Synths, Droids, and P-Zombies- why do we treat machines as moral beings?

robotsAs I play through both Fallout 4 and SWTOR, I’ve been thinking about how we treat both the synths in Fallout and the droids in Star Wars. While the concepts are treated very differently in these two fictional universes, our reactions to them have some similarities. We tend to forget that they aren’t human, which leads us to treat them like moral beings in some ways.

Lately I’ve been thinking about this in terms of p-zombies, or philosophical zombies, which is a concept that was mostly developed by philosopher David Chalmers as a way of exploring certain issues in the Philosophy of Mind. The basic idea is to imagine a being that in every external way resembles a human being, but which lacks internal consciousness. In other words, the p-zombie is just a shell. In every physical way, it resembles a human being. You could converse with it, and you won’t really be able to tell the difference between the p-zombie and another other person. However, the p-zombie is not really sentient in the human sense.

The concept is usually used as a thought experiment to question assumptions in materialistic (or physicalist) models of the universe. If everything can be reduced to just physical properties, then a p-zombie should be no different than an actual human being, even though it lacks internal consciousness, since there is no such thing as an internal life independent of our physical properties. If you want to find out more, you know how to look it up!

But I want to think about synths and droids using this idea, and to ask why it is that we treat them like moral beings. In Fallout 4, there is an entire storyline that revolves around the notion of synthetic humans that could be made to look like any particular human, allowing them to infiltrate communities by substituting a particular member with a synth. This leads to a lot of paranoia, of course! What if your neighbor is really a synth? In one scene, a pair of brothers gets in an argument, with one denying that he is a synth, while the other condemns him for being a copy of his brother. I won’t spoil what happens, but the situation is telling.

As the player, you are given a chance to help these synthetic beings, and I have to admit that it feels like the right thing to do. They have artificial intelligence of some sort, and they definitely seem like humans in many ways. You can’t help but feel for them.

The same kind of thing happens in the Star Wars universe with droids. When I was a kid and saw Star Wars for the first time, I didn’t think much about the cantina scene, where the bartender says “We don’t serve their kind!” pointing at R2 and C3PO. Now, when I rewatch it, I ask “What is this racist nonsense??” Similarly, as I play through SWTOR, I don’t really see the difference between my droid companions and other humanoids that might accompany me.

But do synths and droids have any real moral status? When I feel for them, emotionally, is this really any different than when I was a kid and felt bad because some toys didn’t get played with as much as others? True story time: when my brother and I were both offered toys at the same time, I tried to always choose the one I thought was uglier or less cool, because I felt sorry for it! I have no idea if my brother noticed, or even cared. Since we were kids, he probably just switched to thinking the one I wanted must have been the cooler one. In any case, the toys didn’t really care. There was no morally superior choice here. Toys don’t feel rejected; they don’t feel anything.

And yet, every time R2 makes that sad, whiny weeooo noise in the movies, I think he’s sad. In fact, even labeling R2 a “He” is misleading. These droids don’t have genders as such. We can call them male or female, and give them appropriate voices (are astromech beeps and boops really masculine or feminine, though?), but they aren’t really gendered, are they? Perhaps they are in the performative sense of gender, but that’s a separate topic. There is no biological reason to consider them anything but objects.

Yet, here I am, both in Fallout and in SWTOR, wondering what the correct moral choice is for whatever p-zombie I am dealing with at the time. I just can’t help it!

Star Wars – The Dirty Hands Problem

kentharAs my light side character continued to move through his story line, he found himself on the capitol planet of Coruscant. This planet is a giant city; so everything you do on it takes place in one vast city (well, vast for this game; kinda small for a planet-city).

I found myself working for a the Senate to infiltrate some of the gangs that were running rampant on the planet. However, when I broke into their complex, I discovered that they had made a deal to help fund one of the very senators I was helping! Uh oh! Time to make a major ethics decision.

In this case, when I returned to the senator and confronted her with the information I found, she asked me not to disclose it, for the good of the government and the people. I moused over my dialog choices and found that the ‘Light’ choice was to force her to tell the truth, regardless of the consequences. Since I’m playing a Light character, that’s what I did, and she thanked me for showing her the li…err, the right way to be.

Here’s the problem, though. I hated this option. The senator had actually made a pretty compelling case here. She pointed out that her opponents had more money than she did; so she needed the gangs to help fund her campaign, so that she could get elected. Then, once elected, she would be able to be a force for positive change on the planet.

