Who is responsible for the world’s suffering? There are many answers with the same assumption: somebody with a face and name is responsible, and if we all join hands in angry protest we could successfully punish the perpetrator. But what happens if we don’t know who is responsible, or even worse, if nobody is? Without a clear scapegoat, rage has no outlet and becomes unmoored, floating over the world.
In game theory, the principal-agent problem arises when one person (the agent) is able to make decisions on behalf of another person (the principal). A problem arises when the agent makes decisions in their self-interest rather than in the interest of the principal. A classic example would be an elected representative (agent) who is supposed to represent a group of people (principal) in government, but instead sells his influence to criminals for personal profit.
The literature around principal-agent problems is vast and often focuses on “conflicts of interest” between principals and agents. Rather than focusing on these discrepancies of interest, I want to investigate what it feels like when principals are invisible, hard to access, or non-existent, and almost everyone claims to be an “innocent” agent.
Say you are out for dinner at a nice restaurant with some old friends you haven’t seen in years. You order a steak, but when it arrives thirty minutes later it is horribly burnt. You alert the waiter who kindly, and with great apology, offers to bring you a new one. After thirty more minutes of waiting, another steak arrives that is even more burned than the first. Not wanting to make a scene and spoil the evening, you unhappily eat the burned steak. Now, when the bill comes, what do you do?
- You could leave a bad tip. Unfortunately, this would only be punishing the nice waiter rather than the cook in the kitchen.
- You could leave a bad tip and a note that explains that your tip is due to the badly burnt steak. Depending on the management, you could still be punishing your waiter and the message might never reach the cook.
- You could call over the manager and explain that your steak was badly burned twice. This might appear to be the best option, but it also comes at a higher cost. You would be making a scene, the manager might react badly, or the manager might just discount your complaint as due to an overly sensitive customer.
- When you get home you could write a bad online review. But that would be punishing the entire restaurant and all the employees, rather than just the bad cook.
The problem expressed in its most simple form is this: you desire to punish a principal who is surrounded by innocent agents and is therefore difficult to access. An ideal solution involves routing around the agents in order to directly address the principal. Perhaps in this example, the most direct route to the cook would be talking to the manager (if you’re willing to pay the higher cost of such a conversation). This is an example where the principal is obvious: the cook, but he is difficult to access due to intermediary agents such as the waiter.
We are used to these sorts of problems where the identity of the principal is clear, and therefore so are the identities of the agents. A more intractable problem is when it is not clear who the principal and agents are, but it seems likely that they exist. For example, take cigarette companies who lied about the relationship to cancer in order to sell cigarettes: somebody (or a group) made the decision to lie, and yet most people at the companies were morally unaware of this decision. This sort of problem could become a legal investigation, in order to determine who is a principal and who is an agent. In some cases, the principals will have legal action brought against them individually, but sometimes, the entire company will be punished via a fine. Legal philosophy is divided on this issue, since punishing an entire company often means punishing innocent agents (unless more than fifty percent of the company is “in on it”).
However, there are some instances where no one is at fault, where there is simply no principal – in which case, everyone can be seen as an agent. There are many famous examples in game theory, often falling under categories like “collective action problems” or “coordination problems,” with perhaps the most famous being the tragedy of the commons. When it is in everyone’s individual interest to take advantage of a common good (such as everyone fishing from a lake) that common good will be destroyed. Even though each individual is not acting unethically, the failure to coordinate will result in the destruction of the good. In this case, something bad will happen, even if all the participants are trying to act morally while pursuing their own interest.
In the modern world it is very difficult to determine who the principals are, how to access them, or if they even exist at all. Conspiracy theorists often overestimate their ability to identify principals, often blaming large systemic evils on individual plans and machinations. Game theory is oriented toward recognizing the disturbing fact that often nobody is at fault; there is no principal behind much of the evil we see in the world, only broken systems and incentives.
It is becoming increasingly difficult to locate the principals when everybody claims to be an agent. The problem is the uncertainty: in any given instant the evil we see around us could be traced back to a specific individual or group, or it could just emerge as a network effect. It’s often impossible to tell.
To live in a world without principals feels like being punched by Adam Smith’s invisible hand. The spontaneous and wildcat anger that sweeps around the networked world is a symptom of this phenomenon. Existentialism has gone viral, and rage has been dislocated, free to roam over the vast expanse of the flattened world.
Rage can then find its target anywhere: an individual close at hand, a billionaire on TV, a president, or maybe the entire world. The network that hides the principals, and often is itself the principal, also transmits rage, so that we can all coordinate on scapegoats and start believing that we’ve finally figured out who is behind all the suffering.
Space and time were not knitted together as closely before the internet. Communication had spatial, temporal, and governmental barriers that kept memetic/mimetic viruses from becoming global pandemics. The liquidation of these barriers has allowed consumer goods to become cheaper, in line with Adam Smith’s theorem that “the division of labor is limited by the extent of the market.” The creation of a single global village/network/market has made $600 iPhones possible, at the cost of greater systemic risk.
It seems not only undesirable, but also infeasible, to put back up many of these barriers through mechanism design. As philosophers like Nick Land have noted, it’s in the interest of the economy to liquidate and make fungible as many aspects of the physical world as possible. The lower transaction costs which increase global economic flows also facilitate greater ideological and emotional contagion. In a world where principals are hidden and (seemingly) absent, personal principles might serve to dampen much of the emotional howl of communication networks.
The philosopher Rene Girard believed that such principles were embedded in Christianity, a natural buffer against mimetic escalation: the endless blame game of hunting down and punishing principals (as scapegoats). For Girard, Christianity is a social technology used to dampen rage before it acquires a life of its own. There is a moral imperative to forgive guilty principals, and a recognition that suffering is baked into the very nature of the world. Christianity also prioritizes moral autonomy as a solution rather than relying on abstract mechanisms which can only be properly implemented by a neutral top-down authority, a recognition that bottom-up problems often need to be practically solved at the individual level.
A global return to principles of individual moral autonomy seems unlikely, although so do alternatives around mechanism design. When buffers are ripped out of a stratified world, all that is left is dislocated rage and a Girardian witch-hunt that knows no bounds. In a world without principles or principals we are all responsible for suffering.