John Templeton Foundation

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Contact: Mary Ann Meyers, Ph.D., Senior Fellow 

he purpose of this symposium is to explore the uses and limits of game theory in explaining ethical behavior and illuminating the nature and dynamics of moral order and even, perhaps, moral transformation. It takes place in the fiftieth anniversary year of the death of John von Neumann whose groundbreaking 1928 paper “Theory of Parlor Games” proved the famous minimax theorem and whose later book (with Oskar Morgenstern), Theory of Games and Economic Behavior (1944), presented a groundbreaking mathematical theory of economic and social organization, based on a theory of games of strategy, that revolutionized economics and was soon used to analyze many real-world phenomena involving policy choices.

The interest of von Neumann and his successors in such practical application becomes clear when we consider that societies exist to a large extent because of the collective benefits that can come from group actions, especially in regulating public goods. This is cooperation at a level higher than some game theorists are addressing—and learning how to model hierarchical multi-levels of competition and cooperation presents game theory with an important challenge. In human culture, the empirical evidence clearly demonstrates the immense powers and influence of groups. The data raise difficult theoretical questions about how groups form and the role, from earliest times, of innovations in religious concepts in maintaining the integrity and ethical identities of groups. In practice, such norms and ideals can support the creation of beneficent new mentalities, institutions, and group practices as well as systems of morality and justice. But they also may drive inter-group conflicts involving out-group hatred and xenophobia. Enmity seems built into the fabric of history; yet, evidence also exists for growing recognitions of mutually beneficial interdependence and cultural evolution towards more expanded notions of moral community. The globalizing economy has created an arena of competition and cooperation within which ever enlarging group identities involve debates over the scales of shared rules-of-the-game. Similarly, the loss of biodiversity has brought forth a new domain of concern and action where the daunting task is to develop group identity on a planetary scale.

But game-theoretic approaches generally have been used to study cooperation among individuals, without attention to the formation and persistence of collectives, and the interplay between individuals and the collectives to which they belong. The fifteen scientists and scholars gathered at Princeton University come to examine how such approaches can be extended to consider the broader questions that cross scales of organization, from individuals to cooperatives to societies. How do groups form, how do institutions come into being, and when do moral norms and practices emerge? By expanding traditional analyses to meta-game situations, can we explain how heuristics, like concepts of fairness, arise, and how they become formalized into the ethical principles embraced by a society? Are there ways to distinguish “good” from “evil” normative behaviors; and if so, can we understand when one or the other will emerge? How can game theory model the concept of moral transformation in groups as well as individuals? Can we define the “goodness” of human behaviors in terms of benefits for the collective or other entities beyond the individual? Can game theory help predict when goodness will grow and when it will decline? What maintains the robustness of social contracts? Can game theory identify common properties of the implicit strategic exchange that operates as religious beliefs in believers but as something else in non-believers? What aspects of game-theoretical analysis of moral behavior may be changed when players hold strong convictions about the existence of a divine, omnipresent moral being and the likelihood that one’s actions have consequences that transcend the game itself? The conversation addressing these questions takes place under the aegis of the John Templeton Foundation.