Moral Choices: The Missing Middle Ground

Words: 2363 Approximate Reading Time: 15-20 minutes

In an earlier essay I talked about moral choices in video games, and one topic I took up was the issue of “greyness.” Often games focus on presenting two possible choices of “good” or “evil,” and some kind of middle ground is largely absent.

I also noted, though, that often when games try to incorporate this “grey” concept and explore it, they tend to do so poorly. At least, within the context of games that are specifically built around making moral choices.

I want to revisit this topic in more depth, to help explain what “greyness” actually means within the context of moral philosophy. Because there is a common misconception about how moral greyness or ambiguity works, which in turn leads to a series of missteps in implementing moral choices.

The primary issue is that moral greyness is often portrayed merely as some kind of midpoint between two established moral extremes. Those extremes, though, are usually patient saint and comically evil warlord. Good moral choices revolve around charity, understanding, and humility, while bad moral choices revolve around killing, stealing, and other forms of harm.

The major problem, though, is that this setup massively skews the midpoint towards “evil.” That is, the midpoint essentially becomes “pursue your own self-interest at the expense of others, as long as you don’t go too far.” Which is still morally wrong. And so “greyness” is essentially just a less comically evil version of evil. It’s still bad, but it gets some veneer of respectability because it’s not nearly as egregious as the extreme.

So properly implementing a moral choice system that incorporates greyness, or exploring morality and the ambiguity within it, becomes a much more complicated task than it will appear at first glance.

For this essay I’ll explore a few ways to actually achieve some kind of moral greyness within characterization and choice. I’ll draw upon a few examples, and unfortunately some of those examples will require spoilers for some games, so read ahead at your own peril if you wish to avoid them.

Akrasia

There is an important distinction between wanting to do what is right, and actually doing what is right. Quite often, people have some kind of recognition about what they ought to do, but can’t quite bring themselves to follow through. The reason being not that they don’t actually care, or they secretly take pleasure in doing the wrong thing, but rather that the pull of self-interest is too strong.

This phenomenon has been known for millennia, and Greek philosophers referred to it as “akrasia,” which roughly means “weakness of will.” That is, the individual has a desire to do something, but lacks the willpower to follow through. Something essentially holds them back. This akrasia is important for understanding how a person can be both good and not good at the same time.

The key to akrasia is that it is a genuine conflict between what someone recognizes as the right thing and the selfish thing to do. Which means in portraying this – whether through a character’s decisions or a choice placed before the player – it is important to capture this conflict.

So for example, it is not enough for a person to merely pursue self-interest. That selfishness might be easy to portray, but it does not capture the sense that the person is facing a conflict. Instead, they are simply being selfish because they are selfish. This isn’t “grey.” By the same token, presenting a moral action as a matter of “duty” removes the concept of selfishness from the equation, meaning that it’s still not “grey.”

In another case, it’s not useful to present a choice that is obvious. That problem can cut in either direction. A choice can be too clear about the value of being selfish, or too clear about the value of being good. When the choice is so simple, there is no conflict.

So in capturing akrasia, it is important to capture this struggle in the process of the choice, and the feelings that must necessarily come after. For the individual who chooses to reject the morally correct action in favor of self-interest, the person should feel guilty about their choice. And on the other hand, the person who does the right thing in the face of such temptation should feel some kind of regret or uncertainty about their choice. Because the value of what is given up should be sufficient to have been tempting – tempting enough to overcome the recognition of what ought to be done.

A Philosophy of Greyness

One common element that writers often try to explore in moral greyness is trying to provide a “philosophy” of greyness. That is, having characters or choices or storylines that embody the idea of avoiding being good or evil, but trying to stick to the middle of the road. But this attempt is very easy to mess up.

One common problem is that this philosophy in many forms is presented merely as a midpoint of two existing and competing philosophies of good and evil. The grey philosophy thus stakes out some kind of middle ground between the two. But the problem here is that such philosophies become nothing other than a diet version of one of the existing philosophies. Usually a grey philosophy is either being good but not as righteous or selfless as the “good” guys, or else being selfish but not as absurdly evil as the “bad” guys. Rather than really being “grey,” it becomes more “white-lite” or “black-lite.” In either case, the greyness feels empty.

Another common misstep is to present greyness as a mere question of non-intervention. That is, there are often two sides fighting, and the grey person merely abstains from playing any part in the conflict. As appealing as this idea may be, it is rare to get a good exploration of this worldview. An example that does this setup well is the Witcher series, but in part it works primarily because the game continually puts the player into situations that force them to think in different ways about their choices and the underlying philosophy of “just stay out of it.” Also important is the main character, Geralt, and his role as a Witcher, which is built specifically around that philosophy of non-intervention. That philosophy is then put into conflict with Geralt’s own interests, or his interests as the player understands them, which forces the player to decide whether “staying out of it” is ultimately the right thing to do or not. But non-intervention as a philosophy on its own is an over-simplified understanding of morality, and so should not be used as the primary tool for exploring morality.

Arguably the best way that existing media have instituted grey philosophies is through the concept of “neutrality.” One might think of Dungeons and Dragons, with its neutral system, and plenty of other science fiction and fantasy works that have in some ways borrowed that mentality. The basis of a neutral philosophy is generally about balance: that the world needs some kind of balance between good and evil, and if there is too much of one, then the neutral individual needs to switch sides to bring things back into balance.

