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Welcome to the nexus of ethics, psychology, morality, philosophy and health care

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Free Will and Punishment

Azim F. Shariff, Joshua D. Greene,  and others
Psychological Science 2014 25: 1563 
originally published online 10 June 2014
DOI: 10.1177/0956797614534693


If free-will beliefs support attributions of moral responsibility, then reducing these beliefs should make people less retributive in their attitudes about punishment. Four studies tested this prediction using both measured and manipulated free-will beliefs. Study 1 found that people with weaker free-will beliefs endorsed less retributive, but not consequentialist, attitudes regarding punishment of criminals. Subsequent studies showed that learning about the neural bases of human behavior, through either lab-based manipulations or attendance at an undergraduate neuroscience course, reduced people’s support for retributive punishment (Studies 2–4). These results illustrate that exposure to debates about free will and to scientific research on the neural basis of behavior may have consequences for attributions of moral responsibility.


As part of the discussion section:

Retributivism plays an important role in the justice system. Historically, much of the motivation for legal punishment has been an institutionalized attempt to sate the public’s retributive desires (Smith, 1759). Legal historian Stephen (1883) famously wrote that “the sentence of the law is to the moral sentiment of the public what a seal is to hot wax” (p. 423). In recent years, justice researchers and advocates have argued for a switch from retributive to restorative justice—a consequentialist approach aimed at repairing the moral imbalances caused by transgressions (Braithwaite, 2002). The current findings suggest that changing attitudes about free will and responsibility may be important to this evolution of legal thinking.

The entire article is here, complete with paywall.