Artillery Row

Braving the woke mob is a prisoner’s dilemma

Nicholas Shackel, a Professor of Philosophy at University of Cardiff, explains how to turn the prisoner’s dilemma into the free speaker’s game

In a discussion with Eric Weinstein, Douglas Murray said that if everyone stood up to the woke mob then its power would be broken. True, but there is a reason everyone doesn’t: braving the woke mob is a prisoner’s dilemma and consequently the rational choice is to keep quiet. This week, Eton beak Mr Knowland didn’t realise that he was Head Master Mr Henderson’s fellow prisoner.

A prisoner’s dilemma is the name for a certain pattern that one may be confronted with in choosing under uncertainty where the outcome depends on both your choice and someone else’s. Such patterns are called games in rational decision theory and this one gets its name from the choice that may face criminals.

The only solution to the prisoner’s dilemma is to change the game by changing the outcomes

You and your fellow thief have been arrested and are questioned separately. You are both made the following offer: if you confess and your fellow doesn’t, you will go free; if you don’t but your fellow does, you’ll go to prison for 16 years. If you both confess, you’ll both get a reduced sentence of 8 years. If neither confesses then they will only be able to convict you on a lesser charge and you’ll both go to jail for 4 years. You have no means of communication with your fellow thief. Plainly, you prefer freedom (A) to 4 years jail (B), which you prefer to 8 years jail (C), which in turn you prefer to 16 years jail (D). Moreover, in each case, since you prefer none to 4 and 4 to 8, you prefer none to 8, and so on, which means you satisfy the rational requirement of having transitive preferences.

We assume everyone involved is rational, so that they will choose to do what they prefer. So, what really matters here is the pattern of preference. Here is a table that shows the pattern, where the left-hand column lists your actions, be Silent or Confess, and the top row is your fellow’s actions. In the body of the table the first outcome is yours and the second is your fellow’s.

You can do nothing about what your fellow thief will do and you do not know what he will do. If he remains silent, since you prefer A to B, you prefer to confess. If he confesses, since you prefer C to D, you again prefer to confess. So, whatever he does, you prefer to confess. So you confess.

This reasoning is in accord a principle of rational decision called dominance. If there is a single choice which you prefer, whatever choice your partner makes, that choice is called the dominant choice and dominance says you should choose it.

The temptation at this point it to think about loyalty and threats. And that is quite correct, but the important thing to realise is that such moves are not, strictly speaking, solutions to prisoner’s dilemma but ways of changing the game. For if loyalty and threats change your choice, they change outcomes by making confession worse than 16 years jail, for example, by calling confessors snitches and adding assassination to the outcome. This gives us an entirely different pattern and therefore an entirely different game:

Now, whatever your fellow thief does, you prefer to remain silent, so you remain silent.

There is a literature that attempts to prove it to be rational for both to remain silent but all such attempts amount to covert changes of the game. The criminals are right: the only solution to the prisoner’s dilemma is to change the game by changing the outcomes, and so to prevent it being played against you by the police. That is why we strengthen the game by offering you witness protection: provided there is inadequate loyalty, it removes the threat and confines the outcomes to the question of freedom and jail alone. This is why it is important to ensure the outcomes are fully specified.

Strictly speaking, our analysis has confined itself to two people. From hereon, and without going into the additional complications needed for the strict treatment of many people, I shall be taking advantage of an ambiguity, that you may be individual or several and so may your partners. As will become evident, the pattern is sustained over pairs of peoples just as well as over pairs of people.

Now let us consider braving the woke mob. We all know the rules now: if you stand up, you’ll be mobbed on Twitter, you will be vilified publicly, the lying slanders may be believed and your reputation destroyed, and you may lose your job. But exactly what the outcome will be also depends on how others act.

Democracy has freed us to take the transgressors to their inquisition in 280 characters

If you Stand on your own and those who are your partners chicken out, you will be the Heretic cast out. If you Chicken out while leaving, or even throwing, your Stand-up partner to the mob, you are safe or (thanking the mob, with perhaps some hesitations over their tone) Virtuous in your superior woke orthodoxy. If you and your partners all chicken out, checking your privilege and confessing to your sin, you are an orthodox Sinner who may hope for redemption. If you and your partners Stand together, you will be vilified as Blasphemers but may escape the penalties of heresy. So anyone standing up faces the unbeliever’s dilemma:

Currently, our society has decided to reward people with this preference order: the Virtuous (A) are better than Sinners (B) are better than Blasphemers (C) are better than Heretics (D). On this ordering, the unbeliever’s dilemma is the prisoner’s dilemma. If the other stands, you prefer to chicken out and if they chicken out you prefer to chicken out, so whatever they do, you prefer to chicken out and chickening out is dominant.

