Cornell Law Review Volume 97 Issue 2

Moral Character, Motive, and the Psychology of Blame

Criminal law conceives blameworthiness as the carefully calculated end product of discrete judgments about a transgressor’s intentionality, causal proximity to harm, and the harm’s foreseeability. Research in social psychology, on the other hand, suggests that blaming is often intuitive and automatic, driven by a natural impulsive desire to express and defend social values and expectations. Reconciling legal blame with psychological blame is not always feasible because the law does not always explicitly recognize or encourage the factors that influence judgments of legal blame. In this Article, we focus on two highly related motivational processes—the desire to blame bad people and the desire to blame people whose motive for acting was
bad. We report three original experiments that suggest that an actor’s bad motive and bad moral character can increase not only perceived blame and responsibility but also increase perceived causal influence and intentionality. We show that people are motivated to think of an action as blameworthy, causal, and intentional when they are confronted with a person who they
think has a bad character even when the character information is totally unrelated to the action under scrutiny. We discuss implications for doctrines of mens rea definitions, felony murder, inchoate crimes, rules of evidence, and proximate cause.


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