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Morality Games

Steve Brewer’s players discuss a strategy for selfish ethical behaviour.

It’s the 4th of July, and Max has invited Orin to a barbecue. Max, holding a Bud in one hand and a burger in the other, approaches Orin through swirls of choking smoke. Orin is looking rather glum, and Max guesses it is not just the veggie burger Orin insisted on having in order to ‘save the planet’.

Max: Congratulations! Glad to see you Brits have regained your own independence. About time you freed yourself from your European masters – just as we did from you guys a few centuries ago.

Orin: Well, I’m rather disappointed, since I liked the idea of European unity, and the ability to move freely about Europe. But given European history and the cumbersome mechanism needed to form even a semblance of government, I guess it may well be for the best. The fact is, though, I still feel it was our duty to stick it out for the common good.

Max: ‘Common good’?! What a load of socialist nonsense! There’s only one good, and that’s the good of the individual.

Orin: It’s that sort of thinking that destroys society. Your world of selfishness is a world of antisocial chaos.

Max: Well that’s just where you’re wrong. You just have to understand game theory, and all will be clear. In game theory, ‘players’ choose whether to collaborate or compete depending on what’s in their best interest. If I think the rewards of working with others are better than those obtained when working by myself, I’ll choose to cooperate. If it works, the result is a win-win situation for all. The classic case is where two hunters working together can kill a deer, but alone they can only catch a rabbit each.

Orin: But the idea is fatally flawed because there’s no moral principle stopping them from cheating on their agreement. What happens if the hunters don’t share the rewards of their collaboration evenly?

Max: Quite simple – the partnership ends. They might both be losers as a result, but the players are free and can go it alone, or search for a better partnership – one where they’re more successful and divide the rewards fairly. And by ‘fair’ I mean proportional to each person’s contribution. No contribution means no share. None of this social welfare nonsense.

Orin: I’ve heard this being called ‘reciprocal altruism’. It’s interesting because it indicates that selfishness can result in social collaboration.

Max: I’m not sure where the ‘altruism’ comes from there, since it’s all about being selfish. But the right to decide to cooperate or compete according to my own best interest is what it means to be free.

Orin: But it is interesting how game theory might provide an explanation of our moral codes. The decision to collaborate and share is a freely made social contract. Moral codes and laws are made to punish those who break such contracts, by not fairly sharing the gains or by only pretending to collaborate. They’re about keeping people true to their social contracts.

Max: But the freedom to choose to compete is an essential part of the game, and that’s what your socialist moral codes try to repress! This freedom to choose is a basic human right.

Orin: We’re fortunate to live in countries which guarantee these rights, but many aren’t so fortunate. But maintaining a balance between social duties and individual freedom is a problem even in a democracy. In order to retain long-term cohesion in the face of short-term setbacks, societies evolved complex taboos and rituals to ensure compliance, often with severe punishments for those who didn’t follow them. This is why we need moral codes: to instruct us in the duties needed to fulfil our social contracts. These codes recognise my dependence on others, the state and its institutions. And when social duties become God’s commandments, they can’t even be questioned. But as Nietzsche pointed out, with the ‘death of God’, morality has lost its divine basis. It becomes a human invention, with each society left to make up its own rules.

Max: So we’ve just solved the problem of the foundation of morality, because God’s moral commands have been replaced by the implications of game theory! What’s more, unlike the self-sacrifice demanded by God, morality based on game theory requires individuals to make choices in their own best interest.

Orin: The point you’re missing there is that trust between group members about their skills, contribution, and fairness is built up over a number of ‘games’, often with people operating on a ‘tit-for-tat’ basis. The rules of tit-for-tat seem to be a mixture of the Golden Rule and Law of Retaliation: that is, keep your side of the bargain and I’ll keep mine; but I will also take my revenge if you cheat on me. Although this game has simple rules, the plays can become very complex, and at any one time, we’re playing many parallel tit-for-tat games in our ever-changing social environments.

Max: Don’t forget the rules apply to entire nations too, including your European Union. You Europeans were brainwashed into thinking that by collaborating you’re all doing better. But in fact, it never delivered. Obviously lots of Brits couldn’t see any gains either, just losses. The EU bureaucracy just isn’t relevant to today’s international environment and the forces of globalization. You were just supporting yet another layer of bureaucracy and government that adds no value.

Orin: That’s a ‘maybe’. I think we could argue the case forever about that…

Max: But my only moral duty is to question any authority that demands my unquestioning loyalty! So get a cool beer and a real burger, and let’s celebrate our freedom!

© Dr Stephen J. Brewer 2020

Steve Brewer is a retired biochemist and the author of The Origins of Self (2015), available for free download from originsofself.com.

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