One of our hopes in creating PEA Soup was to provide a forum for discussion about certain issues that may crop up in teaching moral philosophy. I suppose, then, that this is the first post on that topic. For several years now, when introducing Hobbes to students, I run a version of the Hobbes Game, which I believe was created by John Immermahr and published in Teaching Philosophy over ten years ago. The idea is to introduce the Prisoner’s Dilemma (an interpretation of one aspect of Hobbes’ state of nature) to students in a dramatic way, one that forces students to really figure out for themselves what it’s individually rational to do in cases of strategic interaction. So this is how I present the game. At the beginning of the class period I say that 10% of their grade in the class will be determined by the grade they request during the class period. The twist is that they’ll write down the grade they want (either an A or a B), and they’ll be brought up in pairs to submit them simultaneously. If they both request a B, they’ll both get a B. If one requests an A and the other requests a B, the first will get the A and the second will get an F (and vice versa). And if they both request an A, they’ll both get D’s. I then have them think about their strategy for a few minutes (without talking to one another), and then we begin. Some students at first will try to “cooperate” by asking for B’s, but soon enough someone will request an A, resulting in an F for the other, and inevitably the strategy mostly becomes asking for an A (which then results in lots of D’s). Some students invariably get rather distressed by what’s going on, and I’ll occasionally offer students who got F’s another chance at it (and it’s always suprising when they ask for B’s yet again and get burned). As soon as the exercise is over, I immediately announce that the grades don’t count (much to their relief), and we then discuss what the best strategy was, and why, before talking about the direct relevance to Hobbes.
The issue is this: most universities have in place a policy against psychological experimentation on human subjects without their permission. I’m interested in hearing from others who have used this game in their classes (or exercises like it) about whether or not they think it constitutes “human experimentation.” Clearly the game wouldn’t have its intended effect if we were to get students’ permission beforehand to run it. On the other hand, there is some distress involved during the game itself (which is very quickly replaced by relief and laughter, once the truth has been revealed), but is this enough (a) to think of it as experimentation, and (b) to undermine it as a legitimate teaching tool? It is amazingly effective: there are very few other examples I use in class that are burned into students’ minds as well as this one, and that’s precisely the impression I want to leave. But it remains a serious question: is this kind of manipulation (however brief) appropriate in class? And this is related to a larger issue: what precisely are the limits to getting across a serious point in class? I’m very interested to hear what others thinks about this.