Determinism, Strict Liability and the Promotion of Legal Efficacy

Galen Strawson argues from a determinist standpoint that humans cannot ultimately be morally responsible for their actions. He proves this with what he calls the Basic Argument. Mark Kelman outlines arguments for and against strict liability. I will argue that the Basic Argument provides ground for holding all humans equally liable for criminal actions. I personally believe that humans being tried in the criminal court should not only be held equally liable, but strictly liable, as to maximize social welfare through legal efficacy.

To understand the conclusion that humans have no control or moral responsibility for their actions, we must briefly outline the premises of the argument. First, nothing can be the cause of itself. Simply, any occurrence is caused by a prior occurrence and an infinite regress ensues. Secondly, for any human to be morally responsible for his actions he must be the cause of his self. Certainly, nothing can be the cause of itself. So, no human can be morally responsible for his own actions. In real terms, every human is the product of environmental and hereditary actions. Because man can do nothing to change these factors of his early life, his moral foundation and decision-making traits are, in fact, an unchangeable work in progress. Thus, man has no way of changing himself and cannot be completely responsible for changing his future actions.

Using similar logic, what happens will happen regardless of any human will. Therefore, any law that has been and will be is, in effect, predetermined. This is not to say that we should take a nihilistic approach, for an analysis of how the legal system should proceed is necessary to its progress. Because no human can be morally responsible for any action, all humans actions, even in the instance of criminal cases, should be evaluated on the same basis- a strict liability basis.

Strict liability in law occurs when a defendant is judged based not on intent or any mental state present at the time of the action but by the action itself.

My view closely coincides with strict utilitarian deterrence theorists. They hold the view that “criminals should be punished so as to diminish the number of future criminal acts, because each of these acts would be perceived as more costly by the criminal himself and other would be criminals if punishment is imposed” (Kelman p. 1514).  The overarching purpose is to maximize the well-being of society. This concept may seem harsh, but it appears to be the most effective way of reducing crime and promoting legal efficacy. It will send a harsh message to those committing crimes, and hinder those who will ultimately contribute to those who commit crimes. 


Cases such as statutory rape and illegal possession of a narcotics are judged regardless of intent. A 20 year-old man who has sex with an adolescent female will be found guilty whether or not he ‘knew’ her actual age. Similarly, a man caught carrying a gram of heroin will be found guilty whether or not he ‘knew’ it was in his coat pocket. If these cases were not judged on a strict liability basis there would be too much wriggle room for the defense. It is very hard to determine the facts behind what they knew. That is, it is much more efficient to convict someone of a crime they obviously committed.


Cases not judges on a strict liability basis are often judges based on negligence standards. These negligence standards are loosely defined and provide arguing room for defendants seeking innocence. Judgments based on this standard take in to consideration wrongful intent and vary case by case. They therefore set little precedent and, in effect, undermine legal efficacy.


To further my point, consider a man who holds a bank teller at gunpoint during a bank robbery.  The bank teller has a heart attack and dies. On a strict-liability basis he will be held responsible for 1) the robbery and 2) the death of the bank teller. Although, the death of the teller might not have been his original intent, at the end of the day the death was ultimately a cause of the bank robbery. If it were not a strict liability basis, the robber could be found innocent on the charge for the teller’s death. This allows a criminal to be back on the street sooner, and the time it takes to argue the case slows down the legal process. It is timely and costly to evaluate whether or not it was his intent and ultimate fault to cause the death of the teller.


It is true that cases determine on a strict liability basis err on the side of the individual rather than the legal system, but when at the end of the day, it makes much more sense to judge cases on the basis on -did you or did you not break the law. This is because, as mentioned earlier, no human can be morally responsible for his actions. It speeds up the judicial process, while providing retribution for those who were blatantly wronged at the behest of a rogue agent. It promotes legal efficacy by setting a strict standard for everyone to follow and will ultimately reduce crime. 


One thought on “Determinism, Strict Liability and the Promotion of Legal Efficacy

  1. Determinism does make a compelling case for the human condition, and I think it’s fascinating from several standpoints. My concern is whether allowing for this mindset within a legal system sets a bad precedent. I personally believe that humans should be responsible for their actions, because every decision we make is conscious. But when you start to discuss the possibility for humans not to be responsible for their actions, it ultimately endangers citizens and the state. Therefore, in order to preserve the best interest of the state, I think determinism needs to be fundamentally separated from the judicial system, or the rule of law.

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