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The Morality of Moral Relativism or: A Heretical Kitten Drowning

July 3, 2012

Part of a continuing series I’ve dubbed, “To Be A Young Necromancer In Love,” updating Tuesdays and whenever the hell I feel like it.

The one time I willingly played Fourth Edition Dungeons and Dragons was… a little strange.

It was the Games Day celebration for the Player’s Handbook II, and due to some series of circumstances one of my friends had registered our college as a Games Day game site. We received a few copies of the adventure module designed to showcase the book, and some specific miniatures. We ended up having two groups playing in the same room, who had two very different experiences but that’s not what matters in this case. I, along with some others, were going to be the players in my friend’s game.

The first thing we noticed after receiving our character sheets was that our characters had absolutely no background or reason to actually be adventuring together, despite the base assumption of the module being that we were an adventuring party. Thus, the insanity began.

For example, playing a Warforged Barbarian, I described myself as having been a creation from the far-off future. I fell into a time portal that sent me ten years into the past. The problem was, that by this point in my life, I had lived five years past the point when I had been sent into the past. So all my references to “the future,” were events that happened five years before the adventure.

Along for the ride were a bard, a paladin, a character I can’t remember, and a Drow Acolyte, which was some sort of divine class. The importance of the Acolyte (if that’s what the class is called, I can’t remember), was that they followed the Goddess of Death, whose name is something like The Raven Queen or something*.

The basis of the adventure is that it is a dark and stormy night, and on our way back from another adventure we happen upon a town. The town is eerily quiet, even for a dark and stormy night, but we find an inn. The inn is slick with blood and intestines, and we hear horses whinnying when the lightning flashes. So basically, we had a groovy mystery on our hands.

The beats of the adventure are pretty simple.

The adventurers go to the town square, where they find a little girl who is being harassed by a group of evil humanoids. It is important to note that despite what the players might think, according to the adventure module these evil humanoids are completely unrelated to what’s causing the problems in the town. They are effectively an evil adventuring party that descended from the wilderness to take advantage of the townsfolk’s disappearance.** They had some religious markings that were either supposed to serve as a red herring, or some sort of further coincidence.

You then chase down a little girl, because 4th edition D&D adventures need skill challenges, and find out that all the townsfolk have been kidnapped by a demon for some nefarious purpose. The demon’s hiding out at the mill, the PCs go to the mill, fight some monsters and then fight the demon who is holding the townsfolk hostage for… some purpose. Basically, the Demon is one of those villains who just does evil things because he’s well… evil. Just look at him, he’s got red skin and horns and everything. I think he even wielded a trident or other forked polearm.

Now, all of that happened, and yes it was poor game design, and when I later looked over the Player’s Handbook II I was extremely disappointed. Largely because they didn’t feel the need to showcase more of the amazing classes that they had made rather than just recycling some from the previous PHB and some that were reinterpretations of classes from previous editions. Also, the fact that my character’s quote was, “Gimme some oil or I’ll rip your head off,” didn’t do much to make me feel they were sticking to the “Warforged aren’t robots,” idea. Finally, the fact that there was no background information on the characters didn’t assuage my fears at the time that Dungeons and Dragons was no longer a roleplaying game.

Of course, none of that matters. What matters is this scene.

On our way to the town square, we (unlike the other party) made and succeeded upon spot checks. It was because of this, that we noticed the kitten that had been drowned in a puddle. A drowned kitten. Blown away that the writers of this adventure would try to play at our heart strings in lieu of an engaging plot, we endeavored to come up with an in-character reason for this to enrage us. The rest of this adventure hung upon one Knowledge (Religion) roll by the Acolyte of the Raven Queen.

Due to some questions pulled out of our collective asses regarding sacrifices and the like, we came to the ultimate conclusion that this kitten drowning was heretical. It was, in fact, not within proper Church of the Raven Queen guidelines for the drowning of kittens. Since we had no concern for the town, as there was nothing to indicate we had even passed through it before, the heretical nature of the kitten drowning became our sole driving force. We were crusaders out to punish heretics, and saving the town was a secondary goal.

