If an alpha chimpanzee catches another chimp stealing his food or messing with his mate, he will put a beating into him. Status and all its perks are a natural part of primate genetics and behavior. (Bonobos are slightly different but we’ll leave them for another day.)

However, if a chimp sees one of his tribe mates commit such nefarious acts, he or she does nothing. No screaming, no pointing of fingers, no demands for justice and retribution for crimes committed. Chimps are a bit like anarchists that way.

Third party retribution is a critical advance in the development of human social groups and has played a vital role at supporting social cooperation within groups. Without the willingness of people to watch and snitch on each other, social cooperation is very difficult.

That’s because a certain percentage of people are either free riders – willing to benefit from social cooperation without putting in any effort themselves – or outright cheats – willing to steal from others for their own benefit. If one person is cheating, then pretty soon people say: well, why should I slave away when that one isn’t doing anything? The enterprise falls apart.

But if you know that everyone in the group is prepared to play policeman, there is a real disincentive (punishment, exile, shaming, etc.) to cheat. It doesn’t stop it but it keeps it at a manageable level.

It is from this that everything we call civilization stems (yes, another grandiose generalization but go with me). All codes, systems of laws, moral structures are built on two basic pillars: the ability to formulate, articulate and agree on rules for social behavior and the willingness of people to collectively enforce them for the greater common good. While individually you may benefit from cheating (in fact, you almost always benefit), everyone is on average better off if nobody cheats. By making the consequences of cheating high enough, individual incentives switch.

The problem is that these same desires for retribution, the willingness to punish perceived transgressors, is also pretty much at the root of many of the world’s problems. After all, most conflicts occur between various tribes over issues of who gets to benefit from resources or territories. Gradually, feuds between bigger and bigger groups arise as the urge to punish overrides the rational benefits of cooperation.

The solution, of course, are ever more elaborate and complex and universal systems of laws and mechanisms for enforcing them. In doing so, we always have to strike a balance. Make the systems too harsh and pretty soon revolutions are being fomented. Too lax and everyone starts cheating and social order breaks down.

So we need a Goldilocks world, where everyone feels there is justice and no-one feels the need for personal vengeance.

We’re not there yet. But I’m still hopeful.

And that’s ten minutes.


3 thoughts on “Retribution

  1. I was with you up to “By making the consequences of cheating high enough, individual incentives switch.” The belief that harsher consequences drive down crime (i.e., cheating) has been used to justify capital punishment, three strikes laws, removing the possibility of parole, and mandatory sentences. Evidence for this theory is lacking; there are plenty of murders in states with capital punishment.

    What *can* drive down crime is not the consequence, but the *likelihood* of being caught. Most criminals do not believe they will be caught, so punishment is moot. But if a community works together and looks out for each other, as you propose, the chances of being caught and held accountable increase and thus reducing the incentive of a potential crime.


    • I agree with respect to crime — most of it operates on a instinctual level. Make someone think about it (i.e. consider consequences) and you do reduce the likelihood of them committing it in the first place. However, punishment per se is indeed ineffective.

      However, it is disincentives to cheat that I am concerned about. As you say — keeping an eye out is more effective at preventing crime than any form of after the fact punishment. It also, maybe more importantly, provides positive incentives to participate in the social contract.


  2. I agree with you, Hayden; however, there is a fine line in my view between “keeping an eye out” to prevent crime, and instituting Big Brother. This is where rational civic discourse on what values we share, and what we agree should be paramount (such as democratic values) is key in steering the overall discussion. When paranoiacs or the Autocratic Right come to the fore, we see what’s happening right now…


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