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Now a few brief responses to those commentators to whom I have not responded previously.

Chris, I'm not sure whether I understand you. I want to explain (away) a narrow range of intuitive responses. These responses have the phenomenology of affects. Their causes can be factored out (I'm not sure whether these factors enter into their phenomenology; probably not). My claim is that they have a range of causes, some of which we endorse and some of which we shouldn't (just as we may have the intuition with a content that commits us to the conjunction fallacy, say, but should not endorse it). Among the responses we can endorse remain some we can utilise very effectively in ordinary interpersonal contexts, as Derk suggests.

Robert, your intuitions are predicted by the account I am suggesting. So the fact that you (or I) may have them won't count against it. Now I do not mean to suggest by saying that you are irrational if you don't concede. My claim is much more narrow: if you accept naturalism - and my argument succeeds - then your intuitions aren't evidence against me. But there are big metaphilosophical questions on which I am certain we differ and I have given you no reason at all to abandon your metaphilosophical view. That's just not my project. I do think, though, that insofar as you suggest that punishment has a formative function that can't be substituted for by other responses to wrongdoing, the evidence is against you. Most agents respond more to empathy induction. For those for whom it is too late, or lacked the right capacities from the start, nothing works and we must resort to incapacitation.

Chandra, I hope the new post makes it a little clearer why I don't think we can ignore the evolutionary element. I agree that it won't do to identify the function. We are evolved to do lots of things that we should not do (out group distrust is arguably adaptive, in the EEA). The appeal to evolution is supposed not only to identify the function but also shoulder one burden of any error theory: explain why we make the error.

Nick, the evidence I am relying on - I think it wasn't at all clear in my first post - includes extensive modelling and neuroeconomic work on lows stakes interactions: prisoner's dilemmas, the ultimatum game, the dictator game, and so forth. There we see a tendency to punish, which improves outcomes relative to not punishing, but under a range of conditions doesn't do as well as forgiving strategies. I think these games model ordinary social interaction better than they model high stakes criminality.

Hi Neil, I have enjoyed all the discussions so far and thought I would toss in.

Assuming that our specific reactions to social situations come from cultural shaping of natural emotions, one of the biggest things that we are incapable of reflecting on is what is natural. Disgust may be natural, but the feeling of disgust by any individual to pretty much any situation depends upon the environmental history (the mortician feels less disgust than us non-morticians in the same situation, probably not strictly because of his genes). The same is true as regards feelings of moral disgust and thus also true, in the end, for the channeling of any particular reactive attitude. I recently enjoyed Jesse Prinz’s on Beyond Human Nature, that I think shares some of these stances.

What I argue is important is simply the understanding of what our self is, the interplay between nature and cultural structures. When we are encouraging people to blindly reproduce the social norms and thus the internalized feelings that surround those social norms, we are encouraging non-reflection of the structures of the self, the interplay between institutions and the self and also the socialization/education practices that go into the shaping and channeling of those reactive attitudes in the first place, into who your self is and why it that way.

In the end, that will mean a lack of ability to reflect on what are the best social policies towards punishment and reward and in fulfilling emotional needs and desires of others. Though, in the meantime, given that the Boston victims’ emotions derive from our particular culture, it is perfectly fine to say that they need certain interactions but just that these do not directly stem from nature. In a culture where we have all accepted hard determinism and moral nonrealism, etc., and thus have very different beliefs and emotional responses to perceived situations, these victims would require different responses, perhaps their desire for revenge would more quickly succumb to calls for a more judicial response.

If the Boston example is too emotional to be dealt with, Sommers’s example of the appropriate reaction and behavior towards a stranger, a good Samaritan, who has returned your lost wallet full of money, may be easier to handle. The question is still whether, as a hard incompatibilist or skeptic, what should the reaction to this stranger be? Should we reproduce the normalized and expected show of gratitude, or is there some more useful way to use social situations to probe into our selves, including the structuring of who we are by social discourses and social interactions. On a personal level, I would probably argue that it makes life easier to simply give the “cheery thanks,” though I do not think we need to justify a should here, that one “should” respond in this and this way, thus reinforcing social norms through emotional structures that have been tinged by such expected norms. Instead, I would argue that it is with friends, family, and allies and in our discourses of such things (for instance when we are discussing laws, philosophy, psychology, other social structures and institutions) that we should most determinedly don the determinist hat, so to speak, and explore the dance between social institutions, norms, and socialization/education that go into the creating of our selves.

