The Prisoner’s Dilemma and Batman

In the movie The Dark Knight the Joker sets up a nasty ethical dilemma for two ferry boatloads of people. He places a bomb on both ferries, disables their engines, and provides one detonator for each boat. Each detonator, however, only affects the explosives on the other ferry. The Joker tells both groups, over an intercom system, that they have until midnight to use their detonator. If neither ferry detonates the explosives on the other, the Joker will detonate the explosives on both.  As midnight approaches, both groups debate the pros and cons of killing the people on the other boat in order to save themselves. Finally, after some tension each boat allows the midnight hour to pass without setting either detonators.

This scene is close to what philosophers call the Prisoner’s Dilemma (PD). Basically, the prisoner’s dilemma occurs when two people are given an option to either cooperate in order to gain some mutual benefit or they can defect (renege on some promise or contract). Neither knows or has any control over what the other chooses. In the PD, the greatest collective benefit happens when both cooperate, the greatest collective harm happens when both defect. However, an individual receives the greatest individual benefit if he or she defects and the other cooperates. In the original example

Two suspects are arrested by the police. The police have insufficient evidence for a conviction, and, having separated both prisoners, visit each of them to offer the same deal. If one testifies (defects from the other) for the prosecution against the other and the other remains silent (cooperates with the other), the betrayer goes free and the silent accomplice receives the full 10-year sentence. If both remain silent, both prisoners are sentenced to only six months in jail for a minor charge. If each betrays the other, each receives a five-year sentence. Each prisoner must choose to betray the other or to remain silent. Each one is assured that the other would not know about the betrayal before the end of the investigation. How should the prisoners act?

The greatest collective benefit happens when the prisoners cooperate (total of one year in prison.) The collective harm for both defecting is a total of twenty years in prison. If one defects and the other cooperates, one gets no jail time and the other 10 years.

It might seem that it is in both’s interest to cooperate. Certainly, from the perspective of most ethical systems, you should cooperate. But it is not that simple. You do not know what your partner will do. If he cooperates, you gain the most by defecting. If he defects, you gain the most (or lose the least) if you also defect. Since you do not know what your partner will do (or he, you) you should, according to this analysis, defect. But, maybe you are not interested only in your gain or lose. In that case, you convince yourself to cooperate. But he does not know what you will do. He has to be nervous about your intention. If he cooperates and you defect, he loses a lot. Can he take this chance?

Ethics does not really have an answer for this per se. This is because the PD is not really just another moral quandary–it permeates ethics. In one sense, all ethical systems exist as an attempt to mitigate the pervasive nature of the PD. If the basis of all ethics (or the need for ethics) is the normal conflicts that occur between people and groups over things we all desire, then the formal set of moral rules and principles that make up the world of ethics are designed to insure that we do not constantly defect in our agreements.

Let’s say you want your plumbing fixed. You find a plumber that will fix it for 200 dollars, which you think is fair. Obviously you both gain something you desire if you cooperate–if he fixes your plumbing and you pay him. But he would gain the most (200 dollars with no work) if he defects and you cooperate. You would gain fixed plumbing at no cost if you defect and he cooperates. There is a natural tendency for both, therefore, to defect, simply because you fear that you will pay 200 dollars for nothing or that he fears he will work for no pay. If you both defect, then you lose nothing, but you also gain nothing. But it is obvious that society could not function like this. It is in all of our interest (measured in how well we individually and collectively gain what we desire) if we somehow agree to cooperate. We do this on one level through our tort system. That is unfortunately for some people the only incentive. But it is expensive for a society to have to use coercion or the threat of coercion to force cooperation. It is much cheaper to use the power of our culture to instill a desire to cooperate–in essence to raise our children to feel that cooperation is “good”. When people value cooperation even over personal gain, ultimately we all gain.

But there is a dark side to this, which I will cover in my next post.

The mess with ACORN

The story is one of journalistic excellence. A pair of intrepid reporters visits a series of ACORN offices, posing as a prostitute and a pimp looking for housing and a place for underage girls. ACORN, very helpfully, provides advice, in essence, on how the two can set up a brothel and slave ring. The videos are presented online, our nations political leaders rise in unison to condemn the shady organization, and our local newspaper has editorial fodder for the foreseeable future.

End of story?

Not quite. I was suspicious from the beginning, although, I did feel that ACORN crossed the line and needed to be punished when I heard there were multiple videos. But there are aspects that just do not add up. The two reporters showed up at the offices dressed like bad character actors from the Starsky and Hutch TV show. The ACORN workers come off looking like two-bit morons. Something is not right. How could any sane person fall for such an obvious set up? It is probable that some in ACORN did exactly that. But how many? It is starting to look like some of the videos were doctored to some extent. We do not know how many offices the two “reporters” visited before they located the ones that we see in the videos (which any ethical reporter should share). We do know that in Philadelphia, the visit of which the “reporters” fail to mention (which is unethical), the ACORN worker reported the two to the police. It is almost certain that the video of the San Diego offices was edited to make the ACORN worker look worse (who may have well been playing along with the two, thinking it was a joke). This is not to excuse what some in ACORN did. If it was illegal it should be investigated. But we should be skeptical.

