Hugh Howey
Hugh Howey

Bestselling author of Wool and other books. Currently sailing around the world.

The Absolute and the Relative

One of my favorite game theory experiments is the Ultimatum Game. It involves two participants and a sum of money, let’s say a hundred dollars. Participant A gets to choose how the hundred bucks is divided. Participant B can choose to accept this offer or reject it. If they accept, both participants keep the cash as allotted. If Participant B rejects the offer, they both get nothing.

What tends to happen is that Participant A is more generous than you’d expect, because a split that’s too unfair will be rejected. You might think A could offer a dollar and keep 99 bucks for themselves, because something is better than nothing, but most participants know in their bones that B will punish this unfairness. After all, a dollar is a small price to pay for a dollop of revenge.

The problem with this experiment is that the absolute wealth involved is paltry, and it’s too expensive to do this experiment for real in a way that would test absolute vs. relative gains in wealth and fairness. Let’s say we asked two people to divide a hundred million dollars. Participant A offers 1 million and wants to keep 99 million for himself. Do you turn down a million dollars to teach someone a lesson? Not as quickly, right? Probably not at all. The injustice will be keenly felt (the relative wealth), but the life-changing absolute wealth will win out. Most people would choose to go home and cry into their stacks of cash.

Researches have found a clever way to test this theory without going broke: They conduct the Ultimatum Game in poor countries where hundreds of dollars have higher absolute value. One study found that a mere four weeks’ wages was enough to move the rejection rate almost to zero. It didn’t matter the percentage offered. This was too much money to pass up. Absolute wealth won. But these victories are bitter ones. The participants doing the splitting seem to understand that they have the power to abuse the needs of the poor to take more than their fair share. And get away with it.

Game theory experiments like this get at something in our DNA, something deep in the marrow of our bones. We make these calculations on the fly, and across cultures we seem to arrive at the same general solutions for very complex calculations of fairness, relative wealth, and absolute wealth. One of the outcomes of this research is the discovery that relative wealth is more important for feelings of overall social justice and injustice than absolute wealth. A common refrain these days is that the poor have never had it so good. You can be poor and not starving, poor and have a cell phone, poor and have a place to live, poor and own a car, all of which used to not be true.

We confuse being poor with absolute wealth. But how we measure our status and wealth are relative. Forgetting this has led to revolutions in the past. Ultimatum Games are played all the time across entire economies, with tax rates and rising inequality testing the power difference of absolute and relative wealth to see just how much people will take.

Yesterday I got to thinking about the same differences, but with morality instead of wealth. The germ of the idea came when I saw Mike Godwin himself temporarily suspend the law that bears his name. Godwin’s Law states that if an argument continues for a sufficient length of time, the chance that one party with compare the other to Hitler approaches 100%. Put another way: the longer we disagree, the more certain we can be that someone is going to call the other one a Nazi.

At this point in the discussion, it is often said that the Nazi-namer has lost or given up on the argument.

As children and infants are being held in cages along the US border, and comparisons to Nazis and Hitler run rampant, Godwin announced on Twitter that in this case, the comparison was apt. Whether or not this was meant to be taken literally is up for debate. Which is precisely the debate I began to have with myself. And it got me thinking about Nazis and these frequent comparisons. My conclusion is that comparing people to Nazis is quite often more rational than Godwin’s Law would lead us to believe. And the reason for that has to do with the difference between relative differences of morality and absolute differences of morality.

To understand this, we have to understand that Nazi ethics weren’t as far outside the mainstream of the 1930s as they are today. That is, the delta between the average human and the average Nazi was smaller then than it would be now. This is why comparisons to Nazis fall flat on their face. Nothing short of rounding up and killing six million people based on their ethnicity will work for an argument. So why do we often find ourselves comparing people to Hitler and Nazis, and feel justified in doing so? I think it’s because some people and behaviors are as outside respected norms as Nazis were in their day. And so the comparisons not only feel apt, they are apt.

Morality has changed rapidly in the last few centuries. Steven Pinker has done amazing work in this area, with his 2011 book THE BETTER ANGELS OF OUR NATURE. He describes the norms of past ages in gruesome detail, because those norms were gruesome. People nailed cats to trees and set them on fire for entertainment. Regular folk, not sociopathic killers. People went to public executions and had a ball. They brought their kids. The rates of murder and rape were far higher in the past, and this appears to be true for as far back as we can measure.

As the 20th century opened, talk of eugenics (a fancy word for mass murder) was on the lips of politicians and intellectuals in high society. Germany’s T4 program to rid Germany of the mentally disabled was outside the norm, but only slightly. Similar programs were debated in the United States. Euthanizing the mentally disabled was roundly discussed, but only in Germany was it practiced. Other countries had to be satisfied with involuntary castration or lobotomies. Barbarisms such as this were not in short supply a mere generation or two ago. Anti-semitism was also socially accepted in way that it isn’t today (not to say it’s gone away, not by a long shot). All of this is to say that regular folk back then were a lot more like Hitler and the Nazis than we pretend to believe. The moral delta wasn’t as great as it seems. Godwin’s Law points out the absurdity of  comparing the worst of that earlier time to the best of our time, a comparison that makes little sense.

But relatively speaking, these comparisons do feel true. Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump might be the Hitlers of our age. Not because they kill in the same numbers, but because their actions and philosophies might be just as outside the norm of tolerable as Adolf’s were in the 30s. How to measure this is difficult. The fact that many feel it in their bones is significant. It’s like the Ultimatum Game. The mental calculus is opaque; what we see are the results.

Perhaps this has been a feature of the human condition for millenia. Abhorrent sociopaths come along who prey on our xenophobia and fear and rile up a segment of the tribe in order to assume power and enrich themselves, and many in the tribe can see that this person is wrong and must be stopped. They remind us of Ogg, that asshole our grandparents used to talk about. Ogg got us in that war with the Feather People, and that got damn ugly. We don’t need another Ogg. Okay, sure, this person isn’t literally doing the same things Ogg was doing, because we all decided that shit won’t be tolerated ever again, but you get the sense that if the rules were laxer, we’d have Ogg V2 on our hands.

I think this is what we mean when we make these comparisons. Hitler has become a mental representation of a repeated archetype. Separating this from the atrocities of the Holocaust are difficult. But today’s atrocities might have similar moral deltas, as we live in gentler times (measurably, despite what you might think). Godwin’s Law does not take these relative measures into account. It looks only at the objective measures. It makes the opposite assumption and commits the opposite error as the Ultimatum Game.

Donald Trump is not 1930s Hitler. There will hopefully never be another 1930s Hitler. But Donald Trump may very well be the 2018 Hitler. Future generations and comparisons will make that determination. My opinion is that the long view of history will not be kind to him or his followers. One day, we might need a new Law to make fun of those who compare the assholes of the future to Donald Trump. Because everyone in the future knows that nobody is that big of a dick anymore.