Symbolism and Incommensurability in Civil Sanctioning: Decision Makers as Goal Managers

34 Pages Posted: 24 Apr 2003

See all articles by Jennifer K. Robbennolt

Jennifer K. Robbennolt

University of Illinois College of Law

John M. Darley

Princeton University

Robert MacCoun

Stanford Law School


Factfinders in civil cases must often make a constellation of decisions, such as assigning responsibility and blame, making compensation and (sometimes) giving out punishment. These decisions are likely to evoke numerous social and moral concerns and, therefore, inevitably implicate a variety of instrumental and symbolic goals. We argue that descriptions of legal decision making that fail to consider the psychological interplay among these different goals are likely to come up short in their efforts to explicate the ways in which jurors and other factfinders make decisions in civil cases. Instead, we suggest that decision making in civil cases can profitably be thought of as a process by which decision makers attempt to maximally satisfy a wide variety of goals in parallel. In contrast to many traditional legal and economic portrayals of legal decision making which posit that decision makers can pursue single motives as instructed, we argue that jurors and other finders-of-fact deciding civil cases ought to be thought of as pursuing many different goals simultaneously. We briefly describes many of the goals that may underlie decision making in civil cases and introduces a set of basic goal management principles that define how these goals interrelate. We next describe social psychological research that suggests that legal decision makers may be motivated to pursue a variety of goals in addition to the traditional goals of determining fault, compensating plaintiffs, and deterring defendants. Different motives for distributing resources, value expressive goals and a need to restore the proper relative moral balance between the parties may all play a role in civil decision making. Finally, we propose that decision makers may attempt to simultaneously satisfy these multiple goals through a process of parallel constraint satisfaction.

Keywords: legal decision making, civil justice, constraint satisfaction, factfinder goals

JEL Classification: C45, K13, K4

Suggested Citation

Robbennolt, Jennifer K. and Darley, John M. and MacCoun, Robert, Symbolism and Incommensurability in Civil Sanctioning: Decision Makers as Goal Managers. Available at SSRN: or

Jennifer K. Robbennolt (Contact Author)

University of Illinois College of Law ( email )

504 E. Pennsylvania Avenue
Champaign, IL 61820
United States
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John M. Darley

Princeton University ( email )

1-N-17 Green Hall
Princeton, NJ 08544
United States
609-258-3000 (Phone)

Robert MacCoun

Stanford Law School ( email )

559 Nathan Abbott Way
Stanford, CA 94305-8610
United States
650-721-7031 (Phone)

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