On the Boundaries of Culture as an Affirmative Defense

A “cultural defense” to criminal culpability cannot achieve true pluralism without collapsing into a totally subjective, personal standard. Applying an objective cultural standard does not rescue a defendant from the external imposition of values—the purported aim of the cultural defense—because a cultural standard is, at its core, an external standard imposed onto an individual. The pluralist argument for a cultural defense also fails on its own terms—after all, justice systems are themselves cultural institutions. Furthermore, a defendant’s background is already accounted for at sentencing. The closest thing to a cultural defense that a court could adopt without damaging the culpability regime is a narrow de minimis rule.