Prisoner’s Dilemma Essay, Research Paper

The Prisoner’s Dilemma: A Stepping-Stone To The Refutation Of Pure Self-Interest And A Guide To Political And Moral Obligation

The prisoner’s dilemma is a well-known example in moral philosophy that characterizes some of the difficulties that arise when studying moral and justice theory. Throughout this paper it will be used as the vehicle to go from the different ideas of morality and justice. The purpose of this journey is to reach a refutation of pure self-interest, as proposed by Thomas Hobbes, as the guiding principle in considering the morality of actions. Thus this paper will touch on almost all of the different areas covered during the course of the semester and hopes to bind many of them together in a meaningful way.

The prisoner’s dilemma operates in the following manner: Two prisoners, who cooperated in a crime together, are brought before an attorney general, one after the other so that each is unable to learn of the events that take place with their partner. They are told that if they confess to their crimes (i.e. turn their partner in) they themselves will be allowed to walk free while their partner will spend ten years in jail. This is only true however if it is just one of the prisoners who confesses; if both confess then they will each have to spend five years in jail. Finally the third alternative, if neither of the prisoners confesses, is that each will spend one year in jail.

Taking the problem from a strictly individualistic and self-interested point of view the solution seems deceptively obvious: to confess. In this way you, the hypothetical prisoner, are assured of going free which is something that you would want. However the problem is not nearly as simple as this because there is still the factor of the other prisoner to consider. Obviously he would also choose to confess, as it would be in his own best interest as well. But if both confess then each one would be sentenced to five years. This is not the best option for either of them.

Let’s try analyzing the problem in another fashion. If they do confess then one will be let off or they both have to spend five years in jail. If they don’t confess then either they both spend one year “behind bars” or one of them spends ten years there. Looked at in this fashion, from the sum-total of the results of confession vs. non-confession, it is apparent that the most logical thing to do is turn your partner in. In doing so the least unpleasant overall results would occur. However, instead of grouping the results on a confession/non-confession level they could also be grouped according to simple results in order of preference. Such a grouping would be of the form: no time, a year, five years, and ten years. Obviously the first scenario is the most desirable but there is no certain way for either prisoner to achieve it because its coming about rests on what the other prisoner does. To allow for the possibility of such a result at least one confession is required. So from this point of view it is in either prisoner’s best interest to confess to the crime. Each one hopes to be let go but is assured of avoiding the worst case scenario of ten years incarceration.

The problem is set up in such a way that the prisoners are unable to confer with each other, and that the second prisoner is unable to know the decision of the first. If the latter condition were removed then the decision process would instantly be resolved for the second prisoner. However, the alteration of the problem to include the opportunity for discussion brings up further possibilities that deserve attention. It would be unreasonable to think that one of the prisoners would agree to allow the other to confess and not also confess himself. Such an action on the part of the first prisoner would not be in accordance with the doctrine of (pure) self-interest, and so far this is the only standpoint that has been established in this paper. The only agreement that could rationally be made by the prisoners, were they allowed to confer, is for them both to remain silent. This would be the optimific scenario for both them combined as it would lead to a minimum sentence. Anything else and the probability of more jail time goes up for both. This solution falls apart though when the prisoners are once again separated and allowed to make their final decisions alone. There is no reason why either prisoner should want to keep an agreement that they made with the other, now that breaking of the covenant would lead to the better consequence for each one alone. But if they both break their agreement then the result is worse than if they had both remained silent. Such is the paradox that arises when one narrowly follows what is in one’s own best interest. There is however more support for abandoning pure self-interest than just avoiding paradoxical situations.

As has been mentioned before this problem has been approached from the view of pure self-interest alone. If this weren’t the case then there would be other solutions, and more readily available ones. One such approach would be from the standpoint of utilitarianism where the first choice would be to do the most good for the greatest number of people and have neither prisoner confess. This of course assumes that being a utilitarian is the overriding concern and the moral code for either prisoner. In addition another such case would be where one of the prisoners feels that it is their duty to help others as much as possible regardless of the consequences for himself. For such a person, particularly if they know that the other prisoner was motivated by self-interest, the only course of action would be to remain silent, letting the other go free at their own expense. Alternatively the confession of the crime may be part of a moral imperative in itself, regardless of the legal consequences of such an action. This type of reasoning hints at the fact that prisoners might be followers of a Kantian moral code. The point to be made is not to deduce which one of the above alternatives is the correct one, just that they will lead to a more consistent morality and justice than just pure self-interest.

