Category Archives: Philosophy

Three Keys to Successful Parenting

Now that Madeline is two, it seems appropriate to declare myself a success as a parent. Which means it’s now appropriate for those of you with kids (as well as those of you thinking about having or abducting kids) to ask me, “Joel, what’s your secret?” Which means it’s now appropriate for me to say “I’m glad you asked,” and then write a blog post about it.

1. Improv

I’m sure many of you wondered why I took all those improv classes, and why I made you come watch my improvised musical where we could only use words that started with a letter suggested by the audience, and why I didn’t stop the guy in the second row from choosing ‘X’, and why my song “Xerox Xevious” sounded exactly like “Summer of ’69.”

Well, it turns out that improv is a very easy way to become a better parent. (And that all of my songs sound exactly like “Summer of ’69”.)

Before improv

“Daddy, can I have some more candy?”
“No. Go to bed.”

After improv

“Daddy, can I have some more candy?”
Yes, and after your teeth rot and you become obese and get diabetes and have to have your foot amputated, then you should go to bed.”

Before improv

“Daddy, where do babies come from?”
“Go ask your mother.”

After improv

“Daddy, where do babies come from?”
[sits down on a plain black box, mimes that it’s maybe some kind of pirate seat on some kind of pirate boat, and starts in a pirate accent] “Yarr, ye land lubbers always be asking me questions about babies … [10 minute monologue in a pirate voice about pirate-y things that cleverly reincorporates elements from earlier in the conversation] Arr, go ask the first mate!”

Before improv

“Daddy, I need to go to the bathroom.”
“Again? You just went!”

After improv

“Daddy, I need to go to the bathroom.”
“DING! Now in the style of Shakespeare.”
“Daddy, I need to go to the bathroom!”
“DING! Now in the style of film noir.”
“Daddy, I NEED to GO to the BATHROOM!”
“DING! Now in the style of a fetish video.”
“Daddy, I peed my pants.”
“And scene!”

2. Radical Libertarianism

Most books (with the notable exception of *Praxeological Parenting*) will tell you that moderate libertarianism is all you need to be a good parent. But there are a great many parenting problems that a belief in the night-watchman state does little to solve.

For instance, when your kid doesn’t want to go to school because it’s a brainwashing factory designed to grind young impressionable minds into submission by (among other things) forbidding them from leaving their seats or talking “out of turn” or using the restroom without first obtaining permission, the moderate libertarian answer is typically to offer them a voucher that covers the tuition to a different brainwashing factory. Your kid is unlikely to find this satisfying, for obvious reasons.

Similarly, when your kid wants to BitTorrent the Criterion Director’s Cut version of Dora the Explorer, the wishy-washy moderate libertarian “you wouldn’t download a Dora the Explorer handbag!” position on intellectual property is not going to make her particularly happy.

And what will you tell her when she asks (as all kids inevitably do) how granting a monopoly on violence could possibly be a good way to prevent monopolies and violence? Or why the dinosaurs on “Dinosaur Train” are able to peaceably resolve their various conflicts despite living approximately 66 million years before the invention of government? Or why it’s OK for the government to take pieces of paper out of daddy’s wallet just as long as they don’t take too many, while she gets punished for taking even one, and don’t try to give me any of that John Rawls “veil of ignorance” stuff, I might have bought that crap when I was an infant, but now that I’m TWO YEARS OLD the flaws in his “logic” are pretty glaringly obvious?

Whereas radical libertarianism easily sidesteps all these problems, making parenting a breeze (relatively speaking).

3. Trolling

Did you ever imagine that all those years you wasted trolling that idiot Marxist kid on LiveJournal debate would end up being useful? Because they are! Kids love being trolled! Love it! Here are a few of Madeline’s favorite trolls:

“My Hippo”

This one’s easy, you just pick up something that belongs to the kid (e.g. a stuffed hippo) and troll that it’s yours:

“Hey, my hippo.”
“No, MY hippo!”
“I’m pretty sure this is daddy’s hippo.”
“No, MY hippo!”
“Does it have your name on it?”
“MY hippo!”
“It was just lying on the floor and I homesteaded it.”
“MY hippo!”
“Have your protection agency call my protection agency and maybe we can work something out.”
“MY hippo!”
“Behind the veil of ignorance it could just as easily have been my hippo.”
“MY hippo!”
[ several hundred lines of dialogue removed due to space constraints ]
“Yeah, but what does it really mean to ‘own’ something?”
“MY hippo!”
“And scene!”

