Folk retributivism and the communication confound

Economics and Philosophy 29 (2):235-261 (2013)
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Abstract

Retributivist accounts of punishment maintain that it is right to punish wrongdoers, even if the punishment has no future benefits. Research in experimental economics indicates that people are willing to pay to punish defectors. A complementary line of work in social psychology suggests that people think that it is right to punish wrongdoers. This work suggests that people are retributivists about punishment. However, all of the extant work contains an important potential confound. The target of the punishment is expected to be aware of the punitive act. Thus, it's possible that people punish because they want to communicate something to the wrongdoer, e.g. disapproval, the presence of a norm, etc. In three studies, we examine whether people will punish even when the punishee will be ignorant. We find that people are no less likely to punish when the punishee will be ignorant. This finding emerges both in a survey study and in a monetized behavioural decision study.

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Author Profiles

Saeideh Heshmati
University of Arizona
Shaun Nichols
Cornell University
Thomas Nadelhoffer
College of Charleston