 

There are two important things to unpack from this story.

As we have discussed before, morality and ethics are not something which comes out of a void to teach us right from wrong. They are built within a social context.

People didn’t just one day wake up and realize that it was morally wrong to eat the pig. Kosher laws come from generations and generations of reinforced tradition. In fact, as I’ve mentioned before, some Rabbis have even suggested that the whole point of Kosher laws is not dietary or moral but a lesson in submitting to the will of God. Obedience to God is the moral being taught in Kosher laws, not the immorality of eating a pig. Without the context of Man’s relationship with and place in deference to God, Kosher laws really don’t make much sense.

There are many aspects of morality that might not make sense outside of their social context. For example, I’m reminded of a pair of articles that were once pointed out to me, both about men stealing money. One stole several hundred thousand dollars from a large company through guile and the other stole one hundred dollars from a bank with the claim that he had a gun. Both men were caught due to mistakes they made; the embezzler because of a book keeping issue, and the robber for returning with the one hundred dollars the next day and apologizing for his behavior. The man who stole from the bank received a sentence several times longer than the embezzler.

Why would this be the case?

Contextually, in the United States we view violent crimes, even ones where there is merely the threat of violence, as far more serious than other crimes. These weren’t two men who had both stolen money. It was a man who had stolen money and a man who had threatened the life of people while stealing money. It’s a key difference from the view of the justice system, and in a sense the way that many Americans really do view the situation ethically. Lying and cheating (embezzlement), are not as heinous as traumatizing people or doing bodily harm.

Of course, this leads us to the other issue I’d like to raise regarding this situation.

Sometimes context reveals the fact that some ways of constructing moral and ethical systems are just silly.

Is there really a difference between not eating pig because it’s a dirty animal or because God told you to? Is it really worse for a man to threaten someone’s life for money, while another man violates the trust that has been placed in him while doing direct damage to his employers and thus all members of the company?

In other words, is moral relativism always the right path?

In some social contexts, female genital mutilation, or the more news-friendly term “female circumcision,” is a required part of growing up. The slicing open of their clitoris and labia is to help them quell their sexual desires and keep them pure, which is important in the context of this society.*** Does this really make any more sense than fighting a demon for the way it drowned a kitten? Remember, not that it’s kidnapped people, not that it drowned a kitten, but the way it drowned the kitten.

Some people might suggest that by jumping to FGM I’m merely showcasing the worst possible scenarios of moral relativism, and giving leeway for ethical context.

I will admit that female genital mutilation is generally the worst thing I can think of, and our willingness to not just call the people that perpetrate it dirty savages really does irk me on some level. However, is it really any worse than the other things that we let slide in the name of relativism and social context? No, not really. The oppression of women, the drowning of children, overburdened orphanages and foster systems, people dying because they can’t afford health care, citizens living in fear of their governments, and many many more are all pretty bad to just say “But oh, moral relativism!”
I will also state that when it comes to a refusal to take a moral action, we must look at the worst possible outcome of not doing good. Whenever you think about moral relativism, and a Prime Directive-like view point, you should immediately think of little girls having unsterilized knives taken to their genitalia. That’s the cost.

There’s a lot that we let get brushed away under the pretense of social context or moral relativism, and it’s important to sometimes ask ourselves if this is right. Just like it’s important to look at our own moral systems and ask if sometimes we forget their own stupid social contexts. We’re not all empowered by divine beings with skills and magical powers, and therefore we are allowed to question things like, whether or not drowning kittens at all is a good idea, not just whether or not the kitten drowning was in line with Church law.

 

 

 

*: As you’re quickly beginning to notice, Fourth Edition D&D is pretty fucking lazy.
**: I recall now that one of the evil humanoids was basically implied to be some sort of child molester, hence why they were trying to attack the little girl. Or maybe he was just going to eat her, we just got a real molester vibe.
***: By pure, I mean virgins, because this society values piercing a woman’s hymen for some socially contextual reason. Best way they’ve thought to keep women virgins? Make sex a horrible experience that would involve tearing open festering wounds on their genitals, risking further infection.

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