Prisoner's Dilemma in Brussels? (July 21st , 2011)

Being an inveterate doubting humanist, I‘ve never shied away from Great Nagging Questions such as “the inescapable duel between biological necessity and the transcendence of the human spirit”. (1) Thus there is the puzzle of altruism (or just plain kindness): is it a uniquely human moral quality which transcends (2) the ‘inevitably’ selfish biological instincts (3)? But then how could it survive nature’s merciless selection of the fittest? Or is altruism merely yet another evolutionary strategy serving an ulterior selfish motive, a strategy that has evolved because in some cases apparent selfless behaviour does enhance evolutionary success? (be it on the level of selfish genes, selfish individuals or selfish groups) (4)

In any case, digesting the findings of evolutionary biologists, keen economists reasoned without much delay that 1> self-seeking is inherent to our evolved human nature and that 2> humans are rational in the pursuit of their self-interest. Thus they posited this elemental truth: “Human beings are self-seeking, rational agents out to maximize their gains in a fierce, competitive world”(5).
And wanting to draw conclusions as to how societies should organize themselves, they added 3>, “nature [being] mankind’s moral compass” this ‘natural’ individual gain maximization will get the most out of each and every resource (human or otherwise), thus benefiting to the community as a whole.

Mathematically based ‘game-theory’ could even help those rational self-seeking ‘players’ to find the optimal strategy to maximize their individual gains. (5)
But alas, one of those maximising games irrefutably showed that individual rational and self-seeking reasoning did not always produce the best possible collective good. In the so-called “Prisoner's Dilemma” “each player pursuing his own self-interest leads both players to be worse off than had they not pursued purely their own self-interests”(6)

So shouldn’t we then all, as reasonable beings aware of the limits of pure selfishness, rather seek enlightened cooperation instead of going for the selfish option in our ‘games’?
Umm, well, It’s true that if we are both being reasonable that we will both be better off, but ... ay, here’s the rub, what if I am being reasonable & I give in, and the other does not, then I’m the dunce of the affair! Ah and just suppose that I won’t budge, while the other might give in, then I have a chance to win it all! And so neither of us gives in, neither of us cooperates and we‘re both worse off than if we had cooperated.

Dear readers, obviously only few of you are concerned with the fate of the Belgian people, but really, the recent Belgian political manoeuvres are a perfect (though sickening) example of game-theory. The Belgian politicians (sorry, the Dutch and the French speaking politicians of Belgium) have been trapped in this Prisoner’s Dilemma for over a year now, hostages of narrow “Them and Us” group thinking, too paralyzed to be able to form even a government.

Yesterday, at the eve of the Belgian National Holiday, the poor tired King of Belgium addressed its troubled nation, speaking about responsibility and tolerance, about how disastrous the current stalemate was for each Belgian citizen (sorry, for each Dutch speaking and each French speaking citizen of Belgium). An almost desperate, but above all genuine and dignified plea for cooperation ... (7)

Upon which, quite reluctantly, one of the stalling Flemish political parties (say party A) did announce to be willing to rejoin the negotiations with the French speaking parties. And, WHAMM – BHAMM , this mere sign of “willingness to cooperate” was immediately punished by another Flemish party (say party B), eager to steal voters from party A . Indeed, Party B could now claim to be the only Truly Unflinching Defender of The Flemish Interests. And so Party B did not measure its words – accusing Party A to betray the Flemish Interests, “to show its bare naked butt” (“volledig met de billen bloot” ), “to go flat on its belly” (“plat op de buik”).

Again, I am an eternally doubting person who knows she does not know and who, having not analyzed in full detail all proposals from all Dutch speaking and all French speaking parties, is not eager to take big political stands.
But I do have taste ....and I do have a sense of beauty and of dignity. And the sheer crudeness with which this Flemish party B crushed a tentative opening towards negotiation ... Nope, that’s not where I want to be. And yep, now I know for sure – this party B is indeed nothing but a bullying populist party opportunistically catering to the basest selfish instincts.

And in the meanwhile, also on this 21st of July, and also in Brussels, European leaders are convening, with nothing less than the fate of the Eurozone being at stake. One can only hope they will be able to “transcend”(9) the Prisoner’s dilemma, that they will be able to at least try and pursue the collective good ...

Nine National Belgian Notes
(1) Oren Harman – “The Price of Altruism” - “George Price and the search for the origins of kindness”. Click here for a review. It's a truly fascinating book “[covering] the entire 150-year history of scientists’ researching, debating and bickering about a theoretical problem that lies at the core of behavioral biology, sociobiology and evolutionary psychology: Why is it that organisms sacrifice themselves for the benefit of others?”
(2) Ah, transcendence! Have never been quite able to grasp what it is, except that it denotes a realm of all that‘s beyond our greedy materialist grasp? As a (inveterate, doubting, etc) humanist I of course take “transcendence” in its humanist-philosophical sense, not in any God-given sense. And what would I personally put then in that transcendental realm - everything that is not merely utilitarian, everything that gets us beyond our role in the food chain, ie : meaning, beauty, goodness, justice, ...
(3) “inevitably selfish” – yeah, well, it’s simple really: in a struggle for life under conditions of scarce resources, selfishness does enhance individual fitness to survive, and thus evolution will mercilessly get rid of any selfless tendencies that reduce individual fitness.
(4) This kind of apparent altruism then depends on relatedness of genes (helping one’s kin), or on expected reciprocity of support and mercy amongst individuals, or on the success of cohesive groups against other groups. But so it is still always one entity surviving at the expense of another. There are even very elegant mathematical formulas that describe how and when “selfless” behaviour is an efficient strategy for genes and individuals to enhance their eventual selection success.
(5) “The price of Altruism” pp 135-137
(6) See Wikipedia for full exposition on Prisoner's Dilemma
(7) Look, I have neither outspoken royalist nor anti-royalist convictions. But I can see how a purely ceremonial, symbolic monarch can help to foster some common sense of belonging – without therefore veering into royal adoration or blind patriotism. And again, as to the Belgian nation – yes, I do cherish it, because it so utterly lacks the more nefarious tones of nationalism, and yes, I do value this cultural diversity inherent in the Belgian nation. And as to the threat for the Dutch language of having to share a nation with an “imperialist” language such as French – well, frankly, I think that Global English poses more of a threat – (witness this very blog written in second hand Global English by a Dutch speaker)
(8) as Hannah Arendt rhetorically asked: “ Could it be that taste belongs among the political faculties?”
(9) Ah, there’s “transcend” again! Time for a confession – while I am fascinated by the biological origins of human morality – at heart I still am this old-fashioned Kantian humanist who would rather believe that humans do not merely entertain notions of altruism and goodness because of their use for individual or collective survival. I would much rather continue to believe human morality stems from some sort of empathy or non-utilitarian “affection for our fellow creatures in chance’s kingdom” (Richard Powers), from some non-utilitarian sense of beauty and human dignity.


Anonymous said...

Helemaal mee eens, Flâneur.

ffflaneur said...

bedankt! (fijn, deze Belgische eensgezindheid :-))

billoo said...

Lovely post, ffflaneur.

Keep well,


ffflaneur said...

hey billoo! thanks for stopping by...
I still remember a post you did, quite a while ago, about plain simple kindness, and about how a certain school of economic thought has almost managed to present "pursuit of self-interest" as the only "rational" and thus "sensible" behaviour. (well, you did formulate it better :-))