Altruistic Punishment

Green_Indy capitol_2010-06-29

2016-06-05 – A lot has been written about the efficacy of punishment in controlling objectionable behavior—without broad conclusions. Sometimes it’s effective. Sometimes it’s not. Folks who advocate for punishment in society often seem strangely unconcerned about the question. If a behavior is objectionable (or sinful), we are obliged to punish—even if the scheme of punishment seems unsuccessful in controlling the objectionable behavior or is disproportionately costly to society.

We have a sense of righteousness.

Scholars call this “altruistic punishment.” They suggest that it evolved as a mechanism for promoting cooperative behavior beyond the family group. It is neurologically wired in our brains.

In other words, we get off on punishing—whether punishing has an immediate positive effect or not. We’re evolutionarily addicted to it. We get a thrill.

This addition is not the same as being addicted to violence or coercion alone (though it must certainly be related). Altruistic punishment depends on a sense that some wrong has been committed.

As an evolved characteristic, this desire to punish doesn’t seem to be too precise. We don’t seem to be too concerned with how effective punishments are. We send folks to jail for smoking a joint without any indication that the threat of jail reduces joint-smoking behavior in the population or whether a scheme of treatment might be better. And, until recently, we’ve consistently imposed higher punishments for marijuana crimes than for rape.

Doesn’t make sense if we measure the punishment against the harm averted. But it might make sense if the covert purpose of punishment is a kind of neurological rush we get from administering altruistic punishment.

Altruistic punishment, by definition is a kind of punishment that operates without regard to the costs imposed on society. It’s a great evolutionary adaptation to be primed to do what is right. But when it imposes costs on society beyond what could be justified by measuring the averted harm, it is justice run amok.

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