Author's School

Graduate School of Arts & Sciences

Author's Department/Program

Philosophy/Neuroscience, and Psychology


English (en)

Date of Award

Summer 9-1-2014

Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Chair and Committee

Ron Mallon


I argue that the evolutionary history of anger has substantive implications for normative ethics, undercutting some of the evidence for retributive theories of punishment. In the process, I develop an evolutionary account of anger, its relation to psychological traits of other animals, and its influence on action. First, I offer a tentative evolutionary story about anger that can explain retributive intuitions concerning punishment. This explanation undercuts these intuitions as evidence for retributive beliefs by showing that they were selected for their biological consequences rather than their accuracy (concerning the value of retributive punishment). I develop the evolutionary explanation by raising and resolving three additional problems. First, prominent evolutionary explanations of retributive motives fall short because they appeal to models that apply only to organisms with strategic foresight. To mitigate this problem, I appeal to an economic model of resource competition, which applies to organisms without strategic foresight. This model also explains several features of an aggression system in rodents. Second, I show that human anger derives from the same ancestral trait as this aggression system. Finally, the continuity of anger across human and nonhuman animals stands in tension with the idea that anger causes purposive behavior like retribution or retaliation. I argue that differences between the angry behaviors of human and nonhuman animals are differences in degree and not in kind.


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