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Ignorance of the law is no excuse (where common sense is not concerned)

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Voting Style: Open Point System: 7 Point
Started: 3/3/2011 Category: Philosophy
Updated: 5 years ago Status: Post Voting Period
Viewed: 5,329 times Debate No: 15099
Debate Rounds (3)
Comments (3)
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Hello DDO, and thank in advance to any debater to come along.

Today, I feel like debating the age-old adage: Is ignorance of the law an excuse?

I would like to explicitly state that anyone who does not know the law should not be accused of breaking the law.

If you do not know the law, how are you supposed to keep within its boundaries?

Example: If you were a third-grader, and I asked you the 47th cube root of 6.29291, then that would be overstating the boundaries, as common sense does not include advanced multiplication, division and algebraic formulas, at least where primary school is concerned. This also applies to the law- while basic ethics reject that severe crimes like murder should slip through because of ignorance of the law, lesser crimes like speeding should not, as these are not in the field of "common sense."

As it is difficult to write any sort of essay without a basis to work off of, I will stop there. I think I can hold my own in this philosophical debate. If you disagree, you are welcome to try.

-The God Hand


Thank you for your challenge, I think you have chosen an excellent debate topic. To restate for the sake of clarity you are Pro to the idea that a person cannot be held responsible for breaking a law out of ignorance, except in the case of acts that fall under "common sense crimes," correct?

This assertion is faulty for several reasons:
1) The entire concept of "common sense" is socially relative. The ethics and morals of US society, for instance, are largely "inherited" from past generations and are in fact mostly based in religion. Even the founding documents of the United States are written with religious language ("that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights"). I am not validating religious morals or practices, but I am merely pointing to the fact that our idea of "common sense" has a traceable source. If the US was founded and colonized by primarily Buddhist individuals, we would have a different kind of "common sense!" Throughout history moral values have gone through extreme changes: the Romans used to throw people into a ring with a lion and eat dinner while the victims died horrific deaths. Even in US history: a husband used to have the legal right to beat is wife. Today it's "common sense" that beating your wife is wrong! We cannot simply assume that the average citizen will behave appropriately on a daily basis off of his "common sense." Lacking some universal standard by which we can judge what falls under "common sense," we have laws that protect citizens of a country and they must be followed without any excuses. We cannot rely on some arbitrary set of mental no-nos to keep society functioning.

2) My argument about common sense leads nicely into my next point, which more potently addresses the issue of "ignorance of the law is no excuse from it." Common sense is something that exists only in the mind; when a person commits a crime we as witnesses, victims, police officers, lawyers, judges, or jury cannot predict or guess what a criminal knows or what he is thinking; therefore, we cannot possibly know if that person understands their act as criminal. It is not possible to prove that a person is cognizant of the law without near science-fiction advances in technology that allows us to read minds. The justice system already spends an inordinate amount of time and money in investigations and legal battles to simply prove a person committed a crime! Now you want to add the burden of proof of cognizance? How would that be proven? Would detectives question teachers and parents to see if by chance a criminal was exposed to some form of the law in youth? The whole idea would simply make our justice system even more ineffective and put criminals back on the street.

4) Furthermore, allowing cognizance to enter the realm of arrest and conviction essentially gives corrupt lawyers and criminals a new way out of crime. Most repeat offenders are con artists: they learn how to play the legal game to their advantage. It would be a very simple act to find smaller crimes that don't easily apply to the "common sense" rule and then repeatedly commit them under the "ignorance of the law" excuse.

3) Finally, there is one simple fact that your assertion misplaces: the law does not punish individuals for thinking. Your argument is based on the idea that is unfair or unjust to punish a person for doing something they didn't know was wrong. The purpose of the law is to make the definition of "wrong" absolute. The law punishes citizens for breaking it: nothing more. Whether a person knew of it is irrelevant. Your argument is primarily an emotional one: you feel that it is unfair for a person to be punished in ignorance. However, a person's ignorance does not make their actions ethical, and that is what the law punishes: actions. A person is arrested or ticketed for doing something wrong, not for knowing if they did it. If a person drives down a road and kills a small dog without realizing it, that dog will remain dead, regardless of the driver' level of cognizance. This is the major fault with your assertion: you fail to address how justice will be carried out in the face of a crime being committed. If a crime is committed it is irrelevant that the person knew it was a crime or not: a crime was committed! Society was wronged or damaged in some way and justice must be given, that is all that matters. Your argument is akin to saying that an action isn't wrong if you don't get caught: you are assuming the knowledge of wrong is what creates wrong. If a person breaks a law they have committed wrong and their knowledge or ignorance of the law will never change the fact that it was broken.

Thank you for a lively debate topic!
Debate Round No. 1


Thank you for accepting my debate. As per regulations, I will now begin with my rebuttals.

1) First of all, PRO makes a legitimate argument for this position. However, we are assuming a "normal" person- a white middle-class Christian living in the United States. To this person, this is "common sense." We live in a society with our own definition of common sense, however, my opponent fails to clarify this fact.

