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Friday, December 23, 2022

One thought too few: Why we punish negligence

Sarin, A., & Cushman, F. A. (2022, November 7).


Why do we punish negligence? Leading accounts explain away the punishment of negligence as a consequence of other, well-known phenomena: outcome bias, character inference, or the volitional choice not to exercise due care. Although they capture many important cases, these explanations fail to account for others. We argue that, in addition to these phenomena, there is something both fundamental and unique to the punishment of negligence itself: People hold others directly responsible for the basic fact of failing to bring to mind information that would help them to avoid important risks. In other words, we propose that at its heart negligence is a failure of thought. Drawing on the current literature in moral psychology, we suggest that people find it natural to punish such failures, even when they don’t arise from conscious, volitional choice. Then, drawing on the literature on how thoughts come to mind, we argue that punishing a person for forgetting will help them remember in the future. This provides new insight on the structure and function of our tendency to punish negligent actions.


Why do we punish negligence? Psychologists and philosophers have traditionally offered two answers: Outcome bias (a punitive response elicited by the harm caused) and lack of due care (a punitive response elicited by the antecedent intentional choices that made negligence possible). These factors doubtlessly contribute in many cases, and they align well with psychological models that  posit  causation  and  intention  as  the  primary  determinants of punishment (Cushman, 2008; Laurent et al., 2016; Nobes et al., 2009; Shultz et al., 1986). Another potential explanation, rooted in character-based models of moral  judgment (Gray et al., 2012; Malle, 2011; A. Smith, 2017; Sripada, 2016; Uhlmann et al., 2015), is that  negligence speaks to an insufficient concern for others.

These models each attempt to “explain away” negligence as an outgrowth of other, better-understood parts of our moral psychology. We have argued, however, that there is something both fundamental and unique to negligence itself: That people simply hold others responsible for the basic fact of forgetting(or, more broadly, failing to call mind) things that would have made them act better.  In other words, at its heart, negligence is a failure of thought–a failure to make relevant dispositional knowledge occurrent at the right time.

Our challenge, then,  is to explain the design principles behind this mechanism of moral judgment. If we hold people directly responsible for their failures of thought, what purpose does this serve? To address this question, we draw on the literature on how thoughts come to mind.  It offers a model both of how negligence occurs, and why punishing such involuntary forgetting is adaptive. Value determines which  actions, outcomes, and pieces of knowledge come to mind. Specifically, actions come to mind when they have high value, outcomes when they have high absolute value, and other sorts of knowledge structures when they contribute in valuable ways to the task at hand. After an action is chosen and executed, a person receives various kinds of positive and negative feedback –environmental, social, and internal. All kinds of feedback alter value –of actions, outcomes, and other knowledge structures.  Value and feedback therefore form a self-reinforcing loop: value determines what comes to mind and feedback (rewards and punishments) update value.