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 🙂

Awkward questions

I have previously on the blog delved into the moral implications of murder and other such despicable crimes- I would put a link in, but I have no desire to send an otherwise innocent audience into reading what ended up being a retarded, unjustified tirade by someone who really wished he had planned his writing beforehand. Today, murder will once again be on the agenda, but contrasted against another, equally if not more distasteful, crime- sexual assault.

My most recent encounter of the whole “Rape v Murder” thing came from a gaming (yes, gaming again) perspective, asking the question ‘why is it considered so inappropriate and such taboo to include rape in a game when the majority of games are centred around killing and murder?’. However, today I wish to take some arguments I have encountered on the subject and contrast them to another fact surrounding the two issues- judicial sentencing.

In English Law, murder carries a mandatory sentence of life imprisonment (in one of its various legal names), with the average offender serving 14 years behind bars. By contrast, the maximum sentence for sexual assault is just 10 years (although it can be, depending on situation, far less than that) and their name on the sex offenders register- a comparatively balmy punishment.

This may seem a fair cop according to the ‘traditional’ idea of ‘murder is the worst thing anyone can do ever at all’- but is that in fact really the case?

Let us consider the facts. One point certainly in that idea’s favour is the simple fact that murder is, by its very nature, pretty damn terminal- the perpetrator cannot seek forgiveness from his victim, pay back his debt and agree that a terrible mistake was made but it’s alright now. Once it’s done, it’s done, and no amount of advancement in medical technology is ever likely to change that. There is also the huge breadth of its impact- one life attaches to a lot of others and is thus especially noticeable when it suddenly disappears, leaving a gaping void unfilled that touches the lives of many. By contrast, rape tends to be a crime against an individual whose resulting repercussions may not extend much further than them, particularly given the fact that the majority of sexual assaults go unreported.

However, to contrast against this we have huge swathes of modern life & culture- soldiers and the action-hero protagonists of many films & games are among the most idolised heroes of our age, despite the fact that they are professional killers. In these situations, those of war both real and fictional, against a country or a faceless, nameless power, the killing of the enemy is seen as a regrettable but justifiable loss given the circumstances at least, and as deserved, purposeful justice against ‘the bad guys’ at the other end of things. Then, of course, we consider that not all murders are premeditated acts of viciousness. Some policemen can tell story after story of young kids, always dipping in and out of trouble, who end up hanging around with the wrong group of friends. It can be easy for them to pick up a gun, pick up a knife, for them to get scared and panicky and have 5 seconds of madness. All more accidental than anything, but it means that some are almost deserving of sympathy. And then there is the very nature of death. It is the one universal constant, transcending race, gender, wealth, lifestyle, career, everything- as Robert Alton Harris quipped on his way to the  San Quentin gas chamber ‘You can be a king, or a street-sweeper, but everyone dances with the Grim Reaper’. Death comes to everyone eventually, and as such we spend large proportions of our lives learning to accept it. Murder is not just sometimes either justifiable, unintentional or both, but it is in some ways nothing more than an acceleration of the natural order of things.

Contrast that to sexual assault, which is an entirely different prospect. Yes, it may not be as terminal as murder, but the psychological effects can and more often than not do last a lifetime- a murder victim does not have to relive the experience in their nightmares. Rape also does not, of course come to us all (although the number of women who are estimated to have been sexually assaulted over the course of their lifetime is quite alarming, even in the developed world), and men’s risk of it is almost as close to zero as it is possible. It is not as universal as death, and in that way is particularly unfair- victims are target specifically because of their gender & appearance, singled out from the crowd and made to think forever afterwards ‘why me’? This individuality is also experienced in the action’s consequences- because no obvious physical damage is usually done, the memory or even knowledge of the incident is often absent from even those closest to the victim after a relatively short space of time, leaving them feeling alone and abandoned inside the maze of their own mental distress. And then… there is something fundamentally and premeditatively evil about sexual assault. It is not something that can be done by accident over the space of a mad, panicked 10 seconds- it is not something that can be done by accident, or justified in anyway. There is never a ‘them or me’ situation, it is never ‘for the greater good’. There is no good reason for doing so that shows adequate respect towards the human race- it is simply always wrong.

So then- why does sexual assault carry such a lesser punishment than murder, if both are morally equally despicable at best? Some have suggested it is to appease the families of murder victims, others that the legal system is out of touch- but in fact the reason is a lot more practical than that. If murder and rape both carried (say) life sentences, then there would be no reason for a rapist not to kill his victim afterwards in order to bury the evidence- therefore by having a higher sentence for murder, the legal system is trying to save the lives of rape victims. Is the system just? Perhaps not. Does it work? In this context, certainly.