Helping Vs Punishment

Notes from "A new Way To Think About Rules To Live By" By Carl Sagan, Page 12 November 28, 1993 Parade Magazine.

Are there any rules, ethical or pragmatic, that can be used to make decisions that work?

Let's consider what might happen if we apply some of the more common rules.

The golden rule: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.

Almost no one follows it consistently, since there are people that will take advantage of such behavior and there is a limit to most resources.

Philosopher - K'ung-Tzu (Confucius) was asked his opinion of the golden rule about repaying evil with kindness, he replied.
Then with what will you repay kindness?

The silver rule: Do not do unto others what you would not have them do unto you.

Mohandas Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. Asked there followers not to repay violence with violence, but not to be compliant and obedient either. Nonviolent civil disobedience. It works to a point. However, if it is used against those able and willing to harm, there will be injustice.

The golden and silver are complacent. They systematically reward cruelty and exploitation. Imagine a Hitler or Stalin being shamed into redemption by good example.

The brazen rule: Repay kindness with kindness, but evil with punitive justice.

An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth and one good turn deserves another. In actual human and chimpanzee behavior, it's a familiar standard that offers no forgiving.

The iron rule: Do unto others as you like before they do unto you. He who has the money makes the rules.

Despite its practicality it has a fatal flaw. Unending vendetta. Each act of retribution triggers another. Violence begets violence.

Rule of bullies: Suck up to those above you and intimidate those below. This is the golden rule for superiors and iron rule for inferiors.

Rule of blood: Give precedence of all things to close relatives, and do as you like to others.

What rule or combination should be used?

What really works? Is there a way to test these different codes of ethics? Most games will not work because they use the iron rule. There is a winner and loser. Team work would, but not if their is an opponent.

The prisoner's dilemma is a game with win-win, win-lose, and lose-lose outcomes (see conflict resolution...). For example: if you and your friend are arrested for a crime, separated, and interrogated. The following are possible:

When you think of it you are better off confessing. So is your friend. However if both of you confess, you both are worse off than if both of you had pleaded innocent and you get off scott free. That is the prisoner's dilemma.

Robert Axelrod pioneered the study of the prisoner's dilemma with two players playing a sequence of such games with no direct communication. At the end of the game they can determine how the other player pleaded. Will they learn to cooperate? Will both deny they committed the crime even if the reward for finking on the other is very large? If one cooperates too much (pleads not guilty or guilty in harmony), will the other player take advantage of that good nature? If one confesses (in disharmony) too often will the other retaliate more? These questions were investigated by Axelrod in continuing round-robin computer tournaments.


Strategies that are slow to punish, lose. In part because they send signals that non cooperation works.

Both the golden and iron rule always lose, one from an excess of kindness, the other from an overabundance of ruthlessness.

The most effective strategy in many tournaments is tit-for-tat. That is you start by cooperating and in each subsequent round you simply do what your opponent did the last time. You punish defections, and once the other player cooperates, you're willing to let bygones be bygones. At first it seems to get only moderate success, but as time goes by the other strategies beat themselves, from too much kindness or too much cruelty, and the tit-for-tat pulls away. Except for being nice on the first meeting it is like the bronze rule. It promptly rewards cooperation and punishes defection and makes this strategy absolutely clear.

Axelrod describes the superiority of the bronze rule in his book The Evolution of Cooperation.

A variant of the tit-for-tat rule is one that forgives players for defecting occasionally, 10 percent of the time, does better if there's any chance of misunderstanding. Axelrod claims it does so because it breaks out of an unending vendetta.

Conclusions from Axelrod's research for the classroom:

Be friendly at first meetings. Do not envy. Be generous; forgive your enemy if he forgives you. Be neither a tyrant nor a patsy. Retaliate proportionately to an intentional injury (within the constraints of the rule of law). Make your behavior fairly (although not perfectly) clear and consistent.

Dr. Robert Sweetland's notes