The trouble is that too many believe every ridiculous story they hear about ACORN. If they hear that ACORN busses in thousands of homeless to vote for dead people, they believe it (despite the complete lack of evidence that this has ever happened.) If people hear that ACORN is responsible for the sub prime lending fiasco, then that is what they believe, again despite lack of any evidence.

One other aspect of this story is Congress’ decision to remove funding from ACORN. This seems sensible at first blush but is probably an example of a bill of attainder. This is when one group or person is singled out for punishment for a crime for which they have not been found guilty. This is unconstitutional.

Whatever happens, I hope the truth wins out over all the hyperbolic and vitriolic commentary we are hearing. ACORN does a lot of good for people who often have little hope. It is liberal and activist and this scares some people.

Abusive speech and name calling

My wife posted a note on her Facebook page that begins like this,

Partisan speech can be effective without being personal, without name calling, without vitriol, or invective. Instead of you lie, try “you misrepresent reality.” Our current political speech, especially by those on the sidelines, especially the news/entertainment media, is abusive, calumniating, castigating, censorious, disparaging, insulting, maligning, obloquious, offensive, opprobrious, rude, sarcastic, scathing, scolding, scurrilous, sharp-tongued, snide, and vilifying. Yes, I spent too much time playing with an online thesaurus.

So don’t call folks names like Muslim, racist, socialist or baby killer unless they claim the name for themselves. Don’t say anything you wouldn’t say in polite conversation in the chapel in front of the mural of Jesus praying in the garden of Gethsemene. Don’t take stuff so personally. Don’t generalize the attributes of a few to the entire group. And always do your best to understand and truly communicate.

Who could argue with being more polite? I think Obama is wise to stay above the fray and has done an excellent job staying out of the mud. But it is important to note that it has not particularly slowed down the lies or tempered the viciousness of some on the right. Nor has there been much in the way of a hue and outcry from the moderate right condemning this hate filled speech.

Historically, the call for “decorum” has had three primary functions. Between equals (or close to equals) decorum is a way of assuring that no “equal” can gain power over others. In politics this is exemplified by Roberts Rules of Order.

But the call for “decorum” is also used between non-equals. In this case it is always used by the powerful to quell dissent. People who have little or no say in the political system and little or no power economically often have no recourse against oppression except to shout loud enough to be heard and, in many cases, physically to demand a hearing. In some societies dissent of any level is met with violence and further repression. We are, however, a democracy and we do have some rights. This does not mean that there is no repression. There is both economic and political repression in our past and present. But because we are a democracy and because everyone can vote, those with true power (often the economic elite) use the fallacious argument that because everyone is equal in one aspect (that they can vote) they therefore are equal in all other respects. We already agree that equals, meeting in a specific assembly, do need rules of decorum to maintain equality. But this same argument is uses to criticize decent that springs from real oppression (an institutional lack of equality) simply because we all are equal in one other, often irrelevant, factor (voting). When blacks protested in the streets it was often noted by whites just how rowdy and loud and demanding blacks were as if they would have achieved equal rights without the threat of violent protest. “Don’t they know their place?” was a common refrain. What is interesting is that the debate in the 1950’s and 1960’s was not always about whether equal rights was moral, but over just how unseemly blacks were to complain so loud or to ask for too much, too fast (both are aspects of politeness, not morality.) Some people today dream of the golden days when citizens worked hard all day (in their 12 hour back breaking job) and never complained or did anything impolite like calling a strike or protesting against the well-bread capitalists with all their Emily Post training. The labor movement bothered people, it seems, more because a worker should never be so unseemly as to ask for more than they are given than for any moral or economic reasons.

Lastly, the call for decorum is used often to simply quell legitimate and legal political decent even among equals. During the Bush administration Cheney argued (or strongly implied) that dissent was akin to being unpatriotic (the ultimate form of rudeness.) Conservatives often called for more polite discourse during the debate over Iraq. But this was just a long-standing way to quell dissent. Since all debate was rude, many in the Bush administration refused to listen to any critique at all. You don’t have to listen to someone’s words if you are convinced ahead of time that their tone is impolite. Liberals sometimes do the same thing. It would be equally unfair to assume that all dissent over healthcare is a form of unfair (rude) discourse.

