Thursday, August 05, 2010

Slavery, Alignment and Moral Relativism

Keeping slaves is not compatible with a good alignment, but doing so does not necessarily make a character evil. Most slave owners are unaligned. Overseers who treat their slaves brutally are definitely engaging in evil acts that should outrage good characters. The question is whether anything can reasonably be done about the situation. Given how commonplace slavery is on Athas, good characters can’t reasonably attempt to free every slave they meet, nor should they recklessly challenge slave owners who are too powerful to overcome. Good characters should be anguished by the abundance of human misery in civilized areas, however, and they should be dedicated to aiding however they can short of attempting suicidal actions.

Dark Sun Campaign Setting
Side-bar, Page 197

It’s been a long time since I read a game book in which I’ve found nothing to argue with. Sometimes, it’s a list of horrible glaring errors that make me want to chuck a book across a room (Exalted, I’m lookin’ at you…), and other times it’s a few niggling little things that make my eye twitch, but I pass over it because the rest of the game is solid. Sometimes, it’s just one thing. In this case, the just-one-thing is the quote above, a side-bar from the Dark Sun campaign book. I’ve always had some difficulty reconciling the alignment system in D&D with the way I envision morality in fantasy fiction, but things like this just really slam the point of subjective morality home for me.

I wish I had a degree in philosophy. Actually, I don’t, but I wish I had taken a couple of classes on ethics so that I could better address issues of morality within the context of role-playing games (which is actually what I think about the vast majority of classes I wish I had taken…). When I was living with Steve Bignell in Stettler, we’d have long rambling discussions about epistemology that would devolve into horrible debates about semantics’ place in a philosophical discussion. Those debates were invariably my fault, as I don’t actually trust language as a medium for transferring ideas, and feel the need to hammer out definitions before I’m comfortable discussing anything as profound as ‘thought.’ I’m sure he tells horror stories about me to other philosophers, and they huddle in their blankets and shiver off the sudden chills that runs down their spines.

So, to be fair, I don’t really have a solid backing to discuss the meta-ethical implications of things like ‘good’ and ‘evil,’ and ‘moral relativism.’ Even if I did have such a background, I’d spend half the time talking about how we can’t actually define good and evil well enough for anyone to have a decent argument about them.

What I do feel a little more comfortable talking about  is descriptive relativism. As a white man in North America, who grew up in a belief system not entirely alienated from basic Christian values, I can look at the Asian people of Northern China and say “Those people have different beliefs than I do; that does not make them evil people.” It’s an important skill for a role-playing gamer to have, as it means you can disconnect your own personal beliefs from the beliefs of your character, if you’re playing a character that comes from a background greatly divergent from your own.

And let’s be fair, every character you play in a game of Dungeons & Dragons is going to hail from a background greatly divergent from you own. There is no McDonalds in Athas. You cannot watch reruns of Friends in Eberron. Greyhawk doesn’t have flushing toilets. The lives and beliefs of the fictional people we create in role-playing games are varied and strange, and that often means that we need to stretch some of our own beliefs to be able to play those characters reasonably well.

One of the recurring problems in Dungeons & Dragons, from it’s very first edition, is the idea of an objective morality that is based on the values and traditions of the 20th-Century United States of America. The alignment system assumes that there is a True Good and a True Evil, and that those lines are drawn along good ol’ American beliefs. Which is, y’know, wrong. There is no objective Good and Evil in the world; these are concepts that are built from the customs, worldview and teachings of the culture in which an individual is raised. Is female genital cutting evil? To a lot of people, particularly those coming from a Western cultural background (and well versed in the medical ramifications), it certainly seems to be. But people keep doing it, to their own children, not out of some horrific desire to maim young women, but as a practical, cultural and religious practice. You can’t be a ‘good’ parent if your daughter doesn’t undergo genital cutting.

But we’re not talking about female genital cutting, we’re talking about slavery, and the implication that owning slaves, in a culture where slavery is commonplace, automatically lowers a person’s moral standing.

Now, I’m not going to deny that slavery is, in my culture and in my opinion, evil. North Americans own a pretty rough history with slavery. The United States was pretty late in abolishing it, and half of it fought a war to try and keep the practice legal, and that has had some long-reaching repercussions for them. And before my Canadian brothers and sisters start getting smug, I’ll remind everyone that we had slaves here until 1834, and engaged in the wage-slavery of Chinese immigrants to finish our railroad. The fact that slavery was only so recently abolished in North America, and the treatment of ex-slaves and their descendants after emancipation, makes slavery something of hot-button topic for us.