“Science Project”

Part of being a parent is helping your kids with science projects, so help them “demonstrate” something that isn’t real, like cold fusion, or quantum computing, or evolution. Chances are their teachers won’t know the difference, which makes it also work on another level.

“9/11 Trutherism”

Kids will believe just about anything, even that that third WTC 7 skyscraper would just collapse on its own despite not even being hit by a plane. Even so, it’s not very hard to convince them that the towers were brought down on 9/11 by controlled demolition using explosives secretly planted in advance by the government in order to create an excuse to invade Iraq and Afghanistan in order to pave the way for a new American hegemony. And then they’ll repeat this on the playground, and then you’ll get called in for a parent-teacher conference at which you can reveal that you’d assumed that she’d picked these theories from the playground, which means that if she didn’t then maybe she just came up with them on her own? And that if the official narrative is so shoddy that a 2-year-old can pick holes in it, then maybe Alex Jones is onto something!

“The Craigslist Experiment”

OK, so possibly there are some kinds of trolling kids don’t like.

Fiction: The Difference Principle

Jessica pointed at a pile of rags beside a dumpster.

“This is the guy?” I asked.  I looked up and down the filthy alley we were standing in.  “This is a person?”

“It is,” she said tentatively, and then she checked the little brown Moleskine she carried everywhere.  “It is,” she repeated more confidently.  “A lot of them aren’t even this clean, so you’d better get used to it.”

“Sir?”  I crouched down closer to what I assumed was his head, trying to ignore the stench of cigarette smoke and sour beer and body odor.  “Sir?”  I asked again.

“Go ‘way.”  The voice sounded rusty, as if it weren’t used very often, but it was indeed coming from where I’d guessed his head was.  “Leave me ‘lone.”

“Keith Runson?” I asked.  I’d memorized the name on the drive over.  The pile shifted.

“Who’s askin’?”

“My name is Harry…”  Jessica kicked me, and I immediately remembered that we weren’t supposed to tell them our names.  Shit.  But this guy didn’t seem like he’d remember it, so I kept going. “We’re from Original Position.”

He poked his head out of the blankets. His hair and face clearly hadn’t been washed in months, he had the decrepit teeth common to those who prioritized drug abuse over hygiene, and his eyes were pretty much the saddest I’d ever seen.  The computer clearly knew its business.

“The char’ty?” he asked.

I puzzled over my answer for too long, and Jessica stepped in.  “Original Position is not a charity.  It’s a fundamental part of the social contract.”

“I never no signed no contract,” he objected.

“No,” Jessica explained, in a tone indicating that she’d delivered this exact explanation countless times before, “but you would have…”

“I never would have signed no contract,” he insisted.

“Maybe not in your lifetime,” she told him, “but before you were born you certainly would have. This is well understood.”

“Before I was born I ain’t would have signed no contract!”

“Before you even knew who you were,” Jessica patiently explained.  “Back when you didn’t know if you’d be the President or if you’d be … well … you.”

“I am me,” he growled.

“You’re not just you,” Jessica told him.  “According to our computers you’re the worst-off person in the United States.”

“Well, fuck you!”  He spat at her, but she didn’t flinch.  She’d warned me that they often got angry.  It was an occupational hazard.

“Don’t spit,” she patiently chided him.  “We’re here to help.  Before you were born, back behind the Veil of Ignorance, you would have wanted to live in a society that focused on the well-being of the worst-off-person.”

“I’m not that ignorant,” he objected.  “And you don’t know what I would have wanted.”

She ignored his objection.  “Right now you are that worst-off person.  And so we’re here to make you better off.  What would you like?  Within reason it’s yours.  Food?  Shelter?  Toilets?  A job?”

“Booze,” he wheezed.  “I want booze.”

Nine times out of ten they want booze.  They’d warned us in training.  I opened the unlabeled messenger bag Original Position had given me and pulled out a bottle of cheap whiskey.  He grabbed it out of my hand, opened it, and started drinking before I could say anything.

