Monday, October 18, 2010

A Hobbesian Round of Prisoner’s Dilemma

For me the most fundamental question in all politics is the one asked by Thomas Hobbes: how is that that large numbers of people live in close proximity every day without murdering one another. Instead of going to work next week, it makes perfect logical sense for me to murder my neighbors and take their clothes and any food I find in their apartment. Alternatively, I can make an alliance with my neighbors to live in peace and brotherhood and massacre the people down the street, down the river or the next State over. (Think Attila the Hun.) Of course, if I am feeling slightly humanitarian, I might spare the lives of these other people and simply enslave them formally or under the guise of some system that establishes them as my inferiors, existing only to benefit me. The fact that you and I have been fortunate to live under more "civilized" circumstances does not take away from the fact that we are the exception. The natural state of human affairs is Hobbesian war where everyone tries to kill everyone else before they are in turn killed. Of course, as Hobbes understood, it is only under civilized regimes, where people do not wake up thinking about how best to murder their neighbors, that there can be any serious cultivation of the arts or scientific progress. (It is important to understand that the point of this entire discourse is not that you should murder your neighbors. Quite the contrary, it is about how we avoid murdering our neighbors.)

I might not accept Hobbes' answer (I do not support absolute monarchy), but his framing of the question places him in the front rank of political philosophers. What fundamentally separates me from Hobbes is an Enlightenment faith in reason. If Hobbes saw man as a material animal that could only be kept in check by the brute force of government authority, I assume that man is a rational animal, who can, through force of reason, negotiate his way out of mass slaughter. One way to think of Democracy is one grand act of societal negotiation; we go to the polls to vote as an alternative to killing one another.

Game theory's prisoner's dilemma offers a useful way of posing the Hobbesian question. Prisoner's dilemma is a scenario in which the police have two people in two separate rooms and offer them the exact same deal. If you agree to talk you go free and your partner goes to jail for ten years. If both you and your partner remain silent you both go free. If both you and your partner squeal on each other then both of you will go to jail for five years. Critical to this scenario is the fact that neither party knows what the other party is going to do. The irony of prisoner's dilemma is that if both parties follow their own rational self-interest they will both squeal on the other. Talking to the police means that at worst you get five and that is only if your partner was going to talk himself and put you away for ten. Of course, having both parties follow this logic means that they both will end up in jail. Both parties are trapped and neither can afford to do the right thing and keep silent even if that will save everyone; you have to assume that the other person is going to do what is best for himself and you must, therefore, do what is best for yourself, particularly knowing that the other person has no reason to trust you and is making the exact same calculation. Those we are trapped in a cycle of selfish behavior in which both sides lose.

To apply this to Hobbes, I might like to think of myself as a moral person, but I can make no assumption that anyone else is moral. When I walk out my door, I have every reason to assume that my neighbor is plotting to kill, rob or enslave me. The object that he is reaching for in his pocket is likely a gun and not his wallet. When he goes to meet with his friends he is probably plotting with them as to how best to get me and not the latest in sports or celebrity gossip. The only solution is for me to get a gun and start shooting, or at least find allies of my own and plot with them as to the best time for shooting. I am not a bad person; I am just acting rationally in self-defense. Of course, everyone else is making the same exact calculation and is forced to come to the same conclusion, a conclusion only strengthened by the assumption that others have reached this same inevitable line of reasoning. Thus we are trapped in a cycle of violence.

Now there is a way out of prisoner's dilemma; it requires that, instead of this being a onetime deal, the players have to do repeated rounds. This changes things by bringing in the possibility of retaliation. If you squeal on your partner, you can be certain that your partner will do the same to you on the next round. Relaying on the assumption that my partner is a rational being pursuing his own self-interest and will not do something that is clearly going to harm him on all the next rounds, I can safely remain silent. My partner, relying on the fact that that I am a rational being making this exact calculation, can do the same. Thus the cycle of squealing is broken.

To apply this to Hobbes, when I make the decision whether or not to turn violent against my neighbor, I also have to take into account the fact that, even if I get to my gun first and kill my neighbor, I still have to deal with the six billion other players in this game. The fact that I have just demonstrated that I am the sort of person who will go for his gun, guarantees that everyone else will reach for their guns all the faster when it comes to dealing with me. Considering my own rational self-interest, I take the chance that my neighbor is not trying to kill me, relying on the fact that, as a rational being, he, in turn, is going through this same calculation. Thus we break the cycle of violence and allow for the work of civilization to begin.

There are two principles of politics that come out of this system. One, as this method of breaking out of prisoner's dilemma only works when the threat of retaliation is swift and certain, it is necessary that anyone who goes for their gun must be viewed as an absolute threat to the entire system and wiped out without hesitation as one would a rabid dog. (The cases of Nazi Germany, Japan, and the Palestinians come to mind.) The second principle is that one can only deal with people who are highly rational in all their dealings with others. The moment that I no longer possess clearly stated lines of thinking that I can rely on my neighbor to follow and which lead me to conclude that he is not reaching for his gun, I have to assume gun and the cycle of violence begins. So the next time you hear someone say that reason does not define their politics, better reach for your gun.


Clarissa said...

I had no idea what you were trying to do with this post. Until I got to the last sentence. And then I realized that this is a really really good post.

Great job!!

Vox Populi said...

You and Hobbes are clearly divorced from the observed world, however. There probably never was a Hobbesian "state of nature" where all this chaos reigned and then gradually gave way to altruistic calculation.