The determinists here can reflect on brain structures, but it is probably just as important to stick within a broader level: “my anger to the murder does not reflect the determinist structure, the luck, of genes and environment that played through the life of that murderer; and that anger will not help us build a better society and better social interactions, which means there will be fewer murderers.”

Some compatibilist and those who see importance in reactive attitudes and the given social structures may argue that that “anger” is exactly what discourages other people from murdering, that responsive anger is a glue put in by evolution that helps maintain social cohesiveness and to write appropriate laws. But given what we said above, including our inability to reflect on our selves, on the dance between nature and nurture, and many other reasons that we can give, I would argue that we have good reasons to think we can reorganize social institutions and our selves, that we can change the institutions that we believe are grounded by our immediate emotions and intuitions, and that further reactions will be shaped and reshaped by our reflected beliefs and by different socialization/education practices, by different normalizing processes.


Yet another great post. Thanks again for agreeing to play along. That said, I wanted to float a few suggestions that might strengthen your case (assuming the things I say are plausible, of course).

First, we should distinguish what might be called our retributive impulses and emotions from our retributive beliefs and theories about desert, free will, responsibility, etc. The former are presumably phylogenetically far older than the latter and there is no reason to lump them together and good reason, from the standpoint of evolutionary psychology and conceptual clarity to treat them as separate albeit related. On this view, one could even treat the retributive beliefs and theories as justifications (or perhaps post-hoc rationalizations) of the older retributive emotions.

Second, once we distinguish retributive impulses or emotions and retributive beliefs, we can also look at the history of the criminal law for evidence of how the latter slowly changed through the ages (while our impulses and emotions have arguably remained largely the same). Not long ago (especially in evolutionary terms!) courts didn't pay much attention to mental states. Most early systems of criminal and civil law focused either exclusively or primarily on the consequences of the defendant's actions not his mental states at the time of the offense. The transition from strict liability to twin accounts involving mens rea and actus reus arose late on the scene. These changes were overtly being driven by theological and metaphysical concerns. I say all this just to point out that most of our retributive beliefs about free will, desert, etc. came onto the scene too recently to play any useful role in the evolutionary story you're telling. So, at least the evolutionary component should focus more on the emotions rather than the beliefs.

Finally, I wanted to see what you think about the suggestion that the retributive impulses--while very adaptive in the kinds of small communities our ancestors inhabited where everyone knew everyone else--may now be maladaptive in the modern world many of us inhabit. After all, our world is a world of strangers. People come into and out of our lives on a daily basis without our knowing anything about their family, their friends, their history. The retributive impulses (which, I would argue, are personal) were insufficient for regulating our behavior in the large scale and largely impersonal societies we started finding ourselves in. So, one common cultural solution to the problem has been to turn people away from personal justice to the impersonal justice of the criminal law.

If something like this latter claim is defensible, then one might suggest that we took a wrong turn in developing (mistaken?) metaphysical, theological, moral, and legal, accounts of retribution and desert in our attempts to justify emotions that may no longer be adaptive. We nevertheless were right to realize that a system of criminal laws which can be used to enforce social norms plays an indispensable role in promoting prosocial behavior by punishing antisocial behavior.

As a result, we may have been inadvertently cultivating the wrong feelings--especially during the past few centuries. Perhaps, as you suggest, the focus should have been on the twin rebuilding powers of forgiveness and restitution rather than the dangerously narrow focus on making sure wrong doer's suffer for suffering's sake. But, at least since the 1970s, the retributivists have largely won the hearts and minds of the public, the academy, the courts, and the legislators (especially here in the US). The results have been predictable. A quick comparison of the American experiment with crime and punishment and the approaches adopted by our European counterparts makes it clear which approach seems to produce better results. But that is a story for another day.