“Congratulations, Mister Runson,” Jessica told him.  “You’re no longer the worst-off person.”  I don’t think he even heard her.

“What did you think of your first assignment?” she asked me as we walked back to the car.

I thought for a while before I asked, “Was it really a good idea to give him whiskey?”  I didn’t feel like we’d been particularly philanthropic.

“A good idea?  Probably not.  Possibly he’ll end up on our list again someday.  But for the meantime he’s no longer the worst-off person, which means that our attention is needed elsewhere.”

“I didn’t realize it would be so depressing,” I told her.

“Rawls didn’t call his book A Theory of Why Justice is Fun.  Just wait until you get a quadriplegic.”

I tried not to think about that.

“Let’s see who’s next.”  She opened up the Moleskine.  “Ooh, child abuse!”

Endogeneity, or “The Skill of the Brewmeister”

The latest OkCupid blog post is one of their more interesting ones:

No matter their gender or orientation, beer-lovers are 60% more likely to be okay with sleeping with someone they’ve just met. Sadly, this is the only question with a meaningful correlation for women.

Of course, once every dude starts asking this question on the first date and every girl figures out that her answer is a signal of how easy she is, the correlation will almost surely vanish. Even if a woman is willing to put out on the first date, that doesn’t mean she wants to advertise the fact early on. (It’s at least possible that I am out of touch with the youth of America and am wrong about this.)

Accordingly, I predict a brief surge in beer-lover questions (and guys trying to bring their first dates to Bierstubes, Bierhausen, Bierhalls, and the like), followed by the evolution of non-committal, correlation-breaking answers to “do you like the taste of beer?” like

  • Only if it comes from a big keg,
  • It depends on the skill of the brewmeister, and
  • I do like the taste of beer, but not on the first date.

If OkCupid were evil (which they probably are, now that they’re a division of IAC), they’d instead sell a limited number of subscriptions to this sort of information, so that dudes could use these questions without having to worry that the dating pool had been overfished.

If they were really evil (which they probably are, now that they’re a division of IAC), they’d report false correlations and then laugh at people who tried to put them into practice. However, I assume that if they’d done this they would have chosen a funnier question than “Do you like the taste of beer?”

I’ll explore this further in my next post, “The Only Question That Correlates With Whether Women Put Out Is ‘Did you ever find Bugs Bunny attractive when he put on a dress and played girl bunny?'”

Sam Harris is Nonsensical in Principle

In my younger days, when I was full of libertarian bluster, I used to formulate arguments in terms of “Natural Rights.” Murder was Wrong (with a capital ‘W’) because it violated your “right to life.” I used to go on like this all day, until finally my friend Cesar (I think) kindly pointed out that I was full of shit.

I’m still full of libertarian bluster, I suppose, although you’d never in a million years catch me arguing based on “natural rights,” which (after my youthful indiscretions) I came to realize represent either religious (“they’re the rights god gave us”) or pseudo-religious (“they’re self-evident!”) attempts to create an “objective” basis for one’s policy preferences. (As a general rule, if most people refuse to agree with a proposition even after you’ve made your best case for it, it’s not “self-evident.”)

There’s no shortage of people who want an “objective” basis for their policy preferences. It turns them from opinions (e.g. “it’s my opinion that we should pay teachers more”) or hypothetical imperatives (e.g. “if we want to make teaching a more attractive profession, we should pay teachers more”) or self-interest (e.g. “speaking as a teacher, we should pay teachers more”) into “facts” (e.g. “it’s a fact that we should pay teachers more”) and “morals” (e.g. “if you don’t think we should pay teachers more, you’re a moral reprobate”). You can argue against opinions, but you can’t argue against facts! You can rail against self-interest, but not against morals!

It’s a nice sleight of hand when you can pull it off. Unfortunately, you usually can’t. Neither can Sam Harris, who has a new book out claiming that “science has a universal moral code.”

The book’s not quite out yet, but he’s posted an excerpt online.

Since it’s Sam Harris, his purpose is of course to debunk one of the arguments for god:

The defense one most often hears for belief in God is not that there is compelling evidence for His existence, but that faith in Him is the only reliable source of meaning and moral guidance.

