Book Excerpt: Game Theory, Moral Intuitions and the Failure of Christianity

It is possible to argue that all superficially moral actions are actually selfish. The actors’ motives are issues of expecting a warm-fuzzy feeling, not being able to abide perceived injustice or suffering or just the mindset of not being comfortable with bad things happening. All of these have an internal locus of control, which is to say they start and end with the actor. Accepting this, I think we should agree to call moral people those who can gain personal satisfaction from safeguarding the wellbeing of others, or those who have a distaste for the discomfort of others. I do not feel this is a reasonable criticism of morality. However, hidden in this attempted criticism of morality there is a reference to Game Theory. The discipline of Game Theory began as a study of what rational actors would decide to do in a given situation. To explore what this looks like, we shall explore a few common examples:

The prisoners dilemma is an example of Game Theory. In it, gang members have been arrested in connection with a serious crimes. Both gang members are isolated from each other so they cannot communicate or plan. The police admit that they don’t have enough evidence to convict either member for the serious crime. However, being gang members, they can and will be convicted on less serious crimes; both will spent one year in prison. They are then given the opportunity to betray each other, or cooperative with each other (the cooperation is implicit, remember they can’t talk to each other). If one prisoner betrays the other, then the betrayer will be free and the betrayed will spend three years in prison convicted of the serious crime. However, of they both betray each other they will spend 2 years in prison. If they cooperate and don’t betray each other, then they both remain on their one year convictions. What would you do? If you betray your partner, you may go without any prison time at all, but only if your partner was attempting to cooperate; if your partner tries to betray you―like you tried to betray them―then you’ve both doubled your prison sentence. If you try to cooperate with your partner, you will definitely avoid the two year sentence. If your partner also cooperates, you get a one year sentence. However if your partner betrays you while you’re trying to cooperate, you get the three year sentence. Rational people will cooperate here. The study of why is called “Game Theory”.

In a less dramatic example we can see how 2p (~3 US cents) can be the turn around for a small businesses. After a hard day’s work, on your journey home you avoid the traffic and bigger supermarkets and pull up outside your local convenience store and buy a pint of milk or a snack or some other near-daily good. You empty your change into your hand and find you are 2p short of the full charge. The shopkeeper now maintains the rule of law and insists you return your goods, else informally asks you to make the 2p up at some other time. I would think poorly of the shopkeeper who won’t accept a 2p discrepancy and would attempt not to visit the shop again (especially not on frivolous or spur of the moment events). However, a shopkeeper who waives the 2p now will discover that I will drop the 2p in next time I walk the dog and will find me repeating my custom their. It may be childish of me to feel negatively about being held strictly to the rule, but that in part is because I acknowledge I would afford the shopkeeper disproportionate reward for their leniance. However, the shopkeeper may see it as a risk to assume that every customer is so cooperative (“a dove”). This example of Game Theory is interesting because it includes an emotional decision maker: me. I will disproportionately punish or reward the shopkeeper for their effect on my convenience that once.

At university I studied another application of Game Theory, but it moved away from the definition of Game Theory that I gave you―”a study of what rational actors would decide to do in a given situation”―and started to include a nonrational actor: the climate. The example was of an African farmer who had to choose between one of two crops to plant in his field: the reliable crop that significantly increases the probability of feeding his family for the year; or the crop that, on a good year, will feed his family and have enough left over to produce profit so that he can treat his family and develop his farm, but in drought will not grow at all. We’ll call them the reliable crop and the profitable crop. Which should our farmer plant, and in what proportions? You may be thinking of risk averse options, planting only the reliable crop; or risk taking options, planting a majority profitable crop. But there is a rational answer. Assume one summer in every ten is a good summer for the profitable crop. Then, one tenth of your field should be dedicated to this crop. The neighbour of our rational farmer may be more profitable this year but, odds are, next year our farmer will have the profit and sufficient food. This will continue, year in and year out. As it happens, a lot of subsistence farmers in Africa have approximated to exactly this kind of farming practices: a mixed agricultural field. One of the biggest threats to them is climate change, and the number of “good summers” in every ten years changes. This is a very real risk to their food security (but I digress).

