Blindfolds, philosophers, and negotiations

This guest post comes from Alex Leveringhaus, from the Department of Politics, University of Surrey. He played Simon’s blindfold ice-breaker last week and it prompted some thoughts about philosophy. Obviously 

Imagine you are a member of a team that has been assigned a particular task. Nothing unusual about that. Imagine further that your team is competing with a second team that has been instructed to carry out the same task. There’s nothing particularly unusual about that, either. But now imagine that all participating team members (your team and your opponents) have to carry out their respective task while blindfolded. That’s probably a bit more unusual.

Naturally, the blindfold generates all sorts of practical challenges. How do you know who your team members are? How do you coordinate the successful completion of the task? The answer to these questions seems quite straightforward. You need to engage in team work! That is, you need to devise a strategy for carrying out your assigned task while blindfolded, and you need to trust your team mates that they pull their weight. The two ingredients of success: strategy and trust.

But not so fast. Strategy and trust have an inward and an outward component. The former relates to your teammates, the latter relates to the competing team. With regard to the latter component, the question is whether you can trust the competing team to play by the rules of the game and wear their blindfolds (and vice versa). More precisely, can you trust them not to peep underneath their blindfolds in order to gain an unfair advantage in the completion of the task? And how would you be able to ascertain this without breaking the rules of the competition yourself?

After all, in order to assess whether members of the other team are peeping underneath their blindfolds, you must peep underneath your blindfold, too. Naturally, whether you trust the other team or not will affect your team’s strategy. Arguably, a strategy that assumes universal compliance with the rules will differ from a strategy that assumes non-compliance.

The conundrum generated by the blindfold game is not new, of course. Nor has it primarily preoccupied the minds of political scientists. For instance, in his seminal work A Theory of Justice (1971), John Rawls, arguably the most important (political) philosopher in the English-speaking world post-World War II, offers a helpful distinction.

Rawls and Plato

According to Rawls, ideal theory, which he is primarily concerned with, assumes that there is universal compliance with principles of justice. Non-ideal theory, by contrast, assumes that not everybody complies with principles of justice.

Non-ideal theory generates two primary moral challenges. First, non-compliant individuals are free-riding. Second, moral obligations can quickly become over-demanding. Put simply, not only do non-compliant individuals benefit unfairly; to add insult to injury, compliant individuals also have to pick up the slack.

However, the problem is older than Rawls’ distinction between ideal and non-ideal theory. In fact, it goes right back to the inception of western political theorising in Ancient Greece. In his work The Republic (circa 380/1 BCE), Plato considers the story of a young shepherd who finds a ring that makes him invisible. (Sounds familiar anyone?) What should the shepherd do? He could kill the king, marry the queen, and become the new ruler. Untold riches beckon.

But Plato counsels against this. It is better, according to Plato, to play by the rules and not become a usurper, even if this means that the shepherd foregoes worldly riches. Why? Being a just person, Plato contends, is important for the well-being of one’s soul. It is, in other words, better to be a poor but happy shepherd than a powerful but miserable (Lady) Macbeth.

Hobbes and Machiavelli

Several centuries later, Thomas Hobbes devised a different solution to the problem. You can’t rely on justice or a sense of fair play, Hobbes claims. For, as Hobbes argues in Leviathan (1651), justice does simply not exist in the absence of a suitable authority to enforce the necessary rules.

The solution, then, for Hobbes, consists in establishing an authority, the Leviathan, to enforce the rules and punish those who transgress them. That sounds sensible, I hear you say. But is trust in the Leviathan enough? And how does the Leviathan maintain its own grip on power to lay down the law?

In Renaissance Florence, a disgraced former civil servant by the name of Niccolo Machiavelli had his own thoughts on this issue. In his work The Prince (1532), a guidebook on how to be a successful ruler (primarily by not getting killed by one’s subjects), Machiavelli advises that you should not trust anyone, at least if you want to remain in power. Nor should you try to act ethically. That won’t do you any good because everyone around you won’t act ethically, either. It is necessary, therefore, to be ruthless and act unethically. Nice guys, as the saying goes, always come last (or get their head chopped off).