In light of what has been seen it is apparent that either self-interest is an unproductive motive for behavior or that its tenets must be altered slightly. The reason for this conclusion is that as it stands, if everyone were to act purely out of the immediate circumstances in such a way to further their goals then no-one would be able to live in as beneficial a way as they could otherwise. This is an application of Kant’s Categorical Imperative and the testing of a maxim as it would apply to all. In the prisoner’s dilemma this is exemplified by the fact that if both parties act out of pure self-interest then they will both be imprisoned for five years without being allowed to confer or the second knowing the statement of the first. And even if these two conditions are removed the best possible set of circumstances for either are still not necessarily achieved. That is because thinking in a purely self-interested manner falls under the subjective consequentialist’s realm; thus it has an intrinsic quality of only examining short term effects while deliberating on which course of action to take. It is hereby assumed that the reader is familiar with the different forms of consequentialism and how an objective or sophisticated objective consequentialist could never be purely self interested. If the prisoners were to follow less blatantly selfish dictates then better circumstances are possible.

An alteration of pure self-interest commensurate with a more productive motive for behavior would be the consideration and acknowledgement of the behavior of others. In order to create such a proposed system it is necessary that there be some force in existence that binds an individual to keep the agreements that have been made with another individual. In the case of the prisoner’s dilemma there would then be no question of either party breaking their agreement of silence and so each would only be in jail for one year instead of the five that would occur otherwise. Certainly one way of ensuring that agreements are kept is if there is some physical or psychological pressure imposed upon those included in the contract such that it becomes undesirable for anyone to break an agreement. An example of such pressure would be the fear of what the prisoner who was faced with jail would do to the one who broke the agreement after he was released from jail! This can not only be seen as enforcement but also both prisoners looking out for their long-term best interests. They thus become objective consequentialists because objective consequentialism has the effect of long-term consequences and subsequently the actions/effects with regards to others built into it.

The actual solution to the problem lies in an analytic interpretation of the idea of contracts (and pure self-interest) itself. As Immanuel Kant applies the Categorical Imperative to the validity of lying, a similar train of thought be used as with regards pure self-interest. This was briefly discussed previously but now will be expanded further and also used to encompass the idea of upholding one’s contracts. The Categorical Imperative states, with respect to lying, that such a practice is invalid because if everybody lied then there would be no point in doing so. The purpose of lying is to make others believe you and this would surely not be the case if everyone always suspected an untruth. This procedure, while applicable to the moral considerations of certain practices, can also be used to test if an action is logically self-defeating or not. As the analogy goes, if nobody were obliged to keep their promises (obey the contracts that they have made) then the result would be a world where people were living in a less beneficial way then if they did keep them. Since the thrust of this argument is centered around the idea of self-interest, it becomes obvious that the conclusion must be that it is not in anyone’s self-interest to act out of pure self-interest. Thus contracts with others must be honored in order to preserve the world in a more beneficial state.

In a state of nature man is left to his own devices for his survival and comfort. In such a state he is also acting according to the impulses of pure self-interest; in that what he does has no connection with anything other than him. This state is one where everyone must beware of his neighbors. There is no assurance that they will not do onto him the things he could potentially do to them. It is in fact a state of complete paranoia. This can hardly be the best way to live life. From this state of nature a need for a symbiotic society develops. Personal diligence/self interest alone is not enough to create the most productive and beneficial state for the world as a whole. In entering such a society a contract is agreed upon with the sovereign power that will rule the people and it is with this first step that the disadvantages of a purely self-interested motivation are seen and the philosophy loses its place as the main driving factor in action. In following, and maintaining, the system that they have now become a part of they are obligated, through their consent to the contract, to uphold their end of it and obey those instructions that the sovereign gives to them in their own best interest. In turn it is the sovereign’s responsibility to see that he uphold the part of his contract that proclaims that he will give rules/regulations to the people that are in their own interest.