This is the game Mr Knowland and Mr Henderson played: Mr Knowland Stood and Mr Henderson Chickened out and displayed his woke Virtue, and our society ruled the first the Heretic and the second the Virtuous. Of course, it is a little more complicated than that, but we know the list of recent players of this game. Whilst there are many who disagree with the naming and ordering of outcomes, it remains the case that the heretics were all successfully slandered, anathematised and lost jobs and the various authority figures they played the game with, being at best the useful idiots of the woke, Chickened out and displayed their woke virtue.

What needs to happen is for the game to be changed to the free speaker’s game:

You may think it obvious what this game prescribes, but again, it all depends on the preference order. The religious have always, and, as we have just seen, continue to identify the truth seeker with the blasphemer and heretic and the dogmatist with the virtuous, which leaves us all chickening out with the dogmatists. The religious then add the extra burdens to the outcomes to get to the unbeliever’s dilemma as a prisoner’s dilemma.

We face the woke prisoner’s dilemma and it remains rational to chicken out

The historical precedents do not give grounds for optimism about such a change: from Socrates’ apology on, the record shows the religious imposing the prisoner’s dilemma on the would-be free speaker. Nevertheless, were it to be widely recognised that this, rather than the woke prisoner’s dilemma, is the true game to be played, Mr Henderson would have to resign. Unfortunately, so would the various authorities across the country, who have played this game for their own purposes. They are skilled at trimming and don’t care to distinguish the falsehoods of the woke creed from the moral truths there are about freedom and equality. Whilst that remains the case, we face the woke prisoner’s dilemma and it remains rational to chicken out.

Interestingly enough, the righteous also face a dilemma. Let us join them. All around us we see, or perhaps seek out, wilful transgression. Democracy has freed us to take the transgressors to their inquisition in 280 characters. You may Damn them or Bewail your injury. If you call down damnation but your partners bewail, you will have shown your partners to be Saintly Victims at the price of being a Bully. If you and they bewail, lacking the revelation of the transgressor’s sin, you are merely Whiners. If, however, you and they call down damnation, you are the Virtuous joined in the righteous defence of the wronged. Thus we have the dilemma of the righteous:

Saints are better than the Virtuous, who are better than Whiners, who are better than Bullies. On this preference order, the dilemma of the righteous is, once more, a prisoner’s dilemma. If your partner damns, you prefer to be a Saint than Righteous, so you bewail, and if your partner bewails, you prefer to be a Whiner than a Bully, so you bewail. So whatever your partner does you prefer to bewail, so you bewail. How is it, then, that the righteous ever turn damnation into a joint venture?

Of course, for any of the righteous who would rather bully than whine, and who are impatient of sainthood, they will prefer to damn whatever their partners do, so that might explain it. But unless there are enough of them, they are in danger of appearing as no more than a gang of extremist thugs. Few are willing to view or show themselves in that light and in general the righteous aspire at least to virtuosity. Must we convict them, then, of irrationality?

Well maybe, but perhaps not on their successfully joint venture of damnation. The problem for the prisoners is that they would like to communicate in order to coordinate with or control one another so they can obtain their jointly preferred, if individually second best, outcome. They are prevented from doing so by the removal of all means of communication and as a consequence are rationally confined to their third best outcome.

Of course, if the righteous can communicate, and thereby conspire, they can at least join with their conspirators. Now, however, we must consider that this is an activity in society. Even quite a large group of conspirators is evidently a bunch of bullying extremists. They need sufficient numbers, and also fellow travellers, to achieve the effect, or at least the appearance, of the joint damnation by the virtuous of society, who may therefore quite rightly coerce and keep quiet the unrighteous.

As news of sin spreads, so it is accompanied by a wave of joint damnation

It is at this point that ideology, or doctrine as I shall call it, comes in. A nice simple doctrine suffices, with easily identifiable sins whose slightest transgression merits condemnation and whose condemnation admits of no matters of degree, but requires the pronunciation of anathema on the sinner. If the righteous know the doctrine, they need no longer communicate in order to coordinate. Instead, the doctrine itself can constitute the coordination provided it is common knowledge among the righteous. Common knowledge means they don’t only know it, but know that the others know it and know that the others know that they know it, and so on.

