Expressing What? Evaluating the Expressive Value of Punishment
38 Pages Posted: 2 Aug 2016 Last revised: 16 Feb 2018
Date Written: July 31, 2016
Throughout the literatures of law, psychology, and philosophy, a great deal of attention has been paid to the question of why people seek to punish one another. Amid all the discussion of what punishment should and can accomplish or communicate, however, relatively little thought has been given to what punishment actually does signal. In this article, we present four original empirical studies—with nearly 1000 participants total—that speak to the most basic way punishment may be understood by the lay public. Psychologically speaking, punishment may operate as a special case of social norm information, but we argue that what sets punishment apart from other norms is the moral weight punishment carries. Although norms other than punishment may also communicate moral messages, punishment seems to be unique in its relationship to morality, and especially to judgments of harm. Prior research demonstrates that potential punishers rely heavily on the degree of harm caused by wrongdoing when determining the appropriate level of punishment. In this paper, we show that the opposite is also true—information about punishment can influence the extent to which an act of wrongdoing is judged to have been harmful.
In the first part of this paper, we review existing research on the message of punishment, drawing on literatures from law, psychology, and philosophy. We also highlight closely related research on social norms and behavior. In part two, we present experimental evidence that punishment is a signal of harm. We also show that punishment can be an effective cue for moral judgment, influencing such judgments in a way that is similar to social norm information. Finally, in part three, we discuss some of the important implications of our findings, including their relevance to debates about corporate prosecution, financial crimes, and police misconduct.
Keywords: Law, Psychology, Moral Psychology, Punishment, Harm, Expressive Theory, Norms, Corporate Prosecution
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