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  • Writer's pictureH. Paul Putman III, MD

The Survival Pledge 3: The Golden Rule

Updated: Sep 2, 2021

(The Survival Pledge is an eight-point plan to refocus each of us on taking responsibility for our own thoughts and behaviors in ways that benefit ourselves and others, supporting peace and non-violence.)

As I do not wish to be harmed in any way by others, I will support the general idea of not harming others in any way, in the hope that my own risk will be lessened.

“Whatever you wish that men would do to you, do so to them.” - Matthew 7.12

“Do not do to others what you would not like yourself.” – Confucius

“Hurt not others in ways that you yourself would find hurtful.” - Udānavarga 5:18

The realization that our treatment of others helps determine their physical safety is but a short step from realizing that our own safety is tied, in part, to how others treat us. If we live in a society without the rule of some sort of law (moral, religious, or civil) that is generally recognized, supported and reasonably well enforced, we can have little expectation of how others will treat us. In such a situation, we could not predict, avoid or work against physical or substantive danger from our fellow human beings.

Many societies, therefore, teach this concept in early childhood. Toddlers are trained to not hit, kick or bite.[1] They are taught to share food and opportunities and to wait patiently to allow for others. If there is full compliance in a society, granting these accommodations to others will ensure that the effort is reciprocal and that an individual may avoid intentional harm from them.

“Let there be peace on earth and let it begin with me.” - Jill Jackson / Sy Miller

Obviously, the success of this quid pro quo “back scratching” is determined at any time by the percentage of the population willing to go along with it. All communities can accommodate a few aberrant individuals without experiencing the destruction of this social compact. Societies, though, allow different degrees of interference among individuals, so the expectations of safety will vary among them.

Game Theory has attempted to uncover which strategies obtain the best outcome for an individual, when caught in situations with others that result in a win or loss. One of the most commonly studied game scenarios was conceived by Rand Corporation employees Merrill Flood and Melvin Dresher in 1950. It was named the Prisoner’s Dilemma (PD) by Albert W. Tucker, who also formalized its consequences.[2] In the PD, two prisoners have been arrested for a crime and are separated by police for interrogation. Each is told that if he confesses and implicates the other, while his partner does not, he will go free and his partner will receive the full ten-year sentence. If neither confesses, both receive six-month sentences for lesser charges. If both admit the crime, each receives a five-year sentence.

Game Theory assumes that players are concerned with neither a positive outcome for the other, nor benefit from an improved lot for the other. When PD is played only once between two “prisoners” the best solution is for both to confess and “defect” - each player is then assured of the best possible outcome for himself, regardless of what the other player does. Douglas Hofstadter argues, with his superrationality theory, that in societies with religious and ethical codes, each player may assume that the other will behave according to these codes. Additionally, though, each player will take into account his super knowledge that each will benefit more by neither confessing, and therefore cooperate to achieve the lowest sentence for each.[3] The societal code strategy is always sabotaged by individuals behaving simply rationally, and therefore is not reliable. It requires all players to adhere to the Golden Rule[4] and a player cannot be assured of that in a single game instance.

When the PD game is repeated (iterated), however, each player now has the opportunity to punish the other for defection, and cooperation emerges as the better strategy. Robert Axelrod’s research competitions involving computer modeling has pointed to Anatol Rapoport’s “Tit for Tat” strategy as a most successful solution to the iterated classic PD. If players do not know how many times they will play the game together, then the “always defect” strategy becomes vulnerable to the opportunity for reward and punishment between the two players. In “Tit for Tat,” the automatic first response is to cooperate and continue cooperating until the opponent defects. At that point, the defector is punished when the other player also defects. Each player is quick to forgive, however, and play returns to cooperative when one player again initiates that behavior.

Axelrod explores in his book The Evolution of Cooperation that it is the simplicity of this strategy that is a large part of its success.[5] Rules that are so complex they can be interpreted as random or made up for the occasion will be discounted as non-cooperative by opponents and therefore do not lead to successful cooperation. Additionally, as a non-zero-sum game, the prisoners are not competing but each is trying to achieve the best result for himself. As a result, each player will be watching for clues in the other player’s behavior and responding such that any behavior may be mirrored back. The players respond to each choice of the other and neither can be treated as fixed feature of the environment.

This model, though, does not allow for social relationships such as friendship, family, and other alliances, the correlation of like-minded players discussed in the previous post. It also can lead to a “Death Spiral” in which each player would cooperate if only the other would first, but neither is willing to take the first step. As a result, Axelrod studied “Tit for Two Tats” in which the first defection is forgiven and only the second in a row is punished. He expected that it would be more successful when comparing it to the strategies employed in his first round of competition. However, when submitted by John Maynard Smith in the second round, against very aggressive opponents who did not respond to its forgiveness, it is was not as successful as predicted.

