Warning, this is a long ethical discussion that has nothing to do with Steampunk :) so you may want to skip today’s post if you’re not in the mood.
The Red/Black Game
Divide the room into 2 teams, team “A” and team “B”
Announce clearly and precisely that the object of the game is to accumulate the maximum number of positive points.
The game is played in a series of rounds. In each round, both teams must decide whether to play Red or Black. They can decide in any manner they want but the decision must be unanimous.
Scoring is as follows:
- If team A plays black, and team B plays black, both teams get one point.
- If team A plays black, and team B plays red, team A loses a point and team B gains a point.
- The reverse is also true: if team A plays red to B’s black, then A gains a point and B loses one.
- If both teams play red, both teams lose a point.
So as it turns out, there are only two possible choices each turn.
- You can play black and hope the other team plays black, too. The result each turn is either both teams get a point, or you lose one and the other team gets one.
- You can play red. When you play red, you either gain a point and the other team loses one, or you both lose a point, so neither side gains.
Every time I run this exercise—and I have been running it for over ten years—one of two results occurs. Either both teams play red from the beginning, or they both start black and one of them plays red two or three turns into it, and both sides play red from then on. I have never seen this game played out when either side ended with a positive total.
Of course, if you go back to the beginning, the object was to accumulate the maximum number of positive points. It was never stated that it was a competition between the two teams. By seeing it that way, they both ended up in the negative.
Every day we face this decision, in our interactions with other people. We live our life the way we play the Red/Black game. Some people bully the rest of the team into playing red. Others want to play black but keep quiet in the interest of not rocking the boat. Others determine that they will only play black with those who play black first.
Game theorists have studied this extensively (in another form known as the Prisoner’s Dilemma). They have determined that for a person to act in their own best interests, they must play “tit for tat”—play black until someone double crosses you, then play red until they have demonstrated they are willing to play black again. And isn’t that how we play it in real life?
The lesson the spiritual and the mystics try to teach is, play black—all black, all the time. Turn the other cheek. Love your neighbor. Do unto others as you would have done unto you. Pay it forward. It’s the same message, with religious dogma sprinkled on it, different flavors depending on who raised you.
So we tend to see the world in terms of black and white, good and evil. We’ve seen the Red/Black game models life, but there are three, not two, distinct patterns of behavior represented here:
The first, which I like to call “Good”, is to play black all the time in an altruistic effort to bring everyone eventually up to that level, and constantly increase the total amount of available points, so that everyone benefits as a group. That process is frequently called “Enlightenment.”
The second, which I call “Evil”, games the system to maximize self-interest by either playing red all the time, or playing black until the opportune moment to switch to red. Evil sees points as a scarce commodity and wants to make sure to “win” or gain at the very least their “fair share.”
The third behavior, “Neutral”, is the tit for tat group. Neutrals realize that neither black or red alone are winning strategies. Black get taken advantage of, and red eventually gets persecuted. So they play black as long as it works, and shift into red whenever it is necessary to maintain their game.
It’s my belief that the vast majority of people in the world are playing Neutral and spend a great deal of time convincing ourselves they are Good to avoid having to make the sacrifices that real Good players make. We place people like Mother Teresa on a pedestal and rationalize that they are a one in a million person who could live up to an impossible standard.
People often vilify organized religion, pointing out that with all these churches, synagogues, mosques and temples, the world doesn’t seem to be any more “good” than it was 2,000 years ago. The problem isn’t organized religion, it’s the people who join. I know Christians who have dedicated their lives to helping aids-stricken people in the gay and lesbian communities, and I know other Christians who have dedicated their lives to persecuting those same people. Not all Muslims are suicide bombers. And I know lots of wonderfully spiritual people who won’t step foot into a church.
What I believe happens is that we have a root belief structure, and it’s one of the three mentioned above: Good, Evil or Neutral. When we join a religion or a group, we look for one that is compatible with our root beliefs. And religions tend to have such complicated scriptural and dogmatic systems that it is possible to justify nearly any position by highlighting the verses you like and ignoring the ones you don’t.
The most common example is Colossians 3:18-19 from the Bible.
Wives, submit to your husbands, as is fitting in the Lord.
Married men love to throw that one around. But it’s funny how they seem to miss the very next line:
Husbands, love your wives and do not be harsh with them.
At the end of it all, what really matters is the root belief structure. As long as we look at things like race, creed, religion, political party or sexual orientation as a person’s “label”, and let them mask the more important realities, we will never develop the trust and cooperation to move as a society from Neutral to Good.