Malignant Motives

Social IssuesPhilosophy

  • Author Aimi Ahmad & Dr Nabeel Mahdi Althabhawi
  • Published November 11, 2021
  • Word count 2,172

Every law student when first introduced to the elements of criminal culpability would have been told a person’s motive is irrelevant. Early on in the course, we were thought to distinguish between criminal intention (which plays a role in criminal liability) and criminal motives. It was then when I came across a piece of online news published in Metro UK on 23 Dec 2015, that it made me question this idea and ask myself, “why shouldn’t motives affect a person criminal culpability?

In 2003, Alam Khan was only a tender boy of 12 years old when he witnessed his father being murdered by a family friend. 12 years later, scattered pieces of human remains washed up on the banks of Ramganga. The dismembered human remains were missing its head, making it hard for the body to be identified. The body was later identified as Mohammad Rais, and based on the information from the deceased’s brother, the victim was last known to have been to the house of Alam Khan but never did he return. When Alam Khan was apprehended, he had smiled and explained the gruesome detail of the murder– he had invited the victim to his house and got him intoxicated. Then, he played music at full volume before he proceeded to stab Rais and cut his body into 12 pieces with a hacksaw. He later packed the remains and threw it into the river. Alam Khan claimed that the 12 cuts represent the 12 years of ‘longing’ for the murder of his father to be avenged and finally he gets to ‘realize his dreams and is happy about it.’

After reading this news, I found myself justifying the death of Rais as something he should have seen coming, more so, he deserved such brutal death. Alam Khan had spent 12 years living with the haunting images of seeing his father’s life snatched from him all while, unable to tell anyone of the traumatising event that unfold before his innocent eyes. After more than a decade, finally, justice has been served on a very cold dish, indeed. To this end, it seemed to me that it would be unjust and unethical for the trial court if it were to deny Alam Khan's motivation and refuse to consider his disturbing account.

In seeking justification to rationalize this moral dilemma, I came across two compelling articles by prominent publicists that worth to be referenced.

In discerning if whether motives are truly immaterial, the essay by Whitley R.P. Kaufman titled Motive, Intention and Morality in the Criminal Law (2003) seems significant to be addressed. The article primarily established that motive is taken into account when it comes to mitigating sentences, but the aspect we're concentrating on is the distinction (or lack thereof) between motive and intention in exonerating a criminal.

To begin, the author clarifies the difference between motivations and intentions. According to Kaufman, one of the most typical ways to distinguish between these two terms is to see motives as "ulterior" to the act and detached from the intended action, and a motive does not influence our judgement of a person's guilt. Even with this description, the difference between the terms is still very obscure. Therefore, Kaufman took the opportunity of clarifying these concepts by citing two decided decisions. One is the case of United States v Harmon (1891) where the facts were that Harmon was convicted of the crime of sending pornographic materials through the mail system. In his defence, he said that he mailed those materials as a “necessary vehicle to convey to the popular mind the aggravating of the abuse in sexual commerce” with the purpose of “alleviating the human condition”. In other words, Harmon confessed to his offence but maintained that because of his 'good' motive, he should be vindicated. Of course, the court dismissed his statements. However, in emphasising his 'good' motive, the defendant pointed out that the trial judge had also violated the same statute by using the mail system to send the pornographic materials as evidence, and thus argued that the same crime for which Harmon was convicted should also be applied to the trial judge. The court dismissed the argument once more, claiming that even if the trial judge technically violated the elements of the crime, the legislator must have intended an implicit exception for judicial evidence purposes.

In another case, United States v Badolato (1983), one of the defendants named Quarnstrom who was charged with involvement in a drug conspiracy defended himself saying that he joined the conspiracy because he wanted to have explicit details to write a movie script. Quarnstrom claimed that he lacked the requisite criminal intent to “advance an illegal purpose” as per required by the statute. The irony, in this case is that unbeknownst to Quarnstrom, there were a few DEA undercover officers within the conspiracy at the time of his involvement, acting under the Attorney General's order. The officers were however as claimed by the court to have ‘effectively given immunity’ for acting under instructions.

Kaufman drew attention to a few odd illustrations as to how the court distinguished between motive and intention in each of these circumstances. Even though it is plausible that one should always choose a legal alternative when attempting to achieve one's goal (either to 'convey to the popular mind the aggravating of the abuse in sexual commerce' or to retrieve information on an illegal conspiracy for creative purposes), one should also discuss the court's disparity in determining whose motive should be factored into the equation and whose motive should remain superfluous to his criminal culpability.

Still, by discussing both cases, the difference between motive and intention remains an open question.

Kaufman later introduced to the reader the doctrine of double effect in which he used to explain the distinction between motive and intention lies in the ethical difference of intending wrong as a means and foreseeing wrong as a side effect of one’s action. Kaufman gives the analogy of killing an innocent person to rescue others, as well as the administering of vaccinations, which may result in death as a side effect. The latter is permitted since evil is a by-product of a good deed rather than a bad method to achieve a good end. Next, Kaufman extracted the explanation from Germain Grisez in his article Toward a Consistent Natural-Law Ethics of Killing (1970), Grisez explained that where wrong is used as a means to the good (as opposed to being a mere side effect of the good), then there is no longer a ‘unitary act’ with a permissible intention.

