The heart of the matter: emotion in the criminal law


University of British Columbia

Date Issued


Document Type



Master of Laws - LLM




This thesis examines the role of emotion in the criminal law. It identifies the current understanding of emotion in the law, and challenges this understanding as it is revealed in the rules of criminal liability. It offers a new approach to understanding emotion which has important implications for the grounds of legal knowledge, the structure of the rules of criminal liability, and the process of judgment. Chapter One reviews theoretical approaches to understanding emotion in philosophy, psychology and law. The chapter introduces a number of theoretical approaches to analyzing emotion, focusing particularly on the development in the understanding of the relationship between emotion and reason. Chapter Two examines models of moral and legal responsibility to identify their implicit understanding of emotion. Chapter Three focuses on the role of emotion in the rules of criminal liability, and, in particular, in the criminal defences of provocation, duress and self-defence. The law understands emotion to be an entity explainable in terms of the 'mechanisms' of'cognition' and 'affect' which underpin it. The chapter argues that the law adopts a different and conflicting understanding of these mechanisms in the rules of criminal liability, and that these differences have important normative implications. Chapter Four challenges the grounds of knowledge upon which assessments of criminal liability are based. Emotion becomes a metaphor for the need to reconceive the rules of criminal liability and the process of judgment. The chapter adopts a social constructionist approach to understanding emotion. Using this approach, it reassesses the role of emotion in the criminal defences of provocation, self-defence and duress, and explains the process of judgment as an emotional phenomenon. The thesis concludes that a constructionist approach to understanding emotion is well suited to the assessment of conduct in its spatial, historical and cultural context; and for this reason ought to be emphasized in the legal assessment of liability and punishment.


Criminal law - Canada; Homicide - Canada; Criminal liability; Emotions; Criminal law - Philosophy

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Law, Peter A. Allard School of