Crime Because Punishment?

The Inferential Psychology of Morality and Punishment

Psychologically speaking, punishment may operate as a special case of social norm information, but what sets punishment apart from other norms is the moral weight punishment carries. Although norms other than punishment may also communicate moral messages, punishment seems to be unique in its relationship to morality, and especially to judgments of harm. Prior research demonstrates that potential punishers rely heavily on the degree of harm caused by wrongdoing when determining the appropriate level of punishment. In this Article, we show that the opposite is also true—information about punishment can influence the extent to which an act of wrongdoing is judged to have been harmful. Part I reviews existing research on the message of punishment, drawing on literatures from law, psychology, and philosophy. We also highlight closely related research on social norms and behavior. In Part II, we present four original experiments (total N = 890). The results suggest that punishment is indeed a signal of harm, and that, like social norm information, punishment can be an effective cue for moral judgment. Finally, in Part III, we discuss some of the implications of our findings, including their relevance to debates about corporate malfeasance, non-prosecution of financial crimes, and legal reactions to police misconduct.

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