Blaming as a Social Process: The Influence of Character and Moral Emotion on Blame

42 Pages Posted: 23 Jan 2012

Date Written: January 20, 2012


For the most part, the law eschews the role of moral character in legal blame. But when we observe an actor who causes harm, legal and psychological blame processes are in tension. Procedures for legal blame assume an assessment of the actor’s mental state, and ultimately of responsibility, that is independent of the moral character of the actor. In this paper, I present experimental evidence to suggest that perceptions of intent, foreseeability, and possibly causation can be colored by independent reasons for thinking the actor is a bad person, and are mediated by the experience of negative moral emotion. Our emotional reactions are not only a product of the act and the outcome, but also a product of inferences about the general virtuousness of the person who performed the act that caused the harm. Remarkably, this result holds true even though the mental state of the actor was clearly specified.

As observers, we give the benefit of the doubt to a person with a virtuous character who causes harm; we perceive his actions as less intentional and perhaps even less causal, and the harm less foreseeable than if his character is flawed. Remarkably, it seems that we do not deliberately use character information to inform responsibility judgments, for when differences in character are made explicit, we moderate our judgments so that we hold the virtuous harmdoer equally responsible as the ignoble harmdoer.

Keywords: blame, responsibility, character, moral reasoning, motive, motivated reasoning

JEL Classification: K10, K30, K49

Suggested Citation

Nadler, Janice, Blaming as a Social Process: The Influence of Character and Moral Emotion on Blame (January 20, 2012). Law & Contemporary Problems, Forthcoming, Northwestern Law & Econ Research Paper No. 12-01, Northwestern Public Law Research Paper No. 12-01, Available at SSRN:

Janice Nadler (Contact Author)

Northwestern University - School of Law

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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

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