On Justifying Punishment: The Discrepancy between Words and Actions

Social Justice Research, Vol. 21, pp. 119-137, 2008

19 Pages Posted: 30 Sep 2008 Last revised: 2 Oct 2008

Kevin M. Carlsmith

Colgate University - Psychology Department

Date Written: September 29, 2008

Abstract

This article reveals a discrepancy between the actual and stated motives for punishment. Two studies conducted with nationally representative samples reveal that people support laws designed on the utilitarian principle of deterrence in the abstract, yet reject the consequences of these same laws when they are applied. Study 1 (N = 133) found that participants assigned punishment to criminals in a manner consistent with a retributive theory of justice rather than deterrence. The verbal justifications for punishment given by these same respondents, however, failed to correlate with their actual retributive behavior. Study 2 (N = 125) again found that people have favorable attitudes towards utilitarian laws and rate them as "fair" in the abstract, but frequently reject these same laws when they are instantiated in ways that support utilitarian theories. These studies reveal people's inability to know their own motivations, and show that one consequence of this ignorance is to generate support for laws that they ultimately find unjust.

Suggested Citation

Carlsmith, Kevin M., On Justifying Punishment: The Discrepancy between Words and Actions (September 29, 2008). Social Justice Research, Vol. 21, pp. 119-137, 2008. Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=1275295

Kevin M. Carlsmith (Contact Author)

Colgate University - Psychology Department ( email )

13 Oak Drive
Hamilton, NY 13346
United States

HOME PAGE: http://www.colgate.edu/DesktopDefault1.aspx?tabid=684&pgID=3400&vID=3&dID=0&fID=4213

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