On the Lady of Carlisle


Ethics, Love and the Prisoner’s Dilemma

lady & knightThe ballad Lady of Carlisle tells a simple story: In olden times there lived young, good-looking, well-born, rich and smart young woman. Naturally she had many suitors, but she was, the ballad informs us, ‘determined to live a lady’ unless a suitor could prove himself ‘a man of honour and highest degree’. On a certain day, surrounded by her admirers, she rides to ‘the lion’s den’ a ride of some hours, where she is so terrified by the sight of the caged beasts that she faints away. She lies unconscious for  half an hour, and when she comes to, throws her fan into the pit where the lions are, and asks of her suitors who will retrieve it. The one to do so will win her hand. There is silence from most, but the first to speak is ‘a bold  lieutenant’, who says: “Though I am a lover of women, yet I will not die for love.” The next to speak (though in some versions more  suitors first refuse) is ‘A brave Sea-Captain’ who tells her: ‘I will retrieve your fan or die.’ He enters the den, the lions rush, he grabs the fan and nips out just in time; or he enters the den, where the Lion King turns out to be the very same one from whose paw the Captain had pulled a thorn. They embrace and the Captain exits with the fan. The lady takes the captain for her man, he gets her estate, and they all live ever after.

What can we unpick from this simple but symbol-laden tale?

Well, first of all, it has the classic short-narrative structure – a scene and characters are introduced, a tension is introduced, and a resolution which causes a permanent change in the main characters has been wrought in a few simple verses.

The atmosphere of symbology and mythical thinking from which this song emerges, however, asks us to reflect deeper, and because this short narrative has a very layered set of meanings,  I am going to use it to take us all the way to Jail, where we shall face the Prisoner’s Dilemma, and beyond, into the dens of vampire bats, the human unconscious and the region of ethics.

What is going on at the lion’s den? On the surface there is Courtship, a young woman surrounded by her suitors, who are vying to take her as their mate, have sex with her, father her children, take over her dowries and properties and live the good life. The prize is great and its disposition is in her hands, it seems. The penalty, of being devoured by lions, is also great, but its risk is the price of determining honour.

What the lady has done is impose on her suitors a dilemma – a situation where there are two or more options but the choices are not always obvious.

The classic dilemma at the heart of game theory is called The Prisoner’s Dilemma, and this dilemma and its implications are an entire field of study, so I can give you no more than a taste of it here. Simply put, the prisoner’s dilemma is this:

Two prisoners are in the hands of the police. Each prisoner knows something of the other’s crime, and each has one of the following options: He can give evidence against the other, thus getting a reduction in his own sentence (defect) or he can remain silent (cooperate). The dilemma arises because if neither defects on the other the police can convict them only on a lesser charge. Both together would be better off if they stayed silent, but each is individually better off if he defects.

dilemmaThink of it as a simple mathematical game that you play together for points.

  • If you both cooperate by staying silent you each get three points (the reward.)
  • If you both defect, you each get one. (the punishment.)
  • If one defects and the other cooperates, the cooperator gets none (the sucker’s pay-off) and the defector gets five (the temptation.)

temptation(5) > reward(3) > punishment(1) > sucker’s payoff(0)

So, individually, you are better off defecting whatever the other does. The logic goes like this: If you cooperate, you lay yourself open to the possibility of the opponent’s defection. You might get the three points, but run the risk of getting none at all. Better to defect, where you might get the five points if the sucker cooperates, but will at least get one. But since the opponent argues the same way, the certain outcome is that both will defect, and only get one point when they could each have had three.

Generally speaking, a situation in which you are tempted to do something but know it would be a great mistake if everyone did so, is a prisoner’s dilemma. Any situation where collective and individual interests are in conflict has elements of the prisoner’s dilemma. Formally, wherever the temptation is greater than the reward, which is greater than the punishment, which is greater than the sucker’s pay-off.

For a while, game theorists were stuck with the dilemma. It seemed to prove that defection is logically the best thing to do. This upset people for thirty years or so until in the late ‘70’s people started pitting computer programmes against each other in successive bouts of Prisoner’s Dilemma. A political scientist called Robert Axelrod set up a tournament where people submitted computer programs to play 200 successive games against each other and against themselves. At the end they looked at the accumulated scores – and were surprised to discover that ‘nice’ programmes (programmes more likely to initiate cooperation) had outdone ‘nasty’ programmes, and that the simplest, a ‘nice’ programme called ‘tit-for-tat’ had won overall. Tit-for-tat’s premise was simple – start off cooperating, then do whatever the other guy did last. If he’s nice to you, cooperate. If he’s nasty, punish him by defecting, but welcome him back if he’s nice again with a cooperative response.

What these tournaments established was that, far from endorsing selfishness, the Prisoner’s Dilemma shows that cooperation is the logical thing to do.

