The Philosopher's Cornered
Issue 13

by Dan Wolaver

    A gale took dozens of slate shingles off our first house.  I reported it to our insurance company and shopped around for a roofer that did slate.  I found a guy with a very reasonable rate.  He explained that he had access to some low-price used shingles in good shape. He said he would write up a bill that was higher than he was charging me in order to cover the $200 deductible on my insurance.  After all, it would have been the higher amount with any other roofer.
    It made sense, and it wasn't my lie; the roofer was the one that had written up a fake bill.  So I phoned in the amount to the insurance company, as they had told me to do, and I offered to send then a copy of the bill.  "No," said the woman, "we trust you."  Well!  Now it was my lie, not the roofer's.  And I wasn't being worthy of the woman's trust.  So I sent the insurance company a check for $200, explaining that the cost turned out to be less than originally reported.  It was never cashed (a situation the bureaucracy wasn't set up to handle, I guess), but at least I tried.  
    I had learned a lesson in being truly trustworthy.  I also learned that people tend to live up to the trust of others.  On the other hand, putting in surveillance cameras to keep employees honest turns it into a game: "Your distrust shows that you expect me to try to steal, so I will and beat you at your game."  It's a kind of warfare.
    Around 1960 Ohio State University carried out a psychology experiment.  Two subjects sat at a table with a low wall between them.  Each had a red flag and a green flag.  At a signal from a moderator, each subject raised one of his flags (the wall prevented each from seeing which flag the other had grasped).  If they both raised red flags then each subject had to give a dollar to the moderator.  Two green flags meant the moderator gave each subject a dollar.  A red flag and a green flag meant the green-flag holder had to give five dollars to the red-flag holder.
    The game went through four phases: (1) In the experimental phase the players raise their flags randomly, getting a feel for the game.  It quickly becomes apparent that a green flag leaves the player open to loosing five dollars, while a red flag offers a good chance of getting five dollars.  (2) In the war phase both players are putting up red flags all the time, constantly paying one dollar each to the moderator.  Occasionally one player experiments with a green flag, only to loose five dollar and gain greater resolve to never try the green flag again.  But they're both bleeding to death a dollar at a time.  (3) In the sacrifice phase, one player starts holding up the green flag every time, loosing five dollars to the red-flag player over and over.  (4) In the cooperation phase the red-flag player realizes that the green-flag player can't keep this up much longer.  The red-flag player is being invited to hold up a  green flag too with the assurance his "opponent" won't take advantage by going back to his red flag.  So both players go to holding up a green flag every time.  Nobody makes a five-dollar "killing" at the other's expense, but now both are making a small, steady income of one dollar each time.
    The point of the experiment was to show that long-standing warfare is a cycle of revenge and distrust.  It probably started out as attempt of one side to profit greatly at the other's expense, but now both sides are bleeding to death.  Confidence-building measures usually require one side to start by making sacrifices—to put down his defenses or forgo revenge even though it may hurt more for the moment.  The other side eventually realizes that his opponent is sincere in seeking peace, and both sides end up trusting.
    Once my car broke down, and I tried to hitch a ride to the next freeway exit to phone a tow truck.  Nobody stopped to give me a ride, even though I was well dressed and carried a briefcase.  The trust has to start somewhere, so I usually pick up hitchhikers.  Even if someday I have to sacrifice by handing over my wallet, the mugger might stop seeing me as an adversary if I offer him my GPS too.  It's a small price to pay if it helps bring about trust and peace in society.
     And that's my philosophy.

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