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September 7, 2009

Reflecting on community intuitions about justice and punishment

As spotlighted in this paper and in lots of other thoughtful work, Paul Robinson has pioneered and championed a concept he calls "empirical desert" that is focused on having community intuitions of justice as the backbone of a criminal justice system.  As I have recently figured out, I think the label  "empirical desert" is a less-than-ideal way to describe Robinson's very valuable insight that shared intuitions of justice ought to play a more central role in the design of punishment systems.

Valuably, lots of thoughtful folks are starting to assess and debate Robinson's concept of "empirical desert," as evidenced by this new paper on SSRN, titled "How to Improve Empirical Desert," by Adam Kolber.  Here is the abstract:

According to advocates of "empirical desert," laypeople intuitively support a retributive approach to punishment, and policymakers can increase compliance with criminal justice policies by punishing in accord with lay intuitions.

I offer three criticisms of empirical desert intended ultimately to strengthen its theoretical underpinnings: First, advocates have cherry-picked certain moral intuitions, while ignoring others. They focus on the calm, unbiased intuitions of people who are generally law-abiding, even though the people whose compliance we most hope to gain — those who are on the fence about offending — are likely to act under biased, heat-of-the-moment circumstances.  Second, advocates cannot operationalize empirical desert because they have yet to demonstrate the value of the compliance induced by empirical desert relative to the value of other consequentialist goals.  Third, empirical desert arguably exploits laypeople by using their “mistaken” retributive beliefs about punishment to encourage their compliance with consequentialist goals.  Such exploitation may especially trouble defenders of the “publicity principle,” which requires that a system of morality be based on principles that can be announced publicly without thereby undermining those same principles.

I do not describe precisely how empirical desert advocates should respond to these concerns, but they can make substantial headway by more carefully distinguishing the use of widely-shared moral intuitions to make predictions about people’s behavior from the use of those intuitions to justify particular policies.

September 7, 2009 at 10:23 AM | Permalink


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Is "empirical desert" innate or are there cultural influences that form it?

What about The Political Significance of Fear of Crime?

In order to assess the role of fear of crime in Americans' political opinions and candidate attitudes, the NES pilot planning committee designed a new fear of crime question. In this report, we examine the origins of fear of crime and its direct and indirect effects on political opinions and evaluations. We find that fear of crime has different origins depending on whether one is engaged or not in one's community. For socially isolated individuals, fear of crime is heavily based on indirect and mass-mediated information. We find that fear of crime is an important additional predictor of people's crime prevention attitudes and that it shapes evaluations of illegal immigrants, but no other social group. We also show that fear of crime erodes beliefs about government responsiveness, but does not affect trust in government. Finally, we consider whether fear of crime prompts people to seek out information about political candidates and whether it stimulates political participation. We find that fear can motivate information acquisition and participation, but only if it is combined with knowledge about politics or educational resources. Absent these, its main effect is to strongly discourage cognitive engagement and behavioral involvement in politics.

Posted by: George | Sep 7, 2009 3:20:54 PM

It's actually a very old idea put in a modern dress. The question of whether it's innate or cultural is a profound question that attacks the root of a person's believe about whether ultimate reality is objective or subjective. Carl Jung wrote a great deal on this topic. It's interesting to see it applied to sentencing.

Posted by: Daniel | Sep 8, 2009 1:13:47 AM

I'm a student.I think this article was great. I really liked it. I don't think guns are the answer.

Posted by: Reinaldo | Jan 19, 2010 9:21:13 AM

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