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Crime and Punishment: Moral Deterrents for Crime

Morality can be stronger than jail.

I was reading an article in the June 22 issue of The New Yorker by John Seabrook that described the Ceasefire program that aims to curb gang violence. The article described a collaboration between the Cincinnati police department and an anthropologist named David Kennedy. Among the interesting elements of the program was that gangs were brought into meetings with police, former gang members, clergy, and social workers, and were told to stop the violence.

In these meetings, the gangs were given a strong moral message. Obviously, gang members who committed crimes stood the chance of punishment, but there was also a clear message that the violence was wrong and that it damaged the community. According to the article, the program has had some success.

Why should a moral message have an effect on gang violence? The United States already has tough penalties for drug crimes and gang crimes.

One way to think about this is that incarceration (and even capital punishment) for crime sets up a business model. A potential gang member gets an extended family for being in a gang. He (most gang members are men) stands some chance of being the victim of violence and some chance of losing freedom to the prison system, but these are potential prices to pay for the benefit of being part of the gang as well as the money and prestige that may come along with success in the gang.

So gang members are normally doing a cost-benefit analysis of their situation.

There is some evidence, though, that the moral dimension can provide an alternative motivation for action. For example, Ann Tenbruensel and David Messick published a study in 1999 in Administrative Science Quarterly in which they had business students play the role of a company manager who had to decide whether a factor should pay to have a factory's pollution scrubbers updated to satisfy new pollution regulations or to violate those regulations. There were three conditions in this study. In the first, there was no punishment for polluting. In the second, there was a large fine for polluting. In the third, there was a small fine for polluting.

The interesting result of this study was that participants in the study tended to argue that the company should install the pollution scrubbers both when there was a heavy fine for polluting and also when there was no fine. When there was a small fine, though, people tended to opt to have the factory pollute the environment.


When there is a large fine, it is worth paying to upgrade the factory. That is a good business decision. When there is a small fine, it is worth paying the fine rather than upgrading. That is also a good business decision. When there is no fine, though, people tended to cast the decision in moral terms rather than business terms. Without a fine, failing to upgrade the factory was a statement that the company did not care about the environment. The moral dimension of the problem was actually stronger than a weak fine.

Perhaps the same thing is going on in the gang situation. When gang members are faced only with jail time, then they are weighing the benefits of gang membership against their freedom. When the gang members have to face the influence of their activities on the community, then the choice takes on a moral dimension. Gang members are part of multiple communities, and the gang is just one. By highlighting that membership in one community harms another community to which gang members belong, this program forces them to decide which community is more important.

There still has to be a system of punishments for those people who still opt for gang violence, of course. But this program highlights the complexity of the decisions that we face, and how small changes in the way those decisions are framed can have a big influence on people's behavior.

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