Surely we would agree that wolves are in a state of nature, and yet they don't go around just killing each other. Just as clearly, however, the fact that they form semi-complex packs and work together does not suggest that they philosophized for themselves a workable society. There was no wolf Hobbes. (Or tiger Hobbes.)

The fact is, the vast majority of organisms typically have no desire to kill their fellows. Even though me and a wolf could both gain enough kilojoules from cannibalism to make the energy expended in the act of murder biologically worthwhile, we both have the same "revulsion" to the act. Not out of any rational calculation, but because we are programmed not to.

Hobbes' theory is very nice, but it never happened. I think Locke has more explanatory power as to why we form more complex societies than wolves.

Chris said...

A good summary of game theory. However, the problem for Israel is that most of the world isn't quite sure who went for his gun first. When there are conflicting evaluations of who shot first and what constitutes a "proportional" response, strategies of reciprocity only lead to spiraling violence and damaged reputations on both sides. In this case, the only way for Israel to really win the conflict by "going for its gun" would be to essentially eliminate the Palestinians from the game altogether-- something on the order of genocide. Otherwise, the spiral will continue. But genocide, of course, would leave no doubt in the mind of the international community as to the identity of the guilty party, and Israel would very likely be punished in no uncertain terms.

I think the only realistic solution to the Israel-Palestine conflict is for one side to break the cycle of reciprocity and work to socialize both its own citizens and its opponents' citizens to be cooperators. Such socialization is a long-term commitment that requires extraordinary patience and conviction in the short term, as one suffers violence and violations that must go unanswered. The unfortunate thing is that most people think this sounds too much like "appeasement", as in WWII and the resulting Holocaust, so they are unwilling to try the strategy. But the case of WWII was quite different, because there the identity of the aggressor was very clear cut, and there was no history of spiraling violence. In that case a reciprocal strategy would very likely have contained the aggression. Not so in the case of Palestine.

Izgad said...

Vox Populi
On the contrary, we see Hobbesian states of reality occur all the time. What do you call the Polish village of Jedwabne, when the Polish half went and murdered their Jewish neighbors without any German help? Can I trust my Polish or Ukrainian neighbors to not kill me? Better kill them first just to be sure.

I admit that most people have a natural empathy for their own children and kin, but this does not apply to those deemed “foreign.” Working together for purpose of killing a third party is simply Hobbesian tolerance. Wolves care for their young and not a whit for the local caribou. They are good Hobbesians. Human beings are of course not much better. “Man is a wolf to other men.”

You are correct as to the main obstacle to Israel pursuing a more aggressive solution to the Palestinian problem. Israel has been trying to follow your solution without much success. I am though willing to call the international community’s bluff. One Dresden, killing thousands of Palestinians, will do less damage to Israel then a string of small actions. Israel is hurt by killing Palestinians. It does not matter really how many. So if you are already in a situation where you have to kill Palestinians you might as well kill lots of Palestinians. Not that I want to kill people, but this is the tragic reaity of the situation.
I have nothing against Palestinians. They are a group of people whose interests go against mine and have made the perfectly rational decision to turn to violence.
The Nazis saw themselves as the victims as do the Palestinians.

Chris said...

>>Israel has been trying to follow your solution without much success.

Israel's commitment to a peaceful solution has been tenuous at best.

>>One Dresden, killing thousands of Palestinians, will do less damage to Israel then a string of small actions.

Wow, Ben. I beg you not to let your realist politics blind you to basic human morality. Forget for a moment about how much "damage" this would do to Israel and think of the "damage" it would do to innocent civilians, including children.

Thank God you're just a blogger, and not an Israeli cabinet member. :P

Chris said...

By the way, Abbas recently said that Palestine would give up all historic demands in exchange for a separate state. However, he wants an end to settlements. Netinyahu replied that if he ended settlement, his government would fall. It seems like the failure to compromise is as much an Israeli problem as a Palestinian one. Is a Dresden-style bombing really preferable to ending settlement?

Izgad said...

Note that I support a two state solution and an end to violence from both sides. That is the goal.
With Abbas you have someone with whom it might be possible to negotiate with. As such thankfully we can get past the Dresden threats. So now it comes down to what sort of Palestinian State he gets. From this perspective it makes perfect sense to use the much milder threat of settlements as the carrot and stick to get to a solution that the Israeli government can live with. Building settlements has the advantage over taking lives in that the settlements can always be taken down later.
I am not giving Israel a green light to pull a Dresden I was simply pointing out the basic problem that Israel is up against by attempting small “proportional” responses, a problem that Machiavelli would have appreciated. Human beings do not think in amounts. So for Israel what matters in the court of world opinion is whether people are dying. So once people are dying you might as well try to pack it in. No this is not moral; it is about trying to win at the violent game of politics and stay alive.

By the way do you believe that the Allies had the moral right to bomb German cities and kill women and children?

Clarissa said...

"Note that I support a two state solution and an end to violence from both sides."

-I am convinced that the two things are mutually contradictory. There is no doubt in my mind that an independent Palestinian state will result in an at least tenfold growth of mutual acts of terror. National identities that are as tenuous as the Israeli and Palestinian identities have no way of surviving without a very strong and unavoidably violent antagonism with the Other.

Madeleine Kando said...

Madeleine Kando

Isn't there a mistake in your 'prisoner's dilemma' description? When both prisoners stay silent they don't go free, they get a minimum sentence.