Published on: 2019-10-16

All is fair in Games and War

I was recently reading Lying, a Sam Harris book that previously evaded my radar. Despite, or maybe because of its simplicity, it go me thinking on the subject of lying as relates to playing games, not the kind rendered using Unity, but the kind that humans base society around in order to appease {insert coping mechanism designed to deal with our primitive nature and fear of death}.

In case you are not familiar with Sam Harris, I think all his ideas can be summarized as being based on a simple framework of ethics:

From my interactions with other rational people, it does indeed seem that we very much share a set of morals that we’ve arrived at partially through convergent thinking and partially through basic empathy.

However, the one point where I think you will find most disagreement is the subject of lying. You can find people that are otherwise good exhibiting behavior on any level of the liar spectrum. It’s true that lying more is a good predictor of overall terribly behavior, but there’s a lot of exceptions.

Even more so, if you look at the kind of people that never or almost never lie, there will be a surprising overlap with a set of less than good fundamentalist religious or cultural beliefs.

I put it to you, that the reason not lying and fundamentalism often intersect, is because fundamentalists are very bad at playing games. That is to say, no matter the circumstances, the only “truly” important thing is their set of belief.

If there is a sacred silly hat that must be worn between 18:37 and 19:18, it doesn’t matter that they are in a building of worship, alone in their home or in a foreign city where people might be afraid of seeing someone wearing that kind of hat, if the clock strikes 18:36:59, the silly hat gets propped up on their head.

Most “modern westerner” are very good at switching games. You at home playing with your kids, you at work representing your company in a meeting, you on tinder trying to hookup with someone, you at a sportsball game supporting “the boys” and you in the company of your friend shit-faced on are engaged in widely different games.

During a war, for example,all but a few hardcore kantians and evangelists would agree that lying is very much appropriate.

Any open conflict that warrants the harm of you or your in-group, overrides your ethical framework when interacting with your opposition.

But, in the game-composed world, a conflict is part of many interactions, and a sub-set of lying automatically becomes part of the conflict. The ethical dilemma, I would claim, lies not with whether or not you should lie, but how to avoid bad consequences in the “external” world resulting from lies when playing the game.

To illustrate how this applies to lying, let’s think of the following example:

A world traveler lands in Iran and has to go through customs. Iranian law doesn’t allow anyone to enter if they’ve ever set foot into Israel. But, since a lot of Islamic countries are doing this, Israel has stopped using permanent stamps in favor of removable stickers. Let’s also make a further assumption that most Iranians are sane people and don’t really give a fuck about this rule. One last assumption, our world traveler has been to Israel just last week.

A border guard looks at his passport, he sees a stamp from every single country in the world, except for his native country and Israel.

Since the Iranian government also caught on to this stamp thing they now have a new code for the border guards, where they have to explicitly ask any new arrivals if they’ve ever been to Israel.

So the guard asks the question and the world traveler lies. The guard, having followed the manual to the letter, writes this down and lets him enter.

Two lies were told in this exchange, the world traveler has lied about going to Israel. But, the guard has also lied about believing him. After all, what are the chance someone traveled to every single country in the world except for Israel ?

However, the guard didn’t lie to the traveler when he said he believes him and the traveler didn’t lie to the guard. Instead, they both lied to the Iranian government, or rather, they lied as players inside the “Iranian government vs Israel” game. Which is a game of little relevance to them both, and both of their days were made much less complicated by the lie, so lying was the best possible decision. None is worse off because of the lies.

Assume, however, that the Iranian guard told him:


Suddenly the world traveler’s lie would become unethical in the first scenario and the guard’s lie would become unethical in the second scenario.

Because the stakes of the game have now been upped. Even if the traveler and the guard are playing the “Iran vs Israel” game (where lying is perfectly ethical), they are both on the same side in the “humans trying not to get unjustly murdered” game.

Who we lie to

So who we lie to, I think, is not so much a question of in-group vs out-group or ethical vs unethical, but rather a question of what game we are currently playing and what person we are playing with.

If an HR representative and a first time date ask you the exact same question (something uncreative, like, “What do you usually do for fun ?”), you might give widely different answers because:

Both answers can be true yet completely different. That’s because you are playing the “corporate teammates” game with HR and the “let’s have sex and get sentimental” game with your date, or whoever you ant to classify them.

I think this worldview can be a very slippery slope, if you lie enough, it becomes a habit and you might find yourself lying in situations where it’s very much unethical to do so.

Even more so, since lying automatically puts you into “adversarial” mode when you hold this view, it might lead you to treating a lot of situations as adversarial when you interlocutor doesn’t think of them as such.

Maybe the HR person just thinks your interesting and wants to get to know you outside of work, but they are awkward and don’t know how to start a friendly conversation.

Maybe your date has been going through a rough time and just wants to find other people’s reasons for why life is worth living, and would really appreciate an answer with less flirt and more substance.

Maybe the Iranian border guard is indoctrinated to believe Israeli is a place of evil. Maybe this seemingly well-traveled person telling him he visited and explaining to him that it’s quite a reasonable country would change his views as little.

Then again, I think taking a hard stance on lying can harm people whose jobs automatically involve lying, which aren’t doing any harm in the grand scheme of things. I think there are a lot of copywriters building ads for harmless products, politicians, corporate to corporate sales representatives or lawyers who stop believing their client at some point during the case. All of these people are lying, but their lies are a necessary part of the game they are playing, indeed, in some cases like the lawyer’s, the lying is good, since it’s required to keep our legal system working fairly.

We live in a society where such occupations are not going away anytime soon, so I think it’s healthier to take this situation/game-focused perspective upon lying. To make it clear to people that, depending on their role in the game they are playing, lying is not inherently unethical.

That way, instead of having our current unwritten rule that says:

We’d have a much saner rule saying:

Would this kind of view lead to more ethical behavior overall or lead to more trust between people in situations that really matter ? I don’t know, largely I don’t think so, but I think it’s worth considering.


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