by; Scientist Carl Sagan

MORAL CODES THAT SEEK TO REGULATE human behavior have been with us not only since the dawn of civilization but also among our pre-civilized, and highly social, hunter-gatherer ancestors. And even earlier. Different societies have different codes. Many cultures say one thing and then do another. In a few fortunate societies, an inspired lawgiver lays down a set of rules to live by. But, many revered codes have failed to establish a long-lived moral order. For example, the codes of Ashok (India), Hammurabi (Babylon), Lyrurus (Sparta) and Solon (Athens), which once held sway over mighty civilizations, are today largely defunct. Perhaps, they misjudged human nature and asked too much of us. Perhaps, experience from one epoch or culture is not wholly applicable to another.

In this article, I describe an early effort----tentative but emerging-----to approach the matter scientifically.

In our everyday lives, as in the momentous affairs of nations, we must decide: What does it mean to do the right thing? Just how do we deal with an enemy? Should we ever take advantage of someone who treats us kindly? If hurt by a friend, or helped by an enemy, should we really reciprocate in kind?

Examples are all around us every day. Your sister-in-law ignores your snub and still invites you over for Christmas dinner. Should you accept? A co-worker make you look bad in front of your boss. Now, should you try and get even? Should you; would you cheat at cards? (even solitary)

Now—on a larger scale:

Should we kill killers? If a power company (yours) supports the local symphony orchestra, ought we to ignore its destructive, although legal, pollution of the environment? Shattering a worldwide voluntary moratorium, Chine resumes its testing of nuclear weapons, Should we......?

In making such decisions, we’re concerned (or should be) not only with doing right, but also with what works-----what makes us and the rest of society happier and more secure. There’s a tension between what we call ethical and what we call pragmatic. If, even in the long run, ethical behavior were self-defeating, we would not call it ethical, but foolish. (We might even claim to respect it, but in practice, ignore it) Bearing in mind the variety and complexity of human behavior, are there any simple rules------whether we call them ethical or pragmatic------that actually do work? Let’s look at some of the rules we’ve taught:

         *The Golden Rule.

No doubt about it–The most admired standard of behavior in the world is the Golden Rule, bare none. It’s formulation (in the West) in the first- century Gospel of St, Matthew is: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” Almost no one follows it consistently. When the Chinese philosopher Kung-Tzu (known as Confucius in the West) was asked in the six century B.C. his opinion of the Golden rule-----of repaying evil with kindness-----he replied, “Then with what will you repay kindness?”

         *The Silver rule.

The Silver rule is different: “Do not do unto others what you would not have them do unto you.” The most inspiring 20th-century exemplars of the Silver Rule are Mohandas Gandhi and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. They constantly counseled oppressed people not to repay violence with violence, but not to be compliant and obedient either. Nonviolent civil disobedience was what they advocated-----putting your body on line and showing, by your willingness to be punished in defying an unjust law, the justice of your cause. They aimed at melting the hearts of their oppressors. It worked, up to a point. But, even Gandhi had trouble reconciling the rule of nonviolence with the necessities of defense against those with less lofty rules of conduct.

         *The Brazen Rule.

“Repay kindness with kindness,” said Confucius, describing relations between individuals, “but evil with justice.” This might be called the Bronze or Brazen Rule: “Do unto others as they do unto you.” It’s “an eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth,” plus “ one good turn deserves another.” In actual human (and chimpanzee) behavior, it’s a familiar standard. Without having to appeal to anyone’s better nature , we institute a kind of operant conditioning, rewarding others when they are nice to us and punishing them when they’re not. We’re not push overs, but we’re not unforgiving either.

         *The Iron Rule.......and others.

Of baser coinage is the Iron Rule: “Do unto others as you like, before they do it unto you.” It’s sometimes formulated also as , “he who has the gold makes the rules.” Underscoring not just its rejection of, but also its contempt for, the Golden Rule. Today, this is the secret maxim of many. if they can get away with it, and very often the unspoken precept of the powerful. (Or those that think they are powerful)

Finally, I should mention two mixed rules, found throughout the living world today. They also explain a great deal. One is: “Suck up to all those above you, while you intimidate those below you.” This is the well recognized motto of bullies. (of either sex, by the way) Or, it’s also the Golden Rule for superiors, the Iron Rule for inferiors. Since there is no known alloy of gold and iron, we’ll call it the Tin Rule for its flexibility. The other, or second, common mixed rule is: “Give precedence in all things to close relatives, and do as you like to all others”--------thus, the Golden Rule for relatives, and do as you well like to others. This Nepotism Rule is well known to evolutionary biologists as “kin selection.”