I wish I could jump into the fascinating fray, but I'm traveling til end of month (so sorry to be mostly offline until I'm up next month). I will say that the issues you raise, Neil, seem to nicely set up specific (but difficult) empirical questions whose answers would be crucial to addressing some of the philosophical debates we have here at Flickers.

For those of you who can't get enough of Neil here, you can find him promiscuously posting at other blogs (and he puts out good stuff there too ;-)

Neil--excellent post--and to chime in with themes I posted earlier and those above by Lyndon and Thomas--if emotional sources of retribution-attitudes have been selected for, and yet more reflective resources of later genetic/cultural evolution have the potential to modify them, what values guide the potential modification, and why are they right/preferable, especially given the divergence people might have due to different cultural evaluations of what are proper values? You've allowed a partial overlap of a non-naturalistic view as Robert's with what seems on the "right" track--but what exactly about the facts of evolved tracking of mental and action components of blame determines what's "right"? Seems that something purely cultural/rational/reflective is involved in the determination of the value of the role that reasons might play in judging or modifying evolved emotionally-based blame-behavior. Calling something "pro-social" (e.g.) contains normative content--even if only relative to the survival of the species, and even if partly emotionally based as part of a selective process.

What seems to me to be central is isolating the source and nature of norms in both long-term biologically evolved and more recently evolved cultural contexts. "Norms" in a purely biological sense might be parsed in terms of empirical success in survival--still a normative term as opposed to failure in extinction--as referring to what behavioral interactions were selected for relative to the survival of a species. But "norms" in a cultural sense as cognitively and thus behaviorally significant are part of the very process itself--involving emotional and belief attitudes that play a big role in what constitutes selection, and the effects of which may not still be apparent in terms of survival norms (due to their recent emergence of importance).

Maybe we should talk of *adaptive/selective* norms in terms of evolutionary consequences of success and failure that have a large enough time scale of evaluation to make such declarations, and reserve *cognitively operative* norms to refer to mental-state emotions/beliefs/attitudes that culturally/socially affect selection even if --as Thomas points out--the effect of such factors is currently obscure in terms of our reliable assessment about adaptive/selective norms related to survival. Because such operative norms have cognitive content—and are subject to at least some possible further reasoned norms about what they might accomplish in terms of possible objective consequences—then at least those consequences can be evaluated on that basis. Of course this account just kicks the can of evaluation down the naturalistic road as to what properly constitutes valued and thus desirable consequences. But at least it does not impose any a priori evaluation of what constitutes right/desirable/valued cognitively operative norms by imposing some grandiose axiological superstructure upon evolutionary accounts. So, this distinction favors only forward-looking questions about what finally is valued about our cognitively operative norms, and relegates other questions about the evolutionary sources of our behavior to matters of adaptive/selective norms.

I don’t think I’ve said anything really earth-shaking here; really I just wish to restate the big picture of Neil’s view so that I might understand it more clearly (if I do; and I wish correction if I'm really off-base). I just want to say that within naturalism we do need to distinguish between adaptive/selective norms and cognitively operative norms, and that the former are backward looking and more objective in character, while the latter are more forward-looking and subjective in character (subject to some constraints of reason).

Alan, I don't think I was clear enough - partly for reasons of space - in what I was trying to achieve. I want to distinguish my project here from Street-style evolutionary debunking arguments. I am assuming that some kind of vindication of morality as a whole can be given (I have rather clumsily given an argument for that view elsewhere). I am also trying to avoid what I regard as a rather crass reading off of norms from evolution. Lots of things are plausibly adaptive and also immoral - outgroup hostility, for instance. I think that my argument differs from both Street's and from a Spencer-style social darwinism in that it offers a reason for resolving a tension *internal* to morality in a particular way. We are torn by cases like Robert Harris (and moral luck cases too). I am throwing an extra ingredient into the reflective equilibrium mix, not trying to step outside of the ambit of moral philosophy as it is practiced. Because there is a tension internal to morality, and (assumption) where there is a tension we need good reasons to leave it unresolved, and because there are reasons to think some of the causes of the tension are more reliable than others, we ought to resolve the tension in one way rather than live with it.

