On being civilized

There are times when we call a group of people uncivilized. Most often, this depends on your opinion. Others may have a different opinion and may very well call you uncivilized. For instance, I have been called uncivilized when I do not shave my beard for a few weeks.

But is there any objective way to determine if a group of people are civilized? Can we determine this keeping aside our biases about race, religion or beard length?

A professor of economics once posed this question to his class. (My friend happened to be his student). The following is their take on it, with some of my own embellishments.

The method is quite simple - Game theory! Give the population a game theory problem. Give them an infinite number of iterations to solve it. Once they solve it, they are civilized. Take something like the Prisoner's dilemma. Here, the optimum solution for the prisoners is to cooperate. Given such a problem, would a population come to this optimum solution? How many iterations would it take?

Here's a more concrete example. A group of farmers, all sowing the same crop, has to sow their seeds just before the start of the Monsoons. The ideal date for this, let's say, is from the 1st of June until the 10th of June. Sowing early means that your crop will be ready for harvest sooner. But when your crop is ready, it will be attacked by birds, and the birds can destroy a lot of it. Therefore, if you're the first farmer to sow your seeds, you'll end up losing the most to birds.

As a result, you would want to wait for someone else to sow first, so that you can minimize your loss. However, if no farmer wants to sow first, they will delay, and you'll end up missing the ideal window for sowing. The 10th of June will be gone, and you will face a bigger loss anyway because you couldn't sow at the right time and take advantage of the monsoon.

The optimum state here is for all farmers to cooperate and agree to sow at the same time. This way, no single farmer would have to bear the brunt of the birds. Everyone would be able to sow at the right time.

In a civilized society, you will probably see a structured, governing, cooperative organization to handle matters like these. In an uncivilized society, you will see losses that could have been easily avoided if the farmers cooperated.

I find this model elegant and objective. You can narrow down on a particular problem and determine the civility of the population. It is possible for a society to be civilized in some matters - say farming - but not in others - say caste equality. You may also find that a tribal population is more civilized than your own society.

Another game that I am reminded of, and forced to play often is: driving in traffic. If the majority of the population cooperates, it would be a lot easier to drive in traffic. But if everyone drives like an asshole, then you're forced to drive the same way. How long before we become civilized drivers?