The Prisoners' Dilemma. Are We All Prisoners?

1783 words - 7 pages

Does meeting one's obligations to others serve one's self-interest? The logical answer as presented in many philosophers and humanists' views is NO. Hobbes considers the challenge of a "Foole", who claims that it is irrational to honor an agreement made with another who has already fulfilled his part of the agreement. Noting that in this situation one has gained all the benefit of the other's compliance, the Foole contends that it would now be best for him to break the agreement, thereby saving himself the costs of compliance. Of course, if the Foole's analysis of the situation is correct, then would the other party to the agreement not anticipate the Foole's response to agreements honored, and act accordingly?David Hume (1711-1776) seemed to pose this same question in the so-called "Farmer's dilemma":Two neighboring farmers each expect a bumper crop of corn. Each will require his neighbor's help in harvesting his corn when it ripens, or else a substantial portion will rot in the field. Since their corn will ripen at different times, the two farmers can ensure full harvests for themselves by helping each other when their crops ripen, and both know this. Yet the farmers do not help each other. For the farmer whose corn ripens later(farmer 2) reasons that if he were to help the other farmer (farmer 1), then when his own corn ripens farmer 1 would be in the position of Hobbes' Foole, having already benefited from his help: farmer 1 would no longer have anything to gain from him, so he would not help him, sparing himself the hard labor of a second harvest. Farmer 2 cannot expect farmer 1 to return his aid when the time comes, thus farmer 2 will not help the other when his corn ripens.This was the precursor of the well-known "Prisoners' Dilemma" (a game invented at Princeton's Institute of Advanced Science in 1950s), which similarly confronts people with logic of rational and irrational. The situation is as follows: Two prisoners, held in separate cells are offered a deal: the one who testifies against the other will go free, while the other one will receive 3 years in prison.If they both testify against each other , each will receive 2 years. If they both remain silent, they will both be convicted and serve one year. Thus, there are two alternatives: to cooperate (in this scenario, to remain silent) or to defect (here meaning to confess). There are four possible outcomes, which all depend on the partner's move: they may serve 0, 1, 2, 3 or 4 years (cooperation means to serve either 1 or 3 years, while defecting means to serve 0 or 2 years).Not knowing whether they can trust each other, the most rational thing to do is to defect in order to maximize the upside (0 years) and minimize the downside (only 2 years instead of 3). The outcome is consistently better for cooperation than for defection. Yet, the dilemma resides here in the fact that each prisoner has a choice between only two options but it is impossible to make a good decision without knowing...

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