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Payoff and Right.

Aziz writes:
I may have read Keith wrongly, but it seems that he explains Hoftstadter's colleagues' defection as a simple function of humans being flawed. Namely, the "right" thing to do was to cooperate, and they were "wrong" to defect. This view is of course founded on the a-priori assumption that cooperation still is the "right" course of action, and any deviation from that course is the result of a flawed analysis."

I did couch a potential explanation their defection in those terms, but not because I was a priori associating cooperation with ‘right’ and defection with ‘wrong’. Hofstadter says the point of the Platonia Dilemma game is to maximize one’s individual return. According to the Platonia pay-off matrix, if everyone cooperates, each will receive the most money ($57). That maximal monetary return is the point of favoring cooperation in this analysis, regardless of whether we consider cooperation the ‘right thing to do.’ (I cooperated because I thought it was the ‘right thing to do’ but Aziz appears to conflate my motives with my analysis of Hoftadter’s colleagues.)

As an individual entering into the Platonia Dilemma, I must seek to maximize my return. I recognize that if I cooperate AND everyone else cooperates, I’ll get the maximal return possible. However, I have to judge the likelihood that everyone else will cooperate, because my pay-off is dependent on the choices of others. Hofstadter thought that each actor would recognize that all the other actors are rational decision-makers and cooperate based on trust that others would as well. This meta-analysis constitutes ‘superrationality’

What I was pointing out in my post is that we must consider our own limited rationality as an assumption in our reasoning. When we realize that it’s likely that not everyone will see things the same way, that someone will distrust others and therefore defect in their own self-interest, we end up with the results that Hofstadter got’lots of defections. These individuals were acting in their own self-interest based on the assumption that not everyone would cooperate. That is, they were rejecting the conjunctive assumption ‘AND everyone else cooperates.’ This is not a flawed analysis, it's a perfectly valid one. I’ll grant that my post may have made it sound flawed because I was talking about the "mental defect" of humans as limited creatures. However, that’s just one ground for believing the assumption that ‘someone’s going to defect’ and therefore rationally choosing to defect oneself in order to maximize return. There could be many other grounds for rejecting the assumption that others will cooperate. Since these grounds exist and will be exercised by humans in real-life situations, we do best to avoid singe-shot Prisoner’s Dilemma AND Platonia Dilemma situations.

In any event, I don’t think Aziz and I are in fundamental conflict on any of that. However, I still am confused about Aziz’s railing against identifying the Prisoner’s Dilemma and morality:

This is why I stated that morality and the PD are incompatible concepts. Morality is a set of values, the PD is a game based on a payoff matrix. The payoff matrix is not a moral matrix, it is usually rigidly defined according to some quantitative metric: a set number of dollars, for example (in the Platonia Dilemma). Of course the qualitative moral implications are related to the quantitative payoff, but that relationship is often quite complex.

Who’s trying to say that the Prisoner’s Dilemma == morality’ All I’ve heard in the literature is the very plausible argument from Axelrod et. al. that situations arising in natural selection that can be modeled by the Iterated Prisoner’s Dilemma give rise to seemingly altruistic behavior that, in humans, could explain in naturalistic terms the origin and evolutionary success of morality.

I like Keith's argument that we need to find a way to rephrase social problems so as to avoid the Prisoner's Dilemma entirely, but I think this is largely an impossible task, aside from ruinously forceful intrusion of the government into personal liberties. And even in that scenario, what the government decides is "right" is not neccessarily so. You can never escape the Henkins paradox when dealing with issues sch as Right and Wrong in dealing with social policy.

While I agree with the last sentence at least to the extent that we’ll rarely have unanimity on the right course of action, I disagree with Aziz’s pessimism that any government interventions must be ruinous to personal liberty and with the implication that we should do nothing even if the preponderance of evidence indicates we should.

In fact, the Prisoner’s Dilemma shows us how to take appropriate action in a minimally interventionalist way. The EPA’s SO2 emissions trading scheme is a great example. Here’s a pollutant that causes acid rain’a social negative only partially felt by the actor (energy company) causing the problem by burning coal to generate electricity for sale (the pay-off that’s all theirs, creating an incentive to pump more SO2 into the atmosphere). The EPA could’ve banned SO2, but that would’ve (in the short term, for certain companies and localities) been economically disastrous. So they instituted caps and started a emissions credit trading market that changed the pay-off matrix such that emissions would be reduced without micromanaging regulation for each utility.

Of course, we’re all used to and appreciative of much more intrusive regulation on a personal level already. Enforcing property rights is one way the government right now avoids situations where the pay-off matrix in a single-shot interaction favors ‘defection’ as in stealing and plundering. We’ve accepted the restriction on personal liberty to not take another’s property and it’s served us well to have government enforce such regulations strictly.

The bottom line is that the intervention must be proportional to the harm. The real problem with government intervention is in the disagreements in assessing harm and therefore the level of regulation required to avoid it.

permalink | posted by K. Allen Gillette | 4.17.2004 |

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