However, the trick, according to Machiavelli, is not to brag that you are the toughest Pitbull in the yard. People will eventually hate you for doing so. And if they hate you, they will get rid of you sooner or later. Rather, what you should do is to appear to be an ethical person while acting unethically. Be a smiling assassin but ensure you sink the dagger in. Go to church and pretend to be a good Christian king but be prepared to mercilessly crush your enemies (or any other saboteurs, for that matter).

What does all this mean for the blindfold scenario? To peep or not to peep, that is here the question. Well. If you are a Platonist, you won’t peep underneath your blindfold. You and your teammates will do the right thing. You will play by the rules, even though you cannot be a hundred percent sure that the other team is doing the same. If you lose, you can console yourself that you played by the rules. But will that make you happy? Or will you be a sore loser?

By contrast, if you are a Hobbesian, you won’t peep underneath your blindfold because you trust that the person who supervises the game will enforce the rules. More importantly, you fear that the umpire/Leviathan/Simon will disqualify you if he catches you. (And let’s not even talk about getting a reference for that job application from Simon. ‘I blindfold my students on a regular basis. Student X, however, consistently peeped underneath his/her blindfold. X is untrustworthy and finds it hard to play by the rules. Hence X is completely unsuited to your organisation. Don’t give X a job. Sincerely, Dr U’.)

Finally, if you are a Machiavellian, you will mostly definitely peep underneath the blindfold. Heck, everyone else will be doing it, too. However, what you won’t do is rip the blindfold off at the earliest opportunity to check what the other team is up to. Rather, you will pretend that you are complying with the rules. So, all Machiavelli will allow for are a couple of discrete glances underneath your blindfold. Discrete glances! And of course, if you win, don’t tell anyone you cheated. Remember you stuck to the rules. It was your group’s ingenuity that pulled it off. But what if you get caught? Don’t be a chicken, Machiavelli would say. You were unlucky – fortune abandoned you. But at least you tried to win.

Blindfolds and philosopher asides, are there any repercussions for actual negotiations between governments? Sure, you need to have a strategy and you need to have trust in your teammates and vice versa (which kind of explains Theresa May’s current Brexit predicament: she seems to have neither). But what about the other side? Are they really negotiating in good faith? Do they have a Plan B? Do they have ulterior motives? Do they possess insider information that gives them an advantage? Perhaps it is time to give the intelligence services a call … after all, the other side might do, too.

Game Theory Resource

A brief note on a free resource:

While crawling through the Intertubes, I stumbled across a twenty year old webpage on game theory by Eric Roberts, emeritus professor of computer science at Stanford. The sub-directory pages contain short, simple discussions of different theoretical models, with helpful examples — such as Rousseau’s stag hunt and versions of Prisoner’s Dilemma. Of particular interest, at least to me, is the explanation of strategies of play — given that I almost always try to minimize the maximum possible loss.

Extensions to a Classroom Game on War and Peace in IR Theory

Today we have the second of two guest posts by Nathan Alexander Sears, a PhD student in political science at the University of Toronto and previously a professor of international relations at the Universidad de Las Américas, Quito. He can be reached at n[dot]sears[at]mail[dot]utoronto[dot]ca.

The game that I described in my previous post can be modified to demonstrate additional theoretical concepts.

Relative Power: Changing the amount of resources each state possesses at the beginning of each round creates differences in their relative capabilities. For example, State A could begin with $10, State B with $7, and State C with $5. This change may lead to balancing and bandwagoning behavior, which is important in neorealism.

National Identities: The game can be played with actual country names, such as the United States (State A), the Soviet Union (State B), the People’s Republic of China (State C), Great Britain (State D), and France (State E). This opens up the possibility that students’ ideas about national identities or knowledge of history may influence behavior and outcomes, which is central to constructivism.

Democratic/Authoritarian States: The game can include democratic and authoritarian structures for internal decision-making. For example, one team might be required to make decisions by majority vote, while another group may have a single individual who makes such decisions with the other students acting as advisors. Regime and institution type is important in liberalism, especially in democratic peace theory. Continue reading

Simulating War and Peace in IR Theory with a Classroom Game

Today we have the first of two guest posts by Nathan Alexander Sears, a PhD student in political science at the University of Toronto and previously a professor of international relations at the Universidad de Las Américas, Quito. He can be reached at n[dot]sears[at]mail[dot]utoronto[dot]ca.

