Trust, Betrayal, and the Nexus of Mathematics and Morality: The Prisoner’s Dilemma Animated

“Real generosity toward the future lies in giving all to the present,” Albert Camus wrote as he considered what it really means to be in solidarity with justice — an elegantly phrased reminder that the decisions we make today are the only fulcrum by which we move the outcomes of tomorrow. And yet the greatest pitfall of human consciousness might be our habitual forgetting of this fundamental fact.

In 1950, two mathematicians working on game theory devised a cruelly brilliant thought experiment demonstrating just how poorly we manage to calibrate future outcomes for our own best interests, exposing a secret underground of consciousness where mathematics and morality converge. Known as The Prisoner’s Dilemma, it illuminates the complex dynamics that govern loyalty, betrayal, collaboration, and trust — dynamics that play out in myriad subtle ways across our everyday lives.

The classic thought experiment comes alive with unexpected delight in this animated short film from TED-Ed by economist Lucas Husted and animators Ivana Bošnjak and Thomas Johnson Volda:

Complement with philosopher Martha Nussbaum on the emotional machinery of trust and the only fruitful response to betrayal, then revisit other animated adaptations of classic thought experiments: The Ship of Theseus (exploring what makes you you), Plato’s Cave (exploring the central mystery of consciousness), Boltzmann’s Brain Paradox (exploring whether reality is a hallucination), The Infinite Hotel Paradox (exploring the mind-bending nature of infinity), and Mary’s Room (exploring the limits of knowledge).