Here’s a story I heard some time ago, about a farmer who consistently won the first prize for his fine crop of corn every year at the county agricultural contest. Peculiarly, after the contest he would give away the seeds of this prize-winning corn to the neighboring farmers. This puzzled some people, until someone finally asked him why he shared his good fortune. He answered, “Well, growing corn in my field requires pollen from the neighboring fields. If they don’t have good corn in their fields, I will never be able to grow good corn myself. So I give them good corn seeds.”
Aside from the virtue of generosity, the little story also holds another important lesson – that is, we cannot prosper unless our neighbor does too. “Beggar thy neighbor” is not an evolutionarily stable strategy in a repeated Prisoner’s Dilemma game, as game theorists would put it. Conversely, “Enrich thy neighbor” could be an evolutionary stable strategy in a repeated PD game. At the very least, the best strategy is to be nice to other people – until of course they ‘defect’ and repay your kindness with nastiness. In that case, retaliate quickly and revert to being nice in the next round.
Folk wisdom captures a lot of evolutionarily stable strategies, I believe. Take, for instance, the
Golden Rule: Do unto others what you would have them do unto you.
A variant of the above is the
Silver Rule: Don’t do unto others what you don’t want done to you.
And finally, the
Bronze Rule: Tit for tat – repay kindness with kindness, unkindness with justice.
Confucius, the ancient Chinese sage, was smart enough to see that repaying unkindness with kindness is patently silly. When told that unkindness should be repaid with kindness, he asked, “What would you repay kindness with?”
For a more detailed analysis of what Confucius means and what the implications of repaying nastiness with kindness are, see my article on why loving thy enemies is a flawed strategy.