Chapter 5

Societal Dilemmas

Here are some questions related to trust:

  • During a natural disaster, should I steal a big-screen TV? What about food to feed my family?
  • As a kamikaze pilot, should I refuse to kill myself? What if I'm just a foot soldier being ordered to attack a heavily armed enemy bunker?
  • As a company employee, should I work hard or slack off? What if the people around me are slacking off and getting away with it? What if my job is critical and, by slacking off, I harm everyone else's year-end bonuses?

There's a risk trade-off at the heart of every one of these questions. When deciding whether to cooperate and follow the group norm, or defect and follow some competing norm, an individual has to weigh the costs and benefits of each option. I'm going to use a construct I call a societal dilemma to capture the tension between group interest and a competing interest.

What makes something a societal dilemma, and not just an individual's free choice to do whatever he wants and risk the consequences, is that there are societal repercussions of the trade-off. Society as a whole cares about the dilemma, because if enough people defect, something extreme happens. It might be bad, like widespread famine, or it might be good, like civil rights. But since a societal dilemma is from the point of view of societal norms, by definition it's in society's collective best interest to ensure widespread cooperation.

Let's start with the smallest society possible: two people. Another ...

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