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Even Babies Think Crime Deserves Punishment

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Stephanie Pappas reports at LiveScience, "Babies as young as 8 months want to see wrongdoers punished, a new study finds."

A recurring philosophical debate among criminal law theorists involves retribution versus utilitarianism.  Do we punish people to achieve practical goals such as deterrence or rehabilitation, or do we punish because the slimeball just plain deserves it?  (Among my friends in academia, Robert Blecker is the chief retributivist, while Doug Berman is more of a utilitarian.)

The belief that punishment for wrongdoing is right in itself, regardless of whether it produces any practical benefit, is a deep-seated one.
One of my favorite psychological experiments is the "ultimatum game."  The researcher takes real money, enough that it matters to the two participants, and lets one of them divide it however he chooses between them.  The other participant can accept the division and take his alloted share or reject it, in which case neither gets anything.  From a purely utilitarian point of view, it is always in the second participant's interest to accept if he is allotted anything at all.  Yet when the imbalance gets down around 2-to-1, many will reject it.  They just can't let the s.o.b. get away with the unfair division, even if it costs them real money.

The new study adds some insight into just how deep this belief goes, based on how early in life people want to see wrongdoers punished.

The study is: J. Kiley Hamlin, Karen Wynn, Paul Bloom, and Neha Mahajan, How infants and toddlers react to antisocial others, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Published online before print November 28, 2011, doi: 10.1073/pnas.1110306108.  Here is the abstract:

Although adults generally prefer helpful behaviors and those who perform them, there are situations (in particular, when the target of an action is disliked) in which overt antisocial acts are seen as appropriate, and those who perform them are viewed positively. The current studies explore the developmental origins of this capacity for selective social evaluation. We find that although 5-mo-old infants uniformly prefer individuals who act positively toward others regardless of the status of the target, 8-mo-old infants selectively prefer characters who act positively toward prosocial individuals and characters who act negatively toward antisocial individuals. Additionally, young toddlers direct positive behaviors toward prosocial others and negative behaviors toward antisocial others. These findings constitute evidence that the nuanced social judgments and actions readily observable in human adults have their foundations in early developing cognitive mechanisms.

3 Comments

So what you're saying is that babies are smarter than certain federal judges?

Great topic.

Men have been "endowed by their Creator" with a conscious, and a moral "law written in their heart" {cf. Rom 1:14-15}.

Therefore, from ancient Sumerians to modern Sumatrans, peoples have historically recognized the evil of killing the innocent, adultery as they see it, theft, irreverence, dishonor, and the like.

--Adamakis

Check that. Romans 2:14-15

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