Axelrod points out that success depends upon the environment, meaning the actual strategies opponents are utilizing at the time. If the main danger is from “unending mutual recriminations” then a high level of forgiveness like in “Tit for Two Tats” will do well. If the threat is from strategies that take advantage of “easygoing rules” then “Tit for Tat” is more successful. He concludes from his competitions that, given a wide range of environments, the original “Tit for Tat’s” immediate response to defection is most likely to be effective.

Peter Hammerstein argues that in real life two parties are not forced to continue to interact with only each other and that the market for alternative partners to defect or cooperate with severely limits the applicability of these game simulations to nature.[6] He theorizes that only when switching social partners is unprofitable will the strategic advantages seen in PD and similar simulations lead to cooperation. Even so, in nonhuman animals' cooperation is observed only when reciprocity can be quickly expressed over short periods of time, while this type of learning occurs. Therefore, due to market forces, variable cooperation is more likely and therefore classic “Tit for Tat” cooperation is extremely rare in nature.

Jean Hampton examines Thomas Hobbes’ contention in Leviathan[7] that relentless self-interest will always lead humans to seek their best advantage over each other by eschewing cooperation unless all individuals involved can see that cooperation over several instances will lead to a greater outcome for the individual at each opportunity. Even so, Hobbes rejects this possibility because he assumes that in the “shortsightedness” of individuals, they will either not appreciate the gains they can achieve over the long term from such cooperation, or will not trust that others will also choose to cooperate with them; they will choose the immediate, once iterated opportunity for personal gain. The assumption of such shortsightedness in others, he contends, will prompt the same shortsightedness in each of us.

Hobbes believed that cooperation would not occur unless forced upon us from an absolute powerful super authority. Hampton, though, demonstrates with Game Theory and Decision Analysis (and particularly the PD) her argument that actually such mutual cooperation is likely: most, if not all, people will appreciate the long-term advantages to themselves and others of cooperation over multiple opportunities (if not from single ones).[8]

Brian Skyrms explains, again with Game Theory, how when correlated individuals in a society interact, they may choose a cooperative strategy that can reach equilibrium, though peripheral non-cooperative dissidents may also be maintained that do not interfere significantly with overall cooperation.[9] Further, this equilibrium of cooperation may become a custom in that society that is then learned by each successive generation – an example of a meme in evolutionary biology. He also shows how strategies other than cooperation may also become dominant in a society. This is more likely if the people interacting are not correlated or brought together by similar interest, such as family or other social groupings, thus supporting the value of groups in our societies that carry institutional memory of certain values.

Can an individual, then, change the level of safety in society, and herself, by changing the way she behaves as one entity? Only by encouraging by example, as Game Theory may support, for the individual must use her behavior not only to avoid the infliction of further harm, but to reinforce the education of others to the benefits of behaving similarly. In fact, Charles Collyer stresses that cultural change towards nonviolence, through education, should occur concomitantly.[10] We see, though, that our behavior over time does influence the behavior of others, regardless of their original motivation. These examples may show that trust is developed through open-ended interaction among individuals, behaving with similar strategies, while cooperation is verified.

Societies that have made this transition to relative safety will often elevate proponents of nonviolence to hero status, noting their courage in an effort to inspire the populace to follow their lead. The best film of 1955, according to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, was Eli Kazan’s On the Waterfront.[11] The films protagonist, Terry Malloy (played by Marlon Brando), is an ordinary man who stands up to labor union corruption. Most striking in the script is the final scene in which he does so entirely alone, but with the entire waterfront community watching as he battles the murderous crime bosses and their henchmen for the simple opportunity to work. The film ends with his standing after a brutal beating and painfully walking through the doorway of his employer, solely to begin a day at work. Hundreds of his fellow longshoremen only watch, though. They know of the murders; they watch the beating and they take no stand. In the end they follow him, now enthusiastically, into work. Earlier in the film we saw how his brother, a henchman, died as result of his acceptance of the mob values. The implication is that one man, through courage and behavior different from violent men, paved the way for himself and every man to work without fear of physical attack. It inspires us to fight evil nonviolently.