It is an interesting point that if the prisoner’s dilemma is to be considered in light of the citizen’s duty to the state, they are in fact obligated to confess their crimes. This is apparent by the fact that all citizens in contracting to enter society are agreeing to withhold from those criminal acts that the prisoners are responsible for. Once the prisoners committed their crimes they broke their contract with the state and were placed in an at least a temporary state of nature. If they wish to be released from prison, and so re-enter society, they must do so by contracting again and doing everything that they can to preserve it. In doing so they must acknowledge their crimes so that the authorities are able to act in such a way that the wrong done is corrected. Ironically enough the very same argument that says the prisoners should act out of self-interest by keeping their agreement of silence, compels them to confess. In any consideration of political obligation it is then necessary to look for the terms of agreement in the contract between the individual and the state. If an action were to break this agreement then it is the obligation of the individual to not perform that action.

There are situations in which a question of political duty cannot be answered by only one solution and in such cases it is necessary to look for another system of behavior that would determine the right course of action. This paper acknowledges that the political contract need not be the highest motivation driving a man’s actions. In such a situation another viable system is that of moral obligation, where certain actions may have no more (discernable) political worth than another, but may be judged for their worth according to moral principles. Before going on to describe the principles discussed so far as they relate to morality it should be mentioned that by placing moral obligation under political obligation it is not a proclamation of politics being better than morality as a motivation for action. It is simply that when considering self-interest as it relates to politics, the political aspects must be considered first. Similarly in the following discussion on morality the moral aspects will be considered first, and the political second. The question as to which system of obligation actually takes precedence (if any) for the self-interested is beyond the scope of this essay.

On first thought it may seem that pure self-interest and morality have nothing to do with each other. For morality is generally thought of as relating to metaphysical questions regarding what is right and what is wrong rather than how the individual should act to benefit the most. However, even if there is no motivational connection between the two, there is at least a connection in the similarity of actions that are resulted by each. Additionally the concept of abiding by contracts (keeping agreements, promises) is a focus point of this essay in relation to self-interest, and is dealt with to a great extent by both morality and rational egoism. Utilitarianism has already been cited in this essay. It deals with the greatest good for the greatest number, and the similarities between it and self-interest. But the most interesting of moral systems to look at is that of moral justice, where the assumptions of motivation are clearly different from that of self-interest. An act is either wrong or right, not because of its effects on the individual in a specific manner (act consequentialism), but because of a universal and metaphysical rule (rule consequentialism). Further, although moral justice is a universal concept, applying to all equally, self-interest is not – as one individual’s needs differ from those of another.

The teachings of rule morality which advise a certain action, or lack of action, are in many ways similar to the religious commands of various faiths. Take as an example, “Thou shalt not kill.” The tenet holds that you should not kill rather than that you cannot kill. In fact the strength of rule morality lies arguably in the fact that the moral agent is free to choose between right and wrong. Since there is this free choice of action, the moral decision comes under the heading of an obligation rather than a necessity, for necessity excludes choice. Notice the distinction between the self- interested doctrine, used in the prisoner’s dilemma (i.e. the agreement to certain action or inaction because you don’t want others to do to you as you could potentially do to them otherwise) and that of rule consequentialism or justice. The former is agreed upon because of individualistic concerns, whereas the latter (”Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”) is motivated by a universal code. The idea of pure self-interest is difficult to adopt even from the viewpoint of the rational egoist, as has been demonstrated, but it is impossible for it to be accepted from a rule consequentialist’s viewpoint. This is because someone who is purely self-interested can never be consistent in following a moral code. The only constant for such a person is, paradoxically, inconsistency. Not only do the motives of the two philosophies not match, but also neither would the actions.

The prisoner’s dilemma serves as a ground work for the refutation of pure self-interest, and as a basis for the need of obligation to contracts, it also demonstrates a further fact which can finally be claimed after the analysis of moral obligation. This is the observation that those members of a society, other than the individual concerned, must be considered. It has been used as a basis to link an underlying concept in both ethics and justice theory and that is the concept of obligation.


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