The Damon & Pythias Paradox

The ancient story goes like this: Damon and Pythias are good friends. Pythias is sentenced to death. Damon volunteers to stand in his place while Pythias goes off to say goodbye to his family. Damon is about to be executed when Pythias returns to honor his promise. The king is so impressed that he frees both of them. The story is used as an illustration of the moral virtue of friendship. People are willing to give up their lives for a friend and friends are to be trusted even if it means they are putting their own lives in danger. Rather than search for moral meaning, however, let us look at the structural situation of the two friends in the story, what is implied about being a voluntary hostage, and what that says, if generalized, about a structural feature of social life that is ubiquitous, to wit, that people are always incrementally putting themselves into more and more threatening situations because to do so is part and parcel of taking on any number of personal and organizational roles, such as being a soldier or a doctor or even just a friend.

The concerns of the hostage change as soon as he becomes a hostage. He is no longer primarily concerned with the generosity that overtook him when he made the offer to take the place of the person now released. He is primarily taken over by the spirit of anxiety that comes from wondering whether the released person will return and so spare him from death. Will his friend keep his word or, confronted with liberty, now hold that so dear that he is not willing to give that up, not even for the friend who has taken his place because of the word he gave that he would be back? This change of sentiment would occur with anyone except a figure so caught up in the legend, treated as a person of legend, that there would be no concern or shift of moods about the way things would work out. So the hostage counts down the time, looks for clues of the released man’s return, contemplates just how deep are the bonds of their friendship or of any friendship. It would be agonizing. It is like Hobbes’ man approaching the gallows. How close does he have to come before he realizes that there will be no royal pardon to rescue him and so will take his life into his hands and decide to make a run for it, prior commitments of loyalty to the social contract be hanged? Or it is like Isaac brought by his father to the sacrificial altar? It is mentioned in the Bible that Isaac inquired as to why there was no animal accompanying them, to which his father had replied “God will provide”.  What about when Abraham takes out the knife? Or tells Isaac to lie his head down on the altar? When can he rebel? Maybe the answer is “never” because he is bound to do what his father instructs even if it means his death, which is precisely what Kierkegaard enjoins Abraham to do, there being no going back from the commitment of faith. But the hostage need not feel serene about what is about to happen to him, and the anxiety builds as one measure after another of still secured time passes by, the story making it clear that the hostage is rescued only at the very last possible moment, when all hope would have been past.

The paradox here is that the hostage becomes more uncertain about his rescue the closer he comes to not being rescued, and so the failure of his deal, of his friendship, of his trust in friendship, just when he will have to redeem what is now a failed friendship with his life. So the ultimate act takes place as the premise on which it takes place proves or has proven itself to be empty. How can people accommodate themselves to the inevitable with even a partly good heart when their fates are now the sign that their trust had been misplaced. Would he try to escape on the grounds that he was now free to? Would he meet his fate with courage because his faith had been pure even if it had been misplaced?

Actually, people do both. A relative of mine did not give up on the belief that the inmates were simply going to be deloused and washed until he could smell the fumes of the now nearby gas chamber. He then made a run for it, his chances of escape very remote given the proximity of all those armed guards, but somehow he did pull it off and lived to tell me about it. But people also screw up their courage to face what is now inevitable. Indeed, that is what the rest of the men on the line with my relative did, perhaps still deluding themselves that things were not as bad as they seemed, or accepting the idea that they had given up, were now just passive before circumstances, which is how Primo Levi describes it, “musselmen” or Muslims in their posture of surrender to whatever fate had in store for them as they wandered about the camp days or weeks before they died.

When will people do one or the other, and in what proportions? The answer, as we have it from other only slightly less fraught situations, is that the overwhelming majority of people will cooperate in their fates, will go through with their initial pledge rather than try, at this late date, to dispute it, and that social order, as we understand that to mean the routine maintenance of the ordained procedures of life, will continue even under most stressful conditions, and may be the only thing needed to maintain social order. No need for norms or customs or positive law, only for the human disposition to go through with pledges once made because as confidence grows more bleak of a rescue, the conditions for doing something about it becoming increasingly adverse. Only some people in a poor neighborhood will become drug dealers even if it is a well paid but short career if there is a way to get out of it early on by finding a mentor or an educational program or a job. Only very few become permanently indentured into a life of crime, though a lot may become gang members because that requires less commitment and is not, except for the unfortunate few, a life sentence. Most people emerge on the other side of their youthful gang membership even if some do not.

