Scientific Proof That Humans Enjoy Punishing Wrongdoers: The Implications for Punishment and Sentencing

Article excerpt


Recent developments in brain science confirm that as a race we are in fact a punitive lot. Human beings actually derive pleasure from inflicting punishment on wrongdoers. We are wired in such a way that the part of our brain that reports pleasure is activated when we punish norm violators. This is even when punishment has no tangible or demonstrable benefits. However, we are not slaves lo our emotions. Another region of our brain 'kicks-in ' f punishment becomes self-defeating, in that it conflicts with our other interests. The implications of this research for punishment theory and the practice of sentencing are discussed in this paper. The findings give qualified support to the theory known as intrinsic retributivism, but do not suggest it is the soundest theory of punishment. This is because we stop punishing when it comes at a cost to us. The good feelings that punishment invokes in punishers is another consequential consideration in &our of the utilitarian theory of punishment. However, it is not clear that the utilitarian calculus is necessarily affected by the findings. The main implication of the research findings relates to the relevance of public opinion to sentencing practice. The findings support the view that public sentiment. which seems to support increasingly tougher sanctions, can be curtailed if the public are informed that punishment comes of a cost to community.

1 Introduction

Philosophers, criminologists and lawyers have for hundreds of years attempted to explain the link between wrongdoing and punishment. Across all cultures and all times the human species has punished wrongdoers. There seems to be a natural connection between crime and punishment. Despite this there is still a need to justify the link.

This is because punishment consists of the deliberate infliction of hardship on a wrongdoer. The infliction of any pain on another person requires a justification, not merely a description or explanation of the process of punishment if the practice is to be legitimized. This is certainly the standard approach that has been taken by commentators over the centuries in relation to the issue of state imposed punishment. This has resulted in a flood of different theories of punishment. In terns of broad categories these fall into what have loosely been described retributive or utilitarian theories. There are also a number of hybrid theories.

New empirical research into the way human beings are wired sheds new light on the link between crime and punishment. It shows that as a species we are actually a punitive bunch. We derive satisfaction from punishing wrongdoers, even when this has no positive benefits to us. This threatens to make irrelevant centuries of armchair speculation regarding the presence and basis of the link between punishment and wrongdoing. At the minimum, it has significant ramifications for the development of sentencing policy.

In the next part of the paper I outline the results of a recent study which provides a psychological explanation about why we punish wrongdoers. In part three, 1 provide a brief overview of the main theories of punishment. I discuss the relevance of the study to the normative analysis of punishment in part four. Part five looks at the implications of the new study for the main theories of punishment and the practice of sentencing. It is suggested that the results of the study demonstrate that public opinion can be excluded from the development of sentencing law and policy.

2 The Pleasure We Derive From Punishing Wrongdoers: A Scientific Analysis

2.1 Overview of results study

An empirical study by Swiss based scientists published in a recent edition of Science suggests that humans are wired in such a way that we derive pleasure from punishing wrongdoers. (1) This is even so where there are no benefits stemming from the punishment to the punisher. The study is part of recent attempts in 'neuroeconomics' and the 'cognitive neuroscience of social behavior' to understand the social brain and the associated moral emotions

The study found that 'most people seem to feel bad if they observe that norm violations are not punished, and they seem to feel relief and satisfaction if justice is established'. …


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