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The Ethics of Epidemiology or: That Time Tynan Suggested They Burn Down A Village

November 27, 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.

A few months ago I did something I hadn’t done in quite some time: I started a Dungeons and Dragons game. The idea that drove the game was to create a simple, straight forward, almost cookie cutter D&D game. Therefore, the game gathered the player characters together on the King’s Road as they made their way to the frontiers of a multi-cultural Kingdom.

The group was an interesting assortment, to say the least. There was Kiks, the Human Fighter/Sorcerer who was journeying to discover something relating to a dark and mysterious secret. Solus, a Human who lost his family and with it his faith who only then was touched by Cyndar, God of Time and Infinity. Since communing with Cyndar, Solus now serves him as a monk and priest. A shady druid with a monstrous wolf companion. Finally, there was a Favored Soul of Ehlonna named Mallory who was searching for an ancient artifact known as the Well of Abundance, and also turned out to be the lost Heiress to a powerful and now dead Lord.

The first story arc involved a Gnoll invasion of the frontier mountain area known as the Red Rock Vale. The party became wrapped up in trying to rally the various counts, and the Lord of Red Rock Vale, into defending the former town of Kordrak’s Bounty where the Gnolls were planning to enter into the Vale proper. This story arc culminated in the party discovering information regarding the Well of Abundance, and an ancient power known as Ahnval. Essentially, the first story arc kicked off the big arc of the game. However, the party would never get past the next session which contained a brief side quest because one of the players ended up moving across the country.

The side quest itself though, was somewhat interesting.

The party was once more traversing across the Red Rock Vale, following the vague direction of a magical shaft of light that had glowed after Kiks had destroyed a magical seal. The magical seal had been confining a powerful being that spoke of the Well of Abundance and referred to Ahnval, apparently the being’s master. With nothing else to guide them, they were moving as fast as they could to find the source of the light.

While traveling across the high plains and plateaus though, they came upon the small town of Highstead. Highstead was a small collection of buildings, the majority of which were shuddered up, with only single candle lights to indicate anyone was there at all. As they came upon an inn that sat across from a temple to Pelor, the party spotted an ambush.

As quickly as they realized there was an ambush set up though, they realized that their ambushers were a handful of very nervous teenagers. Quickly defusing the situation, the party was able to meet with the local priest and get a handle on what was going on.

The small town of Highstead had apparently seen a lot of troubles over the past few months. The Gnoll raids, which had always been a problem, had over the past several months increased in both frequency, and ferocity. This caused many people to flee from the frontier before planting season, leaving large fields to go untended. Then a plague came upon the people from nowhere, killing many, and turning many bedridden. People that could left before they became infected, everyone else has been stuck trying to create some sort of quarantine.

Worse than all of this, the plague seemed immune to attempts to cure it magically, or break it as if it were some sort of magical curse. As far as the local priest could tell, there was no cure; mundane or magical. Now there only chance laid with the party, could they go for help? A wizard lived relatively close by, and they could ride for the nearest settlement (Kordrak’s Bounty, destroyed by countless Gnoll raids before the campaign began).

It was at this juncture that the Druid voiced the question on why they should even care about this village. The logical course of action was to keep it quarantined and let them die of their strange disease. Better yet, he suggested, they should spur the process along and burn this place to the ground rather than risk further infection to the wider world.

The rest of the party being somewhat appalled decided to at least call upon this wizard, being somewhat suspicious since they definitely detected magical influence at play within this plague.

The Wizard’s tower was locked down due to the fact that something had gone wrong with his experiments. Communicating with the party through a series of tubes that carried sound throughout the tower, he begged for them to assist him in dealing with his rogue experiments. Sensing something was afoot, the party went about killing his abominations and finally came upon him.

Much as they suspected the wizard was up to some strange reality-warping magic. In this case, he was trying to cure lycanthropy. Not by trying to break the curse or the like, but by trying to transmute the disease out of the lycanthrope. This resulted in his lycanthropic test subject turning into some kind of monster, most of his other creations becoming enraged and busting loose, and some kind of minor plague being released.

The wizard could dismiss the plague, and agreed to, if the party kept secret about everything that had happened here. Wishing to wash their hands of the insanity of this small town and its resident reckless wizard, the party agreed and road away, with Highstead at their backs and out of their minds…

 

The question of dangerous infections is one that has been a problem for humankind for quite some time. We’ve regularly had to deal with epidemics, and large scale plagues tearing across our civilizations. Even in the modern age, the threat of diseases such as certain strains of the flu, or HIV/AIDs remains ever constant and things like the West Nile Virus or SARS have cropped up every couple of years. Add into this the supposed tipping point of antibiotics and the question of how we deal with disease becomes a very pressing one.

In the case of a small isolated town like Highstead, there are distinct issues that can come up. First off, while they did the right thing in quarantining their sick, they basically gave up fairly easily. The focus of the uninfected became one of surviving after the plague had passed (planting what fields they could), over actually trying to get help (sending one or two people to contact the wizard or government). While telecommunications technology might make this highly unlikely in first world countries, what about developing regions which are more susceptible to disease? It’s not a stretch to suggest that something like this might happen in a rural or far-flung part of many countries.

Next, the reality that this disease was man-made. The party basically let the man get away with it, because he could cure it. However, there’s nothing to indicate that he would stop with these experiments that could bring harm to people, and already had brought harm to people. Of course, this is the danger of medical research in the real world. How dangerous might a new vaccine be, or the idea of keeping specimens of dangerous viruses alive for the purpose of studying them?

Finally, the Druid’s suggestion that the town be razed, along with its ill. Is this a viable option that must be considered? At what point do we say that we give up on the sick? Is there a morally justifiable point where we can say, “There’s nothing more we can do, and for the safety of everyone, we must kill them off.”

These might sound like fantastic scenarios but they’re very real. To me personally, I think the dangers that can exist due to medical research are acceptable. Every advancement comes with some level of danger, and we’ve become very good at understanding how to prevent outbreaks from our medical research facilities. May there be unforseen complications? Have some theorists already argued that there have already been such complications? Yes, and yes. However, do we not have a moral duty to seek cures for horrible diseases, even if there is a human cost?

It is that human cost that raises the larger questions though, about what happens when a plague does occur. When are human costs considered acceptable in comparison to the rest of society? Is one person too many? Is there a real difference between one person and one thousand or one person and one million?

The question really comes up that if we couldn’t find a cure, do you raze the village? Is the idea of giving them an assisted suicide or leaving them to die, truly much better?

 

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