Not to say that it isn’t still happening, of course. People are still abducted and forced to do things they don’t want to do for the rest of their lives. True story. Go read The Natashas. It will break your heart.

So yeah. Slavery is evil, it is a violation of fundamental human rights, and I strongly condemn it in all forms. But I know enough about the world to know that my view of slavery is not universal, and that, historically at the very least, there are cultures that believe(d) the exact opposite. There are cultures that believe(d) that slavery was a viable way to get things done. And it really did get things done. Some of those things would have been impossible without slaves at the time. So, at the very least, proponents of slavery can argue that the practice of slavery has been very useful.

To the non-slave people of Athas, slavery is not evil. Not even a ‘necessary evil.’ Slavery is a good thing, something that good people use to make sure important shit gets done. It is a work-force that can be made to do anything (even things that hurt them), indefinitely, because no one else will do it. Owning slaves doesn’t preclude you from being a good person in a world like Dark Sun. I wouldn’t go so far as to say you can’t be a good person without owning slaves, but I think it would be an indicator of standing in a community. “John’s a right sort of fellow. Well tended front yard, coaches little league, owns some twelve slaves, and keeps ‘em well, too. Those are some mannered slaves, he’s got.”

And it’s not like slavery lacks supporters in the real world. Aristotle, Thomas Aquinas and John Locke all viewed it as an important part of a proper social system. And previous to the abolition of slavery in North America, there were those who supported it as an institution, suggesting that slaves were better off indentured than they would be free (and given the living conditions of simple waged workers, and the open racial hostilities at the time, this sentiment was likely closer to the mark than we’d like to think), and that slavery was an important, integral supporter of the economy. There were arguments for years over the perceived benefits of slavery over abolition, and not all of the men and women fighting for the cause of slavery were evil people; they were trying to do what they thought was best, politically, economically, religiously, and even legally.

Again, I’d like to reiterate that I do not support slavery in any way, and believe it to be a vile and horrific fate for those who have been forced to suffer through it. But I’m not Athasian, and I don’t live in a society where slavery is the norm. While I refuse to play let’s-pretend on my own morals, I can say with certainty that the non-slave population of Athas would be unlikely to condemn the practice as an evil one. And I think a well-thought-out write-up on the topic of slavery in D&D, as opposed to a tip-toeing side-bar would have been a much better way to deal with the issue.

6 comments:

Ian said...

That's interesting, becuase I had almsot the exact opposite reaction to that sidebar. I loved it. It seems to me that 4th has defined the good/evil axis relative to how you treat others. Good characters wish to activly help others, unaligned wish to activly help themselves, evil characters wish to activly harm others. The sidebar explanes (at least to me) that you can be selfish and unaligned as a slave owner, but it only slips to evil if you are also activly abuseive or cruel. Good characters, on the flip side, care too much about others to keep slaves. I also like the sidebar becuase it allows you to play a good guy, without some straightjacked alignment forcing you to rush into a sorceror-kings slave market and start fighting until you die. You can be the good guy who sneaks slaves water, or hides the young slave boy in your wagon, without being forced to throw down in every city-state you go to.

Vic Tor said...

I agree with you that precise definitions are crucial to establish before engaging in philosophical discussion. From taking classes in Philosophy (which I very much enjoyed and would recommend to anyone) I've found that problems with language, like household pests, tend to multiply quickly if not addressed. Take, for example, the question "What is justice?" There would be some ambiguity to be cleared up: does that question ask what the word 'justice' means? (in which case it's a problem more linguistic than philosophical) Or, is there a primitive concept called 'justice', that the word refers to? Is there perhaps more than one such concept for which we use the same word? Trying to philosophize without ever expounding on word usage would just be a headache.

I don't think your having not taken ethics classes makes your ideas less valid, and I'm not just saying that because I haven't taken any yet either. However, I disagree strongly both on your definition of good and with many of your points. That being said, I acknowledge that you stated in a humble spirit that you aren't well versed in ethics and you will discuss the subject from the point of view of descriptive relativism. However, I assume the point of your entry was to disagree with the excerpt, which WAS talking about ethics, and to justify said position. Therefore, I can only assume that you're refuting the excerpt's supposed idea that morality/good is objective from a starting point of having already assumed that morality/good can be discussed from the point of view of descriptive relativism and is therefore subjective, which makes you guilty of begging the question.

continued in next comment due to character limit

Vic Tor said...

