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An Ethical Qualm of Human Identity or: You Made the Wand Out of What?!

August 14, 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.

So, I’ve previously mentioned the Eberron campaign in this series.

As I discussed then, I’m certain that I had some sort of grander plans that involved secrets and mysteries of the setting. In fact, I recall plotting something involving the destruction of Cyre and the Lord of Blades. However, I also remember the players started to force the end game far faster than I initially planned and that’s when things really began to get ridiculous.

That’s because rather than just ending the campaign, or building a villain the party could not have beaten, I decided to just keep things going for as long as I was able. To keep things interesting though, I inserted an interesting magical item known as a Well of Many Worlds. This item lets characters jump through it to parallel universes and different worlds. Using this ridiculous magical item, that I reinterpreted to be akin to an inaccurate Stargate, I transported the PCs to several homebrew settings.

One of the interesting things that I decided to do, based on advice I collected on various internet forums, was to have the first world-jump to cause complications for Divine Casters. Divine Casters in Dungeons and Dragons generally gain their powers from Gods. Gods that are worshiped, and prayed to, and are theoretically active in their world. While Eberron doesn’t have active gods (like Forgotten Realms), I still felt that the Gods exist, regardless of whether or not the people of Eberron could confirm this. I decided this for a variety of reasons, but most importantly so that there could be an interesting session or two where the Cleric must rediscover either the power of his own Gods or find a suitable replacement.

Of course, when the party landed in this new world and the Cleric couldn’t feel the presence of his Gods the player decided this would be a good enough reason to retire the character. The player in question was Steve, who has had quite an interesting series of character mishaps, and his character was a Gnome Cleric. This Cleric wasn’t well respected by the party anyway, having at various times been stuffed inside of a Bag of Holding, and derided for his slow movement speed (Gnomes in Full Plate, amirite?), so the player was glad to be rid of him. Still, the question arose of what would become of the character.

I can’t quite remember if the player agreed to what would happen or not anymore, but I remember the Artificer being involved from the get-go. Clerics are the embodiment of their Gods, they’re magical casters, certainly their bodies could translate into some sort of raw resources for magical items, right? Especially this one since after all, Gnomes have spell-like abilities. I don’t know why I allowed it, but the cleric’s corpse became the gold component in a wand the Artificer of the party created.

The player of the Gnome Cleric was suitably horrified when he realized that the wand of Cure Light Wounds was composed of his corpse. If I recall it was constructed of his limb bones with his hands either clutching his heart or skull, which would glow with magical power when it was used. The party was appreciative of the extra healing power provided by the wand, the Cleric’s replacement included.

While I would like to say this is one of the most ridiculous things that I’ve ever managed to preside over as a GM, I know it’s not.

The thing that this question really raises to me though, is if there is a difference between using all the parts of the Buffalo versus using all the parts of the Sentient Buffalo-Man.

As society has become more aware of the horrible destruction humanity causes in its wake, we have continually focused on the concept of recycling and the old myth of how various “noble savages,” use all the parts of the Buffalo or Gazelle. We admonish those who would let things go to waste, and venerate people that pick through their garbage to ensure that all the aluminum, paper, and glass are separated.

Yet, the concept that Soylent Green is people is still one of the most horrifying that we can muster. The only times when humans have been able to make tools or decoration from other human beings were rooted in racism and the idea that the human beings that were turned into objects were not human beings.

In a sense, this is the question of whether or not sentience/sapience are actually important.

It is the sick and disturbing inverse to Singer-influenced arguments regarding the importance of animal welfare. Of course, most people that leap to the defense of animals because they believe they deserve the same respect as humans would not suggest the idea that we use humans in the same way as animals. This would be because in the case of turning humans into tools and food, we are treating with the same lack of respect that we treat animals.

Of course, this respect is the difference between the way we treat other humans and animals. This is why, when the Nazis made lampshades of human skin, we’re horrified because they have psychically distanced themselves so much from another human being to treat it as others might an animal. The idea that humans are barely separated from other apes, and from other animals in general, is in many ways horrifying because of how we treat those animals.

Not to say that it is normal to go about constructing staffs and wands out of deer bones but it becomes more terrifying if someone were to craft something out of a human skeleton.

A part of me wishes to argue that this is cultural baggage that we maintain from concepts like The Great Chain of Being, and Christian notions of stewardship. That we have long conceived of ourselves as the pinnacle of some sort of path that shows us as the greatest species on the planet. Even in secular society many people would argue that we, “evolved,” from “monkeys.” That is to say, that monkeys and apes are a “lesser being,” from ourselves because human beings are further along some sort of, “evolutionary path.” When in reality, humans and chimps derive from a common ancestor and the same process of evolution has resulted in how both species are today.

However, it goes deeper than that I would think. It might have to do with the way that humans construct identity as a whole. The individual, and his society, define themselves through differences from some other. I am me, because I am not that guy over there. That guy over there and I are Americans because we didn’t grow up in Syria or Germany. All of us humans are humans because we’re not buffalo.

Humans are different because we don’t treat humans like buffalo.

Therefore, we must treat their corpses differently, or else we are somehow saying (through cultural practice) that the human really is no different from the buffalo.

This is part of the hump that many people have in coming to accepting things like that the animals we eat have a fear of death, or feel pain in the same way we do. Fear of death, is a Human emotion. Human emotions are just that, human, and not for animals.

Of course, we aren’t necessarily talking about not eating meat (since there are much larger arguments going on there), but about why we don’t eat people.

We don’t eat people because they’re people, not food animals. As the concept of personhood widens to include higher apes like chimpanzees, and bonobos, as well as the so called “aquatic ape,” the dolphin, we are beginning to frown at the concept of eating them or making materials from them. It’s all because of how we categorize and organize our worlds in relation to ourselves.

I suppose the question is, at least in my opinion, one of the Devil’s Advocate; is this position right? Are the ways we categorize our world morally correct, or something else? Is a human being truly inherently better than a buffalo?

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One Comment
  1. Steve permalink

    For reference, I did permit the Artificer robot man to convert my items into a wand. What I did not foresee was the grisly results of his interpreting the remains of a healer as a material component.

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