Martin Auer: The Strange War, Stories for Peace Education
The Two Prisoners
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Once several of Mr. Balaban’s friends were sitting around together and one of them said, "We’re all sorry losers. We ought to start a club so that we can help each other."
"Leave me alone with your clubs," said one of them. "If everybody looks after himself then everybody will be looked after."
For a while the friends argued about whether that was true. Then they asked Mr. Balaban for his opinion.
"Sometimes it’s true, I think. If two equally strong men go to a grove of nut trees and gather nuts, then it’s probably better for each man to gather them by himself. Because if each one gathered nuts for the other one, then they might be thinking, ‘Ah, why should I work so hard. If I knock myself out, I’ll only be getting the nuts that my partner gathers.’ And so maybe each one will put less effort into it than if he were gathering them for himself, and then both will have fewer nuts. But often the destinies of people are so interconnected that if they are only concerned with their own self-interest they make things tougher on themselves and everyone else."
"How is that possible?" his friends asked.
And Mr. Balaban gave them this riddle:
"In Samarkand, the authorities once caught two thieves who had stolen a goose. Timur Lenk locked them up in two different jail cells, so that they could not make contact with each other. Then he went to the first one and said, ‘Listen, you two stole a goose. For that you’ll get twenty blows with a cane. It is not pleasant, but you will survive it. But I know for sure that you didn’t just steal this goose but also two golden goblets from my palace. For that I could have you executed. That would have only one drawback for me: I wouldn’t get my golden goblets back that way. I could torture you to get the confession, but I’ve thought of something else. Pay close attention: if you confess to the theft of the goblets and tell me where you hid them, then I’ll only have your accomplice executed, but I’ll let you go. It’s true that I’ll give him the same possibility. If he confesses and you don’t, then I’ll let him go, and you’ll be executed. Of course, it’s possible you’ll both confess. In that case, I couldn’t let either one of you go free, of course. But I would show mercy and only have your right hands cut off.’
‘And if neither one of us confesses?’ asked the prisoner, who, by the way, really had stolen the goblets with his companion.
‘Well,’ said Timur, ‘then you would just get the twenty blows with a cane for the stolen goose.’
"What," Mr. Balaban asked his friends, "should the prisoner do, in your opinion?"
"And they couldn’t communicate with each other?"
"No," said Mr. Balaban, "Timur made sure that they couldn’t communicate with each other in any way."
"He should keep his mouth shut and rely on his partner to say nothing either," said one of them.
"How can he rely on that?" said another one. "He must know that his partner will surely confess."
"How is that?"
"Because it is much better for the partner if he confesses. Listen. Let’s call them Ahmed and Bulent. Now, if Ahmed confesses, it’s better for Bulent to confess too, because otherwise he’ll be executed. If Ahmed doesn’t confess, it’s also better for Bulent to confess because then he’ll be set free. So Ahmed knows that Bulent will confess. So Ahmed will confess too, or he’ll be executed. But if Bulent for some reason decides not to confess, all the better for Ahmed because then he’ll be set free."
"Yes, but the result is that they both get their hands cut off when they could have both gotten off with twenty blows with a cane."
So they kept debating this riddle for hours, but they couldn’t reach any other conclusion.
"And this is what I waned to show you," said Mr. Balaban. "By looking after their own self-interests, they made it tougher on both of them."
"But what should they have done, in your opinion?"
"They should have talked to each other and promised each other to be silent," said Mr. Balaban.
"But you said they couldn’t talk to each other!"
"They should have bribed a guard to carry letters or messages back and forth. They should have tied a note to a mouse’s tail, for all I know, or let a trained parrot fly from cell to cell. They should have tried everything they could think of in order to communicate with each other, because if humans can’t manage to communicate, then people will never be able to further their own interests without making life harder for everyone - including themselves
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