Chocolate and Gold Coins

Saturday, July 09, 2005

Excessive Morality

It occurred to me that there was a very interesting connection between two posts I wrote last week. The first post was the Problem With Game Theory and the second was my somewhat controversial post The Curse of Moses. In the first post, I argued that non-cooperative game theory ignores ethics which I defined as a rule which if violate would lead to self-punishment. We have a conscience and we would feel bad if we knew that we hurt others. In the second post, I argued that too many rules spoil the religion, especially if they are very old obsolete rule that no one in the present generation had any role in creating. My idea was that maybe the problem of “too many old rules” is essentially a problem of useless self-punishment. That morality (which is just the ethics of a particular religion) could be a bad thing if it becomes excessive.

Let me clarify this idea with some examples. The first example would be typical prisoner's dilemma type game. Suppose you are dropped into world where you play lots of games with strangers that you will never meet again. The game is this: if you both cooperate, you both get $1000, but if you defect, you get an extra $100 but the other player gets $1000 less. So these are the possible outcomes:
  1. (c,c): $1000; $1000
  2. (d,c): $1100; $0
  3. (c,d): $0; $1100
  4. (d,d): $100; $100
Now looking at these outcomes, it is clear that it would be a nasty thing to play “defect” on the other guy. But, hey, you’re going to get an extra $100 if you play “defect” instead of “cooperate” regardless of what the other guy does. You don’t know him, and you don’t know what he is going to do. It might be tempting.

Now here is where morality comes in handy. Suppose the two players are devoutly religious in the same religion (both Muslim, both Catholics, both something). No way will they cheat a fellow believer. It wouldn’t be worth $100 to risk Hell and the self-torment that would come from knowing that you let down your fellow believer. Religion has it uses: you both get $1000.

This is why people are so bigoted against unbelievers: they’re bad people who might play "defect" in the cooperate-defect game. I can trust my fellow believer but not the infidel. In general, most of us would not be very comfortable in a day at “Non-Cooperative Game Theory Land” if we had to spend it with people who really played these games non-cooperatively.

However, morality doesn’t necessary lead to good outcomes. Morality could just as easily lead to bad outcomes. Let us just change the payoffs to the cooperate-defect game above:
  1. (c,c): $100; $100
  2. (d,c): $1100; $0
  3. (c,d): $0; $1100
  4. (d,d): $1000; $1000

In this case, playing “defect” hurts the other guy, but not too much. Both of you would be better off playing “defect”. But moralists would never be comfortable with the idea that hurting others might be acceptable if it passes some sort of cost-benefit test. So two devout believers would end up playing “cooperate,cooperate” and wind up with only $100 each instead of $1000 each. Morality really failed them here.

Let me give a real world example: beer. Society is much better off with beer than without it. I agree with Benjamin Franklin who said, “Beer is proof that God loves us and wants us to be happy.” But while drinking beer make the drinker happy; some drinkers (if they overindulge) might do stupid things that hurt others. So many religions ban all alcohol (Islam does). Clearly the Muslims are not happy people, but they are following the morals of their religion.

I should stress that the problem of “too much morality” is really not a problem of any one religion. Perhaps every religion, if practiced in the way that the zealots would approve, would lead to a problem with excessive morality, and too little freedom and tolerance. It would seem that Islam, as practice by the horrible Taliban or the Iranian regime or the Saudi regime, or many other Islamic fundamentalist state, would be the best recent examples of “excessive morality”. But the communist societies (communism qualifies as an atheistic religion in my opinion) may have yielded similar examples. It is really an issue of totalitarianism vs. freedom. All beliefs can degenerate into totalitarianism if the zealots gain power.

My hope is that people will sense that the zealots of the world are essentially immoral. Then the zealots will be ignored, and people will be free to practice their religions in a more commonsense way.

And if you are of age, by all means, drink beer (if you like it).


  • I read this post late last night, and have been thinking of what to say.....

    .....It takes an economist to explain religion so amazingly well...

    still marvelling at this post.

    By Blogger Sunil, at 12:21 AM  

  • Hi Sunil
    Thanks for the kind words. Of course, there's a lot more to religion than what I said in the post, but I think the cooperate/defect game above illustrates the essential moral dilemma associated with religion. If you ban everything, you cannot hope to make people happy. A Taleban society would be a miserable place to live.

    By Blogger Michael Higgins, at 5:49 AM  

  • Sikh fundamentalists tried extreme morality in Punjab in the 80s, during the Khalistan insurgency. In the later stage of their campaign against the Indian state, they banned alchohol and meat to all Sikhs in Amritsar. Soon afterwards, support for the militants declined sharply, and the insurgency was defeated...

    People don't always stand for this kind of crap.

    By Blogger Kunal, at 8:46 AM  

  • Hi Kunal
    It is surprising how many leaders - religous or otherwise - think that if they great curtail freedom, people will be forced to be good, and everyone will be happy. But it wouldn't surprise me a bit if we found out that those leaders who banner meat and alcohol were eating chicken and drinking beer on the sly.

    By Blogger Michael Higgins, at 12:02 PM  

  • interesting theory. really. Like my mom used to quote a saying in Sanskrit, when I was growing up, "Ati sarvtra varjyate" (Excess in everything is bad) although she meant it for food items ;)
    You have interestingly applied that here.
    But I also would like to point out that sometimes radicalization of people occurs due to PURELY political reasons. I have less of a problem if a person is acting for purely political reason, then acting on "excessive morality" reason.
    Having said that, let me be clear that I condemn violence on innocent people commited by anyone.

    By Anonymous RC, at 9:51 AM  

  • Hi RC
    Excessive politics could be a sort of excessive morality. People who are really into politics think that it will do good in the world if they could have their way. Their ethics could be skewed by this belief and actually commit evil, just like the religious zealots.

    By Blogger Michael Higgins, at 10:27 AM  

  • hi Michael,
    I meant political reaction such as a reaction to imperialism. Fight against imperialism such as George Washington in US and revolutionaries in India is I consider political reaction as a result of getting one's back against the wall type reaction.
    So it will be somewhat gray(also somewhat dependant upon viewpoint) what excessive political (the type that I described) reaction is.

    By Anonymous RC, at 9:41 PM  

  • interesting..

    but i dont agree that people who drink are any happier than those who dont

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 8:37 AM  

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