This game introduces students to theoretical concepts in IR, such as neorealism, neoliberalism, constructivism, and bargaining theory.

The class is initially divided into two states. The object of the game is to meet two, and only two, goals: (1) to survive and (2) to maximize the amount of money spent on enjoyment. Survival means that a state is not defeated in war by another state.

The game entails multiple rounds, usually three or four depending on class time. Each round should take approximately 10 minutes. In each round, states begin with a budget of $10 and must make two decisions. First, each state must decide how to allocate its budget between two mutually exclusive items: armaments or enjoyment. States may choose any combination of the two items, but must allocate all of their resources each round. For instance, a state may choose $8 for enjoyment and $2 for armaments or $0 for enjoyment and $10 for armaments. These resources are nontransferable between states.

Second, each state must choose a foreign policy of peace or war. If all states choose peace, then the outcome is international peace, and each state ends the round with the money they allocated towards enjoyment. If a state chooses war, then it must declare war against a specific state(s). If war is declared by any state, then the result of that war is determined by the side that has spent more money on armaments. A state that prevails in war not only keeps its own money for enjoyment, but also steals the remaining money that the defeated state(s) allocated for enjoyment. A state that is defeated in war is eliminated. For example: Continue reading

Some more pop culture ethics

I’m pleased to report that even after a gap of several years, I still recently managed to destroy a colleague’s enjoyment of The Lego Movie by pointing out its representation of fascism, including the Newspeak of “everything is awesome.”

Such found objects are valuable, not simply as a way of robbing the joy from quality time with the kids, but also a way into discussing complex political issues.

This resurfaced for me once again, for a couple of reasons.

Firstly, there was a very interesting piece on the morality of superheroes, which built on the emerging questioning within the Hollywood system of whether masked individuals meting out extra-judicial ‘justice’ might not be quite the unmitigated good it once was portrayed as.

(And yes, I know that graphic novels got to this a long time ago, but we’re talking here about a form that a lot more people consume.)

The second was the consequence of being left home alone and watching The Hitman’s Bodyguard (THB), which I shall not review beyond noting a key piece of action occurs in Coventry.

It’s a classic odd-couple buddy movie, with many wisecracks and location scenery, and for that it’s very run-of-the-mill.

However, the story turns on genocide and responsibilities to act (in various ways). There’s a bunch of ethics thrown in, although not enough that anyone seems to notice the jarring effort of key characters laughing about ‘ass’ as they walk through the scene of a bombing.

All of which suggests that there might be two levels of discussion one could have with students about the issues involved.

At the obvious level, there’s the ethics as promoted by the film(s) you discuss. In the case of THB, there’s a tension between natural and judicial justice, as well as between means and ends. There’s even an element of the balance between structure and agency, in the discussion about life-partners, that might open up some useful lines of debate.

As the article notes, such overt discussion of the great responsibilities of great power is becoming more common in superhero movies, which might be a reflection of producers’ increased confidence in what audiences can handle, or might simply be because just fighting people eventually runs out of steam at some point. But the consequence is that ethics, even if it is ethics-by-numbers, is there on the screen to be considered. And if you have a class that’s still getting to grips with the basics, then this is as good a way in as any.

But there’s also the less-obvious layer of discussion: the kind of stuff that’s either not mentioned or not even obviously considered by the movie’s makers.

To take an obvious example, THB isn’t about gender, but it’s also about gender. That’s clear from the gendering of roles, the rescuing of women and the occasional knob joke. I’m guessing it’s not what the director wanted me to think about, as I watched, and I’m also guessing it’s not what the director thought very much about either, but that’s precisely the point. Such dimensions get woven into the fabric of a cultural product, and it is for us to notice and unpick those.

Culture invites multiple readings, and so let’s try doing just that. Wikipedia tells me THB got ‘mixed reviews’, and I can believe that: any film that portrays such a lax depiction of border controls deserves to be challenged.

Happy viewing…

Teammate Evaluations, Revisited

Students in my courses do a lot of team-based projects. In an attempt to prevent free riders, I have teammates evaluate each other. This semester I have again modified the evaluation system a bit, with an unexpected result.fusball-table

For the past three semesters I’ve been using Google Forms to distribute and tabulate anonymous surveys in which students rank themselves and their teammates. The instructions on this survey:

Evaluate the performance of everyone on your team, including yourself, by ranking all members of your team with a different number. Each number can be used only once, otherwise your responses will be discarded. Assign the number 1 to the person who made the most valuable contribution to the project, the number 2 to the person who made the second most valuable contribution, etc. Only enter information for your team. Leave questions for other teams blank.

