The prisoner’s dilemma: a communitarian view

A little over a weeks ago, I posted a review of John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty. In it, I made a few comments regarding individualism, mostly  expressing my sceptical view of it. I wanted to give a little more flavour to that idea and contrast it with a view I have been coming round to for a little while now: communitarianism.

The illustration is via a classic piece of game theory called The Prisoner’s Dilemma. You may have heard of it, you may have not. If not, you may have still come across the concept as it has been used in a few game shows down the years (Shafted – with Robert Kilroy-Silk, Golden Balls – with Jasper Carrott). There are many variations of the dilemma, so I’ll illustrate with a simple example.

There are two players and a prize fund of £1,000. The two players must, without knowing what the other has done, choose whether to STEAL  or SHARE. There are 3 possible choices:

  • Both choose to share.
  • Both choose to steal.
  • One chooses to share and one chooses to steal.

Of these choices, there are then 3 possible outcomes:

  • If they both choose to share then the prize fund is split evenly between them and they both get £500.
  • If both choose to steal then no one gets anything and they both leave empty-handed.
  • If one chooses to share and one chooses to steal then the one who chose to steal gets the full £1,000 while the other person leaves empty-handed.

An individualist view

The individualist will be looking out for what benefits themselves the most. Since (s)he cannot know what the other person will do, there must be equal weight applied to the probability of the other person stealing or sharing. Their reasoning may follow along these lines:

“If I steal, then there is a 50% chance the other person will steal and so I will get nothing. But there is also a 50% chance that they will share, in which case I get the whole £1,000. So my Expected gain would be (£0 x 50%) + (£1,000 x 50%) = £500.

“If I share, then there is a 50% chance the other person will steal and so I will get nothing. But there is also a 50% chance that they will share, in which case I get £500. So my expected gain would be (£0 x 50%) + (£500 x 50%) = £250.

“So to maximise my expected value, it is most rational for me to choose STEAL.”

A communitarian view

The communitarian will be looking out for what benefits the community (of which they are a part) the most. So again, (s)he cannot know what the other person will do, there must be equal weight applied to the probability of the other person stealing or sharing. Their reasoning may follow along these lines:

“If I steal, then there is a 50% chance the other person will steal and so no member of the community will get anything. But there is also a 50% chance that they will share, in which case the community will get the whole £1,000. So the expected gain for the community would be (£0 x 50%) + (£1,000 x 50%) = £500.

“If I share, then there is a 50% chance the other person will steal and so the community will get £1,000. But there is also a 50% chance that they will share, in which case the community still gets £1,000. So the expected gain for the community is (£1,000 x 50%) + (£1,000 x 50%) = £1,000.

So to maximise the expected value for the community, it is most rational for me to choose SHARE.”

Additional thoughts

Of course, there are complicating factors that could come into play in each. My point is to show the shape of the argument, not the details. For example, the individualist may think that the other person is also an individualist and therefore expect that the other person is more like to STEAL than to SHARE, altering their own behaviour in anticipation of the other. This can lead to some rather circular (or perhaps iterative might be a better term) thinking which I would rather not pursue here.

In using the word communitarian, I am here trying to think through things myself first and then see if there is a word to suitably describe it, rather than appealing to any kind of ‘tradition’ or ‘school of thought’ which I might adopt.

In advocating a communitarian view there is, of course, an assumption that I consider the other person to be part of the same community as me. If I were not then I could either be indifferent or hostile to them. In other words, might I try to act in such a way to minimise the amount they left with. The other assumption inherent to this is that the gain of wealth is a good thing. Of course, these can and should be examined at some point, but for the sake of the illustration, it is preferable to keep all other factors equal.

Of course, what this doesn’t do is negate the idea of acting in one’s self interest. A communitarian point of view is dependent upon various people being in the same community. Going back to the illustration above, if I choose to SHARE while the other person chooses to STEAL, then some of that money may well end up benefiting me indirectly. They use it to hire my services or buy something from me. They may donate some to a local art gallery which I like to frequent. It may be much more indirect than that.

So one mustn’t be lulled into thinking that communitarianism is wholly altruistic. It is just primarily altruistic. I still stand to gain by being part of the community which has a gain.

I’m sure many readers will by now see where I am hinting at in respect of being part of a church community, but I’ll let you follow the dots for yourself.

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