Sunday, April 22, 2018

Desirism and the Prisoners' Dilemma

In decision theory, there is a famous problem called the Prisoners' Dilemma.

You and another person from your country - somebody you do not know - were arrested in a foreign country. You are not guilty of any crime, but the local dictator is looking to make an example of people from your country for propaganda purposes. He wants the two of you to confess to being foreign agents. The other agent has been taken into another room and offered the same deal you are about to be offered.

You have a choice. You can "confess" to being foreign agents, or you can refuse. If you confess, and the other agent refuses, you can go free. The other person will go to prison for 5 years. However, if you refuse, and the other confesses, then you will be the one going to prison, and the other will go free. Of course, if you both confess, then you will both go to prison for 3 years. But, if you will not cooperate with the dictator's plan and you both refuse, he will charge each of you with some lesser crime and imprison you for 1 year.

A chart of the options looks like this:

The reason that this is a puzzle is because, no matter which option the other person chooses, you will get fewer years if you confess. Let us say that the other person confesses. Then, by confessing yourself, you get 3 years instead of 5. Or, imagine that the other person refuses to confess. By confessing, you get to go free rather than spend 1 year in jail.

Yet, if both of you choose this option, then you both get 3 years in prison. Though if you can both refuse to confess, both of you can get out in 1 year. The problem is: How do you get the other person to refuse to confess when, in doing so, he risks having you send him to prison for 5 years while you walk away.

Consider, now, the way that desirism handles this type of case.

Consider, if you will, that the person you were arrested with was somebody you cared about a great deal . . . your child, your spouse, your best friend. Would you confess and send this person to prison for 5 years so that you can walk away? Indeed, I suspect that quite a few of us would not even condemn an innocent stranger to prison for 5 years for our own sake. Of course, if the stranger does not have the same consideration for us - if they "confess" to a crime so that they can walk away and we get the 5 years, we would morally condemn them. We would hold them in such contempt . . . and perhaps plot a bit of revenge when our five years are up. Justice requires it. Morality requires it.

In the context of the Prisoners' Dilemma, desirism offers two types of solutions.

One solution involves promoting a desire to be in the optimum state - in this case, a state of mutual cooperation. Assume for the sake of argument that individuals have such a desire to be in a state of mutual cooperation than it is more valuable than avoiding 3 years of prison. That would change the final payouts to the following:

Now, at least, it is no longer the case that if the other person refuses to confess that you are better off by confessing. You are made better off as well because, by doing so, you create a state of mutual refusal - of helping each other - that you value more than avoiding a year in prison. Yet, if you think that the other person is going to confess, you still have reason to confess as well just to minimize the harm done.

The other solution is to promote an aversion to confessing to something one did not do (and harming another person), and a desire to tell the truth even when a lie would get you out of some serious problem. Let us say that both agents are given an aversion to lying in ways that will harm another with a strength of -2, and a desire to tell the truth equal to 2 units. The negative value experienced here would be the guilt of knowing that you did something to cause an innocent person to be made worse off. The positive value here is pride at knowing that you did the right thing in telling the truth, even though it hurt you.

Now, the payoff chart would look like this:

In this case, you are both spending a year in prison. However, you are both aware of the fact that this was the best option. There is no option that is better. The option of walking away with 0 years of prison, but so much guilt that you would sacrifice 2 years to get rid of it, was a worse option.

These options do not solve the Prisoners' Dilemmas. However, they create a way to prevent them from happening. One does so by altering people's desires so that the cooperative action becomes more attractive and the harmful action becomes associated with guilt and aversion of such strength that it outweighs other positive concerns.

With strong enough moral sentiments, Prisoners' Dilemma types of situations will become quite rare.

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