Natural cultural relativists?

When given the same ability to punish anyone, cooperative people want to punish members of groups they identify with more than they do outsiders, while less cooperative people want to punish outsiders more. From the Journal of Evolution and Human Behavior:

One of the most critical features of human society is the pervasiveness of cooperation in social and economic exchanges. Moreover, social scientists have found overwhelming evidence that such cooperative behavior is likely to be directed toward in-group members. We propose that the group-based nature of cooperation includes punishment behavior. Punishment behavior is used to maintain cooperation within systems of social exchange and, thus, is directed towards members of an exchange system. Because social exchanges often take place within groups, we predict that punishment behavior is used to maintain cooperation in the punisher’s group. Specifically, punishment behavior is directed toward in-group members who are found to be noncooperators. To examine this, we conducted a gift-giving game experiment with third-party punishment. The results of the experiment (N=90) support the following hypothesis: Participants who are cooperative in a gift-giving game punish noncooperative in-group members more severely than they punish noncooperative out-group members.

..[W]e predict that … punishment behavior is directed toward in-group members who are found to be noncooperators. To examine this, we conducted a gift-giving game experiment with third-party punishment. The results of the experiment (N=90) support the following hypothesis: Participants who are cooperative in a gift-giving game punish noncooperative in-group members more severely than they punish noncooperative out-group members.

The researchers’ conclusion is that punishment is just an extension of cooperation, and so applies in the same areas. They were not expecting, and haven’t got a good explanation for, uncooperative people’s interest in specifically punishing outsiders.

This provides a potential explanation for something I was wondering about. Middle class people often seem to talk about poor people and people from other cultures in terms of their actions being caused by bad external influences, in contrast to the language of free will and responsibility for their own kind. Discussion of Aboriginals in Australia regularly exemplifies this. e.g. SMH:

More than half the Aboriginal male inmates in prison for violent crimes are suffering from post traumatic stress disorder, an academic says.

And without effective intervention, the “stressors” for the disorder will be passed on to other generations, perpetuating the cycles of crime.

Dr Caroline Atkinson said most violent inmates had suffered from some form of family violence, alcohol and drug use, as well as profound grief and loss…

“It was a confronting experience being inside a cell with someone who has committed murder, but I quickly realised they are the ones with the answers and they had such amazing insight,” she said.

This is quite unlike news coverage I have seen of middle class white murderers. When we see faults as caused by external factors rather than free will or personal error, we aren’t motivated to punish. Is the common practice of coolly blaming circumstance when we talk about situations like violence in Aboriginal communities because the good, cooperative people who write about these things don’t identify with the groups they are talking about?

On a side note, is our ‘widening moral circle’ linked to greater desire to reform other cultures?

4 responses to “Natural cultural relativists?

  1. Seems we should take our willingness to blame others for their actions as indicating we consider them “in” our social world; being willing to “help” them need not mean we include them in our circle. By this measure it is not clear our circle is in fact getting wider.

  2. If you don’t condemn people like you, then you’re admitting you don’t have free will (which we are very averse to doing). The less they are like you, the less agency you can ascribe to them without it seeming to diminish your agency. I bet this happens across age groups too – kids and old people aren’t in control of their choices, etc.

    Perhaps the further something is from us in general the less we need to commit the http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fundamental_attribution_error.

    A bit unrelated but interesting:

    http://experimentalphilosophy.typepad.com/experimental_philosophy/2009/10/are-people-actually-moral-objectivists.html

    The more different someone is from you the less you feel they have to obey your moral rules.

  3. Interesting. But the lower classes are quick to judge and condemn the upper classes. Why is that?

    If the pattern held true in general, defense lawyers would want to select jurors who didn’t resemble their client.

  4. Phil Goetz, Alex Tabarrok has done some research on whether “the Bronx jury redistributes wealth”. AEI has a video of a discussion of the issue. One of his findings is that out-of-state corporations receive stiffer penalties than in-state ones.

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