Social Justice Research

, Volume 21, Issue 2, pp 119–137 | Cite as

On Justifying Punishment: The Discrepancy Between Words and Actions

  • Kevin M. Carlsmith


This article reveals a discrepancy between the actual and stated motives for punishment. Two studies conducted with nationally representative samples reveal that people support laws designed on the utilitarian principle of deterrence in the abstract, yet reject the consequences of the same when they are applied. Study 1 (N = 133) found that participants assigned punishment to criminals in a manner consistent with a retributive theory of justice rather than deterrence. The verbal justifications for punishment given by these same respondents, however, failed to correlate with their actual retributive behavior. Study 2 (N = 125) again found that people have favorable attitudes towards utilitarian laws and rate them as “fair” in the abstract, but frequently reject them when they are instantiated in ways that support utilitarian theories. These studies reveal people’s inability to know their own motivations, and show that one consequence of this ignorance is to generate support for laws that they ultimately find unjust.


Punishment motives Retributive justice Deterrence Justice Self-knowledge 



I express appreciation to Jennifer Simester who collected data for a pilot version of Study 1, and who provided helpful comments on an earlier draft of this manuscript. Portions of this research were conducted while the author was on leave at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, VA.


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media, LLC 2008

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of PsychologyColgate UniversityHamiltonUSA

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