Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Darkness in the sense of justice

People have an innate sense of justice. Our intuition tells us that if somebody did something wrong, they have to be punished. Notion of karma and such are based in the human tendency to think that there is some cosmic justice. And people who figured out that there is no objective justice, take such justice as an ideal humans should strive for. A just world is what most of us are working towards.

So maybe before we start making decisions based on our sense of justice, it may be good to know where does it come from and whether we should trust it. And of course, as most other intuitions, the sense of justice is a product of natural selection. It is how nature wired our emotions in order to guarantee that we cooperate, enforce social cohesion, and so on. The problem is that nature tends to implement technological trade-offs in her designs, and the things she creates are not perfect. For an easy example, just look up the recurrent laryngeal nerve which connects the brain with the jaw but goes down to the chest for no apparent reason (which is a gross redundancy for a giraffe).

And here is the question I have kept on asking. Should we trust our intuitions? I would say – no. Our intuitions are the animal spirits that the nature equipped us with to deal with much different circumstances than those of today. And even when the circumstances are right, the animal spirits are not guaranteed to be perfect. As anything else designed by natural selection, they are technological trade-offs.

Following our innate sense of justice may lead to sub-optimal design of society, and thus to more suffering that it would be necessary if people behaved rationally. Rationality should be a yardstick against which we should judge how efficiently our instincts help us shape the society. If you want to rationally maximize social welfare, you should consider what are the specific consequences of the decisions you make, rather than follow your intuition. For example, it is reasonable to think that some punishment for crimes is necessary in order to deter people from committing crimes. But if such deterrence cannot be achieved, there is no rational reason to punish a person. Moreover – there may be good reasons to offer the person help in order to make them a better citizen rather than let them learn how to be a hardened criminal during their jail time.

You may cringe at the notion that some crimes should go unpunished. But this feeling is precisely the dark, irrational revenge-seeking sense of justice that was implemented in you by nature. If you want to build a better society, you need to set the feelings aside and perform strict cost-benefit analysis of the decisions you are facing. When you compare outcomes obtained with rationality to outcomes obtained with the human innate sense of justice, it is easy to see the darkness of our animal spirits. 

Further reading

For examples on how people deal with trade-offs between innate sense of justice and pragmatism, see:
Related peer-reviewed papers:

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