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Skinner vs the Prophets: Human Nature & Our Concepts of Justice.

Clark, Mary E.
June 4, 2015

Source: (2005) Contemporary Justice Review. 8(2): 163-176.

A society’s conceptualization of “human natureâ€? determines both how its people behave and their perceptions about justice. This paper contrasts societies that see humans as naturally competitive and selfish and requiring behavioral training (Skinnerian approaches to social control) with societies that see humans as naturally pro-social and cooperative, striving to contribute (the premise of the prophets of major religions). Whereas the former rely mainly on rewards and punishments, and utilize retributive forms of justice, the latter rely more on apology, forgiveness, and restitution, with restoration of harmony as the goal of justice. The paper evaluates these two approaches in light of an image of human nature (recently developed by the author) that identifies three evolutionarily selected psychological needs that we all share: for acceptance, autonomy, and meaning. When any are denied, we tend to respond in anti-social ways. Societies where that happens – particularly punitive authoritarian hierarchies – serve human nature less well, and are inherently unstable. Smaller, more egalitarian communities tend to evolve dialogic processes for resolving social rupture, a psychologically preferable process to coercion and shame. Author’s abstract.


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