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One of the biggest debates in criminal justice is about the role of punishment. But an important question is where does the desire to punish come from, a desire that seems to be particularly human.
An interesting commentary on this questions comes from Joshua Greene, a professor of social science at Harvard. Greene’s 2013 book, Moral Tribes, is not primarily about criminal justice or punishment. It’s a discussion of the nature of human moral judgment and in large part a defense of a utilitarian or consequentialist approach to these issues. But as part of that larger project, Greene has some trenchant comments on punishment.
Punishment feels right to us
He starts by recognizing that something about punishing people who do things we regard as wrong feels ‘inherently right’. But, he goes on to say, people “have a taste for punishment. This taste, like all tastes, is subtle and complicated, shaped by a complex mix of genetic, cultural, and idiosyncratic factors. But …[it[ is still a taste, implemented by automatic settings and thus limited by its inflexibility.” And thus subject to being fooled, in the same way we fool our taste buds with artificial sweeteners.
Greene recognizes that some intuitive sense of justice is important, indeed necessary, in promoting cooperation among people. “We’re natural punishers because punishment serves a social function.” Many advocates of punishment defend the practice for its deterrent effect. However, if we look at people’s response to specific cases, “it’s clear that they’re not thinking primarily bout deterrence. Rather, punishment is… motivated primarily by feelings of anger, disgust, et cetera. These feelings are triggered by the transgressions themselves and the people who commit them:, not by any deterrent effect.” “When people assign punishments for transgressions, they tend to… punish based solely on how they feel about the transgressions.”
This point is supported by strong evidence that both imprisonment and the death penalty have little if any deterrent effect, a point that Greene does not make but might have. He cites studies that show people’s strong inclination to punish those they see as breaking rules is strongly related to their degree of anger, not to the nature of the wrongdoing itself.
We have a double standard
A consistent theme in Greene’s book is how deferentially we apply our supposed ‘principles’ when they pertain to use or people close to us as opposed to when they pertain to people we don’t know, when we are typically far less compassionate and understanding. He cites studies in which people recognize in the abstract that people who commit wrongs often do so in part because of circumstances that gave them few choices. Yet the same people will support harsh punishments for those same wrongs when presented with specific cases.
“How strange” he concludes “if the true principles of justice just happen to coincide with the feelings produced by” our intuitive sense, “installed in our brain by natural selection to help us stabilize cooperation…”. “Knowing how our brains work and how they got here, it’s more reasonable to suppose that our taste for justice is a useful illusion. We see punishment as inherently worthy and not just a means to better behavior, much as we experience food as inherently tasty and not just a means to nutrition. The enjoyment we get from food is typically harmless [though many would disagree based on, say, the damage caused by intake of excessive sugar or fat], but making people suffer is never harmless. Thus, we should be wary of punishment that tastes good but does more harm than good.”
A further corollary of Greene’s argument, which he does not develop – because this discussion is very much a side issue in his book – is that everyone is subject to this deception; that prosecutors and judges also think that their taste for punishment is about principles of justice, when often it’s about emotional satisfaction.
Joshua Greene. Moral Tribes: Emotion, Reason, and the Gap Between Us and Them. New York: Penguin Pres, 2013.