Crawl Across the Ocean

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

88. All's Fair in Love and War

Note: This post is the eighty-eighth in a series about government and commercial ethics. Click here for the full listing of the series. The first post in the series has more detail on the book 'Systems of Survival' by Jane Jacobs which inspired this series.

"She cried, "Hold me back!
Hold me back, take away my gun
Hold me back, hold me back
Somebody won't you please hold me back
Don't let me do what must be done"

- Michelle Shocked - Hold Me Back

First question: What would cause a person to enter into a transaction that makes them worse off?

The most obvious possibility is that they didn't have a choice. Is someone pulls a gun on you on the street and takes your wallet, you have entered into a transaction that made you worse off, but you did it involuntarily. So transactions involving threats of violence are one possibility.

Another possibility is that a person gets tricked into making a bad transaction. For example, they bought something that turned out to be fake, or were promised something that never arrived. So fraud is another possibility.

And of course, people often do things that they themselves regret later. Even things that they know they will regret later as they are deciding to do them.

Now here's the follow-up question - in what cases are win-lose transactions beneficial to society?

Some might respond that taking something by force or fraud is never beneficial to society, but when faced with a situation where police are trying to capture a dangerous criminal or their military is fighting in a war, I think most people come around to the notion that there are situations where force and fraud are for the best and are morally justified.

The two examples above provide different cases for where we see the win-lose transaction as an overall benefit.

In the case of the police, we acknowledge that we are doing harm to the criminal, but we do so for the greater good. If a person has shown that they are willing to commit win-lose transactions that benefit themselves but hurt society (i.e. stealing) then we reason that the harm done by locking them up is outweighed by the harm prevented by keeping them from making more win-lose transactions.

Note that in order for this logic to work, the person doing the enforcing has to be strong enough to impose their sanctions on the criminal without effective retaliation. If criminals are able to retaliate effectively then our attempts to control crime will just lead to more and more violence. Only when someone can establish a monopoly on violence so that retaliation is futile can this cycle be broken. This was basically the main point made by Hobbes in Leviathan.

In a war, the reasoning is a bit different. Typically we rationalize the win-lose transaction in this case by simply not counting the impacts on our enemies in our calculations (or by calculating them with the reverse sign so that any harm caused to them counts as a good thing.)

True, any war effort usually has rationalizations that will justify it as being for the greater good (i.e. preventing the use of weapons of mass destruction), but the reality of war is that the calculus is generally in terms of our country not in terms of the total welfare of the two countries.

So in terms of modelling the win-lose transaction as a net benefit, I see two possibilities. One, based on an us vs. them distinction where we either don't count the harm caused to the other party or treat it as a good thing, and one where we count it, but we use an analysis of the total result over time to show that this particular harm is justified because it is outweighed in the long run by the benefits to society from causing the harm to the particular individual.

Of course, it is also possible that humans are programmed (genetically disposed) to take the former approach (treating harm to the enemy as a good thing) because it works out best for us overall.

A final case that I touched on earlier, is the case of a paternalistic decision where even though one person to the transaction wants to go through with it, another party prevents them from doing so because it is not believed to be in their best interest. For example, someone might want to ride their bike without a helmet but there is a law against that. Not because the person riding without a helmet is causing harm to others, but because we believe they may cause harm to themselves. As we saw previously, hyperbolic discounting (where people do things now that they will regret later) is a major cause of these sorts of situations. Of course trying to establish that society knows what's best for a person better than they do can be a tricky proposition. I'm not going into more detail on paternalistic transactions at this point (maybe in a later post), I just wanted to highlight them as another form of decision that might be regarded as 'win-lose' by some.

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