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The Prisoner's Dilemma Theory in a Socio-Psychological Concept

This article is about the political and socio-psychological approach of the "Prisoner’s Dilemma Theory" and the application of utilitarianism, egoism, and social contract concepts according to their moral theory. But first, one must understand what the prisoner’s dilemma theory is all about? This is a theory constructed by David Gauthier (1986) that shows people always look out for themselves instead of working together. The prisoner’s dilemma starts with two people who have been brought for questioning over a crime that has been committed by both. According to the theory, police have strong evidence to convict them both for a lighter crime. However, in order to find them guilty of a more serious crime, they would need a confession from both or either one of them (Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 2015).So what they do? They put them in a separate room so they cannot talk to each other and play a little game with them by offering each of them a plea deal. The deal is this; admit your partner has committed a more serious crime and you will receive a lighter sentence that could be just a year in prison, however, your partner will go to prison for up to 10 years.

If she refuses to corporate with the police and then her partner cooperate with the police, she is risking to spend up to ten years in prison. According to the prisoner’s dilemma theory, if they both cooperating with each other by remaining silent they will go to jail for only 2 years. But, if they both cooperate, each of them will spend 5 years in prison.So, their choices are as follow; either they stay silent and spend 2 years in prison for a lighter crime, or cooperating with the police by betraying each other and then go to prison for five years each. But if one refuses to cooperate, she has no control over what the other partner will do, whether stay silent or betrayed her. Since either of them has any control over what each other might do, David Gauthier shows that people would normally do what best for them. It is a way to show that people are selfish by nature and they always look for what is best for them.Now let’s use the concepts of utilitarianism, egoism, and social contract in order to see which one of these three theories is more consistent with cooperating with the other prisoner and rejecting self-interest as the best option.

But first, let’s analyze each theory separately before making a conclusion.

(Utilitarianism Theory)

Utilitarianism by definition is a normative ethical theory that put the locus of what is right and what wrong solely on the outcomes. Through this theory, people learn that they should do whatever they think will produce the greatest possible balance of happiness over unhappiness for those who can be affected by one’s action (s).This means, in order to determine whether or not what a person did was wrong or not, one has to analyze the consequences of his/her acts, whether people would be harmed or benefited from them. So, the ideology of the utilitarianism is to accomplish the greater good for as many people as possible. Meaning, a person can do something bad, but if the end result benefits people then it is good or worth doing (Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 2015).

(Egoism Theory)

By definition, egoism is the theory that teaches us people usually do what is good for them, not for others, because they do not feel like it is their responsibility to do so. This theory has two categories known as; descriptive or normative. Its overall principle is that one’s self-interest is the ultimate motivation of one’s action. This means people, think that they are only responsible for themselves, not anyone else. People’s moral obligation is this theory is to act in ways that can be beneficial to them. With that says, every person is his/her higher authority.

(Social Contract Theory)

Social Contract theory by definition is a set of rules which rational individuals will agree to obey, for their mutual benefits or interests. According to Thomas Hobbes, the idea of consent is the center of social contract due to the fact that people are being born selfish. Through the social contract, people give some of their freedom or autonomy through cooperation in order to for what we all call “Society” and then provide the security needed for people to thrive. This means; social contract is what makes social order exist, without it there would be no social order and it would be anarchy everywhere. The prisoner’s dilemma theory seems to be in accordance with the utilitarianism’s concepts. The reason for such a conclusion is because, utilitarianism’s ultimate goal is to achieve the greater good or happiness to as many people as people. For that reason, rejecting self-interest as the best option in order to embrace what is good for others or each other is utilitarianism ideology.

The course of action of each prisoner in regard to the other two theories would be simple: for egoism, each prisoner would look out for himself as the ultimate goal. They would betray each other by cooperating with the police, as a result, they both would end up having a five years sentence instead of two years (Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 2015).

For the social contract concepts, those two prisoners would seek what is best for them mutually, meaning not cooperating with the police so they both could receive a lesser sentence. Because people are selfish by nature, cooperating is always in a person’s best interest, because one cannot control what other people might do. They can choose to cooperate and the might chose not to. If I do not cooperate while the other person does the chance is I will end up with a higher or a more severe punishment while the other person gets to walk away while we both have committed the crime.

A clear example of my own personal life; I was in a segregated school when I was young, I had a good friend. One day we decided to go off the school’s fence without permission. It was quickly reported to the priest administrator. When I was questioned by the situation, I totally refused to cooperate in order to protect my friend, while in the other room he blamed me for everything. As a result, I was the one in trouble, not him. If I was to explain things exactly how they have taken place, we both would mutually be punished. The reason self-centered people seem to prosper is simply that they only care about what is good for them, they could care less about others well-being or interest. So if throwing everybody under the bus is what will work for them that is exactly what they will do without thinking twice about it.


Argosy University (2015). Egoism. Data Retrieved on 07/22/2015, from:

Argosy University (2015). Utilitarian Ethics: A Good Terrorist. Data Retrieved on 07/18/2015, from:

Internet Encyclopedia of Psychology (2015). Social Contract Theory. Data Retrieved on 07/22/2015, from:

Moral and Philosophy (2012). Moral Theories. Ethical Theories — Philosophies of Morality. Data Retrieved on 07/22/2015, from:

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