It’s true that this is sometimes offered (I wouldn’t say “most often”) as a defense of religon. In my own book it’s addressed in chapter 85: “But without religion…”

Some people argue that religion is a necessary source of morality, and that if people all realized their religions were false, they would no longer have any incentives to fly airplanes into skyscrapers, to chop off the tips of their babies’ penises, to restrict poor people’s access to contraception, to censor cartoons, to make it difficult to purchase liquor on Sundays, to stone homosexuals, or to murder apostates and heathens. Society, they argue, would subsequently break down.

Of course, the sensible’s person rejoinder to this is that the truth of a belief is independent of its consequences. And anyway we don’t need an absolute morality, we just need a set of rules to help us get along. We don’t want to be murdered, and we don’t want our friends and neighbors to be murdered, so we outlaw murder and we punish murderers. We (ideally) enact new rules if they seem necessary and (ideally) repeal them if they seem counterproductive. There’s no need to embarrass ourselves by dragging philosophy into things and trying to make metaphysical statements about murder in the abstract.

It’s disappointing, then, that Harris’s klugy response is to advocate for a “science” of morality. Science is (among other things) a spirit of inquiry. If you’re serious about using science to solve a problem, then you’re committing to accepting science’s answer whatever it turns out to be.

If you believe that science can make a statement that (say) child abuse is wrong in some absolute sense, then you’re tacitly accepting that new evidence might reveal that child abuse is not actually wrong. If you’re not open to that possibility, then you’re not doing science. You can call it science, but it’s not science.

Maybe he doesn’t care. (Or maybe he’s open to the possibility that child abuse might be “moral,” but I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt.) Maybe he’s only interested in the name:

But whether morality becomes a proper branch of science is not really the point. Is economics a true science yet?

I’m not sure whether economics is a “true science.” But most honest economists are forthright that the scientific part of what they do is only the positive part. Economics can tell you which allocation rules satisfy certain “fairness” criteria. But it can’t tell you which criteria are the correct ones.

Look, I think murder is awful. But I don’t pretend that this is some sort of scientific judgment. It’s my opinion, and luckily most everyone else agrees with me.

You know what else is awful? Putting people in jail because they like to use drugs. It’s wicked, it’s evil, it’s barbaric, it’s disgusting, it’s shameful, it’s every bad adjective you could apply to it. This is as plainly obvious to me as is my feeling that murder is awful. And I’m not just talking marijuana. I’m talking heroin, cocaine, opium, you name it. Somehow, though, most people disagree with me. Most scientific people disagree with me. Of course, I’m right and they’re wrong. But science is powerless to settle this dispute. Science tells you what drugs do and what happens when you mix them and how to get a better high. Science tells you the likely consequences of your policy of throwing drug users in prison. But science doesn’t tell you whether it’s evil to throw drug users in prison. Science can’t tell you whether it’s evil to throw drug users in prison. Science can’t tell you how to find “peaks” on a “moral landscape” because there’s no such thing as a “moral landscape.”

This isn’t a problem unless you decide to start worrying about the bizarrely abstract:

Imagine how terrifying it would be if great numbers of smart people became convinced that all efforts to prevent a global financial catastrophe, being mere products of culture, must be either equally valid or equally nonsensical in principle. And yet this is precisely where most intellectuals stand on the most important questions in human life.

I’ve puzzled over this section for a long time, and I can’t make the slightest sense of it. Whether you’re evaluating “efforts to prevent a catastrophe” or “the most important questions in human life,” you ought to be concerned with practical things like “whether they’ll work” and “what side effects they’ll have” and “how much they’ll cost.” Worrying which ones are “valid in principle” (whatever on earth that means) is a perfect way to waste time and not solve anything. Not unlike the new Harris book, I suspect.

Blasphemy and Forced Reverence

On Facebook I list my Religious Views as “irreverence,” which is pretty perfectly descriptive. This means that you can believe any crazy thing you want, but I’m allowed to make fun of you for it if I like. Basically, I’m under no obligation to “respect” your beliefs just because they’re your beliefs. I’ll respect them if they strike me as, well, respectworthy, and I won’t if they don’t.