These are the people that form the cornerstone of modern society (at least at the time of this writing.) Thus, it is a legitimate point of debate to focus on the societal norms of this culture of humans.

Even though it is true that at one point, things socially unacceptable today, like intermarriage rape, wife beating and slavery, were considered socially unacceptable once (and those far in the future might say the same about us), we cannot live forever in the past. We are debating the conditions of the present day, as this is the temporal frame in which we live.

2) Common sense is not "something that exists in the mind of an individual." This point is a contradiction between my opponent's point 1.

Common sense is defined one way to each "society." A society is a group of humans-or anything else- that shares the same laws, setup, and most importantly, behaviors (and thus, values.)

One who did not understand these basic values would not be a member of "society," because he would not share the same mindset as other members of the group, thus leading to him being an outcast.

If an individual was truly a member of society, then this individual would understand the laws that put him into this position. If not, he is in no way a member of this society, even if he has a form of official connection to it.

3) Technically, the point my opponent is making is invalid. If the con artist in question was a member of society, then all would know him, and thus know his past offences against society. Not to mention that if he was truly ignorant of the law so far, he would be mentally challenged, thus making him a non-member of society, except for perhaps the SOPSTSMD (Society of People Sharing the Same Mental Disorder.)

4) If an individual was actually a member of society, this individual would know the laws of this group. The individual's thought process would include basic traits shared within his society. If this individual was in fact a member, he would not be ignorant of the law.

Finally, knowledge of wrong creates wrong, because without knowing wrong, there cannot be wrong, because there would be no right or wrong to weigh it up against.


CON makes some good arguments and I am prepared to address each of them.

1) You have officially placed a definition on "common sense" in regards to your argument: you say that "normal" is a white middle-class Christian individual, and it is by this person's values that common sense should be defined. In stating this you have hurt your own argument, because any individual who lives in the US who is not within the above definition is automatically not a part of "society" as you put it, and therefore cannot be fairly expected to follow the common sense norm. For instance, a legal US citizen who came to this country as a young child from the middle east, is bilingual in Arabic and English, and strongly practices Islam would be completely outside of your definition of a "normal" US citizen.

There must be some obvious and official standard by which citizens can be expected to behave and then be punished for breaking, and "common sense" is neither of these. In many ways you are making a circular argument: you are basically asserting that "common sense" should replace law, but law was created specifically because common sense has failed. Expecting people to "mentally absorb" society's expectations without some kind of official source to read about them, and without a say in what those expectations are, is more unfair than the argument we are debating! Laws are discussed, debated, researched, and voted on before they are officially recorded in a public legal document that is open to the entire country to access and read at any time. Where are the "laws" of common sense written? How can CON fairly expect individuals to know what common sense is when there is absolutely no formal standard to base it off of and then turn around and argue that expecting people to know the laws of the country they live in is unfair?

You stated that I failed to clarify that we live in a society with our own definition of common sense, however I must disagree. I stated that common sense was "socially relative." I specifically referred to society as a defining factor, but my point was that society's definition is fluid and arbitrary and I gave examples of such. Laws are created to protect society from damage, whereas common sense is simply a changing amalgamation of society's values. Since the US gives its citizens freedom to choose their values it cannot be expected for any citizen to follow any kind of "common sense" no matter how you define it, they have the right to believe whatever they want!

2) If common sense does not exist in the mind then where does it exist? You scoff at my assertion that it does and yet you offer no alternative. You admit that common sense is related to values, but then fail to recognize that values exist in the mind. You seem to be confusing the law with values: the law is not written to match society's values, but it is written to protect society from damage. In California it is currently illegal to smoke Marijuana for personal use, and yet there are many who consider it a "safe product" akin to smoking or drinking. The law right now does not match the values of those citizens. Don't get me wrong, I am not saying that the law cannot uphold values, I am simply pointing out that this isn't the purpose of it.

3) While I believe there is merit behind my con artist argument, it is far from the most important point in this debate and therefore I shall concede that issue to your side.

4) You say something very peculiar in your fourth point: "If this individual was in fact a member, he would not be ignorant of the law." You have completely argued against yourself here and have stated my point. I am saying that as a member of a governed society citizens should be expected to know the laws by which they live and you have agreed with me!

Your final point is that knowledge of wrong creates wrong, and this is a flawed premise. Many serial killers see no evil in their acts and in fact find comfort and pleasure in them. By your logic they are not doing wrong because they don't realize it. As I said before, crime damages society regardless of whether or not the person knows it.

Final Note:
I made two points in my first argument that you failed to address in rebuttal. The first was how you expected the police force and the courts to handle the burden of cognizance. How can justice officials possibly prove that a person does or does not know a law? Are we to simply take every lawbreaker's word that they didn't know what they were doing? Second, I questioned how you expect justice to be carried out: when a law is broken damage has been done to society in some form, and your argument asserts that the criminal should not repay society for this damage simply because he/she was not aware of it. Fairness is when individuals take responsibility for their actions and don't use ignorance as an excuse. Since you did not address these two points I will assume that you concede them to my side.
Debate Round No. 2



1) The United States was founded on the principle of white, property owning males. Anyone else is not a functioning member of society, because their existence in the group violates the principles of which the society is founded.