A good case in point of the friendship paradox emerges from a reconsideration of a classic sociological text. Robert Merton and his associates did studies of the American soldier during World War II. Merton found that what made soldiers compliant with their orders was not what had been thought would be the case. The size of a soldier’s monthly pay check made no difference, though perhaps in earlier wars in Europe poor rations and irregular pay may have led to soldier unrest. What Merton found of interest was that the soldiers who felt best about their situation were the MP’s who operated to enforce order in the occupied zones behind the battlefield. Merton took soldiers to judge themselves deprived only relatively in relation to other soldiers rather than on some absolute standard of deprivation. Soldiers back home were worse off than civilians and clearly better off than front line soldiers. Soldiers in transit were better off than front line soldiers and but did not think themselves of in that way because they were worse off in the sense of danger to those back home or who were not soldiers, excepting those who were pleased to be making a contribution to the defense of their country, and may even have enlisted for that purpose. MP’s, for their part, were close enough to the front lines to make that their point of comparison and so thought themselves well off because they no longer compared themselves to the civilians back home. So what we have is an iterative process. As you make your way from one category of soldier to the next, you change your reference point to the category immediately ahead of you, and so count yourself fortunate or not on those grounds.

It is also the case that the closer you get to battle the less you can do about it. Potential draftees in the Vietnam War could go to Canada or else they could hope they would be assigned to Europe, but once they were assigned to Vietnam there was very little way out short of the disgrace of desertion and once on the front lines there are troops assigned to the task of making sure troops do not run away. So a World War II soldier is lucky to have pulled MP duty when he might have been sent to the front lines and those earlier on in the iterative set of roles that make up serving one’s time in the military may think there are so many off-ramps, so many ways to have a good war, which is what happened to Richard Nixon, who wound up a supply officer in a no longer embattled island in the Pacific, that it is best to contemplate those possibilities rather than the most stark and deadly options.

Merton’s analysis applies to Damon and Pythias and all similar situations. It seems like the hostage situation does not change during the course of his confinement. But that is not the case. As the time draws close to his execution his mood may change because the signs of his condition change, his execution no longer twenty-four hours away, but twelve, and then two and then one. Preparations may have begun at the execution site outside his window. He may have had a visit from a priest or a last meal. And so he yearns for the time when his confinement had just begun and savors the time left to him, like a terminal cancer patient who says that she is now free to savor every day because she has so few of them left. The time of hoping that a standard treatment will work or that a new experimental one will be offered is over; what is left is the decline towards death, the only question how comfortable that will be, and the relative advantage that comes from knowing that there are powerful painkillers for the type of cancer which afflicts her but that are not available for other kinds of cancer. And the closer his time is, the hostage feels fortunate that he can surrender himself to his fate, knowing he has carried out his obligation, rather than ranting about a friend who may have betrayed him or will arrive too late for it to make any difference.

Actually, this theory of iterative relative deprivation applies to any number of occupations and not just to life threatening conditions. A medical student begins out being supervised in his interaction with patients. He has people to turn to for advice and if things go wrong. He goes on to greater levels of responsibility where it is up to him to give advice to juniors about how to handle now much harder situations in that if something goes wrong it is his fault in that he had enough confidence not to have consulted some eminent and not always available figure at the hospital and things still went sour. And, inevitably, he will confront situations where no one would know what to do or when he does not know anyone who might know what to do or makes a simple mistake or misjudgement and a patient dies. Doctors I know reflect on those moments all the days of their lives, never mind whether there is a malpractice suit to contend with. They are especially attentive and careful with cases of the sort that turned bad. Thankfully, there will be rather few of those, but it is an occupational hazard that one of them might turn up on any given day. Not many are as good spirited as a physician friend of mine who treasured every patient encounter because he always knew, in the last resort, he could do something to make the patient more comfortable. He was always in control. He truly loved his work.

Business is like that too. Most things you can handle, and every once in awhile something comes along, whether a supply problem or a financial issue, or a lawsuit, that has got to be managed. Some people thrive on such moments. Others deal with them as unlikely occurrences to be farmed out to others to handle or as situations that will fade away without intervention. The higher up an executive you are, only the most difficult problems and decisions are turned your way and most of them can be managed without a disaster, though sometimes things don’t work out that way and for those few people, disaster does indeed strike. Jeff Skilling of Enron was basically sent to jail because he had miscalculated and invested a lot of money in buying copper and setting up communication lines for a dot com bubble that burst and so left him to try to use clever financing to cover the losses, his options ever narrowing, until the Feds decided that he had been too clever by half, and so had to be indicted.

And, indeed, many of us go through life thinking of how we avoided the bullet, not knowing if our move to the left or right will put us in the course of another bullet, our options declining as our opponents get us in their range. We think of how fortunate it is to get through the day without pain or financial distress or an all out fight with a loved one, and how others are worse off because they do have pain or less of a sufficient income and less reliable loved ones. Yes, some ambitions were not achieved, but others were partly achieved, and that is the point of comparison that is to be made against the possibilities of the world. At least we are not the hostage waiting for his friend not to come back.