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Crime, Punishment, and Chimpanzees

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Humans value justice for its own sake.  There is a lot of research showing that people will punish wrongdoers even when they get no personal benefit from doing so, and up to a point even when it costs them to do so.  In this and other aspects of social life, humans are unique among primates.  New research with chimps confirms this.  Monte Morin reports in the LA Times:

Despite being one of the closest living relatives to humans, chimps lack the urge to punish thieves who are caught red-handed, unless they themselves are the victims, according to a study published Tuesday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

In a series of experiments involving 13 furry subjects with names like Frodo, Natascha and Ulla, the animals showed no interest in intervening when they observed a fellow chimpanzee purloining grapes and food pellets from a third chimp.

It was only when a chimp had their own treats stolen that they they got angry and took action - in this case, by opening a trapdoor on the miscreant.

The study, according to lead author Katrin Riedl, a developmental psychologist with the Max Planck Institute of Evolutionary Anthropology, in Leipzig, Germany, suggests that the practice of punishing thievery and crimes committed against others is a uniquely human trait.

"Punishment can help maintain cooperation by deterring free-riding and cheating," wrote study authors. "Of particular importance in large-scale human societies is third-party punishment in which individuals punish a transgressor or norm violator even when they themselves are not affected."

The full paper is available at PNAS.

This difference between humans and other primates is a key theme of a fascinating book, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion by Jonathan Haidt.  The book explores the evolutionary psychological reasons why people see issues of morality (of which crime is a subset) so differently. 

The Stolen Valor Act case is a good example of the differing viewpoints.  Does the First Amendment protect lying about being a decorated war hero?  Lots of people think this is an easy question -- in opposite directions.  It is well established that laws restraining speech in order to protect trademarks are compatible with the First Amendment.  Justice Alito notes, "Surely it was reasonable for Congress to conclude that the goal of preserving the integrity of our country's top military honors is at least as worthy as that of protecting the prestige associated with fancy watches and designer handbags."  For people who place high value on what Haidt refers to as the values of loyalty and sanctity, this is a put-away shot.  Alas, it is the dissent.  The majority finds dispositive the lack of a tangible harm to another person.  The dilution of Gucci's trademark is tangible, while the dilution of the Medal of Honor is not, so trademark law is constitutional while the Stolen Valor Act violates the First Amendment.

1 Comment


With respect to the SVA. It's interesting that Congress, through the UCMJ, can restrict the political speech of military officers (can't use "contemptuous words" about the President, and truth is no defense), but cannot punish people who lie about having received a CMH. Obviously, people choose to be officers, and can maybe be held to have consented to the restriction, but that seems a weak justification, since other First Amendment restrictions cannot be easily imposed on military officers.

Despite my military background, this decision does not stick in my craw quite as much as it does yours, but it is wrong.

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