We found this article on the Situationist. It examines the how we as a society tend to view punishment and how we deal it out.
Our justice system often provides tangled rationales for punishment. Is our system based on retribution or deterrence? Which comports better with society’s views of justice?
Previous studies have shown that when individuals are given the opportunity to punish an offender, they sentence retributively, based on the moral wrongfulness of the offender’s actions. However, those initial studies did not assess whether people based these retributive punishments on the harm the act caused or the wrongfulness of the offender’s intent.
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The easiest case in criminal law involves one person intending to shoot and kill another person — who aim, fires, and hits the target. The easiest case, however, is never the most interesting. Criminal law is full of cases in which the intended assassin has poor aim, and winds up shooting the wrong person or no one at all, as well as cases in which a hunting or target-shooting bullet goes awry, making an unintentional killer out of a marksman.
Princeton social psychologists (Alter, Kernochan, and Darley) investigated situations in which the harm done and the harm intended were not the same. How much punishment — or, more specifically, how long of a prison sentence — would subjects impose on actors in these situations? Would the harmfulness of the act or the wrongfulness of the act be the primary factor in these judgments? Such sentencing preferences would tap into moral intuitions about the importance of wrongfulness (intent) and harmfulness (consequence).
Modern criminal law requires both actus reus (a wrongful act) and mens rea (a guilty mind) to coincide for a crime to have occurred. Liability is thus contingent on both harmfulness and wrongfulness. Doctrines such as “innocent agency” allow one person’s acts and another person’s intent to be consolidated so that a crime can be found to have occurred. In such a situation, a knowing actor manipulates an innocent individual into committing an act that would be criminal if mens rea were present. The person who acted wrongfully with intent in this situation is the one who is punished, not the person who acted harmfully without intent.