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Moral Character, Motive, and the Psychology of Blame

Janice Nadler

Northwestern University School of Law; American Bar Foundation

Mary-Hunter McDonnell

The Wharton School - The University of Pennsylvania

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, K49

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Date posted: April 21, 2011 ; Last revised: January 17, 2012

Suggested Citation

Nadler, Janice and McDonnell, Mary-Hunter, Moral Character, Motive, and the Psychology of Blame (April 18, 2011). Cornell Law Review, Vol. 97, 2012; Northwestern Public Law Research Paper No. 11-43. Available at SSRN: http://ssrn.com/abstract=1814309

Contact Information

Janice Nadler (Contact Author)
Northwestern University School of Law ( email )
375 E. Chicago Ave
Chicago, IL 60611
United States
312-503-3228 (Phone)
312-503-2035 (Fax)
American Bar Foundation ( email )
750 N. Lake Shore Drive
Chicago, IL 60611
Mary-Hunter McDonnell
The Wharton School - The University of Pennsylvania ( email )
3641 Locust Walk
Philadelphia, PA 19104-6365
United States

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