The moral punishment instinct

Jan Willem van Prooijen*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Book / ReportBookAcademicpeer-review


Across time and cultures, ranging from ancient hunter-gatherers, to holy scriptures, to contemporary courts of law, it has been common for people to punish offenders. Furthermore, punishment is not restricted to criminal offenders but emerges in all spheres of social life, including corporations, public institutions, traffic, sports matches, schools, and parenting. Why is punishment soubiquitous? One cannot find a satisfactory explanation for the universality of punishment in the social science literature focusing on human morality in general. Punishment also occurs among nonhuman animals for which one can question their sense of morality, including rodents, fish, and insects. Apparently, there is something specific and unique about punishment that warrants a more focused discussion. This book proposes that people possess a moral punishment instinct, that is, a hard-wired tendency to aggress against those who violate the norms of the group. People evolved this instinct due to its power to control behavior by curbing selfishness and free-riding, thereby providing incentives to stimulate the mutual cooperation that small tribes of ancient hunter-gatherers needed to survive in a challenging natural environment. To examine this idea, the book describes how punishment originates from moral emotions, stimulates cooperation, and shapes the social life of human beings. Guided by many recognizable examples, the book illuminates how the moral punishment instinct manifests itself among nonhuman animals, children, cultures of modern humans, and tribes of hunter-gatherers, while accounting for the role of this instinct in religion, war, racial bias, restorative justice, gossip, torture, and radical terrorism.

Original languageEnglish
PublisherOxford University Press
Number of pages291
ISBN (Electronic)9780190609986
ISBN (Print)9780190609979
Publication statusPublished - 2018


  • Behavioral control
  • Cooperation
  • Emotion
  • Evolution
  • Groups
  • Instinct
  • Parochial altruism
  • Punishment
  • Revenge
  • Utility


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