12th Pavia Graduate Conference in Political Philosophy – Abstract/Costa

Luca Costa

Are We Rule-Following Punishers?

One of the key concepts of Gaus’s evolutionary account of public reason (Gaus 2011) is the idea of strong reciprocity, the tendency of people to «cooperate when enough others are cooperating and to punish those who transgress on social rules (or norms)» (ibid: 105). It is under this premise that Gaus theorizes Rule-following Punishers as an evolutionarily stable strategy (ESS) that could develop and thrive in an environment of pure Rule Followers and Defectors. The aim of the present paper is to question the realism of this premise. Through a detailed analysis of the experiments whose results are reported by Gaus in support of his theory, it will be argued that these experiments fail to found Gaus’s normative claims. On one side, the nature of the subjects recruited for the aforementioned studies, as well as further field researches conducted by Joseph Henrich, Richard Boyd and others (Henrich et al. 2001), reveal how deeply strong reciprocity is rooted in the context of a market society. Gaus is aware of this (Gaus 2011: 122), but his attempt to extend the normative value of his theory beyond these bounds is both empirically and normatively lacking. On the other side, it will be argued that even within our own society, the applicability of such experiments is questionable at best. In particular, the strong anonymity restraints on the context of these experiments are hardly representative of our everyday experience, and Gaus’s support of anonymity as a distinctive feature of our society plays on an oversimplification of the term that overshadow the complex identity- and similarity-driven recognition mechanisms. With their attempt to represent an unrealistic “state of nature” in which people have no experience of each other, these experiments fail to found in a convincing way an account of «actual morality», as Gaus would want it.