I come from a very Christian home and not in the bad sense of the word. My parents were raised religious but do not blindly believe in a god; they’ve thought it through and believe that religion and, specifically, Christianity, is for them. As a result, throughout my childhood I was always taught to give to others, to turn the other cheek, to treat others as you would like to be treated, to serve the least of these… values that are pillars of a faith that I have slowly distanced myself from.

As I’ve grown older, I’ve tried to hold onto some of these values while rebasing their validity from Christianity to moral or logical reasoning. I cannot claim that you should help the least of these because a guy that lived 2000 years ago said so. I can claim that you should help the least of these if I’m able to prove that it’s in your best interest.* This is not at all to discredit religion but to try to find arguments for charitable actions without it.

Finding Elim

So, what the hell do I mean by that?

For better or worse, with the diversity at university and the world as a whole, reasoning from a specific religion or even specific values falls short. Values seem to be a product of your upbringing and environment. The Objective List Theory doesn’t stand without corresponding ascription to the same values. What I value to be “objectively good” is different from what others value. In order to convince my friends that such acts are objectively good, I find myself having to reason from utility. In the context of charity, game theory becomes important.

Remind me again what game theory is…

The Wikipedia one sentence definition…

“Game Theory is the study of mathematical models of conflict and cooperation between intelligent rational decision-makers”

Well.. that got me nowhere.

Ok, let’s try to boil down the main elements with help from Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

The first component to game theory is the agent: you or me! The agent has preferences. Each preference or option is described by its utility. Utility refers to how we understand the effects of our different options on our own welfare. The general understanding is that we act to maximize our utility.

Let’s stop there and quickly review:

You’re hungry. You have a list of preferences: eating some candy, eating a bagel, and eating a steak salad. Each of these is described by utility. Eating the candy is tasty but won’t solve your hunger, maybe it has a utility of 1 out of 5. Eating the bagel is better… let’s say it has utility of 3. Then lastly, eating a steak salad probably is the best for solving your hunger… let’s give it a 5. Since the understanding is that you maximize your utility, you would choose the steak salad.

So where does the whole “game” part come in?

Building upon agents, preferences, utility and maximization, a game is when one person acts to maximize his utility through anticipating what others would do in response to his actions.

The example you probably have heard of is the infamous prisoner’s dilemma: both Dick and Tom are arrested and are being interrogated in two separate rooms. The game is shown in this matrix.

  Dick stays silent Dick betrays
Tom stays silent Each serves 1 year Tom gets 3 years. Dick goes free.
Tom betrays Dick gets 3 years. Tom goes free. Each serves 2 years.

If there’s only one game.. i.e. only one interrogation session, then it is optimal for them to betray one another (proof here).

However, if there are an infinite amount of games, Robert Aumann showed that protecting each other can sustain itself.

A special case of this is the donation game, where each person can donate b at cost c or refuse and keep b. Let’s say b is $5 and c is $3. The corresponding matrix is this:

(Tom, Dick) Dick helps Tom Dick only looks after himself
Tom helps Dick ($5-3, $5-3) (-$3, $5)
Tom only looks after himself ($5, -$3) ($0, $0)

Again, in one game, it makes sense to defect. With infinite games, maybe not.

Ok ok, but what does this have to do with charity and religion again?

Well the difference is the concept of eschatology and notions of an after-life. If you believe in a major religion, there is some idea of a judgment day, whereby you’ll be made accountable for your actions. As religions typically promote helping the less fortunate, it is in your best interest to do so. On judgment day, you’ll be recognized for your actions. This corresponds to a notion of multiple games and a unique form of utility. Today is not the final round, whether literally (as with reincarnation in Hinduism) or figuratively (as with Christianity and Islam).

On the other hand, if you don’t believe in religion, life stops at death. There’s only one round. Why be charitable to those that can’t do anything for you, if there’s not a second round for someone to return that favor to you? Just take your $5 and move on!

This is an idea, whose logic can definitely be improved, that I’ve been struggling with for a while. There has to be some way that it makes sense, from a utilitarian point of view, to argue for being charitable. In order for a solution to be valid, it needs to either reason that a single life to has multiple games or argue that it’s possible to derive more utility from helping someone else.

I would argue that the best solution does a bit of both. That solution is rooted in relationships.

If you care enough about your children, the broader game of life doesn’t just have one round. As long as you derive enough utility from the wellbeing (or rather expected wellbeing) of your children, then you should act in their (and your) best interest. If you ignore those in need, someone may ignore your children when they are in need.

The same applies for those without children - think of your loved ones. Do you want the world in their lifetime to be better than that in yours? If so, help the disadvantaged. Less poverty, less strife, less unrest.


*it’d be nice to assume I didn’t have to do this… I’d like to believe that there are genuinely “good” people out there. I also cannot believe that everyone is good.. (erm… take ISIS for example).