The Act-Emotion Distinction
ALL OF US can empathize with the individual who has just found out that his or her intimate partner has been sexually unfaithful. Anger, outrage, sadness, a feeling of worthlessness, depression—all these are understandable emotional responses to the betrayal of trust that comes with infidelity. It is eminently reasonable to feel these strong emotions. Provoked killers, however, go beyondfeeling outraged. They act on their emotions in the most extreme way—by taking a human life. Most of us would not kill, even if we were extremely angry. Yet the provocation doctrine partially excuses an act of killing if the defendant's emotional response is considered reasonable. If a reasonable person in the defendant's shoes would have been provoked into a heat of passion, then the provoked killer is acquitted of murder and convicted of the lesser offense of voluntary manslaughter. The provoked killer receives this mitigation even if the reasonable person would not have killed, because provocation doctrine does not require act reasonableness.
We can also empathize with the individual who is afraid of being physically harmed by another person. An individual can have differing degrees of fear depending on the situation. In The Gift of Fear, Gavin de Becker describes a woman with a gut feeling that the stranger who has offered to carry her groceries has an ulterior motive for being so nice.1 It would be foolish if that woman ignored her gut feeling. Ignoring one's intuition can place one in harm's way. There is, however, a big difference between preventive action, such as refusing the suspicious offer of assistance, and preemptive action, such as shooting the man. It would hardly be reasonable for the woman with a gut feeling that the stranger offering to carry her groceries is really a criminal-in-waiting to take out a gun and shoot that stranger before he did anything to confirm her gut feeling.