The Evolution of Retribution: Intuitions Undermined

Isaac Wiegman
  • Pacific Philosophical Quarterly, July 2015, Wiley
  • DOI: 10.1111/papq.12083

The Evolution of Retribution

What is it about?

I use evolutionary explanations for retribution to debunk certain theories of punishment. The theories I target are based on desert and claim that the justification of punishment does not entirely depend on the consequences of punishment. The problem is with the psychological processes that make these theories seem attractive. If those psychological processes evolved because of their biological consequences (e.g. increased fitness), then they cannot give us good reason to think punishment has value aside from its consequences.

Why is it important?

The argument shows that knowledge about our evolutionary history can inform moral theories. This is a unique form of debunking argument. It uses evolutionary considerations to decide between moral theories (as opposed to metaethical theories). Moreover, it does not fall prey to the most common criticisms of other evolutionary debunking arguments (e.g. in metaethics).


Dr Isaac T Wiegman (Author)
Texas State University San Marcos

This paper contributes to human self-understanding by providing insight into the nature of emotions and the concerns to which they give rise (e.g. concerns to repay insults and to follow through with threats and promises). Emotions are among the motives that most powerfully influence human moral systems and actions in the present. Making their purposes less opaque can empower us to be more reasonable stewards of the future.

The following have contributed to this page: Dr Isaac T Wiegman