Racism and the prisoner’s dilemma

Guest Post: Racism and the prisoner’s dilemma

By Zith Met

The prisoner’s dilemma should be familiar to everyone (see here).

It is generally best for society as a whole if everyone within it cooperates*, and moral teachings can broadly be thought of as guidelines designed to influence individuals to sacrifice their own interests in favor of group interests. Many, if not most, moral and ethical questions have prisoner’s dilemma aspects. (See a list of these sorts of problems here.)

Since society has an interest in moving people toward cooperation, social norms tend to develop to influence people to cooperate. The Golden Rule is an example of a widely-followed ethical rule that increases cooperation. If you’re in a society where people generally follow the Golden Rule, you may be able to cooperate with confidence that you won’t be defected upon. Additionally, religions usually have moral codes designed to increase cooperation among members. Social norms punishing or shunning defectors also work to increase cooperation.

When social norms are insufficient at generating cooperation (or when scale makes coordination too difficult), government and the legal system step in to increase cooperation and punish defection. This implies that the burdens of government will be reduced in places where social norms (and people’s innate inclinations) result in widespread cooperation.

People are naturally more inclined to cooperate with more closely related people–it can be an effective evolutionary strategy to help people like oneself. This is most obvious in the context of the nuclear family, but it is also true in the context of more distant relations. In societies with a tradition of cousin marriage, clans are distinct and individuals are more distantly related to people outside their clan. In contrast, in societies like much of northwest Europe with a history of prohibitions on cousin marriage, clans are relatively absent and genes have spread more evenly through society.

Unsurprisingly, the societies with the greatest cooperation and with the most effective norms promoting cooperation tend to be the most historically outbred societies. Consider the cooperative spirit and socialism of Scandinavians as an expression of this. Neoreactionaries often refer to the “universalism” of progressives, and this universalism leads to universal cooperation. In contrast, consider the tribal and corrupt nature of places like Afghanistan at the other extreme.

Although it’s a winning strategy for everyone in society to cooperate, it’s a losing strategy for a person to cooperate with someone who is going to defect. If one person follows the Golden Rule and another follows a strategy of pure self-interest, the self-interested party will consistently defect and the Golden Rule follower will be a loser. This is the fundamental flaw of strict universalism–it is ultimately suicidal. If social norms that cause people to cooperate break down, defection becomes more and more common and government intervention becomes more and more necessary.

One prominent way for cooperation to break down is to add a lot of very unrelated people–something that becomes more likely in a universalist, xenophilic society. Diversity reduces social bonds and trust (see here). People are less likely to cooperate as more distantly related groups move in. Even if you’re a Swede who naturally wants to cooperate with everyone, the Somalis you just brought in don’t necessarily have any interest in cooperating with you. The Somalis will defect on you all day and all night while raping your women. The result is a net loss to society and particularly large losses for cooperators.

The best bet for effective cooperation and a pleasant, efficient society is a relatively small, outbred nation with minimal distinct groups within that nation. Ideally, people will want to cooperate with everyone else within the society for the overall good of the society as much as possible. Strong social norms promoting cooperation and punishing defection help. Significant immigration should be avoided to prevent an increase in defection.

* I suspect that a society that goes too far into cooperation will not only have the problems described above with respect to dealing with defectors and outsiders, but also creativity and advancement may require some defection. Imperfect information and varying time preferences complicate the picture as well. However, promoting cooperation is more important as a primary moral concern, and the utility of defection is beyond the scope of this post.


8 thoughts on “Racism and the prisoner’s dilemma

  1. Pingback: Racism and the prisoner’s dilemma | Reaction Times

  2. This describes Japan well…. however its collapsing population is far from ideal and its problems with innovation and risk taking are seemingly impossible to solve.

  3. A generally excellent post. Spoiled only by your anthropomorphic characterization of society. Society is an abstraction that can’t have “an interest in moving people toward cooperation.” Cooperation makes most — but not all — people better off. Social norms emerge from the perceived benefits — to most people — of certain kinds of behavior; that is, norms emerge, gradually, from the behavior of individuals. They also emerge not only to set boundaries on behavior but also to identify “insiders” (who are deemed trustworthy until they prove otherwise) from “outsiders (who are deemed untrustworthy until they prove otherwise).

  4. In casual usage, the label “prisoner’s dilemma” may be applied to situations not strictly matching the formal criteria of the classic or iterative games: for instance, those in which two entities could gain important benefits from cooperating or suffer from the failure to do so, but find it merely difficult or expensive, not necessarily impossible, to coordinate their activities to achieve cooperation.

    Oh yes the “prisoner’s dilemma” makes sense here.
    Excellent post!.

    Best wishes, Aquileana 😀

  5. “The best bet for effective cooperation and a pleasant, efficient society is a relatively small, outbred nation with minimal distinct groups within that nation. ”

    The Shire.

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