The Liar Paradox, the Prisoner’s Dilemma, and the Concept of Political Authority

Most students of philosophy will be familiar with ‘the liar paradox‘, which in its simplest form goes: “this sentence is false”. Other versions might include someone who always lies saying “I am currently lying”, or similar.

Is the sentence false? If so, it’s true, because it describes itself as being false and is. But then, since it describes itself as false but is in fact true, it’s false. But then it’s true, and hence false, and hence true, and hence…The point is that attempts to give it a truth-value take you on an infinite, because circular, trek, and are hence impossible.

Puzzling, but largely remote from issues of practical philosophy, right?

Wrong. The concept of political power or authority is in fact exactly the same kind of thing. That is, it also displays this ‘infinite circular trek’ that baffles and confuses the mind.

To explain why, let’s start with a situation devoid of ‘authority’. A group of, say, 5 people is trying to work out what to do – not just what each individual will do, but what collective action they’ll take.

Now, being able to take collective action is not automatic – in some situations the group may fail to behave as a single agent, despite the individuals all being agents. The simplest example of this is another famous paradox, ‘the prisoners’ dilemma‘. I won’t rehearse the details, they’re behind the link.

So some preconditions are necessary for collective rational action. Glossing over the details, people need to be able to communicate, and to enforce agreements that they reach. This in turn requires that each person expects that the others will respond positively if they act to support the joint project, and negatively is they act to disrupt it. So the key issue is expectations – what enables the group to act as a group is that each individual expects the others to act in certain ways.

How to produce these vital expectations? In the example we’re considering, the 5 people can do it directly and easily – each one says what their intentions are, and so each one has obvious evidence for their expectations about the others (assuming, of course, that they trust each other).

But what if there’s 1,000 people? They can’t each speak directly to the other 9,999, so some more indirect method is needed. One such method (not the only one) is the creation of an authority: that is, some 1 of the 1,000 is made into a monarch, and then whatever that monarch says, everyone else does. This may have downsides, but it at least makes a range of collective actions possible, which is good.

Now here’s my claim: in trying to attribute causal responsibility for these collective actions, we are led into the same infinite-because-circular series of thoughts, hence the same insoluble paradox, as in the liar paradox.

So suppose the monarch observes that people are having lots of road accidents because some drive on the left and some on the right. The monarch issues a pronouncement on live TV (or via. messengers, or whatever) that “everyone is to drive on the left”. And hey presto, almost everyone drives on the left and the rate of accidents goes down.

Now, who did this? The immediate cause isn’t necessarily the same as the thing with ultimate responsibility – the immediate cause of someone’s death may be loss of blood to the brain, but to assign responsibility we need to go back through the causal chain, to the bullet that pierced the heart, the gun that fired the bullet, the finger that pulled the trigger, and finally to the mind that controlled that finger. At this point we stop, because we’ve come back to a certain sort of human decision and so we can attribute responsibility.

So in any given case, an accident didn’t happen because of the driving decisions of certain particular people. But why did they make those decisions? Well, because of the monarch’s pronouncement (let’s focus on that first day after it was pronounced).

But why did they listen to the monarch? Let’s suppose they don’t believe in anything about the mystical right of the monarch to rule: they know that the monarch is just there for convenience, as a way to help them co-ordinate. So really, what motivates them is their expectations about others. They each can think “the other 998 people will also have heard the pronouncement, so they will also be driving on the left. Ergo, I will be safer if I drive on the left, so I will drive on the left.”

So the monarch’s pronouncement is not the ultimate cause of their decision: it’s a cause only because it’s evidence about the intentions of others. So it’s the intentions of others that is the ultimate cause, and really responsibility belongs to the whole group, all 1,000 of them (or 999, if everyone except the monarch owns a car).

But no – because we can then ask, why are those others going to act in this way? Well, because they heard the monarch’s pronouncement – so ultimate responsibility lies with the monarch after all!

But in each case, the monarch’s pronouncement caused them to have those intentions only because it served as evidence that others would have certain intentions. So again it’s the group, not the monarch, that’s the ultimate cause.

But the others had those intentions only because they heard the monarch’s pronouncement – so it’s the monarch! But then it’s the group! But then it’s the monarch! But then it’s the group! But then…etc.

Note that this isn’t the claim that there’s a circle of causality – that would be metaphysically worrying. The causal picture is perfectly simple, in that each person hears the monarch’s pronouncement and then certain things happen in their mind and then they drive on the left. But there is a circle of responsibility, which makes strictly accurate assignment of responsibility impossible.