Despite it’s apparent practicality, there’s a fatal flaw in the Brazen Rule:

unending vendetta. Each act of justifiable retribution triggers another. Violence begets violence. Because, violence triggers violence every time. The reasonable part of us tries to keep the peace, but, the passionate part of us (the strongest of the two) cries out for vengeance. Extremists in the two warring factions can count on one another. They are always allied against the rest of us, contemptuous of appeals to understanding and loving kindness. A very few hotheads can force-march a legion of more prudent and rational people to brutality and war.

         *What games teach us.

Clearly, the Brazen Rule is too unforgiving. But, The Golden and the Silver Rules seem too complacent for today. They systematically reward cruelty and exploitation. It is very hard to imagine a Hitler or a Stalin being shamed into redemption by good example. The Iron Rule promotes the advantage of a ruthless and powerful few against the interest of the many. So, is there a rule between the Golden and the Silver, on the one hand, and the Brazen and the Iron, on the other, which works even better than any one of these combinations?

Suppose we seek not to confirm or to deny what we have been taught but to try and find out what really works. Does there exist a way to test

alternative codes of ethics?

We’re all used to playing games in which someone wins and someone loses. Every point made by our opponent puts us that much farther behind. “Win-lose” games sem so natural that many people are hard-pressed to think of a game that isn’t win-lose. In win-lose games, the losses just balance the wins-----that’s why they’re also called zero-sum” games.

Many children are appalled the first time that they really come face to face with the “lose” side of win-lose games. On the verge of bankruptcy in the game of Monopoly, for example, they plead for special dispensation. When this is not forthcoming, they may, often in tears, denounce the game as heartless and unfeeling ------which of course, it is.

Within the rules of Monopoly, there’s no way for players to cooperate so that all will benefit. That’s not how the game was designed. Today, the same is true for boxing, pool, football, hockey, basketball, baseball, lacrosse, tennis, golf, racquetball, pinochle, chess, poker, all the Olympic events, yacht, plane and car racing, patsy and partisan politics. There may be rewards for teamwork, but not with the opponents. In absolutely none of these games is there an opportunity to practice the Golden, Silver, or even the lowly Brazen Rule. There is room only for the Rule of Iron.

Nuclear war, however (and many conventional wars), economic depression and assaults on the global environment are all “lose-lose” propositions. Such vital human concerns as love, friendship, parenthood and the pursuit of knowledge are “win-win” propositions. Everyone gains from the creation of great music, art, poetry, architecture and literature, wise and just laws, far-seeing moral codes. Our vision is dangerously narrow if all we know is “win-lose.”

         *The Prisoner’s Dilemma.

The scientific field that deals with such matters today is called “game theory.” It’s used in military strategy, trade policy, business school, corporate competition and the limiting of environmental pollution. The Defense Department has its own gaming agency. The paradigmatic game is the Prisoner’s Dilemma. It is not zero-sum. Win-win, win-lose, and lose-lose outcomes are all very possible. It is wholly pragmatic and amoral.

Imagine that you and a real good friend are arrested and accused of committing a very serious crime. (Get the picture). Before the two of you have a chance to compare notes or plan your strategy, you are taken to separate cells, in separate buildings for interrogation. There, oblivious of your Miranda rights, (You have the right to remain silent........”), the police try to make you confess for you own good. They tell you, as police are known to do (and can do legally) that your good friend confessed and cut a deal for himself. The police might even be telling the truth. Or, they might be lying. If you want to, or just might say anything, what’s your best tack to minimize punishment?

You’re permitted only to plead guilty; you cannot clear your friend. These are the possible outcomes:

*If you deny committing the crime, and (unknown to you) your best friend also denies it, the case might be hard to prove. In the ensuing plea bargain, both your sentences will be very light.