I could pretty much stop there if my sole purpose was to defend the excerpt you brought up, but I care very much to discuss morality and ethics, and I'm inclined to point out some of your additional assumptions that bother me. First off, I'm not so sure that American values are all that Christian. Evangelicals in the USA are a very loud minority but only account for around a quarter of the population. We could debate that point endlessly and it's only somewhat relevant but I feel it bears mentioning. Second, I'm not so sure that the idea of morality represented by the excerpt is necessarily American. I can see how you got there through a string of logic and assumptions: Morality is culturally subjective therefore the idea that slavery is immoral must be a cultural one therefore it belongs to a culture that is proud of the abolition of slavery therefore said idea is American. Too many assumptions are required to get there. Third, you say "Aristotle, Thomas Aquinas and John Locke all viewed (slavery) as an important part of a proper social system" as if that's evidence that these admittedly intelligent people believe slavery is good. However, intelligence or philosophical ability don't necessarily make one a paragon of good or an authority on good and the view that something is part of a proper social system doesn't even necessarily mean that thing is good. If you're interested in reading about how going against society and convention can be a tool for good I'd suggest reading the essay "Civil Disobedience" by Henry Thoreau. While I disagree with many of his ideas including his idea of good (I feel good lies less in justice and responsibility and more in what he dismisses as "efficiency"), I think his willingness to see his beliefs through rather than simply pay them lip service make him admirable and at the very least his actions are much closer to good than any of the sheepish behavior you would describe as definitively good.

So what do I think good is, then? Obviously the word good has many definitions, but I would suggest that, like justice, the idea of good as opposed to evil, while it's arguably not a primitive concept, does represent a meaningful and very real idea, which to me lies in the humility to accept others as having worth, the compassion to put their needs on par with your own, and the courage to act on those convictions to the best of your ability when the opportunity is there. The irony to me is that you touch on the real good you personally possess in asides as if it's mere opinion saying "slavery is, in my culture and in my opinion, evil" but at the same time you suggest insubstantial cultural opinion to be good(even when it's opposed to good in reality) when you play devil's advocate saying "You can’t be a ‘good’ parent if your daughter doesn’t undergo genital cutting." Perhaps our differences on the subject are because we are talking about different things: I'm talking about one real thing called good and opposed to evil and you're talking about a totally different cultural construct called good and opposed to evil. I would suggest the latter definition to perhaps be more of a misunderstanding of what good really is than anything, but getting back to your original point about the sidebar excerpt, doesn't it make total sense with my definition of good? Don't D&D's alignment descriptions seem a lot more in line with my definition? If the good genital-cutting mother happened to end up in America, would she experience an alignment change and become evil?

The point of the quote in the Dark Sun sidebar appears to be to remind players that good doesn't equal stupid or fanatical and that your character can pick spots and doesn't have to be excessively restricted by his/her alignment to the point where he/she doesn't even seem to be a real person. It belongs in the sidebar and an extended discussion of slavery probably isn't necessary.

Kristoffer said...

I believe that anyone can talk about _ethics_. What I cannot speak to are the meta-ethical aspects of moral relativism, as I have no basis on which to build a valid argument. I know nothing about meta-ethics.

I do not believe that good does, in fact, represent a meaningful or real thing. I believe that the concept of "goodness" is a construct of the traditions, teaching and culture of those making the definition. I personally believe in being kind to one another, and advancing the group before the individual, but much of that comes from the lessons of my elders discussing "right" and "wrong" behavior as a child. That does not mean I am following a "real" thing called good, it means that I am doing what I have been taught is right and good, which is a very different thing.

That I believe in freedom as good, and that the Bambara mother believes that female genital cutting is good and that you believe that justice and caring for others is good are, to me, equally "good." Her belief is no less valid than mine or yours. Were she to come to America, though, she would indeed find her "alignment changed"; she would go from being a loving, caring, Good mother to a horrific, child-abusing, Evil monster.

And certainly we can find evidence of cultures who believe(d) that causing others to suffer for the benefit of their own group is "good." One such group would be pro-slavery advocates. Another would be the Nazis. That I don't believe either of these groups are right does not discount the fact that they acted the ways they did out of a sense of "good."

You are right, though; I did take the sidebar quite a bit out of context, in that I read it as a moral imperative, where it is to be read as advice on how a player might use the already-established alignment system in a world with obvious injustice, and not be a fool. For that, I apologize most sincerely, and will be removing this post when I believe your long comment will not have been made in vain.

Kristoffer said...

Also, it should be noted that as the breaker of Godwin's Law, my arguments are null and void.

Matt said...

There should be an equivalent to Godwin's Law when talking about FGM and moral relativism. That's the only example anyone ever trots out.