Sunday, January 05, 2020

The Egoistic Theory of Condemnation.

I read an article yesterday that I found extremely interesting.

Series Introduction

Dill, Brendan and Darwall, Stephen (2014). "Moral Psychology as Accountability" in Moral Psychology and Human Agency (D'Arms, Justin and Jacobson, eds.). Oxford.

In this article, the authors look at several theories of condemnation, discuss the merits and demerits of each, and present a theory of their own.

Readers will know that condemnation plays a central role in desirism. Condemnation is a tool that people employ to act on the reward and punishment pathways of the brain so as to create universally aversions to performing acts of the type being condemned. Condemnation is legitimate when it serves this purpose, and illegitimate when it does not.

Dill and Darwall presented the first systematic account I have come across concerning competing theories of condemnation. So, this gives me a chance to weigh the account that desirism provides to other theories - and a listing of what those theories are.

A part of what makes this interesting is that the article draws heavily on empirical research on the subject . . . and I like empirical research.

I am going to go through a series of posts discussing these theories.

The Egoistic Theory of Condemnation

The egoistic theory states that we condemn others for self-interested reasons. We condemn because it makes us wealthier, improves our reputation, or just because it feels good.

The idea that people condemn for the sake of wealth involves the use of condemnation to get people to contribute to public goods. Public goods have what economists call a "free rider" problem - people can benefit even if they do not contribute to the costs. If a community builds a dike to protect the town from floods, everybody in the town benefits, even if they do not donate to the effort of building the dike. Condemnation is used to get everybody to contribute to the dike, thus profiting those who condemn.

However, as the authors point out, empirical research shows that agents punish other agents even at a cost to themselves. This is shown in various "public goods games" where people will pay to impose costs on a perceived wrongdoer. They sacrifice $20 to impose a $100 cost on a perceived wrongdoer.

They also punish wrongdoers anonymously, which means they forego any advantage of reputation.

And, finally, research shows that punishing others does not improve one's mood. Dill and Darwall report on two studies that examined this hypothesis. These studies report no relationship between willingness to punish and an agent's expectation that doing so will make them feel better.

There is another problem with the "feel better" hypothesis that the authors did not discuss. The "feels good" hypothesis says that we punish people because it pleases us to do so - we enjoy it. Punishing people involves harming them. But it is hard to see how we can justify puishment on the grounds that it feels good to do so. Indeed, harming others for the pure pleasure of doing so seems to be the paradigm example of malevolent evil.

Desirism can be seen as a type of egoistic theory. We condemn people in order to promote, universally, an aversion to performing certain types of actions. We have reasons to promote these aversions on the grounds that actions of that type tend to thwart our desires. In a sense, it is a mistake to call this "egoistic" since the desires that provide our reasons to condemn others can be other-regarding desires. We may be interested in the well-being of people other than ourselves when we condemn liars, thieves, rapists, and murderers. But it still serves our interests - even if some of them are altruistic interests - to do so.

None of the research that Dill and Darwall pointed to discredits this theory. An immediate short-term cost can easily be offset by the larger gain of promoting certain types of aversions universally. It would be hard for an experiment of the type typically used to test this, since promoting certain desires universally will include talking to others about the punishment one has inflicted outside of the experiment. Student subjects promote such aversions by sitting around the cafeteria with their friends talking about how they refused the money to punish the selfish individual, promoting the aversion to selfish activity among that circle of friends.

Of course, anonymous punishment has the effect of promoting certain aversions. Since inflicting punishment involves causing harm, and we have reasons to promote aversions to causing harm, we can expect punishment to "feel bad" at least in the sense that one worries about whether they have inflicted the punishment justly and against somebody who is actually guilty.

So, the desirism theory of condemnation stands up well against the egoistic theory of condemnation.

In the next posting, I will compare desirism to the deterrence theory of condemnation.

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