Got a treat for you folks today: Humza has graced us with a Guest Rant! Humza is by now a veteran of editorials on this blog (how come none of y'all love me the way Humza does?), and also a gentleman whose admiration of my own rants sometimes gives me the nervous feeling of a charlatan because I am 95% sure that he is actually at least twice as thoughtful and intelligent as I am and simply hasn't realized it yet, heh. And today, he has done us the good service of putting forth his thoughts and musings for us to enjoy and mull over! As always, much appreciated, sir.
Disclaimer: I don't own Humza's words, merely borrow them with his permission. I also don't necessarily agree or disagree with his opinions and observations here. But I do definitely think that they're worth reading and thinking about!
How do RPG Writers View the Principle of Double-Effect?
April 25, 2019
Like all story-oriented media, RPGs are premised on certain ways of viewing the world. The writers express their ideas by relying upon and adapting their previous thoughts and experiences (much of which is influenced by their language and culture). This doesn't mean those sharing the same language necessarily agree with each other on everything (individual cultures are almost always internally contradictory by virtue of their diversity and the disagreements in them), but there are bound to be uniformities and repetitions despite this. A character's uncoerced sacrifice for “the greater good” is, for example, seen as morally good most of the time (although, notably, not always; Tales of Symphonia's Lloyd is against any such sacrifice and some other protagonists likely are, too).
The points that I'm trying to make in this introduction are (a) that RPGs espouse moral values, so it would not be out of place on an RPG-themed blog to examine the stances RPGs take towards them, and (b) that most RPGs (but definitely not all) seem to share similar values, and that generalizing with this caveat is sometimes fair. My aim here is to look at the way RPGs tend to look at an ethical rule known as the principle of double-effect* (which I have seen identified in medieval Europe and in legal texts from Arabia in late Antiquity, and it almost certainly is identified elsewhere as well). There are variants of this principle, but the essence of it** is this: If an action has a good effect and a bad effect, it is morally permissible as long as the actor intends only the good effect and does not wish for the bad effect to take place. A simple example of this principle applied is if a person kills another in self-defense, not intending the other person to die, but with the intent that one continues to live.
With the introduction out of the way, let's take a look at the common situations RPGs have where this ethical rule would be appropriate and how the story agrees or disagrees with it. The first examples I can think of are these: a villain harming people for a good end, the party members doing the same and self-sacrifice.
The first example I mentioned where a villain attempts to achieve a good end while causing harm to innocents has plenty of obvious examples in RPGs, but they need to be distinguished: there are cases where harming people directly achieves a good end (“the ends justify the means”; Hilda from Stella Glow is guilty of this because it is through the bad effect, crystalising innocent people, that the intended good effect, the delay of aliens destroying the world, is achieved) and another set of cases where the good end is not caused by the bad effect (Heiss from Radiant Historia falls into this camp because the good effect, his and another character’ continued living, is not directly caused by the bad effect, that is, desertification). The former is not an example of the principle at work (because the principle doesn't allow for such cases), while the latter is.
In Heiss’ case (which is the relevant one here), and other similar cases I can think of, he still is portrayed as a villain (albeit a sympathetic one; this sympathy comes, I think, not from his method, but through his motivations), so perhaps we can say RPGs view adherence to the principle of double-effect as mostly irrelevant, and it’s not hard to see why this might be the case. Heiss’ actions still result in the death of numerous innocent people and so, from a consequentialist perspective (not mine***), allowing him to do as he wishes puts the world in a vastly worse state than it otherwise would have been. So we will regard RPGs as disagreeing with the principle for the time being.
Let’s proceed to the parallel case of RPG protagonists harming others in order to achieve what they view as a good end. Closely connected with the previous example of villains harming innocents to achieve a good end is a similar (but not quite identical) case of the party members killing others in order to meet the main villain (and usually kill them, too, although not always). Unlike the previous case in which the principle of double-effect does not seem to excuse villains, the protagonist is rarely (if ever) condemned for killing others. One can interpret this as the principle at work (since the heroes’ intent is not to kill, but to get to the villain so they can stop whatever terrible plan is being carried out), but I think**** it would be more consistent to see RPGs as consequentialist here again because we can argue that, while the villains’ bad impacts by far outweigh their good ones*****, the heroes’ good impacts outweigh their bad ones.
