Punishment and Reciprocity

[Thought occurring to me in class today.]

We humans have two conflicting intuitions and impulses. One is to reciprocate. One good turn deserves another. The other is to punish those we feel have wronged us. To do that, instead of merely an eye for eye, we take one eye and add an ear. You punch me and I punch you back harder to teach you a lesson.

We go from, “Hey, no fair! Why did you hit me? I didn’t do anything.” To, “I will now hit you harder than reciprocity would demand and require, to punish you.” As soon as we ourselves are the recipient of such an over-the-top response, we take umbrage and vow our revenge. We flip from fairness, to punishment, back to fairness, and so on. Each time we take one of the perspectival stances we are sure we are in the right. But, when the shoe is on the other foot, we are convinced the other person is being entirely unreasonable. One minute we are the dear friend and ally of fairness and reciprocity, and the next we are abrogating our principles to get retribution. In the process, we up the ante. Perhaps we could call it “Revenge +.”

The Ultimatum Game demonstrates both tendencies but without the upping the ante aspect. One person is given $100 but can only keep it if another person accepts his offer of a portion of the money. If the other person does not think the offer is “fair,” even though any amount of money would be technically be better than nothing, he will punish the other person by refusing the offer. Of course, he punishes himself in the process by getting nothing either. Unsympathetically, this could be described as cutting off your nose to spite your face. More sympathetically, it could be described as a human need to police antisocial displays of greed in the interests of communal harmony. “Excuse me, buddy. We don’t behave like that around here.”

6 thoughts on “Punishment and Reciprocity

  1. “You punch me and I punch you back harder to teach you a lesson.”

    Because, besides reciprocity, there is a penal element. The striker is being punished, not just for the harm inflicted but for his wrong-doing and the person struck has not been merely hurt, but affronted.

    Zacchaeus, one recalls, promised four-fold restitution to anyone he had wronged (Lk 19:8). This, by-the-by, comes from the Roman, not the Mosaic law and was the penalty for manifest theft. quadrupli competere actionem, si manifestum furtum sit. [An action for quadruple damages will lie, if the theft is manifest]. – Digest 47.2.46. 2 Ulpianus libro 42 ad Sabinum].

    • Yes. That makes sense. If the affront is punished “publicly” the miscreant has no opportunity to likewise punish his sense of being affronted in turn.

      • A wrongdoer who is beaten for attacking another cannot reasonably regard his punishment as an insult or as an affront to his honour or dignity, precisely because he cannot regard it as unmerited. Rather, he has disgraced himself.

        It is qualitatively different to an unprovoked attack. Thus, a great Scottish judge, Lord Meadowbank, significantly described a slap in the face as “the sort of affront that no gentleman shows another, unless he is prepared to venture his life on the issue.”

      • People often regard themselves as the innocent party and blame the other person for the dispute. The “punished” person usually wants revenge too – hence, never-ending feuds.


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