Friday, August 29, 2008

How Morality is Portrayed in RPGs: part i

There are three major divisions of moral theory that are typically recognized in philosophy. I would like to discuss these, some other moral based ideas, and their relation to how morality in rpgs has been handled. First I will outline the three major divisions so the reader can be familiar with them. After this I plan on examining the morality system that is in the World of Darkness core book, the use of virtues and vices in WoD, and then some of variations of that system in other core books such as Vampire, Werewolf, and Promethean. I will also discuss the alignments found within Dungeons and Dragons. I will likely go over other games as well, but I will focus on World of Darkness and Dungeons and Dragons because they are both popular and they both utilize different approaches to morality. 

I guess I'll share some background information as well: Nearly a third of all the philosophy courses I took in college were related to morality. Courses on classic moral theory, contemporary, metaethics, issues of collectivity. My senior thesis was on the metaethical issue of internal v. external motivation within statements such as "X is right." It was this that first led me to examine motivation in rpgs and breaking them down into internally driven v. externally (this was one of my firsts writings on games, and partially inspired me to start this blog). It comes as no surprise then that the way that various games portray morality in their systems is of great interest to me. I would now like to explore that over the course of several posts. 

Three Models of Moral Theory: 

Virtue Ethics: Historically virtue ethics goes back to Plato and Aristotle. It was also immensely popular during the medieval period, less so during the Enlightenment, but became popular again in the middle of the 20th century. Virtue ethics emphasizes character above behavior. The vitreous person holds the dispositions that lead to human flourishing. Examples of virtues are: courage, wisdom, justice, and prudence. It's interesting that virtue ethics is linked to human flourishing. In this way it can be understood as an inter-subjective theory, and not necessarily making a claim about objective morality. This system will be of special interest when looking at the World of Darkness as the virtues are explicitly written into their system. 

Deontology: The most famous of deontological theories was that developed by Immanual Kant. Kant's theory is absolutist - there are some actions that are wrong, always, and some good, always. Kant cared more about intentions than outcomes in many cases. Imagine two shopkeepers: A boy walks into the store to buy candy. The boy mistakes the price of candy to be far more expensive than it is, but gives the shopkeeper all this money. The first shopkeeper wants to give the boy his money back because if the rest of the town found out he cheated the boy they would not shop from him again. The second shopkeeper doesn't want to cheat the boy because this is wrong. The first shopkeeper can be said to be performing the right action, but for a selfish reason. Kant might label this amoral or immoral. With the second shopkeeper however, he is performing the right action and for the right reason. This is then moral, according to Kant. The method to determine right from wrong is formalized in Kant's Categorical Imperative: Act only on that maxim that you would also will it to become a universal law. 

Consequentialism: The ends justify the means. That platitude, in a way, sums up consequentialism. Consequentialists deny absolute right and wrong. Lying is permissible, or obligatory, in some cases. Killing is as well, or even in the most horrible of thought experiments so is raping children. Consequentialism is unintuitive to many in such cases. The consequentialist is committed to outcomes always being of the highest value: greater than personal integrity, responsibility, everything. The most famous example of consequentialism comes from John Stuart Mill in the form of utilitarianism. Utilitarianism values happiness above all else, and equates happiness with maximizing pleasure while lowering pain in the greatest number of beings capable of feeling pleasure and pain. This theory is often unfairly criticized for being hedonistic, but Mill recognizes intellectual pleasures as a higher sort than base pleasures. Whether he argues this well is questionable. 

In short, those are the three major moral theories. I'll also likely bring up issues of egoism and the role of intuitions in moral thinking, divine command theory, cultural relativism, as well when discussing specific treatments of morality in games. Tomorrow I'll post an analysis of the World of Darkness core book's morality system and their use of virtues and vices.

15 comments:

Ishmayl said...

I am VERY intrigued by this series, and hope to see it continue for a long time. I personally believe I have a very deontological view on life (though I unfortunately have not the will power, strength, or finances to really do it right!), and would love to see how you believe these views coincide with RPGs.

Great article, as usual!

Reverend Mike said...

Yay! for virtue ethics!...

Philosophy major here...interesting series...excited to see where this goes...

szilard said...

Re: virtues and human flourishing

I'd characterize virtue theory as individually relativistic but objective... not intersubjective. There is an objective (not subjective) definition of virtue for any given individual, but it varies by individual.

Yes, I'm being picky... but I have most of a dissertation written on virtue theory.

szilard said...

More pickyness...

I think it is pretty clear that Kant doesn't consider the Categorical Imperative to be practical in any way. It is a statement about the underlying metaphysics of what morality is, not a tool for determining the moral value of an action.

The problem is that philosophy professors are lazy and teach the Grounding of the Metaphysics of Morals because it is short and appears to stand alone, even though it gives a skewed and caricatured impression of Kant. This is a bit of a pet peeve of mine.

Jack Phillips said...

szliard,

Please be picky. I was worried when trying to summarize three very big ideas in philosophy in three short paragraphs I wouldn't do them justice. By all means, point out flaws, or show other interpretations of theories.

Perhaps I didn't say the inter-subjective part well enough, but because the virtues are meant to bring eudaimonia for humans, I regard that as inter-subjective because it is relevant to human nature - and not any possible sentient creature. This I believe would be different from claims like Kantian deontology which is meant to be binding to all rational creatures (but then maybe this isn't even objective, because we're talking about the inter-subjective community of 'rational' creatures).