My explanation to students of how rankings translated into points — in this case, up to 40: Continue reading

Teaching the Value of Replicability

Guest contributor Markus Gastinger is at the Technical University of Dresden. He can be contacted through and is willing to share his material upon request.

Markus Gastinger

In the winter term of 2015/2016, I was teaching a course on international organizations (IOs). The course was attended by 25 Master students and supported by a lecture. Since not all students had a prior degree in Political Science, we began by reviewing three major IR theories – realism, neoliberal institutionalism, and social constructivism. We had a fair mix of readings for all three but realism was underrepresented because of its state-centered ontology. We discussed constructivist texts with true zeal but they did not – and I write this with great deference and sincere admiration – lend themselves to (quick) lessons in replicability. This cannot be said of rational-choice contributions. After we had discussed the Principal–Agent (PA) model, we read an important contribution by Liesbet Hooghe and Gary Marks (2015) published in The Review of International Organizations. This article struck a chord with students since its large-N approach to studying delegation (the transfer of authority to an international secretariat) and pooling (the transfer of authority to a collective member-state body) gave them an overview of 72 IOs.
Continue reading

Ethical Exercise

Philosophers Football 2Here is an example of Michelle’s last post about activating prior knowledge — an exercise that also relates to my caution against relying solely on dense canonical texts to engage students.

In class, give students the following scenario:

You have a brother who has been living with you since losing his job a few months ago. Recently he has seemed unusually distracted. One day while rummaging through a hallway closet, you accidentally knock your brother’s coat onto the floor. A cigarette lighter with the letters “LS” engraved on it falls from one of the coat’s pockets. The next day, while listening to local news on the radio, you hear a story about a woman named Linda Smith who was found murdered a few days before. Police have asked the community for help with the investigation. Do you inform the police that your brother might be the murderer?

Continue reading

Bridge Repair

Forth BridgeIn my last post about teaching comparative politics, I discussed replacing expository writing assignments with a set of templates for students to use when designing presentations. I thought the templates might be a more effective method of getting students to apply theory to past events. For the spring semester, I have decided to ditch the theoretical content altogether, for these reasons:

Continue reading

When an activity goes completely, yet wonderfully wrong

Last week I used Phil Arena’s collective action problem activity for the third time. The first two times, I ran it pretty close to his suggestion. I asked the students to make a contribution to a public good by writing a long sentence a number of times by hand. If enough (2/3rds of the class) did, I provided a public good of donuts and coffee for the entire class. As I ran it in the past, no one contributed. My students – small classes of 20 or fewer – live together and it was easy for them to see that on one else was doing it and it made no sense for them to incur the costs. As such, the activity itself was effective in illustrating a collective action problem (and I usually still provided the treats).

This year, this lesson fell during midterm week and it was even more evident that no one would “contribute,” so I thought I would try something different. The night before class, I sent an email telling them that if 75% of them wore school colors to class and wrote out the lyrics to the school fight song, I would provide treats. I figured that this was extremely low cost and that they would certainly earn their public goods. In fact, I was worried I was setting the cost so low the activity wouldn’t carry the same impact as in years past.

I was wrong. And, in the case of one class, spectacularly wrong.

My first section had ten students contribute, short of the thirteen needed. The discussion proceeded as it has in the past and the activity was effective in illustrating the collective action problem.

What my second section did left me speechless. They interpreted the email as me, in my role as dictator of the class, issuing an edict (we had just finished discussing non-democratic regime types). At the urging of a few students, the entire class decided to rebel and all wear USA-themed outfits (in some cases, pretty elaborate outfits complete with face paint). And they entered the room singing the national anthem.

Rebellion in the classroom
Rebellion in the classroom

Since I was teaching the collective action problem to explain why democratic revolutions are rare, this unexpected turn made the activity even more effective for the day’s learning objectives (that they created and overcame a different collective action problem was impressive). In fact, it provided a nice segue into my revolutionary threshold activity.

Goes to show that activities don’t have to go according to plan to be effective.