In the collection of rabbinic sayings called Pirkei Avot, the most famous teaching is a quote by Hillel the Elder, the greatest sage of the first century BCE and, perhaps, the person who did more than anyone else to set the early direction of Rabbinic Judaism. Even if you didn’t know where it came from or who said it, you’ve probably heard this teaching before: Im ein ani li, mi li? Uchshe-ani l’atzmi, mah ani? v’im lo achshav, eimatai? “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? But if I am only for myself, what am I? If not now, when?” (M. Avot 1:15).
I’ve been thinking about Hillel’s three rhetorical questions since the start of the pandemic and what they say to us about our responsibilities to ourselves and to others through this crisis. It’s not hard to see how the saying applies to our current situation as a society divided on the issues of masks and, even more so, on vaccinations.
“If I am not for myself, who will be for me.” It is up to each of us to make choices to keep ourselves and the members of our families safe. Everyone needs to decide for themselves what that means for them in the midst of the pandemic. Putting your head in the sand and pretending that there is nothing wrong is dangerous and foolhardy. Our first obligation is to take care of ourselves. If I am not for me, who will be?
But that is not enough. “If I am only for myself, what am I?” At the same time as we take care of ourselves, we must also think about others. We all live in a society. We are all members of the human race. We all have a moral obligation to think about how our choices affect others. If you were to decide that its okay for you not to wear a mask, when you could wear a mask, because everyone else’s masks protect you – or if you were to decide not to get vaccinated, when you could get vaccinated, because everyone else’s vaccinations will keep you safe if there are enough of them to provide herd immunity – you would not be factually wrong. You would be safe from the virus in such a situation. But, obviously, you would be ethically and morally wrong. No one is exempt from doing their share, what is possible for them, to help society as a whole.
And then we come to the last of Hillel’s three questions: “If not now, when?” Some obligations cannot be deferred. Every moment we delay in taking action to prevent the spread of COVID-19 is a moment in which we allow the harsh logic of exponential growth to overwhelm us. By taking action now, not just “sometime,” but “right now,” we make our world safer, bring the end of the pandemic sooner, and save more lives.
To further consider the choices each of us face in the pandemic, let’s consider the scenario known as the “Prisoner’s Dilemma.” You may have heard it as a story, but it is more than just a story. It’s one of the central models of game theory -- the mathematical study of strategic choices.
The Prisoner’s Dilemma goes like this:
Two partners in crime are arrested by the police. The police don’t have enough evidence to convict them of the serious crime they are suspected of committing, but they do have enough to convict the prisoners on lesser charges. The police place the prisoners in separate cells, giving them no way to communicate with each other. The police offer each of them a deal.
Each prisoner is told, “If you testify, we can convict the other prisoner on the more serious crime and we’ll see that you get a reduced sentence. But if the other prisoner testifies against you, well, then you will be the one to get the more serious sentence. What will it be? Will you testify or not?”
So imagine that you are one of these two prisoners. You know that if you and the other prisoner both betray each other by testifying, you will both end up serving two years in prison. But, If you betray the other prisoner and the other prisoner doesn’t betray you, then you will go free and the other prisoner will serve three years in prison. If both of you say nothing, you will both get off with just a one year sentence. But if you remain silent and the other prisoner betrays you, then you will get three years and the other prisoner will walk. What should you do?
A completely rational, mathematical analysis of this one-time event shows that the best choice for you is to betray the other prisoner. It’s easy to prove this. Let’s say the other prisoner is definitely going to betray you. If you stay silent, you will end up with three years; but if you also betray, you will only get two. Betrayal is better. Let’s say the other prisoner is definitely going to stay silent. If you stay silent, too, you will get one year; by if you betray, you will walk free with no time in prison. Betrayal is still better. Regardless of what the other person does, you will always get a better outcome if you betray. So why not do that every time?
Interestingly, when given this scenario, most people do the opposite of what logic dictates. This is well known by sociologists and game theorists. They’ve even given it a name. They say that most people have a “cooperative behavior bias.” People tend to optimistically believe that the other prisoner will not betray them and that they, consequently, should not betray the other prisoner. They decide not to betray, even though, rationally, betrayal is the better choice.
I hope that you, like me, are glad to hear that. It makes me feel a little bit better about being a human being knowing that my fellow human beings would rather be kind to me than cruel, even if cruelty is the choice that has the biggest immediate payoff.
