Fool Me Once, Shame on You, Fool Me Twice, Shame on Me: The Alleged Prisoner’s Dilemma in Hobbes’s Social Contract

Dialogue and Universalism 29 (1):183-204 (2019)
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Hobbes postulates a social contract to formalize our collective transition from the state of nature to civil society. The prisoner’s dilemma challenges both the mechanics and the outcome of that thought experiment. The incentives for reneging are supposedly strong enough to keep rational persons from cooperating. This paper argues that the prisoner’s dilemma undermines a position Hobbes does not hold. The context and parameters of the social contract steer it safely between the horns of the dilemma. Specifically, in a setting as hostile as the state of nature, Hobbes’s emphasis on self-interest places a premium on survival, and thereby on adaptability, which then promotes progressive concessions toward peaceful coexistence. This transforms the relevant model of rationality from utility maximization to utility satisficing, thus favoring the pursuit of a mutually satisfactory outcome over that of the best personal outcome. The difference not only obviates the prisoner’s dilemma but also better approximates the state of nature while leaving a viable way out.
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First archival date: 2019-03-17
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