Moral Currency

Recently, I’ve been looking a lot more at game theory, leadership, and how the two relate in the context of videogame criticism, as well as “real life.” In terms of a discussion of ethics, the idea of “moral currency” seems particularly relevant to a discussion of a non-zero-sum n-person game system; in essence, when what you’re “playing” for isn’t a monetary, but a morally coded reward. Ian Bogost, in Persuasive Games(111), suggests that we already consider ourselves as members of a moral game with debits and credits:

In Lakoff’s view, we conceptualize well-being as wealth. Changes to our well-being are thus akin to gains and losses. Lakoff characterizes this metaphorical understanding of morality in terms of financial transactions. Individuals and societies alike have “moral debts” and “moral credits” that must sum to zero. Moral accounting implies the need for reciprocation and retribution; good actions must be rewarded and harmful ones must be punished. That punishment might include restitution, which can in turn take many forms, from contrition to prison. When we speak of criminals who have completed their sentences, we often say that they have “paid their debt to society.” In a moral system of this type, “the moral books must be balanced.”

In terms of game theory, this idea bears further scrutiny. In an ostensibly moral society, we think of ourselves as being fundamentally moral, or “in the moral black,” which – I would argue – affords us the ability to spend our “moral credits” on minor infractions: speeding, taking a pen from work, little white lies, etc. There are some things, however, that are simply too “expensive” – murder, larceny, fraud, etc. – so as to be prohibitive. Except that in a society that values moral currency the same way we do monetary currency, people with more of one somehow are justified in spending more of the other (i.e. our celebrities are able to spend moral currency the same way they do monetary currency… and often do so at the same time). While Bogost suggests that our moral debits and credits are a zero-sum game, that does not seem to be the case. Rather, we expect a certain level of moral positivity – it isn’t enough to be amoral in a society that fundamentally reflects a certain amount of Christian moral ethos. Rather, we need to remain more positive than negative in order to perpetuate an acceptable moral appearance (just as we need to remain financially solvent – in monetary as in moral wealth our desire is to always be positive). It is also the case in morality that – in theory – we need not exchange moral currency in order to gain or lose it: the game is non-zero-sum. While it may also be the case that a universal rise in moral currency would “reset” our perception of morality (just as a universal rise in monetary wealth “resets” the poverty line), nevertheless, the goal is ultimately to continue a universal increase rather than a positive-negative zero-sum balance. The real question is whether that is possible in either sphere.

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