Ethics – Karma – Non Magical Karma

Friday, May 1st, 2009 at 8:00 am.
by pre.

In the west, the word “karma” tends to be misused. People assume it means that every good action needs a bad action to balance the yin-yang of life. People think it means that good things happen to good people. They think it means that bad people will be punished, either in this world or in a reincarnation or other form of afterlife. They think it’s like a cosmic bank where every good deed is a deposit on future luck.

Obviously, since there is no magic, if Karma exists it is none of these things.

Non Magical Karma

A real karma, one which is based not on magic but on solid understanding of game theory, sociology and ethics, is not so much a belief that “If I behave well, I will live in a better place” more an understanding of the the fact that “If everyone behaves well, the world is a better place.” For everyone in it.

The first meaning would require a magic karma fairy to keep score, to ensure that people who are nice meet each other more often than average. The second meaning is just a simple statement about probabilities. The more good acts there are in the world, the more chance there is you’ll come upon one.

Your good actions aren’t designed to give you, personally a better outcome. They’re designed to make your society into one with a greater chance of finding those good acts. Your part in a group effort.

Yes, it may be possible to cheat, to be a free-rider, to be bad while everyone else is being good and to take advantage of others, but in doing so you harm the society in which you live.

Prisoners Dilemma

The Prisoners Dilemma is a game in which the rules are set up so that ‘rational’, self-interested decisions result in each prisoner’s being worse off than if each chose to help the other.

Both players play a card: Either ‘defect’ or ‘cooperate’. Here’s a matrix showing the number of points each player scores depending on which cards are played:

Player A
Cooperate Defect
Player B Cooperate A:3, B:3 A:5, B:0
Defect A:0, B:5 A:1, B:1

As you can see, if both players play “cooperate” they get 3 points each. If both players defect they get 1 point each. However if one player cooperates while the other defects, they score just zero, giving the defecting player five points.

If a player uses the defect card, he does the best he can regardless of what the other player does. Likewise, if that other player plays the defect card then he in turn does better than the first. Yet if both play the cooperate card then between them they win more than if either play defect.

Note that the essential condition is this: By cooperating, more points are scored in total for the players than if they defect. An individual player will score 1 or 5 if he defects, or else 0 or 3 if he cooperates. A clear rational choice to defect. Yet the players in total receive 6 points for cooperating with each other and only 1 or 5 if one chooses to defect

“Games” in the game-theory sense which have with these conditions exist all over the society in which we live. Every economic transaction you’ve ever participated in is grounded in it. In the actual world, many games are NOT zero sum meaning the only way to score points is not to take them from another player.

We can call the total number of points awarded in the Prisoners Dilemma the ‘karma’. If both players cooperate, the karma is 6. There is more ‘karma’ to be shared between everybody. If both players defect the total karma is only 2. There are less points to go around. If only one player cooperates there are just 5 karma points in the system, even though they are all given to the defector.

A world with more Karma is a world in which more people choose to go against their selfish competitive one-upmanship and to cooperate to improve the lot of all. In that world with more cooperation, everybody wins.

A world with more cooperation, more karma, is a better place in which to live.

This argument tells us why we are better off in the long run, as a society, if we and everybody else ‘pull their weight’, if we help and cooperate with each other. However, the cold hard rules of natural selection care not for our lofty arguments or how well the group fairs. They care only for which genes are successfully producing the most copies of themselves. What works in evolution has to work here, now, immediately, personally, to increase the spread of a given gene.

Next week we’ll look into the mechanism found by evolution to dig species out of the selfish swamps of competition into the relative ease of cooperation.