Moral Character, Motive, and the Psychology of Blame
Northwestern University School of Law; American Bar Foundation
Georgetown University - McDonough School of Business
April 18, 2011
Cornell Law Review, Vol. 97, 2012
Northwestern Public Law Research Paper No. 11-43
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.
Number of Pages in PDF File: 44
Keywords: blame, responsibility, character, moral reasoning, motive, motivated reasoning
JEL Classification: K10, K30, K49Accepted Paper Series
Date posted: April 21, 2011 ; Last revised: January 17, 2012
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