We can go one step further and speak only of nonrational actors: genes. For this, we will go back to the argument put forward in The Selfish Gene. The argument is quite simple: genes will behave to maximise their profit (i.e. replication). Before we look at genes, look at viruses. The current ebola outbreak is less virulent than other strains. But that is precisely why it is a problem. Virulent strains of ebola break out in small African villages quite frequently, but it kills the villagers off before the virus gets the opportunity to move. Once the villagers have died, the virus dies too. It is, to use the same language as above, “betraying” (or “a hawk”). It is too efficient and cuts off it’s own ability to propagate. The one we are currently dealing with doesn’t kill its host too quickly, and so  sick person can make it to a local market; people from the local market can go back to towns or other villages, infected; from there is can (and has spread). The most effective virus is comparatively cooperative, not sentencing its host to so immediate a death.

And so it is with genes, although they tend not to kill you. Genes are very cooperative, in that they support life, but only insofar as that life supports replicating the gene. What the massive human population shows is that living as a part of society is very successful for life (and thus for genes). And to live in a society demands certain behaviours from us. If genes can promote empathy and sympathy then they can promote prosocial behaviour, creating a social environment in which they can thrive. This gives us our social intuition (which approximates to wellbeing, thus morality).

I want to take a moment to explain why having an intuition of an idea does nothing to cheapen or else disrupt the idea. Intuitions approximate to a truth. We even have an intuition about physics, which is wrong; but this doesn’t lead us to believe that physics is a construct, illusory or else some matter of fiction. Physics remains accepted as true, even though we have a wrong intuition about them. In 1983, Michael McCloskey published an articles called Intuitive Physics in Scientific American. McCloskey worked with colleagues to set up a small test for high school and college students. The tests had a series of questions asking the students to predict what an object would do in a series of situations: an object dropped by a fast-moving person, an object being spun round on a string and then released and other things of this nature. The students were then asked to depict the motion of said object. The results showed a tendency of people to assume something called Aristotelian physics. This was a non-evidence based physics, deemed rationally undeniable by Aristotle. It would appear that Aristotle had an intuition of physics, and so did everyone else, resulting in no one applying criticism or challenge to this pre theoretic idea. I can comfortably speculate that this intuition comes from the fact that genes need not create a more accurate intuition for their survival, else more accurate models are too expensive (in terms of resources, data and precision) to be worth the payoff. This is Game Theory, but with nonrational actors.

And so it is with morality. We assume what our genes need us to assume for their survival. These assumptions are very comfortable for us in normal situations. But I have recently received criticism about an area where moral intuitions and morality may diverge. The situation, which I assume is speculative because I cannot find reference to it, is of an infanticidal tribe that kills some number of its newborn children. Their reasoning is that they have insufficient resources to support a growing population. Are they morally right to kill some number of their children? The answer is dependent on whether they are correct about being so impoverished of resources that the slow, painful suffering and death of many people would ensue if they lost workers to motherhood and resources to a growing population. If that is in fact correct, then their decision is right; they are safeguarding against a yet lower wellbeing. But their answer is not the most right that it could be. Overpopulation can be controlled in many ways; the tribe has options of creating a family planning policy, or educating about where children come from; increasing their technology or land area will increase their resources; there may be ways that they can manage their resources more efficiently, especially if the tribe currently demonstrates a big wealth gap. The Moral Landscape is not an inaccurate model of morality just because it doesn’t condemn infanticide as the worst possible option in all possible circumstances; under normal circumstances it is inescapably bad, but in extreme cases like this tribe, it is simply not the best option.

