Economics and Philosophy



Thomas Nadelhoffera1, Saeideh Heshmatia2, Deanna Kaplana3 and Shaun Nicholsa4

a1 College of Charleston, USA

a2 University of Arizona, USA

a3 University of Arizona, USA

a4 University of Arizona, USA


Retributivist accounts of punishment maintain that it is right to punish wrongdoers, even if the punishment has no future benefits. Research in experimental economics indicates that people are willing to pay to punish defectors. A complementary line of work in social psychology suggests that people think that it is right to punish wrongdoers. This work suggests that people are retributivists about punishment. However, all of the extant work contains an important potential confound. The target of the punishment is expected to be aware of the punitive act. Thus, it's possible that people punish because they want to communicate something to the wrongdoer, e.g. disapproval, the presence of a norm, etc. In three studies, we examine whether people will punish even when the punishee will be ignorant. We find that people are no less likely to punish when the punishee will be ignorant. This finding emerges both in a survey study and in a monetized behavioural decision study.

Thomas Nadelhoffer (PhD) is an Assistant Professor in the Philosophy Department at the College of Charleston (Charleston, SC). He specializes in the philosophy of mind and action, moral psychology, and the philosophy of law – which were the focus of his research during his time as a postdoctoral fellow with the MacArthur Foundation Law and Neuroscience Project (2009–2011). He also recently edited The Future of Punishment (Oxford University Press 2013) and co-edited Moral Psychology: Historical and Contemporary Readings (Wiley-Blackwell 2010).

Saeideh Heshmati is a PhD student in Educational Psychology at the University of Arizona. Her current focus is on interdisciplinary statistical analysis and she is engaged in research on multilevel models for longitudinal data in psychology.

Deanna Kaplan is a Lab Coordinator and Research Assistant at the Norton School, affiliated with the Frances McClelland Institute for Children, Youth and Families. She is also a graduate student in the Educational Psychology department at the University of Arizona. Ms Kaplan has been a contributing author to numerous evaluation reports for state agencies in Arizona including the Arizona Department of Health Services and the Arizona Early Childhood Development and Health Board. Her current focus is on the evaluation and development of social and health-related policy and programming.

Shaun Nichols is Professor of Philosophy at the University of Arizona. His books include Sentimental Rules (2004) and, co-authored with Stephen Stich, Mindreading (2003). His current research focuses on the psychological underpinnings of philosophical problems.


  We thank Jason Dana for allowing us to adapt his ingenious new work (Dana et al. forthcoming) for our economic game. In addition, for discussion and comments on the paper, we thank Eyal Aharoni, Jerry Gaus, James Konow, Eddy Nahmias, Eric Schwitzgebel and two anonymous reviewers.