*If you confess, and your friend does likewise, then the effort the State must expend to solve the crime is small. In exchange, you both might (will) be given a fairly light sentence, although not so light as if you both had asserted your innocence as in the above first example.

So if you and your friend both plead innocent, you both escape the worst. But, each must be sure of the other.

Should you play it safe and guarantee no worse than a middle range of punishment for confessing? Then, if your friend pleads innocent while you plead guilty-----well, too bad for him, and you might get off scot-free.

When you think it through, you realize that, whatever your “friend” does, your better off confessing. Maddeningly, the same holds true

for your friend. BUY, if both of you confess, you both are worse off than if both of you had pleaded innocent. This is Prisoner’s Dilemma.

Robert Axelrod, a professor of political science at the University of Michigan, has pioneered the study of a repeated Prisoner’s Dilemma in which two players go through a sequence of such games with no direct communications between them. At the end of each, they figure out from their punishment how the other must have pleaded. Thus, they gain experience bout each other’s strategy (and character). Will they learn to “cooperate” game after game-------both always denying that they had committed any crime------even if the reward for finking on the other (or “defecting’) is very large?

If you cooperate overmuch, the other player may exploit your good nature. If you defect overmuch, your friend is likely to retaliate often, which will be bad for both of you. What is the right mix of cooperation and defection? How to behave becomes, like any other question in Nature, a subject to be investigated experimentally.


This matter has been explored by Axelrod in a continuing round-robin computer tournament. Various codes of behavior confront one another, and at the end we see who won (who gets the lightest cumulative prison term). The simplest strategies might be to cooperate all the time, no matter how much advantage is taken of you; or never to cooperate, no matter what benefits might accrue from cooperation. Both the ” Golden Rule” and the “Iron Rule” always lose-------the one from an excess of kindness, the other from an overabundance of ruthlessness. Strategies that are slow to punish defection lose, in part because they send a signal that non-cooperation works

         *A rule that works.

The most effective in many, many such tournaments is called “Tit-for-Tat.” It’s very simple: (as the name implies) You start out cooperating and, in each subsequent round , simply do what your opponent did the last time (tit-for-tat). You punish defections, but, once the other player cooperates, you’re willing to let bygones be bygones. At first, it seems to garner only mediocre success. But as time goes on, the other old strategies defeat themselves----from too much kindness or too much cruelty-----and then this middle way pulls ahead.

Except for always being nice on the first move, Tit-for-Tat is identical to the Brazen rule. It promptly (in the very next game) rewards cooperation and punishes defection, and it has the great, inescapable virtue that it makes its strategy absolutely clear

To succeed, Tit-for-Tat strategists must find others who are willing to reciprocate------players with whom to cooperate. Once there get to be several players employing Tit-for-Tat, they rise in the standings together. After the first tournament, in which the Brazen Rule unexpectedly won, some experts thought it would pay to be less forgiving. Next tournament, they tried to exploit the Brazen Rule by defecting more often. They did poorly. Even experienced strategists tended to underestimate the power of forgiveness and reconciliation.

The superiority of the Brazen Rule in such tournaments was discovered by Axelrod and described in his remarkable book The Evolution of Cooperation. A variant of Tit-for-That that forgives other player for defecting occasionally-------say, 10% of the time--------does even better if there’s. any chance of misunderstanding. We might therefore call it the “Golden”-plated Brazen Rule. Among other virtues, it breaks out of unending vendetta.

The Prisoner’s Dilemma is a very simple game. Real life, on the other hand, is considerably much more complex. But, its central lessons are striking. Be friendly at first meetings. Do not envy. Be real generous; forgive your enemy if he forgives you. Be neither a tyrant nor a patsy. Retaliate proportionately to an intentional injury (always within the constraints of the rule of law). And make your behavior fairly (although not perfectly) clear and consistent. What would the world be like if more of us, individuals as well as nations, lived by these rules?


                  November 28, 1993. Pgs. 12 - 14.

Carl Sagan’s latest book,

“Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors” (written with Ann Druyan),

is now available in paperback. His books “The Dragons of Eden,”

“Broca’s Brain and “Cosmos” are now available in their 25th , 20th and 16th paperback printings, all from Ballantine books.“Thanks” Carl.

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