Tag Archives: cages

Rationality Locked Down

Suppose I was the kinda guy who’d work late at the office. As I’m coming out of the reprographics room and look down the corridor I spot a burglar trying the handles of the locked doors of the offices on either side. He’s tiptoeing along in his stripy sweater, absorbed in his stealth, so he doesn’t notice me. As he turns to try another door, I see he’s got a big bag with ‘SWAG’ written on it slung over his shoulder. I also see that this is my opportunity to act – I don’t have long, just a moment.

The range of possible actions I could carry out are severely limited. It seems that I could either:

a) reach out and lock my currently-unlocked office door,  or

b) reach out and unlock Bob’s office (immediately opposite mine)

but not both.

If I lock my office door, I’ll secure my ever-so-valuable possessions within. But I happen to know that Bob’s office has an impressively large cage mounted above the door: a hair-trigger automatic device means that anyone entering the room is immediately ensnared unless they’ve already deactivated the system. So if I unlock Bob’s room, the would-be-burglar would be caught.

A good case can be made for both a) and b). [I won’t consider the third case – doing nothing and leaving my door unlocked but Bob’s door locked].

By deciding to lock my own door [option a)], I prevent the would-be burglar from committing any crime. That is, although this pantomime figure may be thinking about committing theft, I can help to free him from any wrong doing by denying him any opportunity to do so. Moreover, I also secure my valuables – I remove the risk of having to suffer the unbearable consequences that my copy of Aqua’s stunning debut album ‘Aquarium’ might be handled by a stranger by placing it firmly behind a locked door.

By choosing to unlock Bob’s door [option b)], I prevent the would-be burglar from committing any crime. That is, although this pantomime figure may be thinking about committing theft, I can help to free him from any wrong doing by incarcerating him. Moreover, I also secure my valuables – I remove the risk of having to suffer the unbearable consequences that my copy of Aqua’s stellar second album ‘Aquarius’ might be handled by a stranger by placing him firmly behind bars.

So far, so even, or so it seems. Perhaps a little more analysis is called for. 

By taking option a), I leave it open that the burglar may head on into the world and commit other terrifying thefts. I may have protected his eternal soul (and the possessions of some other hapless citizens) this time, but tomorrow he could be bundling Britney LPs from babes-in-arms, depriving them of their one true joy and sending himself to hell. But at least my stuff is safe.

By taking option b), I might prevent the burglar from enjoying future freedom-of-theft, but by leaving my door open I leave my stuff at risk. For what if this sneak-thief tries my door before Bob’s? I guess I’ll just have to hope that once he’s grabbed my LPs he’ll be so swollen with self-assurance that he’ll try his luck on Bob’s door, and then he’ll be trapped. I’ll be able to reclaim my possessions in the morning (although I can’t imagine that I’ll feel the same way about them), and he’ll be looking at a lengthy stretch. But of course, it might be that once he’s acquired some Aqua, he’s no longer interested in taking any more risks, and he’ll hotfoot it away from Bob’s office before the fuzz get on his tail. In which case he’s got my Aqua and he’s a grand-theft-felon at-large.

If I lock my door, I’m acting out of self-interest: my stuff is definitely safe, but I’m contributing nothing to the security of the wider world. If I unlock Bob’s door, I’m taking a risk for the community: my stuff is much less secure, but I’ve raised the possibility that the thief will be caught.

I have no idea what this shows. 

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