If only Hollywood were life. Are there any examples of such a strategy working in the real world? Obviously, Mahatma Gandhi comes to mind as a twentieth century paragon of peaceful resistance. His methods and successes were copied later in the century by Martin Luther King, Jr. Historical accounts of Jesus of Nazareth are not complete, yet two millennia of scriptures about his peaceful resistance to corruption of his religion have inspired trillions. The stories of Christian saints often involve cruel torture and death suffered for standing firm nonviolently. Even young Anne Frank described in her diary, 21 days before her arrest, how she found strength to trust in humanity in the face of a bitterly cruel and murderous Nazi regime:

It’s really a wonder that I haven’t dropped all my ideals, because they seem so absurd

and impossible to carry out. Yet I keep them, because in spite of everything, I still believe

that people are really good at heart. I simply can’t build up my hopes on a foundation

consisting of confusion, misery and death. I see the world gradually being turned into a

wilderness, I hear the ever approaching thunder, which will destroy us too…

In the meantime, I must uphold my ideals, for perhaps the time will come when I shall

be able to carry them out.[12]

Viktor Frankel[13] and Elie Wiesel[14] have also inspired several generations as they describe in their literature how they survived and peacefully found meaning in existence though being assailed and surrounded by the Dantean horrors of the Holocaust.

The stories of these and others are revered, taught and reviewed for each generation in free societies in the hope that rising generations will be able to withstand, peacefully, future assaults from evil, and retain their person freedoms and safety. These efforts to inspire nonviolence, when violence is readily favored by so many, are striking. Perhaps this is an unconscious awareness of the discovery of Game Theory’s recent conclusions that peaceful cooperation is one adaptive survival mechanism for humans that we may not be certain to employ. It can only be achieved by most followers deciding to behave nonviolently.

These examples are of individuals. They illustrate how decisions to avoid harming others increase the likelihood that the individual will not be harmed. Unfortunately, it did not turn out that way for Martin Luther King, Jr., Mahatma Gandhi, Jesus of Nazareth, most of the Christian saints, and Anne Frank. The message, though, is that these pioneers led the way in teaching nonviolence and that our society can be sustained and furthered by continuing in their paths. Their stories are the human institutional memory of what can be learned from equilibrium of peaceful cooperation so that it may be sustained. Society should become progressively safer as individual adoption of the Golden Rule increases.

Malcolm Gladwell in his book The Tipping Point attempts to examine the mechanisms that underlie societal movements or “fads,” in the hope that these principles may be used to create fads of societal value.[15] For example, a fad could be developed against teen pregnancy or for literacy. He outlines his perceptions of how information and interest is disseminated through society and ascribes different roles to different personality types. Perhaps these same mechanisms may someday be utilized for a Golden Rule fad.

As I do not wish to be harmed in any way by others, I will support the general idea of not harming others in any way, in the hope that my own risk will be lessened.

[1] Robert Fulghum, All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten: Uncommon Thoughts on Common Things, 25th Anniversary Edition (New York: Ballantine Books, 2003). [2] William Poundstone, Prisoner’s Dilemma (New York: Anchor Books, 1993), 8. [3] Douglas R. Hofstadter, Metamagical Themas: Questing for the Essence of Mind and Pattern (New York: Basic Books, 1985), 713-758. [4] “Formulations,” The Golden Rule Project, accessed August 20, 2021, [5] Robert Axelrod, The Evolution of Cooperation (New York: Basic Books, 2006). [6] Peter Hammerstein, Genetic and Cultural Evolution of Cooperation (New York: MIT Press, 2003), 83-94. [7] Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan, 1651. (Urbana, Illinois: Project Gutenberg) Retrieved August 20, 2021, from [8] Jean Hampton, "The Shortsightedness Account of Conflict," in Hobbes and the Social Contract Tradition. (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1986), 80-89. [9] Brian Skyrms, Evolution of the Social Contract (New York: Cambridge UP, 1996). [10] Charles E. Collyer and Ira G. Zepp, Jr., There’s More to Nonviolence Than I Thought: A Chapter from Nonviolence: Origins and Outcomes, Third Edition (Uniontown, Maryland: TryForFurther Books, 2016). [11] On the Waterfront, directed by Eli Kazan, featuring Marlon Brando and Rod Steiger (1954, Horizon Pictures), 1:8:45. [12] Anne Frank, Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl, trans. R. M. Mooyaart (New York: Doubleday, 1952). [13] Viktor E. Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning, trans. Ilse Lasch (Boston: Beacon Press, 2006). [14] Elie Wiesel, Night, trans. Marion Wiesel (New York: Hill and Wang, 2006). [15] Malcolm Gladwell, The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference (Boston: Little, Brown & Company, 2000).

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