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January 23, 2009

Important insights concerning our intuitions about moral blameworthiness and punishment

Thanks to this post by Larry Solum, I discovered this new paper on SSRN titled "Intermediation Reduces Punishment."  Here is the abstract:

This research experimentally identifies the belief that an action is less blameworthy when separated from the outcome by another actor.  Contrary to current economic models of fairness, keeping money at the expense of a poorer player is punished less when done through an intermediary, even when the intermediary is not at all responsible.  Even subjects who believe intermediation leads to unfair outcomes and subjects who believe others intermediate to avoid punishment, punish intermediation less.  This suggests they are not confused or lacking thoughtfulness, but rather consciously believe intermediating is the less blameworthy thing to do. The resulting profit-maximizing strategy is to intermediate and choose a selfish allocation. Consequently, in treatments when an intermediary is available, the minimum payoff (and equity) decreases substantially.

Though focused mostly on moral psychology and experimental economics, this little paper could have profound implications for punishment theory, especially concerning how we assess and value retributivist intuitions.  Consider these additional insights from the paper:

The punishment patterns [documented here find the] best explanations from Moral Psychology. Moral judgment has been shown to be an emotional, intuitive response rather than a conscious, reasoned process; we judge something to be wrong because it just feels wrong and only try to justify with reasoning after the judgment has been made... [and] the emotional part of the brain is a significant factor in moral judgment.  Subsequently, it has been suggested and demonstrated that judgment and punishment is guided by outrage rather than the outcomes or intentions.

January 23, 2009 at 07:56 AM | Permalink


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This, I suppose, is why no asbestos manufacturer has ever been charged with murder.

Posted by: RW | Jan 24, 2009 12:54:33 AM

From the article: "Clearly such moral preferences and their resulting punishments create incentive for strategic intermediation as well as opportunity for more selfish antisocial allocations.... The main result is more than the diffusion of responsibility (e.g. Charness 2000, Bartling & Fischbacher 2008), which posits that the addition of a second responsible, human party may alleviate perceived responsibility of the first party."

If this doesn't accurately portray Federalist's MO, I don't know what does. The poor murderer is Federalist's intermediary that "alleviates perceived responsibility" for his political choices to maintain social and economic conditions that tolerate and even cause the murders. Or, as I quoted recently in a different post, "The stability of the relationship between inequality and homicide led Judith Blau and Peter Blau to the chilling conclusion that 'high rates of criminal violence [including homicide] are apparently the price of racial and economic inequalities' in America."

Posted by: DK | Jan 24, 2009 3:59:23 AM

I don't know about Federalist, but I would gladly carry out sentence in the executions I advocate. I've killed animals for food and to protect livestock from predators, I see no reason such wouldn't apply equally to humans to protect society.

Posted by: Soronel Haetir | Jan 24, 2009 1:56:39 PM

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