Does Situationist Psychology Have Radical Implications for Criminal Responsibility?

59 Alabama Law Review 611 (2008)

68 Pages Posted: 30 Apr 2017

See all articles by Anders Kaye

Anders Kaye

Thomas Jefferson School of Law

Date Written: 2008


Modern empirical psychology has discovered a number of surprising things about the way human beings work, some of which may have startling implications for individual moral responsibility. For example, a well-known series of experiments show that prosaic situational variables influence human conduct to a far greater extent than we generally realize. The smell of coffee makes us more likely to help a person in need, while the sound of a lawn mower suppresses our helping behavior. Finding a dime in a phone booth makes us more likely to lend a stranger a hand, but a calm, non-coercive order from a laboratory researcher can induce most of us to inflict torturous shocks on the same stranger. According to “situationist” psychology, these findings (and numerous others in the same vein) show that seemingly inconsequential situational variations have a dramatic impact on morally significant behavior.

On one reading, these findings make us puppets to circumstance and thus cast doubt on individual moral responsibility. For criminal theorists who take moral responsibility to be a prerequisite of criminal responsibility, this line of reasoning calls criminal responsibility itself into question. At first glance, then, the situationist tradition in empirical psychology has potentially radical implications for criminal responsibility.

This Article asks whether situationist psychology can deliver on this radical promise. To set the stage, Part II reviews several of the situationist findings most relevant to responsibility, and shows how these findings suggest that we are more puppets to circumstance than we realize. Parts III and IV ask whether these findings pose a significant threat to criminal responsibility. Part III begins by evaluating the “current” situationist challenge to responsibility, rooted in a diverse array of claims made in recent moral and legal theory. Because the current challenge proceeds primarily by using situationist psychology to raise questions about particular accounts of responsibility, Part III will identify the problems situationist psychology poses for several important approaches to responsibility, starting with the originationist (or “free will”) view of moral responsibility that many lay people (and some theorists) embrace, moving to the character and choice theories of criminal responsibility that are prominent in contemporary criminal theory, and finishing with the identification and reasons-responsiveness theories of moral responsibility common in the philosophical literature. Not surprisingly, since situationism entails significant revisions to conventional moral psychology, it raises hard questions for each of these approaches to responsibility. Nevertheless, this Part concludes, the current situationist challenge to responsibility has so far failed to generate a genuine threat to criminal responsibility.

Although the current situationist challenge falls short of its radical promise, Part IV shows that it may still be possible to salvage something genuinely radical in the situationist challenge to criminal responsibility. Part IV starts by arguing that the current situationist challenge has lost track of situationism's most incendiary insight: because human actors are so vulnerable to and dependent on the world around them, conventional reactions to bad actors might more appropriately be directed at the situations in which bad acts occur. This insight can support a deep challenge to conventional accounts of responsibility, defusing and redirecting the reactive attitudes that sustain our responsibility attributions. The current challenge fails to develop this insight because the challenge is unreflectively invested in an individualist account of the human actor. Torn between the situationist vision of the human actor constructed by his situation and the individualist ideal of an actor standing apart from and above his circumstances, the situationist challenge to responsibility gets bogged down before it can make significant headway against responsibility. If this is so, the key to mobilizing situationism's radical insights is to disentangle situationism from individualism. In doing so, we may discover that situationism really does have radical implications for criminal responsibility.

Keywords: responsibility, criminal responsibility, moral responsibility, reactive attitudes, situationism, situationist, situationist psychology, compatibilism, originationism, originationist, determinism, free will, character theory, choice theory, capacity theory, individualist account

Suggested Citation

Kaye, Anders, Does Situationist Psychology Have Radical Implications for Criminal Responsibility? (2008). 59 Alabama Law Review 611 (2008), Available at SSRN:

Anders Kaye (Contact Author)

Thomas Jefferson School of Law ( email )

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