By Jimmy Liu
If you’re reading this, congratulations! You have a chance to win a large sum of money, but only if you make the correct choice. If you want to participate in this game, this is what you have to do: fill in this form, where you have one of two options, to defect or to cooperate. If you cooperate, you will get $4 for each person who cooperated, but no money from the defectors. If you defect, you will get a meager $1 for each of your fellow defectors but $6 for each cooperator. Take your time. I’ll be here when you come back.
If you acted out of self-gain, the rational choice clearly seems to defect. Your payoff matrix shows that no matter what another person chooses, you stand to gain more by defecting: $1 > $0, $6 > $0, quod erat demonstrandum. Another way to arrive at the same conclusion is to imagine casting a vote into one of two ballot boxes. You cannot change what other people have picked or will pick, so you know that your choice is independent. Knowing that defecting earns you more money than cooperating no matter what others vote, you logically defect.
Is this the better choice? It certainly is rational—there’s only one problem with it. If everyone reasons this way and there are ten participants, then each person would only get $10, a lot less than the $55 you would have gotten if you were the only defector! By acting in self-interest, the collective earning is minimized.
This game (I’m sorry for lying, there is no actual money involved) illustrates the “Tragedy of the Commons,” a term coined by philosopher Garett Hardin in his paper of the same name. It states that whenever there is a public and nonexcludable good, such as fish, fossil fuels, or even a field of grass for cattle grazing, it will be depleted if no environmental regulations were in place. The principle behind this is the same as in the game: the internal payoff matrices in these situations frame the selfish act as the dominant decision. When all agents act in self-benefit, environmental disaster ensues. Take the case of the fishing industry on the Western coast of Canada. Ante-1992, there were no restrictions on fishing off the coast, a model that had been in place for centuries. As technology improved and more efficient ways of fishing were established, the population of the Northern Cod off the coast quickly declined due to overfishing. Three groups--local inshore fishermen, Canadian draggers and trawlers, and deep-sea foreign fishing vessels--competed for a finite resource, but local fishermen were hit the worst. Around nineteen thousand fishers were affected directly, and around twenty thousand other jobs were harmed. The 1992 Cod Moratorium—the government’s all-too-late recognition that action needs to be taken—marks the irreversible damage done to the ocean ecosystem and an end to the way of life for thousands of coastal folks. If only a government official had read Hardin’s paper. He foresaw the selfishness of human nature and argued for the necessity of environmental regulations for common resources.
The enactment of environmental regulations might seem like a no-brainer, but it spells dark implications for ethics. Through the first half of The Republic, Plato argues that it is beneficial for a person to act justly. Contra Plato, this game shows that logical reasoning guided by self-benefit results in immoral behavior. Forcing people, corporations, or governments to do the moral thing, then, does not stop them from recognizing the selfish action as the more self-beneficial. As a result, environmental regulations are effective only on the surface but do little to reform the violator; while they forcibly yield obedience in the short term, they do not get at the root of the problem. Over time, loopholes within the legal system will arise, and previous violators will not hesitate to exploit them. Once one loophole is recognized and patched, another may very well have popped up in its place. Reactively adjusting environmental regulations is like playing a never-ending game of whack-a-mole.
Practically, regulations will have to be enacted simply because not everyone can be held to the same moral standard, but there is one theoretical idea that might get at a long-term solution. Observe that there is an inherent symmetry in the cooperate/defect game since the payoff matrix is the same for all decision makers. In other words, everyone starts with the same rules. That is given, but here is the step that bridges the gap between morality and rationality: assume that all the other participants are just as informed as rational as you are. Not only do you know that you stand to gain by defecting, you know by virtue of symmetry that others stand to gain by defecting. Since you just thought this, by our assumption, you can reasonably say that others thought this too: they know that you are inclined to defect for the same reason they want to defect. In turn, you know that they know you want to defect, which means they know that you know that they know…you get the gist. The meaning of each specific realization is beside the point, but what is important is this: by assuming that other participants are just as rational, you conclude that they mirror your reasoning and will make the same decision you do. Because the same decision is made by everyone, there are only two effective outcomes: everyone defects or everyone cooperates. Knowing this, and knowing that everyone else knows this, allows you to choose the better option for yourself (and by extension everyone else): to cooperate. What is at work here is not some mystical inter-causality between agents but a leap of faith on the universality of reason. The critical step—recognizing that everyone else is just as rational as you are and will come to the same conclusion--is what gives it its name: superrationality.
Superrationality is not faith or reason; it is faith in reason. Unlike regulations, thinking superrationally results in both right action and right intention. As such, the problem of exploiting loopholes does not exist. If everyone were superrational, no regulations would be needed at all. How do we then bring about a society of superrational thinkers? After all, thinking superrationally is like riding a bike with inverted steering--it is counterintuitive to us individualistic thinkers. Education about environmental awareness is crucial to achieving this mode of thinking. German philosopher Schopanhaur said, “Man can do what he wills, but he cannot will what he wills.” Many of our most fundamental values are a product of factors external to us, and our formative education is perhaps the most crucial of them all. Once a generation internalizes the idea that the entire human population faces symmetric fates for our treatment of the environment, the Tragedy of the Commons can finally be overcome.