Common sense is considered a basic standard of ethics for any functioning society. Laws outside of this standard are not "common sense."

2) Common sense exists as ethics, at least in terms of law. Ethics are the standard of living and society which everything in a society should be based on.

Common sense is no alternative to a written code of law, as laws can pass through the sphere. However, this makes the law common sense simply because members of society share this law.

3) Thanks.

4) If a serial killer sees no evil in his act, he does not understand common sense, and thus does not understand the law. If this is the case, the killer is not a member of society because he does not understand the law. If not, then the killer does not know common sense and is not a member of society.

FN) Offer an alternative to asking them. This would make the point valid.


1) I don't see how your continued insistence on white middle class patriarchy being the norm for common sense, which you have equated to values/ethics, is helping your argument. Within your model for common sense any individual who was raised with a different set of ethics/values would be more likely to be arrested or to commit an unacceptable act. By insisting that common sense is judged through the ethics of one group you are insisting that minorities are unethical! It is your very logic that creates racial profiling: arresting or suspecting minorities because they are outside of a white cultural norm. The US is a melting pot that mixes hundred, thousands even, of different cultures under one government. This is why the law is not based on ethics or "common sense," because it varies from culture to culture and all cultures have the right to freedom in this country which includes the freedom of making their own "common sense" (ethics).

You cannot insist that individuals be held accountable for following common sense unless you eliminate freedom of beliefs. Citizens of the US have the right to belief in any values, ethics, morals, or common sense that they want to! You absolutely cannot claim that there is some standard (set by a race or class) by which all others are judged, this is what is called discrimination: you have literally called any race/class outside of white middle class "outcasts" and "not functioning member(s) of society." The entire premise of "common sense" is illogical and flawed in a multicultural society.

Also, you failed to respond to my point about how your expectations are unfair. "Common sense" is not recorded in any official book or record, it is not taught in any school in the country, and no one voteson or discusses the validity of it. Common sense is just a set of shared values that changes arbitrarily. How can you fairly expect someone to follow them? And then, how does that expectation make any sense when compared to your assertion that individuals shouldn't have to follow laws that ARE debated and recorded and taught in schools? The fact is there are people who are ignorant of common sense just like some are ignorant of the law, so why ignorance of the law okay but not ignorance of common sense? The law is the same for everybody, but even you have recognized that common sense is not.

2) Laws are not created to uphold any specific ethic or common sense. Laws are created to protect citizens' rights and to protect society. US citizens have the right to property = it is illegal to steal. Consider that it is "common sense" that lying is wrong, but it is not illegal to lie, because simply lying does not damage anyone's rights or society. However, it is damaging to society/rights when people commit fraud (paper lying) so therefore, it is illegal.

Once again you have said something that supports my argument: "Common sense is no alternative to a written code of law" This is exactly what I am telling you: common sense cannot replace law at all, people must be brought to justice for violating the law whether they know the law or not and common sense has nothing to do with it.

4) I am surprised that you do not see that you are agreeing with me here. You claim that a serial killer has no excuse not to understand common sense (even though it is fact that he doesn't) because he is a member of society; therefore, he must answer to justice. You are repeating my own argument! Criminals have no excuse not to know the law because they are members of society! This assertion works even better than yours though, you know why? Because the law is a public document! Anyone at any time can look it up and we even have a system in place to change it if enough people are angry about it. Common sense has neither of these!

Final Note #2: You cannot tell me to answer my own argument, that is YOUR job. I presented two flaws with your argument: the burden on the justice system, and the lack of punishment done for crimes committed. You still have not presented any explanation for these flaws. You must concede these two points to me if you are not going to address them.
Debate Round No. 3
3 comments have been posted on this debate. Showing 1 through 3 records.
Posted by wolfhaines 5 years ago
If all Law isn't taught in school to a level of basic understanding, then we live in ignorance of most laws, and therefore probably break them without realising. If this is the case then ignorance is an excuse. I did not know that taxi drivers of Hackney Carriages (Black Cabs) in the UK still legally have to have a bale of hay in the back of their vehicle. Not many drivers know that out dated law either, and thus would not be prosecuted. Same goes for the law that states that the same taxi drivers cannot refuse a journey within a certain distance (think it is couple of miles), they have to take the person.
Until we teach kids every law, they cannot be expected to know every law, and thus not ignorantly break law.
Posted by BangBang-Coconut 5 years ago
I like this debate topic :3 if it's still up later on tonight, or tomorrow I'm accepting it!
Posted by dinokiller 5 years ago
If someone were to not know what a felony is = ohh man... Untermensch
No votes have been placed for this debate.