I get this! This is a version of what Michael Walzer, a political philosopher, calls the ‘Dirty Hands Problem’, a phrase he stole from Sartre. Walzer notes, I think rightly, that a good politician cannot help but dirty her hands a bit; it’s a messy vocation. If nobody is playing fair, then if you attempt to remain ethical and above the fray, so to speak, you will likely lose. What we want, Walzer argues, are people who are willing to do the dirty work that we do not want to do ourselves, but who are shameful enough to feel guilt at having to do so. In other words, we want someone who can’t sleep at night because she made a deal with the devil, but we still need her to make that deal, for the good of us all.

That’s basically what this senator was doing, and the game forced me (if I am to maintain my ‘light points’) to out her. That strikes me as pretty short-sighted. We might hope for a world in which politicians can tell us exactly how they feel, and what they will do. We might want a world of transparency where our politicians only do ethical things, and everything turns out right as a result. I’m not sure that’s the world we actually have though.

It’s an interesting dilemma, one that is especially fitting for me to consider the day after I voted in the Ohio primary. Do we need politicians with dirty hands? Or is it possible to clean up the system itself so that dirty hands are no longer necessary?

Star Wars (TOR)- Blinded by the Light (Part One)

kentharI recently signed back up to play Star Wars: The Old Republic. This Bioware MMORPG allows you to play as either part of the Republic or part of the Sith Empire, which basically means you are either a good person or a bad person. That’s a bit of an oversimplification. On the Republic side, you are basically supporting the good side of the conflict. However, your character can make choices that make him or her travel further down the path of the Light Side or the Dark Side.

SWTOR is much more story-oriented than most MMOs. Each class has its own story that it progresses through, including missions unique to that class. This gives Bioware a chance to make you feel like the hero, which is something most MMOs lack. The choices you make, between good and evil, as you progress through the story don’t actually make much of a difference to the story itself. However, they do change your character’s appearance and give you access to different equipment.

I have a love/hate relationship with Bioware’s approach to ethics. On the one hand, I love that they try to include it in games. The Baldur’s Gate series, for example, allows you to play any alignment, and your party makeup and choices will differ as a result of your choice to be good or evil. The problematic part is the choices themselves. In that series, the ‘evil’ acts tend to reduce to being mean and stealing a lot. There’s little room for the subtleties of playing a Lawful Evil character, bent on taking over the world. Basically, if you kill good people (or NPCs), or you get caught stealing things, you are evil. If you help people, you are good.

SWTOR takes a similar approach, but uses the Light and Dark sides of the force to represent good versus evil. Once again, I admire that they allow for this, and that it is not limited to what side you take in the galactic struggle. You can play on the Republic side, as a Jedi, and fall victim to the Dark side of the force, for example.

The problem, once again, is what is considered “Dark”.

One of my characters is a Jedi Knight. I’m playing him as a follower of the Light side, so I try to be helpful and make choices that will give me “Light Points” instead of “Dark Points”. These are helpfully labeled in the dialog choices, so you won’t make a mistake somehow. That’s a good thing, since I can’t always tell what will lead receiving points in either direction.

For example, my character was asked to help a village of Twi’leks, which he happens to be a member of anyway, though they didn’t comment on that. The village was being attacked by Flesh Raiders (that can’t be good! I hope they didn’t name themselves!). At several points, I was given the option of being exceptionally rude to the villagers. I could tell them I don’t care. I could ask for money. I could even be sarcastic at times. What was odd is that these choices may or may not lead to Dark Side points. Sometimes they would, and sometimes they would not. Also, choices that seemed pretty rude, but not outright evil, might lead to the same number of Dark Side points as choices that amount to murder. I get that game mechanics dictate some of this, but it seems odd to equate sarcasm, or even indifference to the plight of others, with killing someone in cold blood.

At other times, I would try to do the right thing, get the Light points, and then end up doing the same thing I would have on the Dark path, essentially. A good example of this came when I told one of the leaders that I would not murder the raiders for her. She said she understood but that they would likely attack me on sight, and I would have to defend myself (by killing them, of course!). That’s a good way to get my noble Jedi Knight to kill a bunch of mobs, I guess!

Another interesting choice happened when one of the village guards asked me to use some of the raider technology to get revenge on them for what they had done to villagers. Arguable, this could be seen as justice, a kind of retribution that makes sense in the case at hand. However, he constantly stressed that it would revenge, not justice, so that I would know this was the evil path. Ok, I guess I’ll have to tell him that revenge is wrong! I’m going to go out and get that tech and just destroy it rather than use it on the raiders…oh, and I might have to murd….err, self-defense them all in order to do so! But that’s Ok. Jedi Business–nothing to see here!