The Dilemma lies at the heart of narrative fiction, because the mediation between characters, and thus choices between self and other, between cooperation and defection, are what gives stories their meat. This tension between selfhood’s rational shell and the possibility of knowing and cooperating with the other lies at the heart of human relations, and the examination of different resolutions is the business of fiction.

vampire batThe vampire bats of Costa Rica spend the day in hollow trees in the dwindling rain-forests, and at night go out to hunt. They occupy a dodgy niche – they must find a sleeping mammal, puncture its veins without waking it, and drink its fill. They are unsuccessful between 10% and 30% of the time, and return hungry. After as little as two and a half days without a blood meal, the bat is in danger of starving to death. Any vague knowledge of statistics or life will confirm that sooner or later the bat will have a run of bad luck and starve. Fortunately for the bats, they have two special attributes—big brains and big bellies. The big bellies mean that they can take in more than they can digest. The big brains mean that they are able to live socially and to share their excess blood with others who were not as lucky by regurgitating it. Now, this presents each bat with the Prisoner’s Dilemma – he could defect by accepting food without offering any in return. What prevents him from doing this?

What indeed? Having big brains, they are able to recognise each other, and form complex patterns of relationship. They spend a lot of time preening each other. They fuss and fossick, paying especially close attention to the stomach area, which receives more preening that any other part. This means that a Vampire bat has a pretty good idea of who’s fed, who’s shared and who hasn’t. The bats do not always give indiscriminately of their excess—the blood is granted in a complex and shifting network of relationships. It appears that the bats regulate their relations with regard to blood donation by playing a form of tit-for-tat— “A bat that has donated blood in the past will receive blood from the previous donee; a bat that has refused blood will be refused blood in turn…. The principle required for tit-for-tat to work is a stable, repetitive relationship. The more casual and opportunistic the encounters between a pair of individuals, the less likely that tit-for-tat will succeed in building cooperation.”

A survey of the anthropological and paleological evidence suggests that we, too, are a cooperative species, and that this capacity is evolved. It is in our nature to offer cooperation and expect reciprocity. But this capacity is limited, perhaps to groups of about 150 people. Beyond that number the chances of opportunistic encounter increase. The proposed solution is that groups of groups then become the mediating entities. Only humans and some cetaceans have the capacity to form super-groups, or cooperative groupings of existing groups.

But let’s return to the Lion’s Den. The dilemma of the fan is not exactly the prisoner’s dilemma—it is played once only, and, though it is played by two people, they do not play as equals, as in the classic Prisoner’s Dilemma.

The material risks and rewards for the Lady’s suitors are obvious, and have been discussed. But what of the other player? The Lady also faces a risk in setting her task—that the task will prove so unattractive that none will accept the challenge, or that the challenge itself will prove so dangerous that none will survive it. Loss for her means that she will remain unwed, and, in that genetically worst possible scenario, she will not pass her genes on. But symbolically, her risk is greater than this: she risks losing her mind and her integrity itself, being incapacitated by her fear, both of the inner and of the outer Wilderness.

Now let’s look a bit closer at the dilemma of the fan, because, I believe, it sheds light on the central problem of our times: the problem of the ‘other’.

fanWhat is the fan? In Cirlot’s Dictionary of Symbols, we are told that with its ability to wax and wane, it is associated with the moon, with femininity, the emotions, and that in its airy qualities it is associated with the element Air, and with the mind. Like the moon, it stands for integrity, or continuity-in-change. It’s open, it’s closed, but it’s still a fan.

Hindu Samkya philosophy distinguishes four mental ‘elements’: Chitta, consciousness, Buddhi, awareness or awakeness, Ahamkara, ‘I am-ness’, the feeling of personhood, and Manas, the personal mind, the integrity—anima, or soul, is derived from this word and it is the root of both the words ‘mind’ and ‘moon’.

The fan, let us say, is the lady’s Manas. But what is the Lion’s Den, wherein it lies? Again a glance at Cirlot is helpful, and I shall now admit to doing what all scholars must do. I will follow only a limited thread, the one which suits my argument, rather than entering into the enormous and very complex den of Lion symbolism and signification.

lion“The Lion corresponds […] to the subterranean sun” (= unconscious energy or libido) Cirlot tells us. He goes on to say that “For Jung, the lion, in its wild nature, is broadly speaking an index of latent passions; it may also take the form of a sign indicating the danger of being devoured by the unconscious.”

The Lion’s Den, where caged lions reside, is then the Lady’s unconscious, the site of repression, and in it, captive, is the Lady’s fan, her Manas/integrity. It is of course significant that the fan dropping into the lion’s den is concurrent with her becoming unconscious.

She has to come around, of course, if only to set her challenge. And what are the responses?

The first is from the Lieutenant. Who is this man? He is a leader of soldiers, men in battle, and, thus, necessarily a strategist. He adds up the odds and quickly works out that it is better to defect. Revealingly, he describes himself as a ‘lover of women,’ thus necessarily unfaithful, and declares that he ‘will not die for love.’ His response uses the word ‘love’ in a different way from what the Lady seeks: His love is sexual, selfish and unfaithful, and he will not die for it.

