A sizable body of research has emerged over the past 30 years examining the role that justification for aggression may play in the enjoyment of drama. For the most part, this research has suggested that audiences enjoy seeing good characters rewarded and bad characters punished, whereas images of good characters receiving undue punishment or bad characters receiving benefits are met largely with repugnance (Zillmann, 2000). Research has also shown that these factors may play a role in attitudes toward and empathy for the characters in question. For example, Zillmann and Bryant (1975) found that even disliked characters are met with a certain degree of empathy if they receive punishment that exceeds some sort of predetermined range of acceptable retribution.
Although these studies contribute greatly to the understanding of audience enjoyment and response to violence, two issues are apparent. First, notions regarding the circumstances that distinguish "just" and "unjust" actions have always been operationally defined in terms of varying degrees of retribution severity. The possibility of the same act being judged just or unjust depending on dispositional and motivational characteristics surrounding the exchange has gone largely unexplored. Instead, over-retributive and under-retributive sanctions have been seen invariably as unjust. Second, these studies have paid little attention to the likelihood that attitudes toward and empathy for victims may be contingent upon attitudes toward the perpetrator and perceptions of the motive for aggression. To that end, the current study attempts to explore the manner in which incongruity between the dispositional features linked to perpetrators and motives for their violence can influence both subsequent enjoyment of narratives and attitudes toward victims and perpetrators.
Perceptions of Justified Violence
Kohlberg (1958) posited that at basic levels of moral deliberation, perceptions of justice are contingent upon evaluations of whether an act of aggressive reprisal is strictly equal to the provoking act. For young children, these simple determinations can be superseded by the evaluation of some authority figure (e.g., "it's wrong because my mom said so"). In later stages of cognitive development, the essential feature of justification becomes the notion of strict equivalence. An act of violent reprisal is just if its inherent qualities are equivalent to the violence that preceded it, and unjust if violence in the reprisal falls below or exceeds the initiating violent act.
However, in more complicated judgment circumstances, Kohlberg maintained that justice appraisals are moderated by consideration of the actors involved and an appraisal of the context surrounding the exchange. Moral appraisals are therefore based on "strict equality and literal reciprocity are modified by reference to shared norms or to motives that indicate a good or bad person or deservingness" (Colby & Kohlberg, 1987, p. 27). Among adults, moral judgment is made based on the evaluation of whether or not an act falls within a range of behaviors considered equitable given the provocation. This appraisal is then moderated by the observer's disposition toward the participants involved and perceptions of their motives for the provoking and retaliatory acts.
Justified Violence and Latitude of Moral Sanctions. Zillmann's (2000) moral-sanction theory of delight and repugnance distinguished the more deliberate process of forming "moral judgments" from less contemplative "moral sanctions." Whereas moral judgment can be characterized by comparatively formal thought processes which may prescribe specific rewards and punishments for particular acts, moral sanctions are thought of more simply as a "readiness to accept, in moral terms," the observed outcomes of events (Zillmann, 2000, p. 59). In this sense, moral sanctions include any and all behaviors one is ready to accept. Thus, instead of a clear-cut judgment of an act's morality based on its deviating from specific retribution called for by an exacting moral code, the comparatively impulsive "readiness to accept" nature of moral-sanction appraisals allows for broader latitude in determining which acts are deemed morally acceptable or justified. …