(Curiously, this makes me a dick, while the infinitely more grotesque “you believe what you want, but if it’s different from what I believe then Jesus is going to torture you forever” is considered in perfectly good taste. Go figure.)

In areas other than religion this approach to respect is totally non-controversial. No one demands that you respect your neighbor’s furry lifestyle, your parents’ musical tastes, or your ex-girlfriend’s body-art aesthetics.

But as soon as someone calls those beliefs “religion,” your lack of respect instantly becomes the awful crime of blasphemy:

Blasphemy is irreverence toward holy personages, religious artifacts, customs, and beliefs.

Now, blasphemy itself represents a proud religious tradition. Abraham, the founder of Judaism, blasphemed against the gods of his day (although eventually his followers decided that blasphemy against their beliefs was in fact a capital offense). Jesus blasphemed against the Jewish faith (although eventually his followers declared that blasphemy against their beliefs was in fact the one unforgiveable sin.) Muhammad blasphemed against the polytheistic Meccans (although eventually his followers decided that the penalty for blasphemy against their beliefs might include flogging, amputation, or beheading).

In every case there was a tension between

* what those in power wanted, and
* what the little guy thought was true

Abraham was the “little guy” standing up to the much more powerful idolators. Jesus was the “little guy” standing up to the Jewish establishment. Mohammed was the “little guy” standing up to the Meccans. In the unlikely event that any of their stories actually happened, then most surely they were attacked at the time for being “un-Meccan” or “contrary to Judean values” or “dangerous to our troops in Afghanistan.”

In fact, the whole concept of “blasphemy” boils down to the position “I’m more powerful than you are, and I’ll punish you if you don’t revere all the arbitrary things I say you should.” Contra Obama, if anything is “contrary to what this country stands for,” it’s that. In North Korea, you revere whatever they tell you to. In Afghanistan, you revere whatever they tell you to. In Soviet Russia, you revere whatever they tell you to. (Alternatively, “In Soviet Russia, Quran burns you.”)

In America, you revere whatever the fuck you want. If you want to draw a cartoon, you draw that cartoon. If you want to set a flag on fire, you set that flag on fire. If you want to put a skit on national TV that makes fun of the President, you put that skit on TV. If you want to make a musical that mocks the Book of Mormon, you make that musical. And, yes, if you want to set a “holy” book on fire, then you set that book on fire. The fact that the only people willing to take a stand on this are right-for-the-wrong-reasons lunatics like Terry Jones and Fred Phelps is so disturbing that it keeps me up at night.

Book Burnings and “Americanism”

You have, I’m sure, heard the news that a church in Florida plans to acquire multiple copies of the Quran and burn them. The reaction I’ve seen from the “Muslim world” ranges from “that’s how you dispose of them anyway, so knock yourself out” to “I’m going to kill you.” Possibly there’s a middle ground (“that’s how you dispose of them anyway, so I’m going to kill you”?) but I’m not terribly interested in finding it.

The reaction from the “American world” is far more interesting, encompassing everything from “that’s how you dispose of them anyway, so knock yourself out,” to “you’ll just make the people who are already trying to kill our troops in Afghanistan want to kill our troops in Afghanistan,” to “someone ought to write a Bradburyesque novel about book-burnings,” to “can’t we get the EPA to do something, like maybe make them buy carbon offsets?” to “we tried that with the Beatles and it didn’t work,” to “burning books is ‘un-American’.”

This last I find the most curious, as “American” is a surprisingly slippery adjective. Of course when you use it the old-fashioned way like “American citizen” (a citizen of America) or “American Bandstand” (the best-loved bandstand in America) or “American Idol” (that one American we’ve agreed as a society to idolize this year) it’s clear what it means.

When we start describing actions or principles as “American” or “un-American,” it’s a little bit tougher. Nonetheless, most people agree that certain basic freedoms like “freedom of speech” and “freedom of the press” and “freedom to own a semi-automatic rifle” should be rightly understood as “American,” even if we disagree on other ancillary freedoms like “freedom to prohibit speech that offends me” and “freedom to prohibit journalism that offends me” and “freedom to bring my emotional support dog into the grocery store even though it reliably craps in the frozen food aisle.”

