As 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!