What game theory says about negotiating with terrorists

April 19, 2018 § 18 Comments

Wikipedia describes the Prisoner’s Dilemma, a construct in Game Theorylike this:

Two members of a criminal gang are arrested and imprisoned. Each prisoner is in solitary confinement with no means of communicating with the other. The prosecutors lack sufficient evidence to convict the pair on the principal charge. They hope to get both sentenced to a year in prison on a lesser charge. Simultaneously, the prosecutors offer each prisoner a bargain. Each prisoner is given the opportunity either to: betray the other by testifying that the other committed the crime, or to cooperate with the other by remaining silent. The offer is:

  • If A and B each betray the other, each of them serves 2 years in prison

  • If A betrays B but B remains silent, A will be set free and B will serve 3 years in prison (and vice versa)

  • If A and B both remain silent, both of them will only serve 1 year in prison (on the lesser charge)

The thing to notice about the Prisoner’s Dilemma as a one-off situation is that each prisoner is better off betraying the other, no matter what the other prisoner does.

However real life does not consist of a single one-off choice, and the PD can be re-imagined as an ongoing game with repeated rounds, where years in prison are replaced by points in the game: “less years in prison” equals more points, if you will, and the more points you get the better you are doing in the game.  Each round of the game a player chooses whether to cooperate or defect, and the game is played for an indeterminate number of rounds.  The goal is to maximize how well you are doing “against the House” not against the other player: to minimize total years in prison, if you will.

In this iterated Prisoner’s Dilemma, wherein two players engage in the game repeatedly, actual human beings use the game itself to communicate with each other and collaborate.  A very effective strategy in an iterated Prisoner’s Dilemma (played against another human being) is not betrayal but “tit-for-tat“: cooperate with the other player unless he defects; if he defects then ‘punish’ him by defecting on the next round.  In this way a pair of “prisoners” can optimize their score against the house over time, by learning to cooperate.

Iterated “games” are fundamentally different from one-off situations.  This is why intelligent decision makers learn, over time, not to negotiate with terrorists.  Terrorist negotiations may (or may not) change the outcome in a particular case, for better or worse.  (The choice there is ultimately up to the terrorist, not the negotiator, since presumably the negotiator is not proposing to do something evil himself).

But choosing to negotiate with terrorists in general is what gives terrorists power; and in an open-ended iterated “game” this means that in the long run the evil party wins.  Each negotiation increases the power of “team terrorist”. If this goes on long enough morality will invert: “team terrorist” will be seen as victims rather than perpetrators; opposing their wanton slaughter of the innocent will come to be seen as oppressive tyranny; and the mountains of corpses will pile up to the sky.  (I say “will” as if this were a future prediction rather than a retrospective).

At least we’ll all be able to pat ourselves on the back and feel like we are taking a nice pastoral, conservative, live-and-let-live approach, though.

Ex post lacto, or, mother’s milk vs the positive law

April 14, 2018 § 30 Comments

If the positive law of some governing body expressly authorized X yesterday, and then that same body criminalizes X tomorrow, it is unjust – with caveats – for that body to punish someone tomorrow for having already done X yesterday. This has to do with the just exercise of authority, not the justice of the action in question: when a particular authority punishes an action which it explicitly authorized this (the punishment) is an unjust act by that authority. If I authorized you to shoot the dog it would be unjust for me to punish you for having already shot the dog, though it is not unjust for me to withdraw authorization.

This principle against ex post facto law has limits. Punishment might not be an unjust act by a different, especially a higher, authority: God punishing people for doing things which are supposedly “authorized1” by the positive law is not unjust, for example. And in general a different authority may be justified in punishing actions which it did not authorize, even though some other authority attempted to “authorize” it.

This is especially true when people ought to know better.  Importantly, the fact that some authority has not said anything about X does not constitute authorization by that authority to do X.  In this case no ex post facto prohibition applies as a moral constraint on the authority to punish.  And I would not be too quick to dismiss the notion that mothers mostly ought to know better than to kill their own children, no matter what pressures they are under.

Modern people with their politically liberal commitments may find this difficult to swallow, but the fact that nobody in authority has expressly forbidden doing X does not mean that you are authorized (have the authority) to do X.  The fact that there is no positive law prohibiting you from doing X doesn’t grant you a right to do X, for all possible X: “right” is just a different term for authority.

When we do something which we have no right to do, sometimes there are consequences, including punishment of some sort by someone in authority. And the fact that someone – even someone in authority – told you that you were authorized to do something evil does not confer actual authorization: it doesn’t make you not guilty, it just makes the person(s) who attempted to authorize evil also guilty.

The fact that someone in authority egged you on to commit murder may be a mitigating factor in deciding upon a just punishment.  But it can never be entirely exculpatory.  We are responsible for our own choices2, and that includes being sure that we have the authority to do the things we choose to do.


[1] I use scare quotes around “authorize” because in fact nobody has the capacity to authorize or require doing evil.

[2] Here I leave out the mentally ill and otherwise truly incompetent.

Victim status

April 12, 2018 § 31 Comments

Rejecting the death penalty for women who murder their own children raises the question of what punishment a properly ordered society ought to have in place for murdering unborn children.

There is an enormous amount of room between the death penalty and, not only no punishment whatsoever, but a general freakout over the very suggestion that this form of murder ought to carry some sort of punishment — any punishment at all.

Voluntary abortion only has “two victims” in the same sense that any kind of voluntary murder has “two victims” – that is, when we cast the perpetrator as a kind of victim. There is some truth to that, but it doesn’t keep us from punishing murderers.

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