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Adaptationist Punishment in Humans

14 Pages Posted: 26 Mar 2009 Last revised: 18 May 2010

Robert Kurzban

University of Pennsylvania - Department of Psychology

Peter DeScioli

Chapman University - Economic Science Institute

Date Written: March 26, 2009

Abstract

Immanuel Kant, Adam Smith, Charles Darwin, George Williams, and Stephen J. Gould, among others, have pointed out that observing that a certain behavior causes a certain effect does not itself license the inference that the effect was the result of intent or design to bring about that effect. Compliance with duty might not reflect the action of conscience, gains in trade might not be due to the benevolence of traders, and fox paws might not be designed to make tracks in snow. Similarly, when person A inflicts costs on person B and, in so doing, generates benefits to C, D, and E (or the group to which A through E belong, in aggregate), the inference that the imposition of costs on B by A is by virtue of intent or design to bring about these welfare gains is not logically licensed. In short, labeling punishment altruistic because it has the effect of delivering benefits to some is inconsistent with centuries of conceptual gains in philosophy, economics, and biology. Understanding the ultimate cause and proximate design of the mechanisms that cause people to punish is likely to be crucial to understanding how punishment might help solve collective action problems.

Suggested Citation

Kurzban, Robert and DeScioli, Peter, Adaptationist Punishment in Humans (March 26, 2009). Context and the Evolution of Mechanisms for Solving Collective Action Problems Paper. Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=1368784 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.1368784

Robert Kurzban (Contact Author)

University of Pennsylvania - Department of Psychology ( email )

3720 Walnut Street
Philadelphia, PA 19104-6196
United States

Peter DeScioli

Chapman University - Economic Science Institute ( email )

One University Dr.
Orange, CA 92866
United States

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