The Solution to the Kavka Puzzle and the Honor Sys

Written By: Timothy Fish Published: 2/8/2007

In 1983, Gregory S. Kavka proposed that given a situation where a person would receive an award for intending to drink a non-fatal, but sickening, toxin at a future date, the knowledge that it would not be necessary to actually drink the toxin in order to receive the reward would prevent someone from truly intending to drink the toxin. Some people have compared this situation to that of the honor system in which people are to act in a certain way, such as paying some amount for coffee, or limiting consumption of free donuts, but there is no enforcement of the required action. The solution to Kavkaís puzzle and the successful implementation of the honor system are similar, but there are some differences as well.

The Solution to Kavkaís Puzzle

Suppose I were to offer you a million dollars if you intend to drink the toxin tomorrow. You would not intend to drink the toxin if there was not a reward associated with it. Both of us know that once you have received the reward there is no more reason to drink the toxin. It isnít even a matter of honor for you to drink it. It is logical to conclude that with no reason to drink the toxin you will not drink it, so reaching a point where you intend to drink it may seem impossible. There would seem to be no solution, but there is one.

The solution to Kavkaís problem is simply this, you must resolve to drink the toxin, no matter what. In other words, you must drink the toxin. As long as the reason for drinking the toxin is not influenced by whether or not you have the reward then you can truly intend to drink the toxin. The reward then becomes the incentive for doing something that you donít have to do rather than for simply drinking the toxin.

The Honor System

I once went to a training class. The organization had not paid for coffee to be provided, so at the back of the room was a couple of coffee carafes and a handwritten sign that stated the price per cup. There was no one to collect the money. There was no one to keep track of who had taken a cup and who had not. There was no one to watch the money to make sure that someone didnít walk away with it. In spite of all of that, the people in the class willingly paid the amount that was asked.

There are other instances where the honor system is used. Driving down the road you might see a farmer selling watermelons using the honor system. Shareware is an example of the honor system. An author might put several copies of his book on a table with a sign stating price and expect people to pay for the book rather than just walk off with a copy. Non-profit organizations are often funded in part or in whole with donations. This too is something of an honor system. Sometimes the honor system works and sometimes it doesnít, but the fact remains that there are people who give even though no one is watching.

The honor system works for the same reason that people walk into a store, pick up an item and carry it to the checkout line rather than simply walking out the door. It works because people want to do the right thing. Most people donít want to cheat someone out of what is rightfully theirís. Some people have some wrong ideas about what is right and some people are just flat out dishonest. These people make it hard on the honor system, but even though we all like a good deal and are temped by the idea of something for nothing, we mostly want to be fair in our dealings with other people. We want to be fair even if that desire is because we donít like the guilty feeling we have when we are not.

Sometimes the honor system works because society enforces it. In the training class, the other class members helped to encourage others to abide by the honor system. In church, it is expected that everyone will do their part. Can a church do much to formally enforce it? No, but people still realize that they are expected to give financially and with their time.

One place where society has little control, is the internet, but I think the honor system has an opportunity to work here as well. If I password protect and area of my site and tell people that they must meet certain requirements or pay some amount of money to be given permission to enter, some people might take that as an invitation to try to find another way in. It becomes like a game. It my password protection works then I win, but if it doesnít then the other person wins. But suppose I donít password protect the site. What if I make a file available on the site and tell people that if they find it useful they should pay me $5. Now it is no longer a game. The unscrupulous will have free access to the file just like everyone else. They wonít pay me, but they probably wouldnít anyway. As for the people who are less despicable, given a chance they might use the file without paying as well, but there would be those who would be honest and do the right thing.

Some people are honest only when they fear discovery, but others are truly honest. Even in the privacy of their own home with the anonymity of the internet to protect them, some people will do the right thing. It isnít that they have anything that will force them to do the right thing. It is enough for these people that they would know that they didnít do the right thing. Because of this, we can expect that, in some situations, the honor system will work on the internet.