Wrong or merely prohibited: Special treatment of strict liability in intuitive moral judgment

Carly Giffin, Tania Lombrozo

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

13 Scopus citations


Most crimes in America require that the defendant have mens rea, Latin for 'guilty mind.' However, mens rea is not legally required for strict liability crimes, such as speeding, for which someone is guilty even if ignorant or deceived about her speed. In 3 experiments involving participants responding to descriptive vignettes, we investigated whether the division of strict liability crimes in the law reflects an aspect of laypeople's intuitive moral cognition. Experiment 1 (N = 396; 236 male, 159 female, 1 other; Mage = 30) found evidence that it does: ignorance and deception were less mitigating for strict liability crimes than for 'mens rea' crimes. Experiments 2 (N = 413; 257 male, 154 female, 2 other; Mage = 31) and 3 (N = 404; 183 male, 221 female, Mage = 35) revealed that strict liability crimes are not treated as pure moral violations, but additionally as violations of convention. We found that for strict liability crimes, ratings of moral wrongness and punishment were influenced to a greater extent by the fact that a rule had been violated, even when harm was kept constant, mirroring the legal distinction of malum prohibitum (wrong as prohibited) versus malum in se (wrong in itself). Further, we found that rules prohibiting strict liability crimes were judged more arbitrary than corresponding rules for 'mens rea' crimes, and that this judgment was related to the role of mental states. Jointly, the findings suggest a surprising correspondence between the law and laypeople's intuitive judgments.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)707-720
Number of pages14
JournalLaw and Human Behavior
Issue number6
StatePublished - Dec 1 2016
Externally publishedYes

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Arts and Humanities (miscellaneous)
  • General Psychology
  • Psychiatry and Mental health
  • Law


  • decision making
  • explanations
  • knowledge
  • law
  • rule violation


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