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May 3, 2011

"Moral Character, Motive, and the Psychology of Blame"

The title of this post is the title of this interesting new piece on SSRN, which is authored by Janice Nadler and Mary-Hunter McDonnell.  Here is the abstract:

Blameworthiness, in the criminal law context, is conceived as the carefully calculated end product of discrete judgments about a transgressor’s intentionality, causal proximity to harm, and the harm’s foreseeability.  Research in social psychology, on the other hand, suggests that blaming is often intuitive and automatic, driven by a natural impulsive desire to express and defend social values and expectations.  The motivational processes that underlie psychological blame suggest that judgments of legal blame are influenced by factors the law does not always explicitly recognize or encourage.

In this Article we focus on two highly related motivational processes -- the desire to blame bad people and the desire to blame people whose motive for acting was bad. We report three original experiments that suggest that an actor’s bad motive and bad moral character can increase not only perceived blame and responsibility, but also perceived causal influence and intentionality.  We show that people are motivated to think of an action as blameworthy, causal, and intentional when they are confronted with a person who they think has a bad character, even when the character information is totally unrelated to the action under scrutiny.  We discuss implications for doctrines of mens rea definitions, felony murder, inchoate crimes, rules of evidence, and proximate cause.

Though this piece ends by exploring implications for various traditional criminal law doctrines, I see the psychology of blame as uniquely important for sentencing law, policy and practice.

May 3, 2011 at 09:42 AM | Permalink


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