The Millionth Rant about D&D Alignment


I won’t be the first, nor last to say this, but the Dungeons and Dragons alignment system is horribly broken. In an attempt to capture the fact that people have different motives and various virtues and vices, the makers of D&D (most likely Gygax himself) introduced the notion of alignment, which was intended to reflect your character’s basic values and moral inclinations. There were nine options: a combination of choosing whether your character was Lawful, Neutral, or Chaotic, and then Good, Neutral, or Evil. By now, everyone is familiar with what the choices mean, so I won’t belabor it. The point is that your character must fit one of these categories.

The problems come when you try to actually stay true to your alignment. Some of the alignments are very restrictive, while others give characters a lot more leeway in their actions. For example, characters who are lawful good end up being practically saintly. They follow a moral code that requires them to condemn almost any act that is not completely altruistic or pure. This leads to attacking demons on sight in many cases, even if such an act is suicidal. It also means, at least in theory, that paladins should not even be in the same party as a thief. On the flipside, chaotic evil characters are downright nasty, and there’s no reason why a party of adventurers should ever allow one to accompany them. They do not follow any rules, and they are very likely to kill you and take your stuff at the first opportunity.

The very middle between these two extremes is also restrictive. The true neutral (neutral/neutral) alignment, often embodied by annoying druid characters, must seek total balance in the world between good and evil. Many players take this to mean that they must join whichever side is losing in a conflict (or outnumbered, or declining in the world, or…you get the idea!).

In practice, this leads a lot of people to select the more open-ended alignments, such as Neutral Good or Chaotic Good. These two alignments allow you to be a good person, but one largely free to interpret this however you see fit. You are willing to break the rules for the greater good, but you might follow them too. Many of my characters followed one of these two alignments, and frankly I rarely thought about alignment in those cases. I just did what I felt like doing at the time (as noted in a previous post, I tend to play good guys by default), and ignored the alignment system.

Thieves, on the other hand, might play Chaotic Neutral, which is basically the selfish alignment. Such a character will steal or kill, but not for no reason at all. They do it because they benefit from it. As a player, this alignment allows you to do bad things from time to time (morally speaking), but also allows you to cooperate with the group, for Hobbesian reasons. Thomas Hobbes writes that we are basically all egoist, but that our egoism gives us good reason for cooperating with others and forming a society. We all benefit from cooperation, and thus it’s in our own best interest to avoid murdering and stealing from people that could do the same to us.

Of course, Lawful Neutral also fits this somewhat, since this is the alignment of people who follow the rules for their own sake, and not because of the good it creates. While some people argue that this is the best choice, since it allows one to be lawful without being a zealot about it, I think it’s a completely empty alignment. This is the alignment of people who follow the rules simply because they never bother to question them. Such characters strike me as intellectually lazy, and that’s not particularly praiseworthy.

Lawful Evil and Neutral Evil characters have their own oddities. Lawful Evil represents something like the corrupt fascist, who uses law for evil means. I guess Hitler falls into this category; so if you want to play as Hitler, this is the one for you! Lucifer (the devil) would also fit, since apparently devils have to uphold their agreements, even if they twist them to evil purposes. Neutral Evil characters are out for themselves in a way similar to Chaotic Neutral, but they are a bit more bent on evil. Maybe serial killers follow this, assuming they are crafty and not just psychotic killing machines (chaotic evil). I honestly don’t think about the Evil alignments that much, because I don’t like playing that kind of character. I just don’t see why a party would ever allow any of these alignments to join them in an adventure.

However, I still haven’t really explained why I think the system is broken. The reason is simple- none of these alignments seem very realistic. People are complex moral beings. They rarely fit into easy categories like this. Hitler may have been Lawful Evil as a politician, but I bet he skipped school as a kid. And I hear that he liked puppies. Truly evil people, who do nothing but evil, are pretty rare in the real world. The concept of pure evil might make sense in a game about a fantasy world filled with monsters, but offering them as choices to player characters means that they will be caricatures at best.

Perhaps this is the general problem with D&D, and other class-based, alignment-structured systems. While some people are able to transcend the system and create truly interesting characters, the system itself does not encourage it. It encourages you to play a very two dimensional role. There is a reason why D&D has so many video games modeled after it. Part of it is popularity, of course, but part of it is that the system already feels like a tabletop version of a video game (I’m aware that D&D predates video games of the sort I’m talking about here). Sometimes, when playing D&D and similar games, I feel like I’m playing an MMORPG that requires me to pick an alignment in order to decide which magic items I’m allowed to use.

The concept of alignment is meant to encourage roleplaying, but ultimately stands in tension to good roleplaying. Still, other attempts to capture the idea of values and moral standards might fare better in this regard. So in future posts, I will explore some of these other attempts, including Palladium’s approach and even Lucas’s Light Side/Dark Side approach.