On Kant,
Both in my 101 class, reading the Groundwork for classic moral theory, and talking to various professors I've received vastly different interpretations of his work. I believe you're right, I - and probably some of my instructors - imply the categorical imperative far too practically when he is actually trying to show the metaphysics behind morality. Beyond Kant's intentions though, I do believe this interpretation represents one of the major views of deontology - even if it is historically incorrect.

szilard said...

Jack,

The objectivity in virtue theory comes from the fact that - for each individual - there is an objectively best balance of character traits/habits/virtues/whatever. This isn't objective in the Kantian sense. It isn't "rationally binding" (whatever that means), but it is objectively (not subjectively) true.

That's where I was going.

Also, it is worth noting that Mill didn't actually think that you should evaluate actions individually on consequentialist grounds. Rather, you should adopt rules (or practice virtues) that would tend to result in the greatest happiness for the greatest number. Arguably, Mill wasn't that far off from Aristotle in what he saw as how people would actually act and make moral judgments under his moral theory...

szilard said...

Beyond Kant's intentions though, I do believe this interpretation represents one of the major views of deontology - even if it is historically incorrect.

Yeah... I think this is sort of funny... because I agree with you, but I think it is one of the major views of deontology because of the huge numbers who have misinterpreted Kant.

I suspect that Kant's popularity in this area might come from people trying to cling to something they can cite as a rational justification for natural law.

Speaking of which, do you plan on touching on the idea of morality in a world where divine beings clearly exist (and may disagree with each other)?

Jack Phillips said...

szilard,

By "rationally binding" I've typically thought of that as: to do otherwise would be irrational or arational. Because Kant, or at least this interpretation of Kant, places so much in rationality leading to or being equivalent with what is moral, if something is rationally binding it becomes imperative to do for any rational being.

I think the way you mean objective is what I mean by inter-subjective or something close to this. I recognize "inter-subjective" being categorically different from objectivity and subjectivity. Personally, I'm skeptical of moral realism in the objective sense, but think interpreting moral propositions as inter-subjective statements about "humans" is one of the better ways of making moral propositions meaningful. Because virtue ethics (or some kinds of it) make eudaimonia the end goal, and this is meant as meaningful for humans then virtue ethics does not claim to create objective moral facts about all creatures everywhere. "Objectivity" means a lot of things though, so I believe we're each using it in a different way. Neither - I believe - are wrong. We might be talking past each other is all.

I do plan on talking about polytheistic worlds in fantasy games, and relating this to divine command theory and the Euthyphro problem. I love the Euthyphro problem, and think this is a fun topic to bring up in games that take polytheism seriously.

szilard said...

Cool re: Euthyphro.

I think the eudaimonia argument arguably does claim to create objective moral facts about all creatures everywhere. If you take Aristotle's argument about the function of things (in the first couple pages of Nicomachean Ethics) seriously then human flourishing is a specific application of a general rule.

...but, really, I don't think that this is necessarily relevant to the discussion.

By the way, I may pick up on some of this stuff in my own blog. I like to talk about morality in gaming there when I get the chance...

Reverend Mike said...

O_O

Objective for each individual...objectivity in morality that varies by individual...that varies by subject...

Is this not the very definition of subjective?...

Jack Phillips said...

Aristotle might be claiming to refer to objective moral facts. I don't see this assertion as warranted though. Not in the interest of history, but in the interest of interpreting his work in a more philosophically sound way I believe his virtue ethics works better, and is more accurately described as, an inter-subjective moral theory. I'm not really interested in what Aristotle would say about that, but trying to find the best ways of analyzing moral theories. One of my professors once said something like, "We're not historians, we're philosophers."

This is applicable to I think the "misinterpretation" of Kant as well. I know I've only read the Groundwork (in regards to his morality), but the dept. head of the school I went to was very much a Kantian. I doubt he'd have this misinterpretation taught unless it were one of the better ways of assessing a Kantian deontology. Also, Kant is needlessly obscure at times, so there seems to be great room for debate on what is being said.

What is your blog? When I click on your name nothing is linked to it. Don't you want to shamelessly self promote yourself like the rest of us?

thanuir said...

Jack;
At least one local professor who has extensively studied Kant also said that Kant's morality is supposed to be a way to act, not only a theoretical framework. It has been a year, so I may misremember, though.

szilard said...

Objective for each individual... objectivity in morality that varies by individual... that varies by subject...

Is this not the very definition of subjective?...


Nope.

Objectivity and subjectivity have to do with the truth of facts. An objective fact (ex: salt stimulates human taste buds) is one which is true regardless of what people think. A subjective fact (ex: salt tastes good) is one which is dependent upon what a person thinks. An inter-subjective fact (ex: people agree that salt tastes good) is one that gets its truth value from multiple people's opinions.

Now, the statement "salt is good for person X" might depend upon who that person is and whether they've had enough salt in their diet... and particulars of their metabolism. This is an objective fact which varies by individual.

Aristotle's notion of eudaimonia is fairly clearly analogous.

szilard said...

Jack: fixed me profile. My blog is Neitherworld Stories.

marga said...

hi, stumbled upon your blog while researching on ethical/moral dilemmas of video game (RPG) characters. i am currently writing a paper on the moral complexity of RPG characters in the Playstation (1, 2, and 3) console. great that you incorporated kant's convictions on intention versus outcome. it seems that it is a recurring, if not predominant in the selected RPGs i am studying.

i will cite you as a source, if you do not mind.

thanks.