How about book-burning? Well, the principle that “if you buy something, then it’s yours” seems pretty “American,” as does the principle “if you own something, then you’re allowed to dispose of it.” No less an “American” body than the Supreme Court seems (or seemed) to believe that symbolically burning things you own is an exercise of your First Amendment rights. These would all seem to tip the scale toward “American.”

Surely there’s a good case for “un-American,” though. For instance, the State Department spokesperson P.J. Crowley points out that “It doesn’t represent the vast majority of American views.” Of course, by this “vast majority rules” criterion, Islam itself would also count as “un-American,” so maybe it’s not the best example.

When pressed on the matter, Crowley further pointed out that the burning is “a divisive potential act of disrespect to one of the world’s great religions.”

It’s hard to know which is the “un-American” part. Perhaps it’s that it’s “divisive,” so that (for instance) a unifying act of disrespect would in fact be totally “American.” Or perhaps it’s that Islam is one of the world’s “great” religions, and that a divisive act of disrespect to a “lesser” religion would be “American.” But most likely it’s the “disrespect.”

Somewhere (but certainly not from me) people seem to have gotten the notion that treating all beliefs with respect is some sort of mark of well-manneredness or (I suppose) “American-ness.” To which I must protest. There’s nothing “American” about “respecting” beliefs you don’t find respectworthy. In fact, “South Park,” the most “American” (according to me) of all shows has as its raison d’etre mocking beliefs its creators don’t find respectworthy. If it were up to me, the First Amendment would be updated to include an explicit “Freedom to Mock,” which is one of the most important aspects of free speech but which routinely gets sacrificed on the altar of some spurious (and decidedly “un-American”) freedom from being offended.

Nonetheless, this Quran-burning debate has gotten extremely tiresome and is (in particular) distracting Drudge from covering more important topics like Al Sharpton’s insolvent nonprofit and how San Francisco street people are reacting to the elimination of the “dollar menu” at their favorite McDonalds.

So, Pastor Jones, I have a proposition for you. I know a book that’s even wickeder than the Quran, that burns quite well, and that’s available at Amazon with free super-saver shipping. Although I can’t imagine that our friends in the government would really get worked up about how “un-American” a Your Religion Is False burning is, my publisher would be totally stoked.

And if you really want to burn in bulk, I can offer you some volume discounts that are, if I may borrow your vernacular, pretty miraculous. You know how to contact me.

On the Proper Role of Government in a Free Society

There are various opinions and debates over the “proper” roles of government, but I’m pretty sure that combing the Indian Ocean to find a missing 16-year-old who’s sailing around the world by herself in order to break a world record isn’t one of them:

Abby Sunderland’s family was talking with U.S. and international governments about organizing a search of the remote ocean between southern Africa and Australia, family spokesman Christian Pinkston said.


“We’ve got to get a plane out there quick,” said Pinkston, who was in close contact with Sunderland’s family in Thousand Oaks.

“They are exhausting every resource to try to mobilize an air rescue including discussions with the U.S. State Department, the U.S. Coast Guard and various international rescue organizations,” he said.

I hope the girl is OK and everything, but the State Department and Coast Guard better send the bill to her family, not to the rest of us.

Great Ethicists, Webcomics, Game Theory, and the Iterated Prisoner’s Dilemma

The webcomic Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal today covers one of my favorite topics: Game Theory and the Social Contract.

The game theory, unfortunately, is not done very carefully. Here’s the Prisoner’s Dilemma setup:

RAT OUT Both get 1 year in prison 1 goes free, 2 gets 5 years
REMAIN SILENT 2 goes free, 1 gets 5 years Both get 6 months

In this table, player 1 chooses the row and player 2 chooses the column. If both REMAIN SILENT, both get 6 months in prison. If each RATS OUT the other, both get 1 year in prison. And if one RATS OUT and the other REMAINS SILENT, the rat goes free and the mute gets 5 years in prison.

Here’s how the comic summarizes things:

So, even though [the bottom right corner] is the best choice, the perfectly rational people pick [the top left corner].

Now, the bottom right corner is emphatically not the “best choice.” For starters, given our setup, we’re not choosing a corner. One person chooses a row, and (completely separately) one person chooses a column. There’s no way to choose a corner, and therefore there’s no “best choice” of corner.

