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  • Reverend James Squire

The Prisoners’ Dilemma


One of the compelling ethical examples of making choices in life is found in the Prisoner’s Dilemma. It is based in Game Theory. Game Theory is a mathematical representation where when one side wins and the other side has to lose.


An easy explanation is that if you are served a pie at dinner and every person gets an equal piece then it is a non-zero-sum game, but if someone takes a larger piece, it is going to make the others have less, it is a zero-sum game. Our world is based on this you win/I lose calculation. It is seen most graphically in sports and politics and other significant relationships such as with marriages as well as with friends.


However, the ideal in ethical practices is to produce win/win situations over win/lose or lose/lose calculations. We all have experienced win/win situations and know how great that feels. Last year I sold a Flying Scott sailboat that our family had used for many years on the Chesapeake. We weren’t using it as often as would warrant the somewhat challenging task of getting it rigged before each sail when our time on the Bay was sporadic at best. We decided to sell it.


A relative, Michael, of a close friend knew the quality of the boat. He wanted to buy it from me. I had no idea of how much it was worth. It just so happens that Mike had a friend whose fulltime job was evaluating the conditions of boats. His friend came up with an appropriate price. Mike has a young family and he needed something to take them all out on the Bay. The Flying Scott seats eight. Obviously, trust was a big part of the negotiation. I trusted Mike and his friend.


I felt great that the appropriate price was determined by an expert, and Mike could now take all of his family out on the Bay. I periodically get texts from him showing his family having a great time on the boat. It was a win/win. He was grateful. I was happy that the boat was a vehicle for good times with his family.


There is a variation of Game Theory in Ethics in a situation referred to as the Prisoners’ Dilemma that relates to difficult choice making and an orientation to life. It is a non-zero-sum situation where all parties may win, or all parties may lose.


Two prisoners are interrogated separately about the same crime. They are offered a bargain. If one confesses, he is set free, but the other prisoner will get ten years in prison. If both say nothing, they will get six months in prison. If both cooperate with the authorities and confess, they would both serve a sentence of two years in prison. However, since they don’t know what the other one may intend to do, they both will fear that the other one might confess, leaving them to suffer for ten years in prison. This will pressure them into protecting what they see as their own best interest, and so they tend to confess resulting in both of them suffering a lost and being convicted for two years.


Now think of Donald Trump and Rudy Giuliani. Think as well of Matt Gatz and his friend, the tax collector. We know that Giuliani is being investigated. If it turns out that Trump is involved in Rudy’s crime which is highly likely, what do you think will happen? If history repeats itself, Trump will distance himself from Giuliani as he has with the host of people that he has thrown under the bus.


Matt Gaetz and his friend, Joel Greenberg, are linked together in a sex for money accusation that also may have involved sex with an underage girl. Greenberg’s attorney has already alluded to the fact that “Gaetz should be nervous now,” after the attorney and Greenberg met with federal officials. Ironically it is a crime that was being investigated under Bill Barr, Attorney General during the Trump Administration, so the usual witch hunt by the Democrats is not a “go to” argument.


The Democrats and Republicans have not taken Game Theory to heart. Both parties are in the world of zero-sum politics where someone must win and someone must lose. What is wrong with non-zero-sum politics where a win/win can occur where both parties can leave the negotiation feeling good and more importantly doing something together that benefits the American people. Oh, I forgot, there is the issue of power. Who has it? How do I get it?


Currently politicians are getting points for winning. Remember Trump’s famous words, “You are going to get sick of winning with me as President.” What if they received acclaim in an ethical non-zero-sum game for creating win/win situations that directly benefitted the American public? What if they got their public reward for “willing the neighbor’s good” which is how it is expressed in Situation Ethics? That means that you want the best for the other party and had to campaign on that issue to get points. A strong two-party system is at the heart of a democracy.


Picture the Republicans and Democrats in the Prisoners’ Dilemma. What do you think that they would do? More to the point what do you think that you and I would do if we didn’t have a real collaborative relationship with another person? or our spouse? or our casual friend, or our best friend? Trust and a context of a non zero sum calculation make all the difference whether it is selling a boat or passing a bill to help the American people.

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