Understanding the Voluntary Act principle

In François Tanguay-Renaud & James Stribopoulos (eds.), Rethinking Criminal Law Theory: New Canadian Perspectives in the Philosophy of Domestic, Transnational, and International Criminal Law. Hart Publishing (2012)

Andrew Botterell
Western University
In broad outline, the chapter proceeds as follows. As indicated above, the Voluntary Act Principle has two components. The first part, the act component, claims that criminal liability can be imposed on an accused only for the performance of an act. The second part, the voluntariness component, claims that criminal liability can be imposed on an accused only for the voluntary performance of an act. I will argue that both components of the Voluntary Act Principle are in need of amendment. I will first indicate why I think the act component of the Voluntary Act Principle is in tension with the criminal law’s own conception of the necessary conditions for criminal liability, and suggest a relatively simple fix. I will then argue that what is really at work in the voluntariness component of the Voluntary Act Principle is not so much voluntariness but rather what some authors have called the practical agency condition. In making my argument I will appeal to Harry Frankfurt’s hierarchical account of the will in the hopes of illuminating what it means for an action to belong to an agent, and thus, what it means for an agent to be responsible for something she has done.
Keywords criminal law theory  voluntary act principle  actus reus
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