Wednesday, February 03, 2010

Cheating and Dumping

A couple good ethical and political questions. Anonymous (if that is your real name) asks,

"Is using cheat codes when playing a video game cheating?"
Clearly, the person is intentionally violating the spirit of the game in order to gain an unearned advantage. but is that cheating? There seems to be two angles here that need considering.

First is whether one can cheat when there is no one who is cheated. Games are subject to social contracts that can be changed at will by the players. When Gwydion and I would play racquetball in grad school, for example, the rules would change by the point. Was it still racquetball or something more akin to Calvinball? A semantic question, but it wasn't cheating as long as we both agreed to the change and played accordingly. Can you, then, cheat at solitaire? You can certainly violate the rules as standard play is understood. But since it is your game and yours alone, you are able to change the rules at will. Maybe the game you won isn't solitaire, but another easier solitaire-like game and you would certainly be guilty of lying if you said you had won without informing your listener of the illegal move/rule change. In the same way, you wouldn't have won the video game or achieved some degree of mastery even though you are in a place in the game that ordinarily requires such mastery. Is that cheating? Probably not, but it would be dishonest to claim that you legitimately reached that level.

The second interesting point is that it is a part of the code, a part of the game itself. Now if you are competing against the game and the game gives you this move, is it wrong to exploit its weakness? If you are playing chess and your opponent goofs and makes a stupid move, you are well within acceptable play to take advantage of it. Trick plays like the flea flicker in football are within the rules and so admissible. Isn't this just a clever use of the rules of the game which are coded into it? In a sense it is. but what it does is undermine the point of playing a game. Games are strange in that we simultaneously set out a goal for ourselves and cut off the easiest routes to that goal. the point of a game is to see if you can meet a challenge. Exploiting a cheat code may not be cheating, but it also isn't playing.

Brock asks,
"Under what circumstances is it morally acceptable to default on a debt? Specifically, they were discussing walking away from underwater mortgages, leaving the bank stuck with the property; but I'd be interested in a more general answer."
I've been thinking about posting on this question for a while, so I'm glad you asked it. An underwater mortgage is one in which the amount owed on the property is greater than the value of the property. With exploding adjustable rate mortgages that many consumers were tlaked into, not fully understanding what was happening, many people are left with the decision to overpay for a house or simply let the bank have it. I've heard a number of those stories on NPR also and it is amazing that those who stay couch it in explicitly moral terms -- I agreed to this mortgage and it would be wrong for me to abandon it. it is morally necessary to pay off your debts, even if it means that you no longer have the wealth needed to flourish in this culture. But is it a moral question? does a debt obligation imply a moral obligation?

One the one hand, it is interesting that this same question isn't asked of the lenders who lured people into these deals, many of whom certainly did not understand the intricate details. These contracts are incredibly complex and anyone without a financial and/or legal background will have a hard time making sense of them. Additionally, they believed -- because they were led to -- that those who sold them these mortgages were their advocates, were looking out for their interests, not that they were adversaries in a marketplace negotiation. Many of these people were manipulated for the profit of the lender or broker. Does this obviate the obligation they incur, if they were led into the deal in a way that violates the good faith they presumed was on the other side? I think a case could be made.

But the more basic question is whether it is a moral question at all. We have an odd obsession in this culture with "quitters being losers," but isn't discretion sometimes truly the better part of valor? When you signed on the bottom line, you entered into a deal, the line goes, and it is akin to lying if you don't follow through. But it was not a personal agreement, it was a contractual one. You set up an ongoing series of potential contracts. If you make all the payments, the bank will give you the house. If you do not make the payments, the bank gets the house and gets to keep your money. Don't you maintain the power to decide every time a payment is due whether you want to continue this business arrangement? If you can't make the payment, then you have no choice, but in a sense isn't it like a lease to own arrangement where you could discontinue the lease at any time for any reason or, if you chose, you could see it through? It seems to me that this line confuses the agreement I make with a friend to keep a secret or pick him up at his house at 8 with a financial agreement with a bank. these seem different in that the personal does come with moral attachments where the latter does not.

There is a moral consideration, though, and that is to the community. The abandoned houses have a horrible effect on the neighborhood in many ways. How much of an obligation do I have to my neighbors? That's an interesting question and it would be the one place where moral considerations come into play.