Influential Factors in Lay Attributions of Blame and Punishment: An Enquiry into the Sentiment of Justice.

Kordounoulis, Georgios (2021). Influential Factors in Lay Attributions of Blame and Punishment: An Enquiry into the Sentiment of Justice. PhD thesis The Open University.



This thesis addresses the question of what factors might influence people’s moral judgements, specifically attributions of blame and punishment, focusing on considering both philosophical and psychological perspectives and theories in light of empirical evidence regarding the common-sense judgements of lay research participants. Psychologists (e.g., Carlsmith et al. 2002; Rucker et al. 2004) have investigated the motivations behind punitive decisions, examining whether these are mainly past-oriented or future-oriented. In the first case, punishment is given in proportion to the gravity of the offence and perpetrators receive their just deserts. In the second case, punishment is dispensed by taking into account other factors such as deterring future crime and protecting society. This thesis explores factors that are related to both past-oriented and future-oriented considerations in order to cast light on the lay motivations behind punishment. By ‘lay motivations’ I mean the motivations that ordinary people (lay people) have for punishing offenders.

The theoretical background to this research is provided by both psychological (e.g. Tyler 1997; Carlsmith 2002) and philosophical theories of punishment: for example, those developed by J.S. Mill (1868), Friedrich Nietzsche (1878), J.L. Mackie (1986), and Jeffrey Murphy (2012). A further distinctive feature of this thesis is that it examines whether there is a link between punishment and the notions of malicious satisfaction and ressentiment as argued by Nietzsche (1878). This link has never been investigated experimentally, and this thesis aims to provide some preliminary findings on this issue.

The main methodology used is the vignette technique. The participants recruited to take part in this research read crime scenarios and were asked to provide attributions of blame and punishment. Nine experiments were performed, investigating a range of factors that might be thought to influence attributions of blame and punishment. These involved conditions in prison; the social class of the victim; whether an act of revenge can be perceived as justifiable; whether the perpetrator had been the victim of an act of revenge, or an act of fateful punishment; whether a perpetrator had been incapacitated from committing future crimes; information on crime rate; and whether the perpetrator showed repentance. In addition, the severity of the crime was a constant factor that was examined across all of the nine experiments. The results of these experiments provided evidence that retributive considerations are more important than utilitarian considerations in regards to lay attributions of blame and punishment. Moreover, the results corroborate the claim that retribution is inextricably linked with the notion of just deserts and the accomplishment of a sense of equilibrium between crime and punishment. In addition, the results provided some evidence in favour of Nietzsche’s (1878/1887) claim that attributing punishment involves malicious feelings and feelings of ressentiment.

Overall, this thesis shows the importance of taking into account philosophical ideas in moral psychology, and should inspire further research interest in Nietzsche’s ideas regarding punishment, as well as research on the exact nature of proportionality between crime and punishment that stems from desert-based approaches.

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