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Article - 'Ethics in RPGs – Part 1' by Faust

An item about Plots/Characters posted on Aug 9, 2003

Blurb

The first part of Faust's article series concerning the ethical attributes behind character's actions and personas in your gaming world.

Body

Now, this may sound like a run of the mill article about “reasons” and “morality” of heroes and villains in games, but no, it isn’t. Instead I’m going to attempt to bring some ethical theory into the gaming world so we can have a broader picture of why characters act the way they do, not on a psychological level, but on a personal philosophical level. I hope this will help you make characters that are a lot deeper than the usual Nihilistic Arch villain, or the Duty-bound hero.

I will be describing a few ethical ways of living in this article, and explaining how they can apply to the denizens of your worlds. This first peace will cover Hedonism, Utilitarianism and Nihilism. Enjoy!

Hedonism

Hedonism is the ethical view that, as human beings, we are entitled to seek absolute pleasure in our lives. Pleasure is the most important goal, and followers of this ethical theory often overindulge themselves in the finer things of life. Actions that increase the sum of pleasure are thereby right, and, conversely, what increases pain is wrong. However, this only applies to the individual itself. An act which guarantees pleasure for said individual, but causes pain that doesn’t affect the individual is therefore a “good” act, in keeping with the theory.

The acquisition of pleasure is the most important thing to the hedonist; they’re willing to sacrifice all else in order to fulfil their pursuit. Obsession is a common factor, as are fear of aging and poverty. Sex can also be a very important part of hedonism, it bringing about the purest form of pleasure available. On the topic of sex, sadism is a hedonistic form of pleasure too, as it involves pleasure at the expense of someone ELSES misery. However, Masochists can also be classed as hedonistical; people who get pleasure from their own pain, even though slightly paradoxical, are doing it in the name of pleasure and to fulfil their own desires.

A lot of Hedonists actually mix in their beliefs with a form of nihilism. Life is insignificant and meaningless so why NOT enjoy yourself to the height of your abilities? Why not indulge yourself in all of life’s glory before the time comes when it’ll be impossible to do so?

Hedonism is described a lot of the time as a “selfish” philosophy, and on a base level it is true. When we’re dealing with characters in RPGs, oppressive kings are the epitome of hedonists; kings which hold lavish feasts at the expense of the poor, wage wars based on personal insults and erect great monuments to themselves due to their own narcissism. Others are greedy merchants, sadists and generally fat people.


Utilitarianism

Utilitarianism is an evolved form of hedonism. However, whereas hedonism should usually be reserved for “villain” types in games, utilitarianism is pretty much the noble form of its selfish parent. This ethical school is based on St. Aquinas’ “Summum Bonum” – “The Greater Good”. The theory itself refers to the fact that the most noble, or “good”, act is the one that brings the greatest amount of pleasure to the greatest number of people. For example, executing a mass murderer, while not being beneficial to the murderer himself, inevitably stops him from killing other people, so their lack of pain ways out his end. Socialism can also be likened to utilitarianism in that they both disagree with exploitation of the masses of the benefit of a small number (or social elite).

Utilitarianism splits the world into two spheres: Pain and Pleasure. Human beings are the masters of both these spheres and must analyse each and every act to see what the outcome will be. A good example of this is the recent war in Iraq. While many have lost their lives, it may have been a good act in the big picture (Summum Bonum). Deposing a tyrant who is oppressing the masses is an excellent opportunity for a “Just War”:

The “Just War” theory (Aquinas)

Jus in bello

“Jus in Bello” is the term which refers to “When to wage war”.

A just war can only be waged as a last resort. All non-violent options must be exhausted before the use of force can be justified.

A war is just only if it is waged by a legitimate authority. Even just causes cannot be served by actions taken by individuals or groups who do not constitute an authority sanctioned by whatever the society and outsiders to the society deem legitimate.

A just war can only be fought to redress a wrong suffered. For example, self-defence against an armed attack is always considered to be a just cause (although the justice of the cause is not sufficient--see point #4). Further, a just war can only be fought with "right" intentions: the only permissible objective of a just war is to redress the injury.

A war can only be just if it is fought with a reasonable chance of success. Deaths and injury incurred in a hopeless cause are not morally justifiable.

The ultimate goal of a just war is to re-establish peace. More specifically, the peace established after the war must be preferable to the peace that would have prevailed if the war had not been fought.