But let’s ignore this nitpick and assume he said “best outcome.” Even this isn’t true. Player 1 would be better off with the top right corner, and player 2 would be better with the bottom left corner. This would seem to disqualify the bottom right corner as being “best.” What he probably meant to say is that it’s better than the top left corner, which happens to be the “rational” (i.e. dominant strategy equilibrium) outcome.

In fact, this is the point of the prisoner’s dilemma: no matter what the other player does, your best choice is to RAT OUT, and so the outcome when “rational” people play is the top left corner. Which is worse for both players than if they’d both REMAINED SILENT. Hence the dilemma. “Everyone act rational” doesn’t always lead to optimal outcomes.

The comic then tries to apply this model to morality. The “great ethicists of history,” it turns out, have been trying to convince people to pick [sic] the bottom right corner. (As mentioned above, we’ll assume that the comic really means that they’re trying to convince people to pick STAY SILENT.) The utilitarian Bentham is pictured trying to convince people that the bottom right corner is utilitarianly awesome. And the damnitarian Jesus is pictured trying to convince people that the top left corner will land you in hell for eternity.

In short, each is trying to artificially change the payoffs of the game. Bentham is trying to convince you to that you should care about the total time spent in prison by both players, not just the time spent by you. It’s easy to see why this is an uphill battle. (Furthermore, all this does is turn the game into a pure coordination game with three different equilibria, one of which is still [RAT OUT, RAT OUT]. Smooth move, Bentham!)

Jesus, on the other hand, is (according to the comic) trying to convince you that the payoff in the top left corner is actually more like infinitely many years in prison. Since game theory doesn’t do well with infinite payoffs, this actually results in a game with no equilibrium, which seems like kind of a dick-ish thing to do. However, it seems weird to condemn someone only if both he and his opponent RAT OUT. A more reasonable Lord-of-the-Universe thing to do would be to give you hugely-negative payoff whenever you RAT OUT, regardless of what your opponent does. And in that case it’s a dominant-strategy equilibrium to keep your mouth shut. (Unfortunately, Jesus ruined his “ethicist” credibility by insisting that the same infinite punishments also apply to people who commit the prisoner’s-dilemma-unrelated “crime” of not accepting him as their personal savior.)

Independent of our ethicists, the game we’ve described is not a particularly compelling model of morality. Life contains plenty of “cooperate or defect” situations, sure, but for the most part these situations occur repeatedly with the same cast of characters. Imagine that you and I play the above-described game day after day after day. (You’ll probably have to change the payoffs to involve money or pain or something, since playing a “go to prison for a year” game every day doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. Just make sure to keep the same strategic structure and relative payoffs.)

It turns out (thanks, Robert Aumann) that when you repeat the prisoner’s dilemma indefinitely, suddenly ratting out isn’t so rational. Imagine that I’m willing to KEEP SILENT for as long as you do, but if you ever RAT OUT then I’ll start RATTING OUT for the rest of time. It’s not hard to see that if you adopt the same strategy, we can land in the bottom right corner over and over and over again, because the one-time payoff from defecting would be vastly outweighed by the ensuing sequence of top-left outcomes. As long as we’re describing repeated interactions, there’s not a lot of a problem.

Another criticism of this line of modeling is that many situations where we’d normally think to apply “morality” are unilateral ones, not strategic ones. “Thou shalt not kill,” “thou shalt not steal,” and similar rules are all decision-theoretic prescriptions, not game-theoretic ones. The Prisoner’s Dilemma (and game theory more generally) describes situations where the outcome to me depends both on my decisions and on yours. But (for example) my decision whether to steal from you is not typically co-mingled with your simultaneous decision whether to steal from me. My decision whether to steal from you probably has more to do with the (implicit or explicit) “social contract” that society has in place.

(Of course you could construct a Prisoner’s-Dilemma-flavored model in which every day you and I decide whether to rob each other, but you’d have a hard time convincing me that your model was in any way a representation of the actual choices and incentives that each of us faces in today’s world.)

In fact, there are some pretty interesting game theoretic considerations that come into play when we think about the (theoretical) adoption of such a social contract, which involves strategy all around. But that’s probably a little much to fit into a webcomic.