasons’ theory, and argues that the former is better because it generates liability results that are more just and that better match our collective intuitions of what is just. It also shows that, even if the competing theories generated identical liability results, a ‘deeds’ conceptualisation lays bare the distinctions that are relevant to determining liability in these cases, while a ‘reasons’ theory obscures those distinctions. Also, a ‘deeds’ theory of justification improves the criminal law's rule-articulation function. That is, it allows the law to communicate better to the public the conduct rules that it commands they follow.


offence, self-defence, justification, harm, deeds theory, reasons theory, liability, criminal law

Publication Title

Harm and Culpability