The Captain’s response is the opposite. The Brave Sea Captain is the master of the lunar ocean, its dark tides, its wild storms. The ocean, Cirlot tells us, is, is not only the source of life, but also its goal—to return to the ocean is to return to the mother and thus to die. The ocean is also associated with Venus, with Mary (mare) whose colour is blue. Who could be better equipped than this man to delve into the unconscious, to return her integrity?

Proving that he is a ‘man of honour’, the captain states that he ‘will return [the] fan or die.”

And here we have the crux of the entire transaction: Without honour to govern human affairs, we are stuck with the lieutenant’s response, the Game Theorists’ original response to the prisoner’s dilemma: defect, it’s every man for himself!

What then is honour? Honour is the ability to place the needs of an other, individual or communal, before the needs of the self. It implies the ability to empathetically project oneself into another’s situation, by an act of the sympathetic imagination. The Sea Captain’s honour goes further: he is prepared to enter the wild unconscious for the sake of love. He is prepared to understand the danger of her passion, the irrationality of her emotions, the changeability of her sensibilities. And by his love he will return her integrity and continuity to her. And he will do this before considering his own needs. In terms of game theory, honour is the smart response, because honour is reciprocated by honour.

Sadly, the world has become so complex that our instinctual capacity for cooperation, evolved to make a success of humans living in smallish groups, no longer really works. We are not vampire bats. The system Global Capital which dominates the planet and brings its products and effluents to everywhere, is not structured on lines of reciprocity and honour—it is structured around defection and short-term gain. In the process, living systems and cultures are being destroyed, and the ecological balance which sustains our existence is threatened.

In essence, on a global scale we are playing prisoner’s dilemma serially against ourselves. The Global System has been highly successful for the successful, but not so great for the rest of us. We each spend our lives playing versions of the Prisoner’s Dilemma and wrestling with the knot of the ‘other’. Our choices are complex but simple: cooperate or defect, but they do not seem simple, and there are enormous pressures from the Global System, via the media, opinion, politics and commerce, to opt for defection and short-term gain.

The world during this century will not be ‘more of the same’—either something exceptional will happen or it is going to fall apart, in a fairly spectacular way, over the next thirty or so years. The chaos engendered by the crisis of growth will bite earlier in the South, where we live. It is not all hopeless, but we will only have one way out: we will have to learn to go beyond short-term gain to create a cooperative world. We will have to embrace with genuine understanding the ‘other’, by means of sympathetic imagination, warts and all. If we are to emerge from the Lion’s den with the fan of our integrity intact, we will have to learn to act with honour, not to defect. This applies equally to our personal relations, our social ones and our ecological ones.

The creation of fictional characters, if pursued with some rigour and conviction, is a model for the use of the sympathetic imagination. The more detail we use to construct our model of the ‘other’, the more success we are likely to have both in creating fiction and in negotiating our way in a world filled with billions of others. The more fearless we are in embracing what is beyond the compass of our known selves, the bigger the payoff. For we must not forget that the known self is but a tiny fraction of our personal being—our own unconscious inner nature is also ‘other’ and needs to be entered fearlessly if we are to emerge with an integrated selfhood. The method for integrating ourselves is thus, at heart, the same as what we can use for comprehending others.

I am inviting you to risk death for love and honour. It is not the easy choice. It is not, on the surface, the rational choice. But, as mathematics, the wisdom of the heart, and the wisdom of the old ballad show, it is probably the right choice as well as the winner’s choice.

Here is a version of the ballad. An internet search will reveal many different versions, as well as performances.

Lady Of Carlisle

Down in Carlisle there lived a lady,
Being most beautiful and gay;
She was determined to live a lady,
No man on earth could her betray.

Unless it were a man of honour,
A man of honour and high degree;
And then came running two loving soldiers,
This fair lady for to see.

The first one was a brave lieutenant,
A brave lieutenant and a man of war;
The other was a brave sea captain,
Captain of the ship that come from far.

Then up spoke this fair young lady,
Saying “I can’t be but one man’s bride
But if you’ll come back tomorrow morning,
On this case we will decide. ”

She ordered her a span of horses,
A span of horses at her command;
And down the road these three did travel
Till they come to the lions’ den.

There she stopped and there she halted
These two soldiers stood gazing down;
And for the space of half an hour,
This lady lay speechless on the ground.

And then when she did recover,
she threw her fan in the lion’s den
Saying, “Which of you to gain a lady
Will return her fan again?”

Then up spoke the brave lieutenant,
He raised his voice both loud and clear,
Saying, “Though I am a lover of women,
Yet I will not die for love.”

Then up spoke this brave sea captain,
He raised his voice both loud and high,
Saying, “As I am a lover of women,
I will return your fan or die. ”

Down in the lions’ den, he entered,
The lions being both wild and fierce;
He marched around and in among them,
Safely returned her fan again.

And when she saw her true love coming
Seeing no harm had been done to him,
She threw herself against his bosom
Saying, “Here is the prize that you have won!”


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