There are two strands in the argument: 1. We ought to respond to the agent's quality of will and not the results of their action. 2. We ought to respond in a forwards-looking way only. I think the answer for 1 is stronger than that for 2 (but I'm working on it). It is quite possible, moreover, to accept 1 and not 2.

Lyndon and Thomas give two somewhat conflicting responses, both of which I'm sympathetic to! Lyndon stresses the role of cultural forces in shaping emotions. Thomas thinks that it is more likely that cultural forces have shaped by our theories than our emotions (one way to read the x-phi work on FW is as showing that we have libertarian theories and compatibilist intuitions. Of course that's controversial). I don't want to commit to which is more likely. I do want to stress that we should not assume that because an emotional response is adaptive and we continue to have it as a result of this fact, we are stuck with it. As Richard Dawkins noted long ago, the fact that some trait has proven resistant to change so far does not entail that it will always be hard to change: we just may not have hit on an easy way to eliminate it (perhaps some tweak of social structure will eliminate retributive emotions).

On the mismatch point, Thomas, I think we can distinguish two points at which current responses are out of sync with modern reality. One is the one Cushman emphasises: we have certain responses because these responses fitted with the learning mechanisms of our primate ancestors. The mismatch here is between the learning capacities of human beings and these responses. The second is the one you note: a mismatch (say due to changes in social structure) between our contemporary life and the mechanisms suited for life in the pleistocene. Less work has been done on that mismatch, but I agree with you that it is worth investigating further.

Thanks for the clarifications Neil. Actually I had read you in the OP as reversing your above-stated emphasis on 1 over 2--arguing that forward-looking forms of punishment supersede considerations about 1. But given your recent work and forthcoming book on consciousness as a necessary condition of responsibility what you say makes more sense to me now. You are just being careful--and more careful than I--as usual

My point about the two norms was formed to be compatible with what you say, and in the big picture I *think* still is. When we try and read off evolutionary data something as successful, we're still making a value judgement on that. (I know we have to use something like evaluative language in comparing evolutionary scenarios: x was "better adapted" to changing niches than y. Maybe we could, following your lead elsewhere, simply say that x was "luckier" in terms of survival than y?) On the other hand value judgments about more recently appearing cognitive factors in evolution, while partially assessable in success terms, much more contentiously manifest norms that are useful in resolving questions of responsibility, and--I think--give themselves over more "naturally" to forward-looking analyses.

Thanks again for the response and this great challenge.


As an Aristotelian I would have gotten off the train a stop or 2 before Naturalism station.

'Empathy induction' backed by the threat of punishment should the required changes fail to occur or an open ended commitment to 2nd chances? Don't you think that the former might lend the necessary sense of urgency to the project of learning to comply with the law? In my experience undisciplined children actually suffer for not having been straightened out by their fathers (or mothers if need be). Corporal punishment, if applied out of concern, far from having a deleterious effect upon their psyches, reveals the depths of their parents' love. A child KNOWS when he deserves it and would think something amiss if dad were to simply let him off with a warning. But putting that practical matter aside, there is still the even more important question of justice and moral rehabilitation, neither of which is possible sans punishment, a point, as I've said before, beautifully expressed by Dostoevsky in the denouement of Crime and Punishment. The convicted criminal must pay his debt to society in order to repair his relationship to his fellow men as well as make himself whole, imperatives that go hand in hand.

Thanks for all your responses and the rest of your diligent, thought provoking philosophical labor this month.

Alan, you write "this distinction favors only forward-looking questions about what finally is valued about our cognitively operative norms." But surely it's an open possibility that the best-performing norms include a heavy dose of backward-looking considerations?

Paul, conceded point and chastised. Even if we adopt sociobiological explanation of the cultural development of norms, which might well favor "teleological" norms, clearly atavistic ones might survive, as biological analogues (panda canines, human sinus drainage, etc.) show. Seems that should be true no less for cultural evolution than biological.

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