A clear example of a protagonist employing this consequentialist perspective would be Luke from Tales of the Abyss, who initially experiences an ethical dilemma about whether to kill, but after weighing consequences, decides that he would rather kill than be killed himself. There are other considerations one could make (from memory, I think some games like Lufia 2°°° don't have battles with humans, and so one can argue their lack of sentience/intelligence weakens the bad impact), but the framework here is still consequential.
Before moving onto the case of self-sacrifice, let's take a look at a unique case more relevant here than elsewhere: Undertale. If this game is famous for anything, it's the level of dissuasion used when killing another creature in combat. Unlike the consequentialist approach most RPGs seem to hold, Undertale does not view consequences as the be-all and end-all of what is right and wrong, nor does it substitute intention for consequences (as the principle of double-effect sometimes does). It views the act of taking another's life as being wrong in all places.
The final RPG trope (that I have in mind to talk about; there are no doubt others) where the principle of double-effect seems relevant is the topic of self-sacrifice, of giving up one's life so that others may live. More decisively than the previous topic of killing, perhaps, RPGs show themselves to oppose the principle here. The positive impact of saving the world is opposed to the negative impact of losing one's own life. RPGs almost always try to portray such scenes as poignant (“bittersweet” may be a better word for it) because someone willfully forfeits their life for a noble cause. The sadness in such scenes is premised (at least partly) on the fact that one intends for their life to come to an end. The poignant aspect of such a scene would largely be lost if the principle of double-effect were applied to it because we would say the character did not intend to die, but only intended to save the world and their death is merely an unintended side-effect. We view those who sacrifice their lives for a transcendental cause (if we agree with that cause) as greater than those who succeed in the same goal without a sacrifice because of what it tells us about the former's character and beliefs. ******
I didn't have a specific point in mind when writing this post, but one has emerged along the way: the vast majority of RPGs seem to support a form of consequentialist ethics (perhaps utilitarianism, in which “good” is maximized and “bad” is minimized). This should not, perhaps, be surprising (although it was to me), since people like Hannah Arendt have pointed out “that none of our traditional legal, moral, or common sense utilitarian categories could any longer help us to come to terms with” the actions of totalitarian governments. As a substitute for a proper conclusion, I'll suggest that, as she and others have done, that our language needs to change, and that one method through which we can do this is to examine and change the worldview that our RPGs (as well as other media) tell their stories from. It is well-known, after all, that the media one consumes contributes to shaping how one views the world.
* I have seen this principle identified by different names in Medieval Europe (Thomas Aquinas was apparently the first to introduce it there) and in Islamic legal texts around that same time; it was probably identified elsewhere before either of these two places. Today, this principle is used in “Just War Theory” (by Michael Walzer) and in medical ethics, so it isn't an irrelevant ethical rule.
** There are other details like proportionality of good and bad that one can consider in variants, but I'm treating those as irrelevant for now.
*** My favourite work where this principle is discussed is Elizabeth Anscombe’s contribution, “Intention”.
**** “I think” because most comments in this post are meant to be provisional.
***** I'm typing this post without any prior planning, but it just occurred to me (when typing at this point) that we may possibly be able to say RPGs do not abandon variants of this principle where proportionality between good and bad plays an important role. I have a vague idea in my head about how this post should be structured (after all I've written) and will reflect on the merits of this view later, outside of this post.
°°° The RPGenius Says: Lufia 2 does have a single instance in which Maxim and company must fight off a small handful of human guards, who attack at the order of an ambitious and dimwitted royal. It's a clearly obvious case of self-defense, though (while most RPGs' human enemy encounters are to some degree ambiguous), and self-defense was already covered by Humza earlier as a rather universally accepted case of double-effect, and this is a rather unique, 1-time situation (and one that, frankly, out of place; there's not really anything about the whole event that feels like it was supposed to be in the game's story), so I don't know whether one can really say it has much relevance to his point. Still, figured I'd point it out where I can also point out that it doesn't necessarily affect the point much, if at all, rather than potentially having some random commenter point his/her finger at this tiny detail and make a big deal of it.
****** This is similar to a criticism Anscombe made of this principle, summarized in this quotation from her: “It is nonsense to pretend that you do not intend to do what is the means you take to your chosen end”. An applied example of sacrifice: Thomas Aquinas (who I mentioned before as having introduced this principle to Europe) was himself a Christian theologian (as is Anscombe, sans the “theologian” part) and, in an ironic twist, was unwittingly undermining his own religion because there can be no “sacrifice” (or “willful giving up”) if the principle of double-effect is applied to the Crucifixion event (and so the event loses much of its meaning).