When we are assembled together, there are good and pragmatic reasons to follow certain rules. It allows all of us an equal voice in the crowd. Politeness to some extent is required. We can also insure that we do what we can to give the powerless a place at the table. We cannot expect those who are exploited and not equal in fundamental ways to shut up and follow the rules that we demand of those who are truly equal. But, in all other respects, we should focus less on the question of rudeness and more on the question of truth. If someone makes an argument that contains misrepresentations and there is compelling evidence that they are deliberate, then we should say that it was likely a lie. If a person acts, for all intensive purposes, as a racist, we should point that out. We should demand honesty and fairness, but it is no sign of rudeness to point out where it is lacking. The healthcare debate went south because the left did not step in and call a duck a duck. Millions came to believe the lies (yes lies) of Fox News (sic) because the left was too disjointed to point out the obvious.

What are our priorities?



On selective criticisms

The previous post contains a video of some selective interviews of some of the 9/12 protesters in Washington D.C. The question is always with something like this is how accurately does this video reflect the general ignorance of the participants? Maybe the participants are “intelligent, patriotic, respectable Americans who finally realize that the sacred freedoms our founders gave us are under serious attack”, as Mike Masterson writes in his column in the September 15th Arkansas Democrat Gazette.

If Masterson is correct, then the video is fundamentally unfair. It may serve as a powerful rhetorical device but does so at the expense of the truth. Masterson wants (but does not expect) respect for the 9/12 protesters. But is Masterson correct? The video contains interviews that seem to show the general ignorance and sheer inanity of the 9/12 protesters. Their criticisms of our society in general and the Obama administration specifically are idiotic and bordering on the insane, at least those shown in the video. The protestors claim Obama is simultaneously a nazi and a communist, that he is the anti-christ, a Muslim, and hates America. One claims that Obama’s call for volunteers is really an undercover plot to arm a group of  Obama supporters. They claim that Obamas czars are part of a plot to do something really, really, bad to our nation, apparently because the name czar has connections with Russia which has connections to communism.

It is perfectly legitimate for people to protest the president and the 9/12 protesters are within their constitutional rights to protest. But they are not due respect until they earn it. There is no good “intelligent” argument that Obama is a socialist and a nazi at the same time or that he is a Muslim or that he hates america or that there is some insidious plot to take over the country with our Czars. There is no way to argue intelligently that we need to protect Medicare by eliminating the possibility of passing a national health care system (especially if the person who argues it does not realize that Medicare is a government health care system.)

The video does make the protesters look stupid. But their underlying criticisms can not be made intelligent no matter how they are rephrased. There are legitimate criticisms of Obama but they will not likely be found in the 9/12 protesters.

Glenn Beck for President…

Forgiving seven times seven

There is a well known passage in the book of Matthew where Jesus tells his followers that they are to go beyond the traditional Jewish custom of forgiving just three times and even beyond the expansion to seven times suggested by Peter. He says that they are to forgive seven times seven times. This is, of course, a metaphor. He is trying to get his followers to forgive far more than they normally would. He goes on in a parable to tell a story of a rich ruler who forgives a servant a huge debt but then bristles when that same servant, so recently forgiven, refuses in his own turn to forgive someone who owes him money. The rich ruler responds by placing his servant into jail as punishment.

The notion here is that we should forgive, just as God forgives us our “unpayable” debt. I think this is a decent enough notion and one at which we are typically not very good. But I always wonder at the radical nature of this commandment. You often hear people say, “well, I should forgive, but I really can’t forget.” We, after all, keep people in jail, which is a good example of not forgetting. We don’t put people in charge of money who have stolen before or people in charge of children who have abused before. We assume that god didn’t really mean that we were to “forget” what bad people have done. Or should we? I am not advocating handing our money or our children to people who would abuse both, but I wonder if that isn’t what Jesus did mean? What is the point of forgiving if it is only for trivial offenses? What is the point in pretending to forgive, if we have to serendipitously keep one eye on the person we forgave? How is it a real forgiveness if we still remember?

I think this is an example of a passage that we find interspersed in the NT where Jesus (or the writer speaking for him) is making a radical commandment that is impossible to follow (or one most of us would not follow completely if we could) but one that is a target for those able to make the deep commitment in a way similar to what Catholic monks do to this day.

I think the way a typical Methodist takes a passage like this (like the church I attend) is to remind ourselves that we should forgive more than we already do. But where do we draw the line? Or for that matter, how do we determine where the line is? I think we do this the same way we always have. We decide for ourselves, taking into account all we are as a person, as part of a family, community, nation and world. We look at the relevant facts and, yes, our own subjective feelings. At some point, not that long ago, Christians finally decided that slavery was wrong. Sorry to say, they did not learn that explicitly in the Bible. I can understand the point that slavery is not consistent with Jesus’ radical love. But things would have been easier if Jesus had mentioned this or if the OT did not seem to accept it readily.

But there is one other aspect that bothers me about this passage in Matthew. The parable makes one last point, which is that God will not forgive you if you fail to forgive others. This seems inconsistent, and frankly, not “good”. Do we have to be threatened with eternal damnation to coerce us to forgive more often?