Lori works with a lady whose relatives live in Lakeview [Louisiana]. When they evacuated, they put ll of their valuables, jewelry and things of that nature, up on the second floor of their home. When the water went down enough to walk through, one of the local lowlife looted the home and stuffed most of their valuables into a pillow case and went out the back. The water was probably at about 5 feet. The looter did not know about the in-ground pool in the yard and proceeded to walk into it. As luck would have it, he could not swim, was weighted down by the loot and drowned in the pool.
Stories like this are immensely satisfying. It is immensely satisfying to read narratives in which the universe is a morally ordered placed, in which the good are rewarded and the bad suffer. What if it is our sense of narrative fittingness that causes our responses to concrete cases (which are, after all, little stories)?
Why would this be interesting? First because the fitting ending intuition, if that is what it is, would explain the irrelevance of determinism. Indeed, a morally determined universe, with the right qualities, might actually be preferable to an undetermined universe, if the latter entails some probability that rewards would fail to match desert. Second because it seems to hold out the prospect of an error theory for retributive intuitions: our narrative sense seems to be a poor - non-truth-preserving - source for our moral views.
As Dan Cohen has pointed out to me in conversation, there is an issue here about the order of explanation. It might be that poetic justice stories are satisfying because of our intuitions about responsibility, rather than the other way round. How do we begin to test which way round our intuitions go?
Here are a couple of suggestions. We might vary either the desert of the agent, or the mode of delivery of the punishment,
1. We might test to see whether subjects find poetic justice endings satisfying regardless of the moral responsibility of the agents involved. These cases might involve brainwashed or manipulated agents for instance. There are already experiments that seem to fit descriptions like this, for instance by Woolfolk, Doris and Darley. It might be useful to extend this work to cover animals which lack the capacities necessary for moral responsibility.
2. The moral-responsibility-drives-narrative story seems to predict that punishment will be more fitting an ending than other ways in which poetic justice is meted out. The rival story might be indifferent to mode of delivery. We might therefore give subjects multiple possible endings to a story (like one of those choose your own adventure books), all of which involve comparable levels of harm coming to a person whose has done wrong. Will subjects prefer the legal punishment to, for instance, having the wrongdoer struck by lighting? Note that in the Katrina story, it seems that it is in part because the punishment was partly caused by the crime (the looter was weighed down by the loot) that it is so satisfying. That kind of link seems hard to explain on the moral-responsibility-drives-narrative story. If subjects would actually prefer this kind of mechanism to meting out of lawful punishment, then that would seem to be bad news for the explanatory story. Not, I grant, terrible news, but a difficulty.
Can anyone suggest better ways of testing the hypothesis?