Friday, 15 February 2013

The Siamese Emperor (Part 1)

The scenario that follows builds on ideas introduced in earlier articles in the series, most importantly in Ethical Prisoners and Ethical Farmers and Zero Sum Games.  Note that this is Part 1.

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It is ancient times and the absolute monarch of Siam is the great and wise Emperor Prayuhua, Son of Heaven, Lord over Day and Night and earthly incarnation of the great god Rama, whose every slightest wish is law.  Prayuhua’s empire is generally calm and peaceful but not entirely without problems.  Two of his nobles, Prasopgarn and Sukhum, both claim ownership of a fertile region which lies between their provinces. 

Significant resources are wasted in constant war between their provinces and, as a result, the region is never actually used to grow crops and thus generate wealth – thus denying the Emperor the tithe to which he is entitled.  In his great wisdom Prayuhua devises a plan to put an end to the fighting.

He calls both nobles before him and gives them both an ultimatum.

Prasopgarn and Sukhum are no longer permitted to wage war on each other.  They instead have two options.  First, they can put aside their differences and ensure that the disputed region is farmed properly and the Emperor paid his due.  Alternatively, they can make arrangements to have their rival liquidated.  If such arrangements meet with success, they will face no legal or imperial retribution.  The Emperor clarifies that they can choose to face each other honourably in hand to hand combat but they may also hire assassins who may use any number of methods necessary to dispatch their rival.  The dispensation to commit murder is, however, limited to the two Lords in question, and their agents.  That is, they are no longer immune from retribution if anyone else is to be killed in their squabbles (as has effectively been the case when waging war).

The Emperor goes on to explain that as of this moment, the birthrights of both Lords are entirely vested in their persons.  If either Prasopgarn or Sukhum were to be killed then their entire birthrights, rather than passing to their nominated heirs, would pass to the other – along with the disputed territory.  In the event that both are killed, sovereignty over both provinces and all other rights and privileges according to their rank will revert to the Emperor.  Both families would thus be disinherited.  On the other hand, if both of the Lords die in their dotage, having co-operated and paid the Emperor his dues, then traditional dynastic succession will be restored.

On completion of delivering the ultimatum, the Emperor indicates that the audience is over and the two Lords withdraw.






We shall now consider what the most rational behaviour is for Prasopgarn and Sukhum in this scenario.  I’ve tried to define the problem as tightly as possible but a few points should be stressed:

The Emperor Prayuhua is totally secure.

Replacing the Emperor is not an option.

Disobeying the Emperor is not an option (Imperial policy is to lay waste to the entire family and retinue of any insurrectionist or mutineer).

Once the ultimatum is made, all outcomes are effectively equal for the Emperor.

If both Lords were to be killed, the Emperor would have no interest in owning the land directly and would hand over responsibility for the provinces to lesser nobles.

When the Emperor delivers the ultimatum the two Lords are in the same room.

They thus know that the other has been told exactly the same thing and they can enter into negotiations immediately if they so desire, alternatively they may decide to fight immediately.

If Prasopgarn and Sukhum choose to attempt to liquidate the other they are far more likely to choose to do so via an agent such as an assassin than to fight hand to hand. 

This means there will be a delay between ordering the death of the other and having that intention realised.  This in turn has an important ramification:

It is entirely possible that Prasopgarn and Sukhum could each send assassins in the same time frame leading to effectively simultaneous liquidation of both Lords.

Assassins are assumed to be highly effective and extremely discrete.

Once deployed, an assassin will be successful and the target will have no warning of that deployment.

An assassinated Lord’s family is immediately and totally disenfranchised.

There is no retribution for a successful assassination.

Neither Lord is suicidal.

The Lords care about dynastic succession.

Let us only consider the decision making of one of the Lords, Prasopgarn, who finds himself outside the Emperor’s audience chamber looking warily at Sukhum.  One option is to draw his sword and attempt to slay Sukhum immediately.  This course of action has a few drawbacks, not least of which is that he may lose to Sukhum or be sorely wounded even if he were to prevail.  He could just make his way quickly from the area and then either begin to make plans for liquidating Sukhum or merely hope that Sukhum intends not to move against him.

The best option for Prasopgarn may however be to either initiate, or respond favourably to, overtures for peace.  If Prasopgarn can convince Sukhum that they should both lay down their weapons and co-operate, he will then have two options when he arrives home.  He can either betray the trust extended to him by Sukhum by sending out assassins, or he can stay true to his word and hope that Sukhum does the same.

Let us lay out Prasopgarn’s considerations using the same structure as used for illustrating variations of the prisoners’ dilemma.


Prasopgarn does not enter into negotiations

Prasopgarn -
liquidates Sukhum
Sukhum -
liquidates Prasopgarn
Both families are disinherited
Sukhum -
unilaterally makes peace
All passes to Prasopgarn
Sukhum is killed
Prasopgarn -
unilaterally makes peace
Sukhum -
liquidates Prasopgarn
Prasopgarn is killed
All passes to Sukhum
Sukhum -
unilaterally makes peace
Succession is re-established


Prasopgarn chooses to enter into negotiations and makes a peace pact

Prasopgarn -
betrays Sukhum
Sukhum -
betrays Prasopgarn
Both families are disinherited
Sukhum -
honours pact
All passes to Prasopgarn
Sukhum is killed
Prasopgarn -
honours pact
Sukhum -
betrays Prasopgarn
Prasopgarn is killed
All passes to Sukhum
Sukhum -
honours pact
Succession is re-established


When the considerations are laid out like this, and if one looks only at the results, it seems that there is little point in negotiating because the potential results do not change.  By co-operating, the best Prasopgarn can do is draw, whereas by defecting, he has the chance to win.  Furthermore, Prasopgarn knows that Sukhum has the same options as himself and the same potential results.  Therefore, as he may prefer mutual destruction above his own unilateral demise, the projected value of defecting may appeal more to Prasopgarn than the value of co-operating.  As for the prisoners’ dilemma this is made all the more stark by considering reactions to Sukhum’s potential actions:

Prasopgarn does not enter into negotiations

Sukhum -
betrays  Prasopgarn
Prasopgarn -
betrays Sukhum
Both families are disinherited
Prasopgarn -
honours pact
All passes to Sukhum
Prasopgarn is killed
Sukhum -
honours pact
Prasopgarn -
betrays Sukhum
Sukhum is killed
All passes to Prasopgarn
Prasopgarn -
honours pact
Succession is re-established


If Prasopgarn co-operates after Sukhum defects, then Sukhum will win, but if Sukhum co-operates while Prasopgarn also co-operates, then neither wins.  On the other hand, if Prasopgarn were to defect after Sukhum co-operates, then Prasopgarn will win.

As rational individuals who gain no benefit from co-operating, and expose themselves to a risk of a loss from doing so, and who only stand to win by defecting, it seems that both will defect.  Therefore, both will die and both will lose.

Could there be some value in negotiating after all?

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This article is one of a series.  It was preceded by A Non-Circular Definition of Morality and is followed by The Siamese Emperor - Part 2.

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