The Puzzle of Altruistic Punitiveness

Let’s suppose that that a jerk does something that, while not criminal, is extremely inconsiderate and mean to me. There is only a slim possibility that I will prevail in a civil suit. Oddly I pursue the civil suit anyway. Am I crazy, stupid, or justified? One thing’s for sure, I’m in good company. Real life and laboratory experimental evidence reveal this again and again: many individuals will seek to impose some cost on the jerk despite a significant cost to themselves.

Because classical deterrence theory depends on the notion that people are rational actors who maximize their selfish returns, the practice seems odd. This is, from a deterrence perspective, a puzzling case of altruistic punitiveness. I punish the jerk at my own expense, and the deterrent benefits generated by my costly punitive action accrue largely to others.


There are, of course, a number of possible explanations for this:

1. I’m not trying to maximize my return – I’m “irrational”.

2. I’m just bad at maximizing my return – I have “bounded rationality,” a polite term for faulty rationality or stupidity.

3. In addition to valuing money and tangible goods, I value social meaning – I am a “social meaning evaluator”.

Of the three, the latter two are best supported by the evidence we have of behavior and cognition in the population at large (clearly, though, in my case, the former is also well documented). There are numerous empirical studies indicating that individuals are error-prone when calculating their expected monetary returns. We also have many accounts of individuals who, when asked why they pursue costly law suits, say “to prove a point” or “to get justice” or provide some other answer that suggests they are evaluating something other than money that is of value to them.

Moreover, the puzzle of altruistic punitiveness is really just a specific instance of a much broader phenomenon. Individuals often engage in behaviors that appear to be irrational, but which turn out to be faulty attempts at achieve rational ends or near-perfect attempts at maximizing their “social meaning utility”.

Teasing apart the “bounded rationality” and “social meaning evaluator” explanations is quite difficult, but essential to sound public policy. If people are simply making costly errors, then we should try to discourage them and correct for those errors. But if they are maximizing some value other than wealth, things become far more complicated and the policy response much more difficult to gauge.

I’ll post more on this “teasing apart” problem in future entries. But in this post I just want to note that while our understanding of the second explanation – bounded rationality – is highly developed, our understanding of the third explanation is really still in its infancy. Over the course of the next month, I want to explore research into this third explanation, and would be delighted to hear of any existing or ongoing research that you know of in this area.

Notice, though, that the third explanation also removes the distinction between selfish and altruistic behavior, solving the puzzle — or better yet, making it disappear.

In my next post I’ll discuss why the most common approximation of the third explanation, retributivism, leaves me unsatisfied.

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4 Responses

  1. Cathy says:

    I wonder if there’s not also a fourth possible explanation. Along the lines of explanation #3, in that the perceived value to be gained through retribution is not measured in money, it seems another rational reason is the perceived psychological gain that can come from taking these steps. This is like reason #3 except that there the derived non-monetary benefit will be distributed externally to others, whereas with this approach the perceived gains are internal. Things like reestablishing personal honor and esteem, healing the psychic wound the transgression caused (e.g., if it made you feel small then this will help you re-establish your self image), making yourself feel whole, etc.

  2. Vic says:

    For #3, cf. Charney vs. Sullivan & Cromwell. As Scott M. has pointed out, Charney hasn’t managed things well from the point of view of maximizing wealth or, arguably, personal utility. He could have settled things quietly for a handsome amount, I suspect. But his PR strategy suspects that’s not the point – he’s trying to make things better for others.

  3. I couldn’t agree more. One kind of social meaning that emerges from the theoretical work of Jean Hampton and some exciting empirical research being conducted by Kenworthy Bilz) relates to social status. I suspect that being made “whole” depends, in large part, on having official recognition that one was wronged and that the jerk is, well, a jerk. Notice, too, that on this account the distinction between selfishness and altruism disappears and the puzzle is solved. Which is what I meant to add (and will add now) at the end of the post.

  4. Frank says:

    I think Robert Frank’s What Price the Moral High Ground is a splendid synthesis of econ and evolutionary bio re these types of explanation.

    But for #3: isn’t this a version of “value-rationality” or in the Weberian typology of motivations for actions? there’s a little more explanation here:

    “Weber’s works started the antipositivistic revolution in social sciences, which stressed the difference between the social sciences and natural sciences, especially due to human social actions (which Weber differentiated into traditional, affectional, value-rational and instrumental.”

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Max_Weber

    I would think there’d be a good vein of work explicating the “value-rational” (or wertrational) as opposed to the instrumentally rational (or zweckrational).