Jus ad bello

“Jus ad Bello” is the term which refers to “How war should be fought”.

The violence used in the war must be proportional to the injury suffered. States are prohibited from using force not necessary to attain the limited objective of addressing the injury suffered.

The weapons used in war must discriminate between combatants and non-combatants. Civilians are never permissible targets of war, and every effort must be taken to avoid killing civilians. The deaths of civilians are justified only if they are unavoidable victims of a deliberate attack on a military target.

I have included these rules just as an example of the overall complexity of utilitarianism. The “Just War Theory” is an excellent example of the calculations and rules needed to be made in order to secure the “Summum Bonum”. (To learn more about the Just War theory follow this link or do a search on google)

- Act Utilitarianism

There are two more advanced forms of utilitarianism; where the path splits between the two contradictions within the theory itself. The first of these is “Act Utilitarianism”.

The principle of act-utilitarianism, it that it is the value of the consequences of the specific case of the act that determines whether or not it is permissible, hence the term “Act Utilitarianism” – Utilitarianism that’s based on acts.

Where problems arise with act-utilitarianism is that it can be twisted to justifying any crime, and even make it ethically essential, if only the value of the particular consequences of the particular act is great enough. Another problem is that we rarely have the time to judge each and every specific act committed to see if it was morally right or not.

Characters with the “alignment” Chaotic Good tend to follow Act Utilitarianism.

-Rule Utilitarianism

Instead of looking at the consequences of a particular act, rule-utilitarianism determines the rightness of an act by a different method. First, the best rule of conduct is found. This is done by finding the value of the consequences of following a particular rule. The rule the following of which has the best overall consequences is the best rule

Our society typically uses Rule Utilitarianism with its legal system. We determine if an act is good (like killing another human) – if it isn’t then we decide that all acts of that kind are “murder”. Hence the problems with euthanasia, Abortion and suicide in certain countries.

“Lawful Good” characters, or characters which can see the greater picture, tend to follow Rule Utilitarianism.

Despite its noble appearance, Utilitarianism isn’t a moralistic theory. It doesn’t rely on a deity and pretty much leaves calculations about right and wrong to that of those it will affect. This can result in bad decisions being made, or some groups being horribly manipulated just for the benefit of the masses – and remember, the “masses” consist of over 51%, so the Catholics of Ireland’s treatment for the benefit of the protestants is A-OK! Utilitarianism, on a fundamental level, even agrees with such concepts of slavery, providing that a “greater pleasure” is being produced overall.

Nihilism

"Nihilism" comes from the Latin nihil, or nothing, which means not anything, that which does not exist. It appears in the verb "annihilate," meaning to bring to nothing, to destroy completely. By rejecting man's spiritual essence in favour of a solely materialistic one, nihilists denounced God and religious authority as antithetical to freedom

Ethical nihilism or moral nihilism rejects the possibility of absolute moral or ethical values. Instead, good and evil are nebulous, and values addressing such are the product of nothing more than social and emotive pressures.

Existential nihilism is the notion that life has no intrinsic meaning or value, and it is, no doubt, the most commonly used and understood sense of the word today. While nihilism is often discussed in terms of extreme skepticism and relativism, for most of the 20th century it has been associated with the belief that life is meaningless. Existential nihilism begins with the notion that the world is without meaning or purpose. Given this circumstance, existence itself--all action, suffering, and feeling--is ultimately senseless and empty


(Text in italic taken from: http://www.utm.edu/research/iep/n/nihilism.htm)

Nihilism is therefore that of the typical “supervillain” – the guy who either wants the world to end, has no emotions about the world because he or she denies its existence or has no moral code and can pretty much do what they want.

Nihilism, while being overused in many games, can be played out very well. Legato and the “Gung Ho Guns” from Trigun are excellent examples of nihilistic forces – their lives and the grand scheme of things mean very little. It’s very hard to create a nihilistic heroic character, but I suppose it can be done. I’ll explore this in future articles.

Examples of Nihilist characters: Legato (Trigun), Kuja (FF9), Luca Blight (Suikoden2)




Ok, tying it up – hopefully this’ll give you all an insight into philosophical aspects of characters rather than Stevester’s psychological works. Remember to feel free with mixing and matching philosophies – or even coming up with your own. That’s how they’re BORN.

In the next article I’ll be discussing Natural Law, “Christian” Ethics and Kantian Ethics (Duty and so forth). Look out for that Saturday!