Business & EconomicsSociology & Philosophy

The ‘prisoner’s dilemma’ is a hypothetical situation often used in the context of Hobbes’ Social Contract Theory. It is a seemingly simple situation which carries significant implications which add to the understanding of Hobbes’ conception of the state of nature as a “‘solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short’” (Rachels, 2012, p. 83) state of war, and even further, to his resulting moral theory. However, to fully understand the implications of the dilemma one must first understand what the situation entails.

The prisoner’s dilemma starts by describing a scenario in which two prisoners- who may be called ‘Prisoner 1’ and ‘Prisoner 2’ for clarity- are wrongly accused of committing a crime. The two prisoners never have a chance to speak to one another and must separately decide to either confess to the crime or maintain their innocence. With both prisoners making the decision between two choices, the dilemma ultimately yields four possible outcomes- either both prisoners confess, both stay quiet, only Prisoner 1 confesses, or only Prisoner 2 confesses.

The set up for the situation is all relatively straightforward, but what makes the dilemma interesting are the consequences assigned to each prisoner depending on the actions of both themselves and the other. If both prisoners confess, they will get five years in prison, but if both stay quiet they will both only receive one year in prison. However, if Prisoner 1 confesses and Prisoner 2 stays silent, Prisoner 1 will go free and Prisoner 2 will receive 20 years. The punishment is the same but reversed if only Prisoner 2 confesses. In the prisoner’s dilemma the most mutually advantageous action for both parties would be to stay silent, and receive only one year in prison. However, what the actual result of this ends up being is that both of the prisoners confess and both receive five years in prison. This result comes about as a result of the prisoners’ fear and distrust of what the other might choose, and ultimately can be used to further understand Hobbes’ Social Contract Theory and his conception of the state of nature.

One interpretation of the implications of the prisoner’s dilemma is that proposed by Rachels. He explains that the crucial issue faced by the prisoners is that they are not allowed to communicate with one another before deciding whether or not to confess. He believes that if the prisoners were given the opportunity to speak before their decision they would choose to form an alliance with one another and would agree to both stay silent. He then puts this in the light of the Social Contract Theory, explaining that through collaboration the prisoners would be forming a sort of contract. They would both choose to act in a way that is morally acceptable because it ultimately is what brings about the most beneficial outcome for the both of them. Under Rachels’ interpretation, if people are allowed to collaborate and form alliances with one another they will produce social contracts that will lead to the most mutually beneficial results.

While Rachels’ reading is compelling, there is another way to understand the prisoner’s dilemma and its implications. A different interpretation may be that even if collaboration is allowed and the prisoners could speak before they make their decisions they will still ultimately both choose to confess. This result comes about because, even if the prisoners say to each other that they will choose to stay quiet they both cannot fully trust one another and will still be suspicious that the other one will ‘sell them out’ to receive no jail time. Even when the prisoners make a promise they will still ultimately choose to confess out of fear that the other will not stay true to their word.

This reading relates back to Hobbes’ idea of the state of nature as a state of war because, even when people have the opportunity to collaborate they still will often act immorally because of the fear that someone else will act immorally first. For example, because of the looming fear of being attacked by a peer, a person will attack the peer first in order to protect themselves, just like confessing in the prisoner’s dilemma. This is why the existence of social contracts are so vital to maintaining a peaceful, harmonious society. In order to ensure that people act in a way that is morally beneficial to one another they have to believe that there is a separate punishment or repercussion which inspires more fear than the fear of what the other may do to them.

This punishment can come in the way of law enforcement, or even more broadly, in the fear that if one acts immorally there is no reason for their peers not to act immorally back towards them. The trust created in a civil society is not brought about through collaboration, but through social contracts. People generally do not attack each other because they mutually believe that the other is afraid enough of the punishment for their crime, as well as being afraid of being victims themselves, ultimately leading to trust. In the prisoner’s dilemma, if there was a greater punishment brought in that would lead to more severe consequences for confessing, then both prisoners would remain silent. Because of the possibility of outside consequences, both prisoners would act in a way that would result in the greatest mutual benefit.

Ultimately, this is a major implication of the prisoner’s dilemma. It is not that people can form alliances and trust each other through collaboration. Rather, it is that people must have outside influences, in terms of a social contract, which will convince them to act in a mutually beneficial way. Both in the prisoner’s dilemma and in the wider civil society, trust and mutually beneficial action is not achieved through collaboration. Mutually beneficial, or ‘moral,’ action is achieved through the existence of a third party or factor that inspires more fear than what is inspired by each other.

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William Anderson (Schoolworkhelper Editorial Team)
William completed his Bachelor of Science and Master of Arts in 2013. He current serves as a lecturer, tutor and freelance writer. In his spare time, he enjoys reading, walking his dog and parasailing. Article last reviewed: 2022 | St. Rosemary Institution © 2010-2024 | Creative Commons 4.0

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