Institutions, Emotions and Law: A Goldilocks Problem for Mechanism Design

14 Pages Posted: 21 Nov 2008 Last revised: 8 May 2009


This essay lays out a framework for thinking about institutions, emotions, and law. It combines work that links our emotions with internal, psychological commitments, and an understanding of institutions as mechanisms that re-frame the strategic landscape in a world of potential cooperation and conflict between social actors. This combination suggests a positive theory of moral sentiments, a clearer way to understand the role of emotion in law, and a reframing of the old is/ought distinction, sometimes called the naturalistic fallacy. The internal institutions created through our moral sentiments are important but limited. Our intuitive tool kit for structuring cooperative institutions, and for reacting punitively to transgressions against these institutions provides some reframing solutions. Institutions, however, can originate in many ways and can be located many media - psychology, culture, even the physical world. Law is an institution built across many of these layers, a composite that can create a more nuanced and capable set of structures and responses, leading to a better set of outcomes than would be available in an emotion-only world. The problem for the composite is getting the mix right - both too much emotion and too little can prevent us from fully capturing the expanded solution space which a rule of law can open to its adherents.

Keywords: Emotions, Law, Commitment, Moral Commitment, Mechanism Design

JEL Classification: K10

Suggested Citation

Goodenough, Oliver R., Institutions, Emotions and Law: A Goldilocks Problem for Mechanism Design. Vermont Law School Research Paper No. 09-11, Emotion in Context: Exploring the Interaction between Emotions and Legal Institutions Conference, University of Chicago Law School, May 2008, Vermont Law Review, Volume 33, 2009, Available at SSRN:

Oliver R. Goodenough (Contact Author)

Vermont Law School ( email )

164 Chelsea Street
P.O. Box 96
South Royalton, VT 05068
United States
802 831 1231 (Phone)


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