This concept itself is relatively easy to present, but getting it right is going to be tough. Firstly, neutrality needs to exist within a context of worldbuilding that makes sense. A philosophy of neutrality only makes sense if too much good or evil genuinely poses an existential threat. Without that threat, the philosophy of neutrality falls apart, because it has no actual foundation. And so it is important that if a philosophy of neutrality is going to exist, it needs to have some basis in what we can broadly call “reality,” rather than mere rhetoric.

Secondly, it is important to actually follow through on this philosophy. Namely, if a character is going to be “neutral,” or else if there is a philosophy of neutrality for the player to roleplay, then it is important for the character and/or the player to actually switch sides.

Notably, many “neutral” characters written into games often come across as good characters masquerading as neutral. Or sometimes those characters become dull or annoying, because they don’t comment at all on the player’s choices or else criticize nearly everything. The end result is that neutral characters often end up being written poorly.

Meanwhile, neutrality as a philosophy becomes difficult to roleplay because the player is faced with too many conflicting incentives. The desire to roleplay is going to be hindered by the desire to collect resources and experience the game’s content, and often accomplishing the latter means getting involved to a degree that makes genuine neutrality impossible. Which brings us back to the idea that being grey ends up being more about not being completely selfless – things like helping a person and then accepting a reward rather than refusing the reward – than about being “neutral” in any genuine sense of the term.

So in creating a philosophy of greyness, it cannot be made thoughtlessly. It has to have something there, and it has to be followed to its conclusions. It’s certainly not impossible to create good characters that embody a truly neutral philosophy. But it is much easier to create a bad neutral character or present bad neutral options than it is to create good ones.

Conflicts of Duty

One thing that is less commonly explored as part of moral choice systems, but is sometimes explored as part of stories and characters, is the conflict between different concepts of what is “right.” That is, what is morally correct is not a simple on/off switch.

Instead, there are a variety of factors to take into account. For example, different people can have different duties. Individuals, we might say, have a duty to not harm each other. But we would also recognize that parents have a duty to protect their children. So what should a parent do if someone is threatening their child?

And similarly, people can take on different duties based on their own choices. Say you have taken a vow of pacifism, perhaps as part of a religion or as a personal choice. That vow can create its own duty, which can lead to further conflicts. What if that person is then faced with the prospect of violating the vow to protect another person?

Where we get some of the most interesting moral ambiguity is through these conflicts, but as a matter of moral choice systems they’re exceedingly rare. They are sometimes presented in more carefully crafted stories.

As an example, let us turn to the ending of The Last of Us. During the game, the main character, Joel, has developed a fatherlike relationship with the young girl, Ellie, that he has been traveling across the country with. Ellie herself supposedly holds a key to fighting a major outbreak that is effectively turning humans into monsters by using her immunity to create a vaccine. However, at the end of the game, Joel is told that in order to produce the vaccine from Ellie, she has to be killed.

Joel at this point makes the choice to save Ellie, which means killing the various people in the compound he was placed in (these people are, to some extent, portrayed as good people working for the benefit of others). He slaughters a number of people, including a doctor, in order to get Ellie.

The ending is powerful for several reasons. But one thing it does well is raising the question of whether Joel is ultimately right in his choice. And the choice has sparked a good deal of debate, in no small part because of these conflicting duties. Joel is, in a sense, protecting his daughter, and yet by doing so is effectively endangering the human race.

There are a variety of ways that individuals try to escape this conflict in interpreting the ending, but it is by facing players with these genuine conflicts that this ambiguity comes to light and morality can be more thoroughly explored and discussed.

But this example is more of a carefully crafted narrative, fit just as well for a movie or novel as it is for a video game.

And so capturing this same conflict within a moral choice system requires a bit more work. Namely, there needs to be an attempt to understand the player’s own obligations through their character. And in part, it takes a sense of role-playing by the player. If the player does not feel attached to a particular role – especially if the game doesn’t really invite them to feel that attachment – then any pull that corresponding duty will have on their choices will be minimal, if not entirely absent. Hence in part why presenting these conflicts within a moral choice system is so much more difficult.

Concluding Remarks

Moral ambiguity and greyness are compelling concepts to explore precisely because we commonly think about issues in terms of good and evil. And yet, so much of human life exists not in those clear extremes, but in the middle ground.

So exploring that middle ground is worthwhile, and yet to truly explore it is incredibly difficult. This is partially the consequence of our fixation on the good/evil dichotomy. We tend to focus so much on right and wrong that it essentially shifts our understanding of everything else. It becomes difficult to process morality outside of those concepts. Which admittedly isn’t bad, so much as something that makes looking at the “middle ground” a complicated task.

However, there are things to keep in mind. And probably the most important is to think from a personal perspective. If you were morally “grey,” why would you be so? Is it that you want to do the right thing, but can’t? Is it that you have a genuine philosophy behind your neutrality? Or are you faced with a sort of conflict between multiple conceptions of what is right at the same time? There are actually quite a few possibilities, and it is useful to think about these questions both in terms of writing interesting characters and creating situations for players within a moral choice system that are compelling.

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