On September 21st, Fiery Cushman, a newly-minted PhD recipient and post-doctoral fellow at Harvard’s Mind, Brain and Behavior Initiative, presented some of his recent research at an event titled “Outcome vs. Intent: Which Do We Punish, and Why?” Cushman’s work suggests that at a gut-level, people assess whether a behavior was morally right or wrong by looking at the actor’s intentions, but when assigning punishment, people are overwhelmingly interested in outcomes, even if an outcome was accidental.
Cushman described several experiments where he was able to look at a participant’s intentions in isolation from the actual outcome of the participant’s actions. In one case, participants were given the choice of dice that would later be rolled to assign rewards to a second, receiving party. When given the opportunity, the recipient would consistently punish more often when the dice produced less favorable rewards, even if the initial participant intended to provide rewards generously. This work has interesting implications for tort law, explaining in part why findings of negligence lead to large compensatory rewards even in the absence of any intentional action.
Below is the video of that fascinating talk.
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For a sample of related Situationist posts, “Law Students Flock to Situationism,” “Fiery Cushman at Harvard Law School,” “Attributing Blame — from the Baseball Diamond to the War on Terror,” “John Darley on ‘Justice as Intuitions’ – Video,” “The Situation of Punishment in Schools,” “Why We Punish,” “Kevin Jon Heller on The Cognitive Psychology of Mens Rea,” “Mark Lanier visits Professor Jon Hanson’s Tort Class (web cast),” and “Situationist Torts – Abstract.”