Moral Foundations, Intuitions of Justice, and the Intricacies of Punitive Sentiment

Date01 June 2017
Published date01 June 2017
Moral Foundations, Intuitions of Justice, and the
Intricacies of Punitive Sentiment
Jasmine R. Silver
Research on punitive attitudes has, so far,focused largely on people’s retribu-
tive attitudes toward offenders. However, a large theoretical body of research
indicates that concerns about different types of offenses and victims may be
just as important in structuring punitive attitudes. Particularly,Moral Founda-
tions Theory suggests that distinct punitive attitudes may be based in intuitive
moral concerns (“moral foundations”) about offenses that victimize individu-
als, groups, and the “divine,” referring to bodily purity or sanctity. In this
study, I develop measures of what I term “victim-centered punitiveness,” and
use data from a nationwide survey of adult Americans (N 5915) to compare
the sources of offender- and victim-centered punitiveness. As expected,
different moral foundations shape offender- and victim-centered punitiveness
in different ways, suggesting that they have distinct intuitive, moral bases.
Other factors, including racial resentment, also have distinct effects on each
type of punitiveness.
Over the past several decades, research has considered the
sources of punitive attitudes toward offenders, in general, (e.g.,
Tyler and Boeckmann, 1997; Unnever and Cullen, 2010) and
toward categories of offenders in particular (Pickett and Chiricos
2012; Pickett et al. 2013). This avenue of research is important
because popular attitudes impact criminal justice policymaking
and practice (Enns 2016). However, theory and research suggest
that punitive attitudes are more complex: people may have dis-
tinct punitive attitudes related to victims as well as to offenders.
The current study broadens the analysis of punitiveness to
include “victim-centered punitiveness,” referring to punitive
responses toward actions affecting different types of victims.
Victim-centered punitiveness can be distinguished from the more
commonly analyzed “offender-centered punitiveness,” which
encompasses punitive responses toward offenders.
To develop a framework for understanding victim-centered
punitiveness, I draw on recent Moral Foundations Theory (MFT)
Please direct all correspondence to Jasmine R. Silver, School of Criminal Justice,
University at Albany, SUNY, 135 Western Avenue, Albany, NY 12222; e-mail: jrsilver@
Law & Society Review, Volume 51, Number 2 (2017)
C2017 Law and Society Association. All rights reserved.
(Haidt 2007, 2012; Haidt and Joseph 2004). According to MFT,
judgments about morality reflect multiple domains of moral con-
cern (“moral foundations”), which can elicit strong, intuitive reac-
tions to transgressions against three different entities: individuals,
groups, and the “divine,” referring to bodily purity or integrity
(Haidt 2012). Three types of victim-centered punitiveness are
thus suggested by MFT: punitiveness toward crimes against indi-
viduals, punitiveness toward crimes against collectives, and puni-
tiveness toward crimes against the “divine.”
Using data from a national online survey (N 5915), I develop
measures for victim-centered punitiveness and provide the first
empirical examination of offender- versus victim-centered punitive-
ness. I pay particular attention to exploring whether, as MFT
would suggest, the moral foundations that correspond to con-
cerns about individuals, collectives, and the “divine” are associat-
ed with each dimension of victim-centered punitiveness.
Explaining Public Punitiveness
Public attitudes about offenders have been of interest to
researchers for decades. Indeed, public attitudes support a varie-
ty of punishment goals, including retribution, rehabilitation,
deterrence, and incapacitation (Cullen, Fischer, and Applegate
2000). Research has focused on three theoretical perspectives to
explain variation in the extent to which people support punitive
policies (e.g., Brown and Socia 2016; Unnever and Cullen 2010).
First, punitiveness may be an expression of racial animus.
Because crime in the United States has historically been typified
as being committed by racial minorities (particularly Black men),
punitive policy preferences may reflect a response to perceived
threat from racial minorities, an apparatus for control, or a way
to “vent” anti-Black sentiments (Soss et al. 2003). Indeed, racial
resentment is one of the most consistent predictors of punitive-
ness (e.g., Barkan and Cohn 1994; Soss et al. 2003; Unnever and
Cullen 2010).
Another explanation is that people may support punitive pol-
icies because they are concerned about crime, particularly if they
do not believe that the courts are effective in dealing with
offenders (Simon 2007; Unnever and Cullen 2010). Related
explanations include other “instrumental” concerns, such as
crime levels, fear of crime, and perceived risk of victimization
(e.g., Kleck and Jackson 2016). Research, however, has provided
only mixed support for this perspective (Kleck and Jackson
414 Moral Foundations and Intuitions of Justice
A third explanation is that punitive attitudes are “expressive.”
Rooted in classical sociological theory (Durkheim 1964 [1933]),
this perspective posits that people are punitive because they view
crime as threatening to shared social values. Punishment serves
to express disapproval of behavior that offends public sensibilities
and to demarcate the boundaries of morally acceptable behavior
(Erikson 1962; Tyler and Boeckmann 1997). Indeed, concerns
about social decline tend to strongly predict punitive attitudes
(Brown and Socia 2016; Tyler and Boeckmann 1997; Unnever
and Cullen 2010). Authoritarian and conservative worldviews
(which encourage the maintenance of social boundaries) are also
linked to greater punitiveness (Unnever et al. 2007). Thus, research
supports the perspective that punitiveattitudes are “expressive.”
The Moral Psychology of Punitiveness
Although the idea that concerns about morality may influence
public punitiveness is not new (Durkheim 1964 [1933]), research
has only recently begun to explore how individuals’ moral orien-
tations may shape their punitive beliefs. In general, moral psy-
chology aims to explain how people make judgments about right
and wrong. Research suggests that, like many psychological pro-
cesses (Kahneman 2011), moral judgments are formed through a
dual-process system in which intuitions—which are “fast, auto-
matic, effortless, associative, implicit (not available to introspec-
tion), and often emotionally charged” (Kahneman 2003: 698)—
precede and inform conscious thought (Greene 2013; Haidt
2001, 2012; Haidt and Hersch 2001). Once a moral intuition has
been formed, conscious, explicit moral reasoning may be used to
justify or, less frequently, to override the intuitive judgment
(Greene 2013; Haidt 2001). Thus, intuitions are powerful deter-
minants of people’s consciously held views (Haidt 2001, 2012).
Research using various methods supports the notion that moral
judgments are made via a dual-process system (e.g., Cushman
et al. 2006; Greene 2013; Haidt and Hersch 2001; Haidt et al.
Understanding moral intuitions is important because punitive
sentiments are, at least in part, a product of moral intuitions
(Darley 2009; Robinson 2013; Robinson et al. 2007). Likely
developed through evolution to promote cooperation within
groups (Greene 2013), the desire to punish moral violators typi-
cally occurs in response to perceived moral violations (Aharoni
and Fridlund 2012); such desire appears to operate independent-
ly of utilitarian concerns about offender dangerousness or the
potential for deterrence (Carlsmith et al. 2002; Darley et al.
Silver 415

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