Crime, Punishment, and Causation: The Effect of Etiological Information on the Perception of Moral Agency

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Abstract

Moral judgments about a situation are profoundly shaped by the perception of individuals in that situation as either moral agents or moral patients (Gray & Wegner, 2009; Gray, Young, & Waytz, 2012), Specifically, the more we see someone as a moral agent, the less we see them as a moral patient, and vice versa. As a result, casting the perpetrator of a transgression as a victim tends to have the effect of making them seem less blameworthy (Gray & Wegner, 2011). Based on this theoretical framework, we predicted that criminal offenders with a mental disorder that predisposes them to antisocial behavior would be judged more negatively when the disorder is described as having a genetic origin than when it is described as environmentally caused, as in the case of childhood abuse or accident. Further, we predicted that some environmental explanations would mitigate attributions of blame more than others, namely, that offenders whose disorder was caused by childhood abuse (intentional harm) would be seen as less blameworthy than offenders whose disorder is caused by an unfortunate accident (unintentional harm). Results from two vignette-based studies designed to test these predictions, conducted with participants recruited from Amazon Mechanical Turk (N = 244 and N = 387, respectively), confirmed the first prediction but not the second. Implications of this research for three areas—the psychology of moral judgment, philosophical debates about moral responsibility and determinism, and the practice of the law—are discussed in the sequel.

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