Kaufman applied this concept to the distinction between motive and intention, suggesting that when a 'unitary act' occurs, there is no need to distinguish between motive and intention since there is only one dominating purpose that determines whether the conduct is legal or illegal. Relating this to the case of Harmon where he said that since the judge had no unlawful motive or intention, the judge act remained a unitary one, where motive and intention is indisputably pure. On the other side, Harmon’s good motive (ends) cannot justify his criminal intent to violate the law (the means). Meanwhile, in the Quarnstrom case, Kaufman opined that the case was determined inaccurately if the above principles were to be used. Quarnstrom never had two separate intentions when he joined the conspiracy; in fact, he had no intention of joining it for any criminal purposes. His actions were completely motivated by his desire to observe narcotics traffickers in action closely. In this sense, the same justifications may be extended to DEA officers' motives and intentions.

As a corollary to the above discussion, we may conclude that the distinction between motivations and intention is dependent on a person's means. Even if one's motivation is immaterial to one's criminal culpability, if one's motive and intention are assessed to be one pure act, the requirement of mens rea (guilty mind) cannot be satisfied, and thus criminal liability cannot be established.

Now that we've established that for motive to be ‘relevant,' the means must be a legitimate unitary act, indispensable to either lawful or unlawful intention thus, it's nearly hard to conceive an act of private revenge falling within this description. Revenge itself as defined in the article below to include the words ‘injurious act’ (annotated below) and with that alone, it brought upon a criminal wrong to inflict upon another any legally unauthorized injurious act.

Elaborating on that note, the article by Brian Rosebury titled Private Revenge and its Relation to Punishment (2009) helps address the relationship between private revenge and morality.

The article started with the definition of revenge from a few philosophers like Charles K.B Barton, Suzanne Uniacke and Robert Nozick – revenge in its summary definition is any deliberate injurious act against another person which is motivated by resentment of injurious act or acts performed by that other person against the revenger or against some other person or persons whose injury the revenger resents.

In discussing revenge, Rosebury brought forth a few statements made by philosophers like Immanuel Kant in his book The Metaphysical Elements of Justice(1983) where he provided that based on the principle of equality where when one does harm to others, he should find such harm done to himself is a compulsory standard of punishing a crime. However, Kant had cautiously highlighted that such act of retribution must be determined by the court of law and not in one’s private judgements. Other than that, John Locke discussed that every man does have the right to punish an offender but only to retribute to him, so far as calm reason, and conscience dictate, what is proportionate to his transgression. In his insistence on ‘calm reason and conscience’ forwards that Locke does not advocate private revenge instead would refer such conditions to the Law. At least, from these two views on revenge, it is easy for us to see that the philosophers though admitted the right of resentments and retribution of one’s injury to the self, they were careful in highlighting the need for a proportionate, calm and rational mind in advancing revenge.

This points to the necessity of institutionalized revenge by the court of Law. On this note, Rosebury provided the view of Roger Scruton where he sees that legal punishments authorized by the Law should ‘remove the necessity for private revenge’. Scruton responds by warning that the failure of liberal societies to satisfy the common idea of punishment brought about by institutionalised revenge will "foster the desire for private revenge”, a desire we should avoid cultivating.

Next, the author discusses two conceivable reasons why an act of private revenge is morally unjustifiable. The first argument is because the revenger's private conduct serves no purpose other than to satiate his darkest desires. Rosebury offered Aristotle's stance on private revenge, which permits us to individually react, appropriately, against someone who has wrongfully injured us. Nonetheless, the Aristotelian moral perspective held to the notion of justifying suffering to another with the intent that it cannot be for one's satisfaction only but must recompense such anguish for the larger good. In other words, private revenge is seldom utilized to compensate for anything other than the revenger's mental and/or bodily torment. As a result, because this serves no purpose in terms of public morality, the act of private revenge cannot be condoned. The second reason, as stated by Rosebury in his article, is that private revenge cannot be justified because just and proportionate revenge can only be given by a third party who is specially authorised by society to do so instead of the revenger to avoid counterretaliation from the afflicted party, which could last for generations. This rationale, once again, stems from the need for institutionalised vengeance sanctioned by a court of law. This is done to avert a cycle of revenge that would lead to the collapse of civilization. As the saying goes, an eye for an eye will render the entire world blind.

As a conclusion, from a neutral standpoint, a person who has no tragic backstory of injustice and knows no reason to avenge anyone or anything, it is easy to say that revenge is immoral and that the administration of justice should always be left to the law rather than an individual who operates on his own rules. Because the legal system's position is that it should be unattached to the personal circumstances of its applicants, it is certainly chaste and beneficent to outlaw revenge, even if it is motivated by 'good' or 'just' motivations.

However, we must confess that, under this veil of ignorance, some can empathize with Alam Khan on an emotional level, having everything and everyone that matters taken away, leaving them with nothing but ashes and ghosts haunting their every step. Life becomes a survival game in which vengeance becomes the motivator, persistently diluting away whatever reasonable reasoning he has left. Revenge becomes a cancerous drive that robs a person of his humanity, leaving only a shell of a self with malignant motives.

Kaufman, W. R. (2003). Motive, Intention, and Morality in the Criminal Law.

Readhead, H. (2015). Man confesses to killing and dismembering his father's killer.

Rosebury, B. (2009). Private Revenge and its Relation to Punishment. Cambridge University Press

Aimi Ahmad is currently a law student in Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia (National University of Malaysia) and the writing process of this article is supervised and guided by a lecturer, therefore, named the second writer.

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