An article showed up on Digg today, asking if sacrificing for one’s team should be considered altruistic. In the context of sports, the author, David Papineau, raises a question of whether a player sacrificing for his team is doing so for his or her fellow teammates (altruism) or is instead identifying with the abstract concept of a “team,” of which he identifies as a member.
Papineau then suggests an extension to traditional game theory that allows separate agents to behave as a group. He uses an example of two player-agents in soccer where the correct answer is only clear when both agents act as a unit. You can look at the article for the details, but basically each agent’s ideal action is dependent on the action of the other, but of all the possible combinations of both agents’ actions, there is a clear best outcome.
Papineau then brings up the prisoner’s dilemma, wherein the solution is also trivial when attacked with group, rather than individual reasoning. Papineau notes that group reasoning falls apart when even a very small proportion of members do not behave according to the group reasoning. However, humans very often do behave with group reasoning. Watching The Wire, it’s more than clear that criminal gangs of all stripes have solved the prisoner’s dilemma using group reasoning, for example. The gang, the family, the syndicate, these are all teams on which people play, and with the proper cultural mindset it’s relatively easy to imagine that a player will be confident that his teammates will hold up their end of the bargain.
Now let me take Papineau’s article in a different direction: clearly this propensity for group-based reasoning has allowed humans to prosper through cooperation, but why does it so often fall down after a certain point and leave us with warring tribes instead of a world-wide harmony?
To answer that, here’s another question – what team am I on? The obvious first, I am on my own team. Then I have a series of other teams, in very rough order of closeness to me, my relationship, my work, my family, my friends, North Carolina, America, humanity. My duty to each of these gets more remote and abstract as the entity gets bigger and my place in it gets smaller, and therefore I’m willing to sacrifice less for one group to benefit a group more removed from me.
That may not be the central issue, though. Clearly people can be good at placing a very large entity’s needs above their own – this is what nationalism and its ability to motivate massive armies to kill and die for their nation proves. Nationalism is anything but a given in a nation. It relies on enormous propaganda drives. It can remain strong even when the nation does not fulfill its side of the bargain (read: veteran’s healthcare). Also, one can identify with one’s nation and not with one’s leaders, which is why patriotism can mean so many different things to different people. Nevertheless, the nation appears to be the largest entity so far that has been able to get people to identify as team members and sacrifice for it.
The forces encouraging people to identify with all of humanity do not have enormous propaganda on their side. The complexities of humanity make it difficult for us to all agree on what actions to take, and many of us don’t even agree on what success looks like, making it difficult to form a team mentality. The closest we have are our ethical standards – journalism, science, human rights, and rule of law are four that come to mind. Instead of identifying with large groups of people, we can identify with sets of rules and values that are designed to remain the same despite the frailties of the people involved. Maybe that’s how Team Humanity should play the game.