The Prisoner’s Dilemma

It’s a classic thought experiment, mathematical problem and a cause of much philosophical debate. Over the years it has found its way into every sphere of existence from serious lecturing to game shows to, on numerous occasions, real life. It has been argued as being the basis for all religion, and its place in our society. And to think that it, in its purest form, is nothing more than a story about two men in a jail- the prisoner’s dilemma.

The classic example of the dilemma goes roughly as follows; two convicts suspected of a crime are kept in single custody, separated from one another and unable to converse. Both are in fact guilty of the crime, but the police only have evidence to convict them for a small charge, worth a few months in jail if neither of them confess (the ‘cooperation’ option). However, if they ‘rat out’ on their partner, they should be able to get themselves charged with only a minor offence for complicity, worth a small fine, whilst their partner will get a couple of years behind bars. But, if both tell on one another, revealing their partnership in the crime, both can expect a sentence of around a year.

The puzzle comes under the title (in mathematics) of game theory, and was first formally quantified in the 1950s, although the vague principle was understood for years before that. The real interest of the puzzle comes in the strange self-conflicting logic of the situation; in all cases, the prisoner gets a reduced punishment if they rat out on their partner (a fine versus a prison sentence if their partner doesn’t tell on them, and one year rather than two if they do), but the consequence for both following the ‘logical’ path is a worse punishment if neither of them did. Basically, if one of them is a dick then they win, but if both of them are dicks then they both lose.

The basic principle of this can be applied to hundreds of situations; the current debate concerning climate change is one example. Climate change is a Bad Thing that looks set to cause untold trillions of dollars in damage over the coming years, and nobody actively wants to screw over the environment; however, solving the problem now is very expensive for any country, and everyone wants it to be somebody else’s problem. Therefore, the ‘cooperate’ situation is for everyone to introduce expensive measures to combat climate change, but the ‘being a dick’ situation is to let everyone else do that whilst you don’t bother and reap the benefits of both the mostly being fixed environment, and the relative economic boom you are experiencing whilst all the business rushes to invest in a country with less taxes being demanded. However, what we are stuck with now is the ‘everyone being a dick’ scenario where nobody wants to make a massive investment in sustainable energy and such for fear of nobody else doing it, and look what it’s doing to the planet.

But I digress; the point is that it is the logical ‘best’ thing to take the ‘cooperate’ option, but that it seems to make logical sense not to do so, and 90% of the moral and religious arguments made over the past couple of millennia can be reduced down to trying to make people pick the ‘cooperate’ option in all situations. That they don’t can be clearly evidenced by the fact that we still need armies for defensive purposes (it would be cheaper for us not to, but we can’t risk the consequences of someone raising an army to royally screw everyone over) and the ‘mutually assured destruction’ situation that developed between the American and Soviet nuclear arsenals during the Cold War.

Part of the problem with the prisoner’s dilemma situation concerns what is also called the ‘iterative prisoner’s dilemma’- aka, when the situation gets repeated over and over again. The reason this becomes a problem is because people can quickly learn what kind of behaviour you are likely to adopt, meaning that if you constantly take the ‘nice’ option people will learn that you can be easily be beaten by repeatedly taking the ‘arsehole’ option, meaning that the ‘cooperate’ option becomes the less attractive, logical one (even if it is the nice option). All this changes, however, if you then find yourself able to retaliate, making the whole business turn back into the giant pissing contest of ‘dick on the other guy’ we were trying to avoid. A huge amount of research and experimentation has been done into the ‘best’ strategy for an iterative prisoner’s dilemma, and they have found that a broadly ‘nice’, non-envious strategy, able to retaliate against an aggressive opponent but quick to forgive, is most usually the best; but since, in the real world, each successive policy change takes a large amount of resources, this is frequently difficult to implement. It is also a lot harder to model ‘successful’ strategies in continuous, rather than discrete, iterative prisoner’s dilemmas (is it dilemmas, or dilemmae?), such as feature most regularly in the real world.

To many, the prisoner’s dilemma is a somewhat depressing prospect. Present in almost all walks of life, there are countless examples of people picking the options that seem logical but work out negatively in the long run, simply because they haven’t realised the game theory of the situation. It is a puzzle that appears to show the logical benefit of selfishness, whilst simultaneously demonstrating its destructiveness and thus human nature’s natural predisposition to pursuing the ‘destructive’ option. But to me, it’s quite a comforting idea; not only does it show that ‘logic’ is not always as straightforward as it seems, justifying the fact that one viewpoint that seems blatantly, logically obvious to one person may not be the definitive correct one, but it also reveals to us the mathematics of kindness, and that the best way to play a game is the nice way.

