How to get moral 'free-riders' to cooperate

Credit: George Hodan/Public Domain

What motivates people to contribute to trustful moral judgment, which is a public good yet tends to be costly? This is 'the moral free rider problem'. Mathematician Tatsuya Sasaki from University of Vienna and colleagues Isamu Okada and Yutaka Nakai in Japan have put forth a theoretical resolution. The study has been published online in Biology Letters, a journal published by The Royal Society.

A trustful moral judgment system of good or bad is the building block of cooperation in a large group. A rule of thumb for promoting cooperation is to help those who have a good reputation and not those who have a bad reputation. However, making trustful moral judgment requires time, effort and money. Therefore, this raises a crucial issue - the moral free riders who evade the cost associated with (e.g. by not paying taxes for police and court) are better off than those who shoulder the cost. Recent years have seen game theoreticians considering voluntary reactive policing of the moral free riders, which is costly, too, and thus can be exploited by higher order moral free riders. This leads to an infinite regress of opportunities to free ride. The moral free rider problem has remained unsolved.

In this paper, Tatsuya Sasaki, Isamu Okada (Soka University, Tokyo) and Yutaka Nakai (Shibaura Institute of Technology, Saitama) have taken a different approach. The authors present a simple and broadly applicable solution that considers a pre-assessment of the moral free riders. Sasaki and his colleagues devise an extra assessment system that offers an option to contribute to a pool account of the moral cost in advance. This is aimed not only at funding but also at detecting and labelling those who are not willing to pay for justice prior to the social exchange. In social exchanges, the labelled individuals will be refused help. Through game-theory analysis, this study finds that pre-assessment leads to stabilizing a costly moral system and thus cooperation.

This has an important implication to contemporary issues. How good and bad are determined, in fact, varies among individuals with different moral standards. Sasaki and his colleagues show that the pre-assessment could be the common feature for sustaining the moral system, irrespective of its . "Our findings suggest that different individuals may not agree on what justice is but may arrive at a consensus about how justice is maintained. The results of future work that investigates to what extent the pre-assessment affects moral diversity will be fascinating", says Sasaki.

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More information: Tatsuya Sasaki et al, Indirect reciprocity can overcome free-rider problems on costly moral assessment, Biology Letters (2016). DOI: 10.1098/rsbl.2016.0341
Journal information: Biology Letters

Citation: How to get moral 'free-riders' to cooperate (2016, July 6) retrieved 21 September 2019 from
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Jul 06, 2016
I think the Vikings had merchant guilds, where merchants pledged to right wrongs and the guilds could enforce it and force an offending merchant to pay for having to get involved.

I like the author's idea of asking people to pay for security/courts in advance and publishing those who do. It's a free market solution to security. But those who like a government with a monopoly on the legitimate use of force, would object to the competition and loss of power.

Jul 07, 2016
I would question whether trustful moral judgement really is a public good. The reason people are distrustful of public actions is because they all too often don't believe in them. For example, people willingly give to causes that they see as deserving and beneficial such as repelling an enemy, disaster relief or assisting the poor. On the other hand, they are reluctant to give when they don't believe in the cause - unjustified war, undeserving poor, self serving and corrupt government. I think they are wise to keep their own counsel regarding whether a cause is deserving or not. A classic example of this is how the EU gradually became distrusted ending with the UK leaving and quite possibly, others to follow. Should the British people have granted the EU unlimited trust or were they right to make their own judgement ? To consider trustful moral judgement a public good is to in effect say don't question authority. Should people have trusted Hitler / Stalin / Mao always and forever ?

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