in Philosophy

What does the Prisoner’s Dilemna Teach us about Morality?

The Prisoner’s Dilemma is a classic non-zero-sum game in game theory. I know that can sound a little intimidating, but I’ll lay it out in it’s simplest terms, because it really is quite simple to grasp, and quite valuable to understand.

As a former Objectivist, I really understand the power of selfishness and what it entails. Everyone is basically selfish – in fact, it’s impossible to be completely altruistic. However, that explanation depends on very rigid definitions of both altruism and selfishness, and those definitions are rarely used outside of Objectivism. The main point is that most people, most of the time, will look to maximize their own gain, and I think that most people will agree with that. Objectivism states that this can be a very valuable tool for the betterment of everyone, and there is a lot of evidence that backs that up. The problem is that it never takes into account non-zero-sum games, such as the Prisoner’s Dilemma.

To illustrate what I mean by a non-zero-sum game, let me explain the Prisoner’s Dillemma. Imagine two people who committed a crime together. When they are arrested, they are seperated into two different rooms, and the prosecuter comes in to talk with each of them. The situation is explained to them. If they betray the other person and turn states evidence, they will get away scot free. If they stay silent, while the state can’t convict them for the original criminal act, they can easily get a conviction for a smaller act committed later. The options each person is facing are these:

1. Stay silent, get convicted for the smaller offence, serve 5 years in prison.

2. Turn states evidence, betray their partner and serve no prison time.

It seems pretty obvious that option (2) is the best option. However, there is a twist. The other person is also getting the same deal, so the situation is more complicated. The possibilities are now this:

A. Both stay silent, both serve 5 years in prison.

B. One talks while the other stays silent, and so one goes free while the other spends 10 years in prison.

C. Both talk, where they both serve 10 years. In other words, if they both turn states evidence, there is no need for a deal, so they both go to prison.

Now the Dilemma should be clear. If they both take option (2) from above, they will both serve 10 years prison time. However, if one stays silent, they risk the other turning states evidence and getting off free while they serve 10 years prison.

What would you do?

Given that situation and the options given to each, I’m going to define option (1) as altruistic in nature, and option (2) as selfish in nature. If both people act purely selfishly, as our tendencies are, they both lose greatly. If only of them acts altruistically, they risk being screwed into something pretty bad. The best option now becomes for them to both act altruistically, seeking cooperation instead of self-preservation.

That deserves quite a bit of meditation. As in the Tragedy of the Commons, the best option for both the group and the individual over the long run is more altruistic behaviour than purely selfish behaviour. However, where as the tragedy of the commons can be addressed through private ownership to a point, the Prisoner’s Dilemma is more about interaction, which can be more difficult to really grasp, and I think relevent to morality. Where-in Objectivism holds selfishness as the highest moral principle, it does not necessarily reflect reality. Obviously, altruistic behaviour can lead to an even greater gain, depending on the situation. Those situations are non-zero-sum games.

Given that gaining and keeping resources is good for the individual, we can now derive a moral principal. In a non-zero-sum game, it is morally best for an individual to act altruistically, and immorral to act selfishly.

Okay, you might be wondering why I’m taking the time to write something so blazingly obvious to anyone. As an atheist, I’ve been accused as being a moral relativist, or even worse, completely lacking in morals. This is obvious to the accuser because morality can only come from god. I have now answered those accusations. I have demonstrated the creation of a moral principal using only reason, and without invoking the supernatural. What’s more, it can be applied equally to everyone, and it’s reasoning is available to everyone. It is not dependent on revelations to the elite, or an ancient and contradictory book. It something you can learn, here and now.

This is not something new. It’s not something I did completely on my own. This has been explained over and over again, and as I mentioned, there is a whole field dedicated to the study of such situations. Richard Dawkin’s has done a documentary on the subject called ‘Nice Guys Finish First,’ which explains the subject much better than I can hope for.

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