I went through a phase growing up when I was really into the saying “Don’t hate the player, hate the game.” I’m not sure where I first picked it up, but it had just the right amounts of flippant attitude and pseudo-profundity that young James was really into. So I said it a lot. Like annoying a lot. In situations when it didn’t really make all that much sense.

I mention this because I recently heard that phrase again somewhere, and upon a Google search, found that it originated from Ice-T’s 1999 song “Don’t Hate the Playa.” So I just wanted to tell everyone whom I annoyed with that phrase, don’t hate the player, hate Ice-T.

But back to the game. This idea of representing situations as a game is far more prevalent than just in 20th century rap. Game theory is a relatively new but now ubiquitous way of thinking about the social world. It is now standard curriculum in the fields of economics and psychology, but even students from other disciplines will have encountered some form of it in their lives.

For example, the prisoner’s dilemma is an idea that is so ingrained in our world that most people are at least aware of its general premise. To simplify, the dilemma suggests a situation in which two people both acting in self-interest can lead to a situation that is worse off for both parties than if they had cooperated with each other.

This can be applied to real-life situations, such as an arms race among nations. The best scenario for every nation would be to live in a world without any weapons of mass destruction, but from the perspective of any single nation, it is better to have such weapons regardless of whether others do or not. Every nation thinks the same way, and therefore we have a world filled with such weapons, which is worse off for everyone.

Of course, this is an oversimplification, and experiments involving the dilemma do suggest a more complicated result. But I do think that most people come away with the take that games in life are ultimately doomed to result in such a non-ideal scenario. We live in an economic system that tells us that being self-interested is the only rational and even morally correct — Ayn Rand, anyone? — basis of action. Whether genuine altruism is even possible is itself a point of debate.

Even as we criticize imperfect cultures or systems, no one is willing, or perhaps able, to make the commitment towards anything different. We seem to have no choice but to accept the imperfect world as it is. Somewhere Ice-T spits out, “I didn’t choose the game, the game chose me.”

I’m a naturally cynical person, and this way of thinking about the world has always intuitively made sense to me. And I do think that in the big picture, this way of considering situations seems most applicable. There’s a reason why socialist economies fail, why the world can’t figure out climate change, why competition is the only form of social interaction that can last.

But I think it’s dangerous to extend this mentality to our individual lives, to assume that such selfishness is the only rational basis of action we can and should have. Of course, trust is something to be earned, but it is also something we should afford others. I find it fascinating that the handshake is thought to have originated as a gesture of peace — an indication that no weapon was held. And I do think that we are all capable, that we should be capable, of extending a hand first, even if we end up worse off for it sometimes.

I suppose one could call this, “naivety.” But even if it turns out to be ultimately wrong, I think that this faith that others will reciprocate our goodwill is necessary in our world. Accepting defecting as the only rational option in all cases, thereby creating a world in which no one can be criticized or morally blamed for any action pertaining to self-interest is surely undesirable.

The standard, even if it is an ideal that could never be met, ought to be a world in which we come together to make it better for ourselves, where collective action problems can be resolved through individuals’ willingness to trust people. And so we ought to go on believing that selfishness should remain an object of condemnation. Or else the only world possible would be the confines of our own cell, each of us looking across the row at others’ empty gazes, alone, shrugging, all of us protesting that we had no other choice.

JAMES LEE is a College junior from Seoul, South Korea, studying English and Philosophy, Politics, and Economics. His email address is jel@sas.upenn.edu. “The Conversation” usually appears every other Monday.

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