The person who made the challenge was a Christian, and although I don’t mean to discuss particular religions in this book, their argument does deserve a fuller discussion. Their argument was “Declaring killing live babies moral in any situation speaks to the worthlessness of godless ethical constructs.” But, in the Bible, does does commit and command the the murder of babies. In 1 Samuel 15:3 God commands the death of suckling infants. However, my conversational partner, using the blogging tag I 53:3 Project, states that ‘declaring killing live babies moral’ does not ‘speak to the worthlessness’ Godly ethics in the same way as it does ‘godless ethical constructs’. Given that any moral construct can immediately be overthrown if we place the question of morality at the mercy of a God, and that this can happen without justification or reason, suddenly all things become permissible in all situations. I have made reference to a hypothetical third party observer through this book: a mature apologist. One may even be reading this book, making notes in the margin ready to release a critical review. Imagine I took a stone a bludgeoned this mature apologist to death. Is that morally wrong? Almost definitely. Imagine then, after I bludgeon this unexpecting apologist I release a statement in which I claim that God commanded me to kill this apologist to bring the apologist and their ideas a great amount of attention and to spread them across the developed world: YouTube, news outlets and other medias would love to share this story. Alternatively, I could announce that Allah wanted me to stop this apologist from spreading Christianity or that Jesus wanted the spread of ‘watered-down’ Christianity to cease. In all circumstances I am justified in bludgeoning a person to death under Divine Command Theory; it makes all things permissible and thus describes nothing. It is a nonsense construct which does nothing but illuminate why we need secular moral ideas.

(As always, feed back and people willing to be critical are welcomed both here and on the current book in its entirety.)

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19 thoughts on “Book Excerpt: Game Theory, Moral Intuitions and the Failure of Christianity”

  1. The word morality and its accepted definition has been co-opted by the religious and atheists play along to their detriment. Why define aspects of evolutionary success as a constant [morality] when all that has happened is under certain conditions, co-operation occurred and became a learned behavior? Furthermore, as you state, those behaviors are subject to change given differences in the environment.
    For the very reasons you describe above, religion can’t be trusted to honestly arbitrate societal norms based on what was socially acceptable over 2000 years ago. The environment has changed and religious morality hasn’t and won’t. Christianity will do what is good for the promulgation of its tenets. Christianity hasn’t failed, we [mankind] have.
    The test for religious morality being “good” for the individual or for a society is the degree of control it seeks to exert and on whom.

  2. As with all such writings you are working ground already plowed. But do not let that stop you. Each generation has to use their own words to embrace the struggle which is morality. Each generation needs to have the questions and arguments put to them by a member of their generation. (Reading the Greek philosophers, even in translation, is hard slogging.)

    And, a number of typos are still present (“does does” etc.). Writers are encouraged to put away their writings for a number off days that allows them to read their work afresh. Otherwise your mind substitutes what you intend to say when you are reading what you did say. Only then can you really see what you have written.

    That being said, after the publication of one of my recent books I found a large file tucked away on my computer. Reading it I found that it sounded much like a draft of that book, but all of the drafts were tidyly placed in another folder. Basically, I had written that book before, put it away, and forgotten about it. When I “wrote” it a second time I was astonished at how close the two ms. were to one another. Clearly we write these things in our heads and it is hard to get them out.

    So, good on you, for seeking comment and criticism.

    1. Thank you. It’s not easy to sit through reading your own 50,000 words and you are right that i have read what i meant instead of what is on the page more than once.

  3. Edit note: “They are then given the opportunity to betray each other, or cooperative with each other…”

    I like it, although I think an even stronger emphasis on the inherent selfishness of moral/right behaviour could be made. Doesn’t necessarily need a new paragraph, just a clearer statement to the fact.

    1. ” It is possible to argue that all superficially moral actions are actually selfish. The actors’ motives are issues of expecting a warm-fuzzy feeling, not able to abide perceived injustice or suffering or just the mindset of not being comfortable with bad things happening. All of these have an internal locus of control, which is to say they start and end with the actor. All actions are actually about how they make us feel; I do good things because I care to. Accepting this, I think we should agree to call moral people those who can gain personal satisfaction from safeguarding the wellbeing of others, or those who have a distaste for the discomfort of others; those who care to do good.”
      What you think?
      Also, thanks for your input.

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