Oh, and for a possibly unique, eminently successful and undoubtedly hilarious solution to the prisoner’s dilemma, I refer you here. It’s not a general solution, but it’s still a pretty cool one 🙂

The Seven Slightly Harmful Quite Bad Things

The Seven Deadly Sins are quite an odd thing amongst western culture; a list of traits ostensibly meant to represent the worst features of humanity, but that is instead regarded as something of a humorous diversion, and one, moreover, that a large section of the population have barely heard of. The sins of wrath (originally spelt ‘wroth’, and often represented simply as ‘anger’), greed (or ‘avarice’), sloth (laziness), pride, lust, envy and gluttony were originally not meant as definite sins at all. Rather, the Catholic Church, who came up with them, called them the seven Capital Vices (their original religious origin also leads to them being referred to as ‘cardinal sins’) and rather than representing mere sins in and of themselves they were representative of the human vices from which all sin was born. The Church’s view on sin is surprisingly complex- all sinful activity is classified either as venial (bad but relatively minor) or mortal (meant to destroy the inner goodness of a person and lead them down a path of eternal damnation). Presumably the distinction was intended to prevent all sinful behaviour from being labelled a straight ticket to hell, but this idea may have been lost in a few places over time, as might (unfortunately) be accepted. Thus, holding a Capital Vice did not mean that you were automatically a sinful person, but that you were more naturally predisposed to commit sin and should try to exorcise them from you. All sin falls under the jurisdiction (for want of better word) of one of the vices, hence the confusion, and each Deadly Sin had its own counterpart Heavenly Virtue; patience for wrath, charity for greed, diligence for sloth, humility for pride, chastity for lust (hence why catholic priests are meant to be chaste), kindness for envy and temperance for gluttony. To a Catholic, therefore, these fourteen vices and virtues are the only real and, from a moral perspective, meaningful traits a person can have, all others being merely offshoots of them. Pride is usually considered the most severe of the sins, in that one challenges your place in comparison to God, and is also considered the source of the other six; Eve’s original sin was not, therefore, the eating of the fruit from the forbidden tree, but the pride and self-importance that lead her to challenge the word of God.

There have been other additions, or suggestions of them, to this list over the years; acedia, a neglect of ones duty based on melancholy and depression, was seen as symptomatic of a refusal to enjoy god’s world, whilst vainglory (a kind of boastful vanity) was incorporated under pride in the 14th century. Some more recent scholars have suggested the addition of traits such as fear, superstition and cruelty, although the church would probably put the former two under pride, in that one is not trusting in God to save you, and the latter as pride in your position and exercising of power over another (as you can see, ‘pride’ can be made to cover a whole host of things). I would also argue that, whilst the internet is notoriously loath to accept anything the Christian church has ever done as being a remotely good idea, that there is a lot we can learn by examining the list. We all do bad things, that goes without saying, but that does not mean that we are incapable of trying to make ourselves into better people, and the first step along that road is a proper understanding of precisely where and how we are flawed as people. Think of some act of your behaviour, maybe something you feel as being good behaviour and another as a dubiously moral incident, and try to place its root cause under one of those fourteen traits. You may be surprised as to what you can find out about yourself.

However, I don’t want to spend the rest of this post on a moral lesson, for there is another angle I wish to consider with regard to the Seven Deadly Sins- that they need not be sins at all. Every one of the capital vices is present to some degree within us, and can be used as justification for a huge range of good behaviour. If we do not allow ourselves to be envious of our peers’ achievements, how can we ever become inspired to achieve such heights ourselves- or, to pick a perhaps more appropriate example, if we are not envious of the perfectness of the Holy Trinity, how can and why should we aspire to be like them? Without the occasional espousal of anger and wrath, we may find it impossible to convey the true emotion behind what we care about, to enable others to care also, and to ensure we can appropriately defend what we care for. How could the Church ever have attempted to retake the Holy Land without the wrath required to act and win decisively? Greed too acts as a driving force for our achievements (can the church’s devotion to its vast collection of holy relics not be labelled as such?), and the occasional bout of gluttony and sloth are often necessary to best aid our rest and recuperation, enabling us to continue to act as good, kind people with the emotional and physical strength to bear life’s burden. Lust is often necessary as a natural predisposition to love, surely a virtuous trait if ever there was one, whilst a world consisting solely of chaste, ‘proper’ people would clearly not last very long. And then there is pride, the deadliest and also the most virtuous of vices. Without a sense of pride, how can we ever have even a modicum of self-respect, how can we ever recognise what we have done well and attempt to emulate it, and how can we ever feel any emotion that makes us seem like normal human beings rather than cold, calculating, heartless machines?

Perhaps, then, the one true virtue that we should apply to all of this is that of temperance. We all do bad things and we may all have a spark of the seven deadly sins inside us, but that doesn’t mean necessarily that the incidences of the two need always to coincide. Sure, if we just embrace our vices and pander to them, the world will probably not end up a terribly healthy place, and I’m sure that my description of the deadly sins is probably stretching the point as to what they specifically meant in their original context. But, not every dubiously right thing you do is entirely terrible, and a little leeway here and there can go an awfully long way to making sure we don’t end up going collectively mental.