For the sake of discussion, consider that a murderer
is sentenced to death. What is the motivation behind this sentence?
Is it to deter future crimes? Or is it to give the criminal “just
deserts”? Princeton psychologist John Darley and his collaborators
Kevin Carlsmith and legal scholar Paul Robinson, of Northwestern
University, explore this question in a paper published in The
Journal of Personality and Social Psychology in 2002 (Vol.
83). The researchers report on three separate studies they conducted
on more than 1,000 university students. The studies used questionnaires
to determine what motivated participants to determine sentences
for a variety of crime cases presented to them.
The studies show that participants more often
assign the punishment that they think the perpetrator deserves rather
than the punishment that they think will have a deterring effect.
Even after participants noted that they believed in the deterrence
theory of punishment, results show that the same participants exemplified
a “just deserts” theory in their responses. “The
ordinary person arranges what he or she is persuaded about to maintain
the general notion that punishment must be proportional to the blameworthiness
of the offense,” the researchers note.
That data suggest that culturally conversant individuals
have created a scale of penalties in their minds to correspond with
a hierarchy of offenses. Rather than a thoughtless eye-for-an-eye
vengeance, however, the just deserts approach is more measured in
its application, the researchers suggest. Moral proportionality
is at the heart of the responses shown in the study. The researchers
further conclude that both society and the victims require just
desserts punishments. “Unless the punishment is imposed, a
real feeling of incompleteness lingers, and there is a sense that
justice has not been done,” they note.
Such retribution doesn’t demand capital
punishment, but merely ranks certain crimes, such as murder, as
most serious and deserving of maximum penalty, they conclude.