One of the positive things about the media frenzy over cases like the Boston Marathon bombing and the Aurora Theater shooting is that these types of cases remind us there are profound mysteries of the human condition that we usually tune out during our everyday lives. What is the nature of good and evil? When are we responsible for our actions and when should we be excused? Why do we blame and punish, and when do we forgive?
These questions are no longer the exclusive domain of religion, law, psychiatry, or philosophy. There is increasing evidence that natural selection built our brains with default settings that not only make us presumptively cooperative and rule-abiding, but also drive us to blame then punish the wrongdoers among us.
Human brains actually come pre-equipped with three levels of punishment. The first is conscience, and its after-the-fact cousin, guilt. One of the biggest reasons I don’t punch people in the nose every time I have a disagreement with them is that I know hitting is wrong. We have internalized evolution’s relentlessly utilitarian deterrent calculations into several prosocial moral intuitions, including “don’t steal” and “don’t break promises.”
But conscience alone was simply not strong enough to restrain enough of our selfish ancestors to prevent anarchy in our small groups. So evolution armed us, as it has armed many other animal species, with a second level of punishment — retaliation. Another reason I don’t hit people during arguments is that I know they will hit me back.
In a species as devilishly clever as we, even conscience and the fear of retaliation were not enough. We needed a third level of punishment to deter our ancient cheaters: third-party punishment. Unlike any other animal species, even our closest primate relatives, all psychiatrically intact humans have a powerful urge to punish wrongdoers even when they are not themselves the victims of the wrong. This third-party urge is of course not as strong as retaliation, and that’s a good thing, otherwise our groups would have deteriorated into an anarchy of busybodies instead of an anarchy of cheaters.
Picture: Jerry Stratton / http://hoboes.com/Mimsy, via Wikimedia Commons