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Something's always bothered me about the Prisoner's Dilemma: it models a conflict in which resources aren't scarce. There's enough freedom for everybody. Should that be a concern when looking at ethical systems?

c.f. The Sharer's Dilemma: link


If you say, "a specific connotation of the word ‘selfish’ is to act in one’s own benefit to the detriment of others" then maybe "going to the doctor when feeling ill" IS arguably selfish - as you're depriving other individuals of the doctors' time.

In (a more serious) response to the article as a whole - perhaps those who act benevolently at the true expense of themselves are doing so because that's the kind of world they wish to live in. Maybe they, subconsciously, believe that others will follow in their example. Tit for tat, with adjustment for possibly inspiring a greater number than the immediate 'neighbours' and so skewed drastically in favour of 'tolerance'.

caller #6: it is the case that the Prisoner's Dilemma ignores issues of scarcity of resources; I don't think this is necessarily problematic as a general case observation, however. In our modern Western societies, we live in absurd plenty and questions of scarcity are rarely enormously relevant. (However, there are odd special cases - such as the especially scarce commodity of 'silence', which can often only be generated through co-operation).

Furthermore, many ethical issues do not relate to limited resources. Consider, as a trivial example, road usage. Impolite driving gains the selfish individual a few scant seconds or minutes of time on their journey, but this time is not a limited resource we are all competing for, per se, as it is universally available. No matter how much time the selfish driver gains, there is still plenty of time left for everyone else! :) Here, the Prisoner's Dilemma is apt - as if all drivers co-operate to use the road, there are fewer delays and everyone benefits.

Issues relating to scarce resources quite frequently turn into questions of politics, which I'm hoping to skirt around for now.

As for the role of freedom in ethics, this is certainly an issue. We'll definitely look at this issue in the context of Kant shortly.

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Bezman: if you are suggesting that a motivating factor in benevolent behaviour is the desire to encourage further benevolent behaviour, I would tend to agree. Benevolence (to invoke a common ethical watchword) is an easier behaviour to universalize than selfishness - as the selfish person does not usually desire to encourage other people to act selfishly. :)

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Thank you both for the comments!

I was suggesting exactly that.

Once again, your succinctness and clarity surpasses mine.

"In our modern Western societies, we live in absurd plenty and questions of scarcity are rarely enormously relevant."

Where they are relevant, they tend to be relevant on a large scale. Consider the UK National Health Service. How many suicides could be avoided by increasing funding to early-intervention depression counselling services for each cancer death avoided by early-stage treatment with Herceptin? Or should UK plc simply push more resources into the service to do both? Or less?

Bezman: I merely precised your thoughts; it was you who raised the idea. ;)

Peter: your comment here gives me pause for thought. When I wrote of 'plenty' I meant in respect of the basics of life, such as food and water; the issue of health care is far trickier - as here there is potentially no upper limit for expenditure in our modern cultures. Counselling services are a good example, as there is not enough to go around, and waiting lists make such things rather redundant... How much economic force can be diverted to such issues?

I feel that in this particular instance the community should be able to offer support to individuals. If we rely on the health services to provide such things, we set precedents that may be hard to maintain. One of the great tragedies of the twentieth century is how the local communities of Western nations have become eroded in favour of national or regional identities. There is some benefit in this, I'm sure, but there are also terrible costs.

But this whole issue moves beyond the ethical and into the political. :)

Best wishes!

Ethical egoism has never precluded cooperation and 'benevolance'. In fact, as you mentionned, has even often been presented as its sole motivation.

In a situation where selfishness is not exerted by a mindless machine, we can expect any semi-intelligent entity (we can hope that includes humans) to minimally seek to achieve a solution that's Pareto optimal (to keep the discussion in the paradigm of game theory), if only to elicit reciprocity, should the tables be turned.

Where I'm dubitative about what your article is when you use quarks versus biochemistry make a point against ethical egoism as true reason behind cooperation. This is what Dennette would probably likens an 'intuition pump', it summons up an intuition but it demonstrate nothing.

In fact, it is generally agreed (in the scientific community at least) that identifying constituants, causes, and rules explaining a phenomenon is generally 'superior' (more instructive to use your words), than mere observation of the said phenomenon.

I personnally have no conviction as to the 'cause' of altruism, but after reading a good lot on the subject, I've yet to find a somewhat convincing demonstration that egoist cannot be it.

As you pointed out however, this is of little practical value since there is no abiguity that in a non-zero sum environment (such as life), cooperation will pretty much always be a desirable behavior regarless of the motivation behind it... So there is hope =)

Oliver: firstly, many thanks for your kind words in your other comment! I'm always glad when this ragtag fugitive fleet of intellectual malcontents and weirdos acquires a new recruit! ;)

"In fact, it is generally agreed (in the scientific community at least) that identifying constituants, causes, and rules explaining a phenomenon is generally 'superior' (more instructive to use your words), than mere observation of the said phenomenon."

I'm not certain about this claim. In psychology, for instance, observation (case studies) are generally valued as much or more than theoretical work - case studies are permanently valuable, while theoretical work is only valuable in so much as it continues to contribute to the development of useful theoretical frameworks. For instance, what value any of the research into phrenology now that this field has been abandoned? While direct observational work conducted in the 19th century remains valuable because it is not tied to specific theoretical frameworks.

The point I am making is not that theories have no value, it is that reductionistic thinking has no a priori claim to superior explanatory value.

The point about quarks is that the theory of quarks and leptons is valuable for explanation at an atomic scale, but has no value for explanation at a chemical scale, much less at a biological or psychological scale: looking for "smallest components" is not a guaranteed way of getting the best handle on a situation.

Scientists get into a reductionistic habit and forget sometimes that "smaller causes" are not always the best explanation. We forget, for instance, that descent with modification - Darwin's idea - is not reductionistic in nature. It only became so in "the new synthesis" when it was assumed that genetics explains everything in this process (a claim I find premature).

In the context here, my position is that animal behaviour in general, and human behaviour in specific, is a holistic outcome of many different forces, and is not best explained by reduction to single factors - although reductionistic models can shed light on the elements that contribute to the overall behaviour.

One must take into account belief systems (resulting from our neural architecture), emotions (resulting from our endocrine system) and instincts (resulting from our nervous system) as contributory factors to behaviour - no one thing stands out as the dominant component.

At least, such is my view. :)

Thanks for the comments!

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