The Point of Mens Rea: The Case of Willful Ignorance
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Under the “Willful Ignorance Principle,” a defendant is guilty of a crime requiring knowledge he lacks provided he is ignorant thanks to having earlier omitted inquiry. In this paper, I offer a novel justification of this principle through application of the theory that knowledge matters to culpability because of how the knowing action manifests the agent’s failure to grant sufficient weight to other people’s interests. I show that, under a simple formal model that supports this theory, omitting inquiry manifests precisely the same degree of disregard of others’ interests as manifested in knowingly acting criminally. Several surprising implications of this view are described, including that when the agent’s method of inquiry has a non-zero false positive rate, his omission of inquiry does not make the same contribution to his culpability as knowledge, while it does, by contrast, when the false negative rate is non-zero.