Nature vs. Nurture

New Study has Implications for Law, Psychology, and Philosophy
Associate Professor of Philosophy Phillip Robbins

Associate Professor of Philosophy Phillip Robbins has been working in the area of experimental philosophy, which employs the tools of empirical social science to investigate how ordinary people, with no special training in philosophy, think about philosophical issues.

Jordan Yount
News Source: 
College of Arts & Science
Departments: 
Philosophy
Psychological Sciences

Anyone who has seen an episode of Law & Order knows that if the defense attorney can successfully portray his client as a victim, jurors may be less inclined to assign blame to the defendant or may reduce the severity of the defendant’s punishment. Research confirms this is more than just a television trope—casting the perpetrator of a transgression as a victim tends to make them seem less blameworthy. Two MU professors wanted to explore that concept further, positing that offenders with a mental disorder that predisposes them to criminal behavior would be judged more negatively if the disorder was genetic rather than environmental in origin. 

Philip Robbins, an associate professor of philosophy, teamed up with MU law professor Paul Litton to test their hypothesis and explore its implications for philosophy, psychology, and the law.

“We are used to thinking that if the people who commit criminal acts suffer from a mental disorder, then that should be taken into account in deciding the extent to which they are responsible or blameworthy for their crimes,” Robbins says. “But there is a further question: Does it matter why they have those mental disorders, and if so, how?”

Experimental Philosophy

Robbins has been working in the area of experimental philosophy, which employs the tools of empirical social science to investigate how ordinary people, with no special training in philosophy, think about philosophical issues. Using the crowdsourcing platform Amazon Mechanical Turk, he and Litton conducted two surveys with a total of about 600 participants. The results confirmed their first prediction—if the cause of a mental disorder was genetic, that fact would not mitigate judgments of blame or punishment.

Robbins and Litton also expected to find that different environmental explanations would elicit different judgments from respondents. For example, they thought mitigation would be greater for someone who developed a mental disorder due to parental abuse compared to someone whose mental disorder resulted from an accident, such as falling off a bike. “We think people who have been intentionally harmed by caregivers are more victim-like than people who have suffered accidents,” Robbins says. “You suffer worse harm in the case of intentional harm because in addition to the physical injury, the victim also suffers the psychological injury associated with being morally wronged.” However, their results suggest that it does not make any difference to the assignment of blame, responsibility, or punishment whether the cause of the mental disorder is intentional or accidental. Robbins says further research will be required to determine why there is no difference between intentional and unintentional causes.

The Upshot

Robbins says that while the implications of their research for psychology are relatively straightforward, their findings suggest that philosophical theories of free will and moral responsibility need to account for the fact that commonsense intuitions about blame and punishment are sensitive, in a systematic way, to certain kinds of causal information. As for the legal implications, Robbins says that an attorney thinking about what kinds of evidence to present on behalf of a mentally disordered client would be better off not presenting evidence that the mental disorder resulted from bad genetic luck.

“It’s a little surprising that genetic explanations have no mitigating effect,” Robbins says. “We think the reason is that with a genetically caused mental disorder, there is no pre-existing person who has been harmed, so the offender is not seen as a victim. In the environmental cases, the offender is seen as a victim. That’s what makes the difference.”

Robbins and Litton report their findings in “Crime, Punishment, and Causation: The Effect of Etiological Information on the Perception of Moral Agency,” which is forthcoming in the APA journal Psychology, Public Policy, and Law.

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