Testing Competing Theories: Justification Defenses

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Book Chapter

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This chapter examines two opposing theories on the best way to characterize justification defenses. The deeds theory of justification justifies conduct that avoids a greater harm, and thus, it is conduct that would be happily tolerated under similar circumstances in the future. The reasons theory looks not to the deed but to the reason for the deed. It gives a defense when a person acts for the right reason, generally trying to avoid a greater harm. The dispute between the two theories concerns the focus of justification: Is it the objectively justified nature of the deed or the actor's belief, mistaken or not, that she was justified in acting? The chapter is organized as follows. Section A discusses the deeds and reasons theories, and how they would decide differently the outcome of cases. Section B predicts how the community would view various cases were they to follow one theory or the other, while Section C reports the study results and its implications for the two theories. The results demonstrate that the deeds theory of justification better accords with community views than the reasons theory.


justification theories, deeds theory, reasons theory, criminal liability, criminal law

Publication Title

Intuitions of Justice and the Utility of Desert