Similarly, the liar sentence is perfectly consistent as a physical object, a string of squiggles on a computer screen or page, but it generates a circle of meaning which makes assignment of truth or falsity impossible.

Conclusion

To conclude, briefly – what does this imply politically? It implies that the concept of authority, of power that one person possesses, not in virtue of strength or weaponry but in virtue of the obedience of others, is one that our minds will find enormously hard to make sense of if we don’t think very very clearly and carefully about it.

This means that any and all emotional attitudes towards authority, positive or negative, will be attitudes towards a ‘mystifying’ object, in the same way that religious attitudes are. Going further than this would require a closer look at the psychology of authority, but here’s one final consequence.

When we’re children, we get all sorts of emotional attitudes that don’t really make much sense, that don’t reflect a genuine understanding of the world. As we mature, hopefully, we gradually replace these with more rational, realistic attitudes, as we come to properly understand the things that we previously didn’t – a process that is, like most emotional processes, largely unreflective.

But what if a certain idea resists rational processing – what if it involves reason in paradoxes whenever reason tries to sort it out? If we think about it reflectively, we can recognise this and recognise why, like we do with the liar sentence. But insofar as our emotional maturation is unreflective, our attitudes towards mystifying objects will remain immature.

If I’m right above, then attitudes towards authority are likely to be systematically immature in almost all cases.

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8 Responses to The Liar Paradox, the Prisoner’s Dilemma, and the Concept of Political Authority

  1. Joshua Brandt says:

    I think a monarch only works in the kinds of cases you are describing (if it does), because the monarch can exert coercive authority over the plebes.

    • lukeroelofs says:

      Sure, but 1. only very weak and fragile authorities rely only and purely on the threat of coercion, and 2. they need political power at least within the police/army to exert that – the monarch is’t a Kryptonian who can fight crime on their own.

  2. Joshua Brandt says:

    With respect to 1, do you consider a monarch to be a weak and fragile authority? With respect to 2) They do need political power. For example, a group of individuals may come to an informal or formal agreement with each other. What is the residual worry?

    • lukeroelofs says:

      A monarch may be weak or strong, I didn’t mean the choice of a monarch to have any significance. It could have been an elected president, party leader, etc.

      The point is that by and large, a lot of the co-ordination that differentiates a society from a group of surprised strangers with no idea what to do, functions by means of some mechanism like this – there is some authoritative source, and each person guides their actions by listening to what they say (or reading about it in the newspaper, or the statute books, or by word of mouth).

      When co-ordination, and thus collective action, is enabled by any such authority, attributing responsibility for the action between the whole group and the specific authority becomes paradoxical.

  3. Joshua Brandt says:

    I’m not exactly sure how you are distinguishing responsibility from causality. But, I would ask, how does the declaration of the monarch serve as evidence of the intentions of others? Roughly, I think the answer is because the monarch has been entrusted with power by the people. So the people are at least partly responsible, but the monarch is also responsible because they made the declaration in the first place. Is there anything incoherent about both groups holding some degree of responsibility? I don’t think so. Suppose you are drunk and I lend you a knife. You then go stab some people. I am partially responsible for the stabbings, but so are you.

    • lukeroelofs says:

      “I’m not exactly sure how you are distinguishing responsibility from causality.”
      I’m not exactly sure either, but it seems clear that they’re different. If I’m tricked into doing something, that can mean I’m not as responsible for the effects, but it has no bearing on whether I caused them. Similarly if I’m sleepwalking.

      “how does the declaration of the monarch serve as evidence of the intentions of others?”
      Because I can infer that everyone else, who also heard the declaration, is now likely to act in ways that give me a great incentive to also act in that way. If they didn’t – if the monarch made laws that everybody ignored – I’d have no reason to care. It’s just that I know everyone else is likely to.

      “the people are at least partly responsible, but the monarch is also responsible”
      That responsibility is shared is the right thing to say, overall, because we could equally well say that it’s entirely the monarch’s responsibility or that it’s entirely the people’s, if we attend to different aspects. To recognise this and conclude ‘responsibility is sort-of shared’ follows from reflectively recognising the logical circle – but it could easily be thrown off or confused if we don’t reflectively recognise the logical circle, because we rely on our normal, semi-conscious calculations of responsibility.

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