Tag Archives: David Schmidtz

OPR, Ch. 3.7: The Evolution of Rule-Following Punishers

Social cooperation is good—we do better with it than without. But social cooperation depends upon trust—we need to be able to count on others being cooperative and disinclined to cheat, break the rules, take advantage of us, and so on. In the kinds of game-theoretic situations that best model society, cooperation and conformity to useful social rules will form a stable equilibrium provided people possess a strong enough conditional preference for following such rules, i.e., provided they prefer to cooperate with cooperators for its own sake, and provided they prefer for its own sake to follow rules when others follow rules.

Gaus asks, “But how could rational individuals develop an independent ‘preference’ or reason to follow a rule?” (103)  He claims to have shown that individual cannot reason themselves into being devoted to such rules, because such devotion might cause them to follow rules even when doing so does not best promote their values. (I am not convinced by Gaus’s arguments; I’ll say more on this below).  We could just posit that people have a preference for following generally-followed rules, but this is unsatisfying, even if it turns out to be true. (Cf: Some economists explain voter turnout—which seems irrational—by positing that voters just have a preference for voting, much like some people have a preference for playing golf. This is unsatisfying, even if true.)  The preference for conditional rule-following is widespread, so a satisfying account would explain why this is so, rather than leave this as a happy accident of human psychology. To explain this preference, Gaus turns to sociobiology, evolutionary psychology, and related fields.

People do not simply have a preference to cooperate and follow generally-followed social rules. They also have a preference for punishing defectors, even at their personal expense. For an instance, consider the ultimatum game (see here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ultimatum_game). If the second player in the ultimatum game had entirely non-tuistic preferences and were indifferent to social rules, we’d expect her to accept whatever money she gets. But, in fact, the second player tends to reject low offers from the first player, thus losing a potential monetary gain. One common explanation for this behavior, and similar behaviors in related games, is that players prefer to punish bad behavior from other players, even at personal expense. (Some economists might be inclined to say that if a player prefers to punish defectors, then by definition punishing defectors is part of that player’s self-interest. I am assuming everyone here understands why that’s a mistake.) When Gaus turns to evolution to explain our preferences for cooperation, he will also explain why the preference to punish is widespread.

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