On Philosophy

November 2, 2007

Social Parasitism

Filed under: Ethics — Peter @ 12:00 am

To be social parasite is to benefit from the work of the group equally while contributing less than an equal share, and thus getting what many would describe as an unfair advantage. Essentially all unethical behavior is a form of social parasitism, we all contribute to the wellbeing of the group by binding ourselves to act ethically, and thus all giving up, roughly equally, on the unethical behavior we would like to engage in. And, as a result of this, we all get to enjoy the benefits of a society composed of ethical people (a functioning society), which is well worth what we give up. Someone who acts unethically in this situation is being a social parasite because they are contributing less to the wellbeing of society by not binding themselves by all the ethical rules, but they still enjoy the benefits of a mostly ethical society, since no one is acting unethically towards them. Of course as a society we try to make such parasitism as unprofitable as possible, by punishing the parasites that we catch. This works fairly well for the kinds of parasitism that we can catch and have the resources to punish. But not every form of social parasitism can be easily identified. Consider, for example, someone who slacks off (someone who contributes less than their fair share in some activity), but does so unnoticeably, so that the only way we can detect this slacking off is by noticing that the group isn’t performing as well as it should. We might try to catch the person engaging in this behavior by switching up the way we divide people into groups, in order to detect indirectly who the parasite is (by drawing a correlation between underperforming groups). But an intelligent parasite can evade detection in this way by slacking off only when their group contains a particular individual, and thus by symmetry it would be impossible to tell who was the parasite. Or two parasites might agree to act that way with respect to the same individual, and then this unlucky individual would seem to be the parasite. Not to mention that the effort spent trying to identity who the parasite is may end up costing more, in the sense of reducing group performance, then the parasite themselves does.

This would seem to imply that certain manifestations of parasitism, those that involve contributing less in essentially undetectable ways, might be successful strategies. And I can’t deny that there may be possible situations in which this kind of parasitism might work, but I suspect that they are fewer in number than might be initially supposed, because of factors that have so far remained hidden. To expose them let us consider a hypothetical farming community composed of 10 members. Each of these 10 members can contribute up to 10 units of work, and for every unit of work contributed one unit of the final product is created. Now this community needs 90 units of the final product to survive, but any remaining product above and beyond that they sell, producing a number of units of income equal to the amount of product they sell, which they divide equally among the 10 farmers. Now let’s consider a hypothetical parasite in this situation. The parasite does feel that the 1 unit of income they receive is of value greater or equal to a unit of labor, meaning that everyone putting in 10 units instead of just 9 units of work (the minimum required to keep everyone alive) is worth it to them. However, it isn’t worth 5 units of work to them, and so they reason that they can simply contribute 5 units instead of their expected 10. Although this will cut down on the income they receive at the end of the year they will still be coming out better overall because they will have avoided 5 units of work and still made some income.

And suppose that they put this into practice. This means that the community will produce:
10*9 + 5 – 90 = 5 units surplus = .5 units of income for each farmer
But it is quite possible in this situation that at least some of the remaining farmers will feel that .5 units of income is not worth the extra unit of work they have to put in. Suppose that one farmer feels this way and, being an honest person, announces this before hand, and says that they will only contribute 9 units of work, but that they don’t expect to receive a share of any income generated as part of a surplus. Then the community will produce:
10*8 + 9 + 5 – 90 = 4 units surplus = 4/9 units of income for each of the 9 farmers (< .5)
As you can see even with an honest slacker (one who reduces the amount they contribute, but who doesn’t expect a share of the communal rewards as a result) the amount of income is still reduced in the next year. And with income reduced again still more farmers may decide to contribute less, until income falls to zero. At which point all the honest farmers announce that they will only contribute 9 units of work, forcing the parasite to contribute 9 as well, or starve. And that puts the parasite in a worse position than when they started, because, as was mentioned initially, that one unit of income was worth one extra unit of work to them.

Now it might seem that the parasite could avoid this slide to a zero surplus by increasing their contribution from 5 to 6 when the first farmer announces that they no longer want to contribute to the surplus. This keeps the surplus the same, to prevent any further farmers from giving up, and the parasite still comes out slightly ahead. But the problem is that this strategy only works if a few farmers defect. If five farmers had defected they would have the increase their contribution to a full 10 units to prevent the surplus from shrinking any further, and this would be an overall loss from them. So whether the parasite can slack off and succeed depends heavily on how much the other farmers value the income generated as a result of the surplus. And that is simply something that parasite can’t know with complete accuracy, so to slack off they are taking a risk, betting that the other farmers don’t care that much about contributing an additional unit of work. And this is simply given the most optimistic situation, that the other farmers will react to a decrease in the surplus by contributing less in an honest fashion. It is quite possible that those who don’t feel that the surplus is worth the extra work after the parasite starts slacking off will simply contribute 9 units without announcing their intentions, which will cause the surplus to shrink even faster.

Of course such considerations don’t matter if the parasite doesn’t think their extra unit of work is worth the surplus that is generated initially, but if that is the case they might as well slack off honestly, announcing that they will only contribute 9 units of work and that they will forego their share of the surplus, because this leaves open the possibility that the surplus might continue to exist because of the work of the other farmers, and that they might benefit from it indirectly even if the income isn’t directly parceled out to them.

What this implies is that if the benefits that accrue from acting ethically are worth the costs of acting ethically then it is rational to act ethically, even if there might be some short-term benefits to being a parasite, because parasitism encourages others to defect from the joint agreement, which can have a run-away effect and leave the parasite themselves worse off than they started. Of course it isn’t guaranteed that this will happen, but the parasite must weigh the risks of this against the benefits of being a parasite, and compare them to benefits that accrue to them from simply honestly participating in the group. A way of looking at this situation is to observe that we would prefer living in a society where people act ethically to one where people are unethical. And if we act ethically ourselves we increase our chances of living in the former, but if we act unethically we make the latter far more likely, because our behavior does not exist in a vacuum, but has the tendency to rub off on other people. But of course this is only the case when the communities of people involved are essentially stable, which prevents parasites from entering communities, getting their short-term benefits, and then moving on. And indeed, if I may offer some social commentary, this seems to happen in certain modern communities, that people don’t contribute as much to the community as a whole because they view their being a member as essentially temporary. But once the “surplus” is eliminated in a community it takes time for it to return, and so parasites acting in this way are effectively reducing the opportunities for other parasites acting in the same way, they are parasites among parasites. And in the long term the outcome is the same, but because they aren’t directly exposed to the effects of their choices such parasites don’t realize this, don’t realize that they are collectively destroying the very thing they plan to be a parasite off of.

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