Consequently, each individual among the righteous can reliably predict whether the righteous in general will damn the sinner and therefore know that although they control only their own pronunciation of damnation, if the pronounce it they will not pronounce it alone but only in joint venture with the whole body of the righteous. And because of the reliability of prediction, the delays necessitated for conspiracy are entirely eliminated: as news of sin spreads, so it is accompanied by a wave of joint damnation.

A further benefit of the doctrine is that it may even redeem bewailing. It allows the righteous to reliably predict bewailing as a joint venture, should they be sure of being seen as saintly victims. There will come a point in the spreading awareness of the doctrine more widely in society at which that knowledge may itself play the role formerly played by the bully. Once that effect is known to be reliable, the dilemma of the righteous changes to the vindication of the righteous:

The dangerous asymmetries of action have been eliminated by the coordination constituted by the doctrine and the bewailer has found an alternative route to sainthood. Less sympathetic commentators may recognise the pattern of joint strategy which they have named the cry-bully.

That is the first stage, but it may not yet be quite enough, since although the appearance of potentially warranted damnation is now in play, it may yet appear to be that of the sect, whose grounds for damnation may be known but not yet be widely accepted. The aim is for the doctrine to rule, and for it to rule the damnation must come to appear as that of the virtuous of society in general. Fellow travellers must therefore be enlisted and given support for their moderated part in the joint venture, with room for demurrals from the harsh elements whilst assuring us that the righteous have their heart in the right place. The powerful, who will pander to bolster their standing in virtue and to enlist the righteous to their own ends, need some more widely acceptable camouflage than that of a righteous believer under which they may travel.

The needed final touches are got from making the doctrine a Motte and Bailey doctrine. Just like a Motte and Bailey castle, such a doctrine has two parts, the Bailey, which is where you really want to be but is only lightly defensible, and the Motte, dank in your eyes, but impregnable. The propositions and rules of the Bailey are what you really believe in and aim to enforce, but only the true believers accept them. The propositions and rules of the Motte, formulated as if they are the moderate grounds of which the Bailey is the logical extension and necessary fulfilment, are widely accepted.

We know of no better means than the free exchange of ideas to discover the truth

The confusion between the two is sustained by the use of Humpty Dumptying, the arbitrary or tendentious redefinition of words, Troll’s Truisms, ambiguous propositions that are exciting but false under one interpretation and trivial but true under another, vagueness, obscurity and obfuscation. When the doctrine of the righteous is under attack, they retreat to the Motte and from there reassure any fellow travellers and enlist them to the joint venture of damnation. The Motte gives the powerful the needed camouflage. In the meantime, the damnation itself is by the rules of the Bailey. When the damned appeal their conviction, the fellow travellers don’t pay enough attention to spot the switch, the powerful don’t care since the damnation served their purpose, and so the damned are thought convicted by the Motte. Thus do they become outcast by the righteous.

So, the righteous know how to change their prisoner’s dilemma to a game they win. What can those who wish to brave righteous damnation do? Here we meet the fundamental difficulty: as I said before, the prisoner’s dilemma traps you rationally by eliminating the communication that would allow you to get out of it.

We saw above that when we consider this as a dilemma of peoples in society rather than a dilemma of two persons, communication does not go far enough. It leaves you only as part of a conspiracy when you need widescale but uncontrolled coordination. A simple doctrine can do that job for you but that is exactly what those who brave righteous damnation do not have. Indeed, at the level of considering the truth or falsity of doctrine, precisely what they wish to do is put back the needed complications in which moral truth lives. And that is exactly what the vindication of the righteous defeats.

Furthermore, those who wish to brave the righteous do not have a single doctrine to which they adhere but believe in various incompatible doctrines. Indeed, it may be that the only things they agree on are the right to think and speak freely, to pursue truth undogmatically and the resulting need to permit a multiplicity of doctrines their public place, so we may seek the truth through their examination and conflict. If they do indeed agree on that, and if their agreement on it could become common knowledge, so that they could reliably predict the widespread support of their right to speak, then that alone might suffice to change their prisoner’s dilemma to the free-speaker’s game. But it is hard for them to do that, just because there are always some of this presently only virtual coalition who disagree quite violently with whatever contentious speech is currently being suppressed through damnation.

We know of no better means than the free exchange of ideas, however offensive they may be, to discover the truth. The dogmatists of our age reject objective truth because it is not neutral between doctrines, and they are right that it is not. Nevertheless, the objective truth is the only neutral ground on which we may meet. Reality is not optional and if it refutes a belief, however cherished, we must bear the pain and renounce it. We must get to the free-speaker’s game somehow.

Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try three issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £5

Critic magazine cover