Letter to Dr. Scott P. Stevens, James Madison Professor of Computer Information Systems & Business Analytics and teacher of the Great Courses class on Game Theory

Game Theory and the Stoics

When philosophical worlds collide

Good morning, Professor Stevens.

I'm enjoying your Great Courses lectures on game theory up here on Bryce Hill in Shenandoah County, but I'd like to make a few of my own observations, if I may, since, as a 1989 philosophy grad from VCU, I really can't resist. I should say up front that I've only progressed to the middle of lecture 5 so far, but I think I've gone far enough to warrant at least a few tentative thoughts on the topic as a whole, especially since I vow to keep an open mind in proceeding further through the course. I should say that I'm new to the details of game theory, so if I do have an axe to grind here, I've only just recently picked it up.

My key initial observation (after 4 1/2 lectures) is that game theory -- or at least the celebration of the Spock-like analysis of daily interactions that game theory appears to advocate -- would have been anathema to certain sorts of civilizations, especially those with a more introspective emphasis than is generally found in the West, and in the United States in particular. I'm thinking particularly here of cultures guided by the stoic principles of a Marcus Aurelius or a Seneca, who, when it came to the action of other "players" in life, would always tell their adherents, "Let THEM see to that, whereas you as a stoic should only worry about your own motives and actions." For these Romans believed that the important thing was to have one's own personal actions comport with honor and "nature's will" and that it was folly to concern oneself with how others might respond to one's own virtuous actions, much less to guide one's decision making via the relative probability of those various responses.

You have already alluded, of course, to the potential personal moral qualms that might come into play in certain games, cases wherein a given "player" might be prone to act (to a lesser or greater extent) based on "a priori" moral considerations (and so without regard to probable future outcomes as calculated by a detached observer). My point here, though, is that, in addition to these case-specific objections to an overt reliance on game theory, we can imagine entire societies that might opt out of the whole approach for philosophical reasons. To put it another way, the lure of game theory may seem obvious to a competitive Western society, especially one that prides itself on logic, rationality and securing maximum commercial gain, but to other more introspective societies, game theory could be viewed more mistrustfully, so to speak, as a cynical way to quantify and codify manipulation for the benefit of a given game player.

Please bear in mind that these are all preliminary observations on my part, and I'm not personally trying to make a case against the use of game theory in any given situation, especially since I'm less than halfway through your course. These are just some initial observations that I wish to share with you.

I will say one thing however about the case of dining at L'Amour restaurant.

In listening to this subject, I can't help but get the feeling that game theory is calling upon human beings to act like computers, perhaps assuming that, if enough outcome charts are placed in front of our faces, we humans will become more rational in our choices. But I can't imagine anyone EVER using a decision chart in the restaurant case -- unless that individual were a hopeless nerd, or else someone specifically trying to prove a point about game theory. The rest of us can never, I believe, be persuaded to resort to explicit algorithms in order to choose such mundane actions (even granting that mundane mistakes can sometimes lead to more significant problems). As for the weightier analogous cases of international decision-making in which similar principles are at work, I can't help but wonder if acting on "a priori" principles in such cases (to say nothing of the supposed morality of doing so) isn't an easier way of doing business than employing the complicated analysis of game theory. After all, whether we use a game theory algorithm or our own first principles to decide a matter, there is never a firm guarantee that we will achieve our desired result; but at least if we act from principle alone, we can always end up satisfied (at least according to the stoics), if not with the outcome then at least with ourselves, from the moral point of view. (Besides, we will save ourselves a lot of charting paper!)

One final observation:

I believe that the term "game" is philosophically suggestive. It suggests a premise that some societies might find to be cynical, namely that personal interaction is "nothing but a game" and that we should therefore quantify and codify behavioral contingencies in order to produce maximum economic outcomes for ourself. While this assumption will no doubt have utility in Western societies given Western priorities, the approach is not "one size fits all" around the globe given the very different priorities that may be emphasized in other cultures, as I've tried to suggest in referencing the stoics above.

Of course, I should really spend a good week honing this e-mail before sending it to you because there are many points that could no doubt bear some parenthetical qualifications. But I hope that you can understand these basic observations (or implied misgivings?) while pardoning me my lack of complete thoroughness in making them -- and trusting in my vow to keep an open mind in moving past lecture 5!

Meanwhile, thanks for the thought-provoking course, and I hope that you will enjoy (or at least not mind!) some of these thoughts that said course has so far provoked in me!

If you enjoyed this post, our algorithms indicate that you will also like sloths, to the point where your purchase of the above baseball jersey will be basically inevitable. Algorithms do indicate that you might attempt to feebly gainsay this dictum at first, but to no purpose, alas. Big Data has pegged you as a must-have purchaser, so no remedy! You must needs have it.

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Copyright 2017, Brian Quass quass@quass.com (follow on Twitter)