Does this just prove that human beings are all simpletons who act with kindness when we should really just coldly and rationally do what is in our best personal interest without regard to the consequences for others? Maybe not.
Betraying your partner may be the best choice for a player in the Prisoner’s Dilemma individually, but the best outcome for the two players combined is the opposite. By not betraying each other, the two partners each receive a one-year sentence for a total of two years between them. That is the lowest possible combined penalty if you look at the situation from the shared perspective of both prisoners.
What’s more, if two people play out the Prisoner’s Dilemma over and over again for an unspecified number of turns, the best outcomes for each of the players result from attempting to cooperate. In this situation, each prisoner can observe the behavior of the other and test whether the other person is cooperating with them. If they both see that cooperation is working, they will both end up doing better in the game, both from the group perspective and – importantly – from their own individual perspective, too.
This has been proven experimentally dozens of times. Players may feel tempted to play selfishly, and they may win on some turns by betraying the other person, but eventually the cycles of betrayal, distrust and retribution that come from playing “mean” end up being less successful than the long term outcome for players who develop the trust in each other to play “nice.”
The Prisoner’s Dilemma is not just an interesting thought experiment. It is used as a model to evaluate strategies and predict outcomes for many real world situations that weigh cooperative behavior against selfish behavior. We play the Prisoner’s Dilemma game, in a sense, every time we choose between doing the selfish thing or doing the cooperative thing.
Here are two examples. Let’s say you’re applying for a job and you realize that your friend, who is also in a job search, would be a great applicant for the position. Should you tell your friend about the job? If you don’t, you may end up getting the job and your friend won’t. But, if you do tell your friend about the job, your friend might get the job and then your friend might tell you about another opportunity that would be a good fit for you.
Let’s say you are going to a party where there will be a gift exchange. You can buy an expensive gift or a cheap gift. Should you buy the expensive gift and risk that you will lose out by getting a cheap gift in exchange, or should you buy a cheap gift so the worst you can do is break even?
In both scenarios, the logical choice for the best immediate payoff is to make the selfish choice – and sometimes, as we all know, that’s exactly what people do. But the instincts of most people are to make the kinder and more optimistic choice. Why? It’s not because we’re stupid. It’s because most of us have learned over time that cooperation works. It works if we develop trusting relationships in which people anticipate that we will choose kindness. It’s a game that we all have been playing since childhood.
And it seems clear that “the vaccination game” our society is now playing is, in fact, a large-scale version of the Prisoner’s Dilemma. It is, perhaps, the largest human study ever conducted on how well people are willing to treat each other, how much they trust each other, and what the social costs are for playing the game “mean” or “nice.”
I should mention that when mathematicians study the Prisoner’s Dilemma, they assign values to the risks of cooperating or betraying, and it isn’t always the zero, one, two or three years in prison that I gave as an example. The “vaccination game” we are now in is one that, objectively speaking, has very high risks associated with not getting vaccinated. You greatly increase the risk of getting a serious case of COVID and possibly dying from it. That would definitely be a worse penalty than added time in prison. On the other hand, the risks of getting the vaccine are tiny. You might get a sore arm or fatigue for a few days. Some people worry about serious side effects associated with the vaccine, but with 40% of the world’s population having received at least one dose serving as data, there is ample evidence that such risk is extremely rare -- on the order of one in a million. On the other hand, getting vaccinated greatly reduces your risk of getting COVID and of having a serious case. Even if you decide to play “mean,” the odds in this game are overwhelmingly in favor of vaccination.
If nothing else, the pandemic has given us this lesson in the wisdom of Hillel’s teaching from more than 2,000 years ago. “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? But if I am only for myself, what am I? If not now, when?” Judaism’s insight is that we are all really better off when we see ourselves not just as individuals, but as parts of a whole. Trusting in the goodness of others, being willing to act for the benefit of others (even when it’s not in our narrow, short-term interests), makes our lives better. Living with optimism about other people’s kindness, believing that we are responsible for each other, building relationships founded on trust and predictable benevolence – these values give us a pathway for surviving as individuals, as a community, as a nation, and as a world. This is the way toward life – and as we have learned in this pandemic – the way that can keep us from death.
L’shanah tovah tikateivu v’techateimu.
May you be written and sealed for a good year.