Definition of motive
motive (plural motives)
- An incentive to act; a reason for doing something; anything that prompted a choice of action.
What would his motive be for burning down the cottage?
No-one could understand why she had hidden the shovel; her motives were obscure at best.
- A motif; a theme or subject, especially one that is central to the work or often repeated.
If you listen carefully, you can hear the flutes mimicking the cello motive.
motive (third-person singular simple present motives, present participle motiving, simple past and past participle motived)
- (transitive) To prompt or incite by a motive or motives; to move.
motive (not comparable)
- Causing motion; having power to move, or tending to move; as, a motive argument; motive power.
* 1658, Sir Thomas Browne, The Garden of Cyrus, Folio Society 2007, p. 195:
In the motive parts of animals may be discovered mutual proportions; not only in those of Quadrupeds, but in the thigh-bone, legge, foot-bone, and claws of Birds.
- Relating to motion and/or to its cause
A motive, in law, especially criminal law, is the cause that moves people to induce a certain action. Motive, in itself, is not an element of any given crime; however, the legal system typically allows motive to be proven in order to make plausible the accused's reasons for committing a crime, at least when those motives may be obscure or hard to identify with.
The law technically distinguishes between motive and intent. "Intent" in criminal law is synonymous with mens rea, which means no more than the specific mental purpose to perform a deed that is forbidden by a criminal statute, or the reckless disregard of whether the law will be violated. "Motive" describes instead the reasons in the accused's background and station in life that are supposed to have induced the crime.
Motive is particularly important in prosecutions for homicide. First, murder is so drastic a crime that most people recoil from the thought of being able to do it; proof of motive explains why the accused did so desperate an act.
Moreover, most common law jurisdictions have statutes that provide for degrees of homicide, based in part on the accused's mental state. The lesser offence of voluntary manslaughter, for example, traditionally required that the accused knowingly and voluntarily kill the victim (as in murder); in addition, it must be shown that the killing took place in the "sudden heat of passion," an excess of rage or anger coming from a contemporary provocation, which clouded the accused's judgment. Homicides motivated by such factors are a lesser offense than murder "in cold blood."
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