Intuitive Justice


Salon, Daniel Sznycer (and Carlton Patrick), 2 Nov 2022: Intuitions about justice are a consistent part of human nature across cultures and millennia

Subtitled: “Two professors explain that a moral compass — which appraises right and wrong — is intrinsic to being human”

“Thou shalt not kill” may be the most recognizable moral prohibition in societies around the world.

But where does your sense of justice come from?

Throughout history, justice and laws about wrongdoing have been attributed to one god or another. More recently, justice has been traced to moral truths that can be discovered by judges and other legal experts, and to social norms that vary across cultures.

However, our research instead suggests that the human sense of justice, and criminal laws, is generated by the human brain.

Put simply: Being human makes you a decent lawmaker even if you’ve never stepped foot in law school. To an important extent, criminal laws appear to be the end products of gut feelings about justice that are a part of human nature.

This is not new, expect perhaps in particulars. The idea that aspects of human have *evolved*, just as much as any other part of the human brain has evolved, has been widely discussed in popular books at least since E.O. Wilson’s On Human Nature, through several books by Steven Pinker, and more recently in any number of books about human biases and cognitive errors.

The human sense of justice evolved because otherwise humans could not exist in large groups together. Put another way, only humans who developed a similar sense of justice — of fairness toward one another, of reciprocal altruism, of cooperation, and so on — were able to construct large societies. Those who did not became renegades who were unable to cooperate with others sufficiently to pass on their genes. Crudely speaking.


As I’ve put it before: you don’t need to consult a list of rules to know the contours of right and wrong. The sense of justice came first; the lists of rules much later. To imagine lists are the ultimate authority, that without them people would be moral anarchists, is childish.

Amended Fri 4nov22:

Of course there are various drivers of intuitive morality, others than a sense of justice and cooperation. The biggest is likely the in-group/out-group dynamic, springing from the very ancient rivalry of tribes for resources or dominance. Ideas of justice and cooperation apply *within* one’s in-group, but not without: those in the out-groups are barbarians, infidels, heathens, or “those who want to destroy America” in MAGA terminology.

Thus Christians, and the Hebrews before them and the Jews today, have no trouble defending the primacy of the 10 Commandments, while cheerfully waging war on the *others*, the out-groups whom, for example in the OT, their God told them to kill. The in/out dynamic is there in the first commandment, which presumes that those other tribes have their own gods.

And now in America we have MAGA — and equivalent groups in other societies, like Brazil and France — who want to “retake” their nations for the traditional in-groups and demonize, banish, or even kill those who threaten those old ways. MAGA is all about returning to a 1950’s style dominance of American life by white, Christian, heterosexuals, where the men went to work and the women stayed home to raise kids. Some MAGAites make this very explicit.

The arc of history, as various once-separate culture grow, come into contact, and eventually merge, is the breaking down of in/out-group barriers. If this didn’t happen, the human race couldn’t survive, not with an ever increasing population. The people who are comfortable, even welcoming, of ever-expanding in-groups are called liberals; the people who are uncomfortable and resistant of this, crying for a return to a golden past when their own group dominated, are called conservatives. Only one of those ways will sustain human life on an ever-more fragile Earth.

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