Moral Minutia

WARNING: I am using the terms ‘moral’ and ‘evil’ throughout this article to describe situations which may not seem befitting of such grandiose labels. Rest assured that I do so only because framing everyday minor problems as moral dilemmas gives us vital tools for discussion.


An awesome image I found of instinct versus reason.

Moral philosophers and psychologists have long grappled with questions concerning the nature of our conscience. Plato believed morality to exist outside of the person it was being attributed to. ‘The good’ and ‘the evil’ were abstracts which applied to people only insofar as the instance of their application made them temporally relevant. The rational man (sic) was able to think beyond mere instinct, and could see these concepts simply by thinking through the values from the hypothetical lens of a third party with no prejudice or emotional involvement in any given quarrel. The problem with this argument was that it supposed that this newer class of human was somehow able to achieve this miraculous perspective. Pondering a dilemma for a short moment placed such a person so incalculably further towards advancement than his peers as to render him on par with the gods.

Later, we would come to see David Hume arguing that human instincts were the basis for any kind of moral judgement, and saying that ‘reason is perfectly inert, and can never either prevent or produce any action or affection.’ Indeed reason (as an abstract produced by humans) was never able to directly produce or affect anything *in* humans. How could an abstract concept supposedly dictate values to the same beings which created it?

From here we delve into the realm of moral decision-making being an instantaneous and split-second moment in an emotional being’s life. (Although it is worth noting that modern philosophers such as Peter Singer have argued that our instincts betray us in a world succumbing to overpopulation, and that a return to rational morality is in order.)

A rendition of the basic 'Trolley Problem' by an artist who has yet to sell any of his work.

I was first introduced to the ‘Trolley Problem’ a few years ago at uni. In it, philosophers Foot and Thompson proposed a moral dilemma:

A trolley car is hurtling down a track towards five people, all of whom are certain to die if the trolley maintains its path. You can see this, and are standing next to a switch which will re-route the trolley car onto a different track. The kicker: the other track has one person on it, who is also certain to die should you pull that god-forsaken switch.

A more complex version of the Trolley Problem from an artist who owned colour paints.

The moral questions which have plagued bored uni students for a gargantuan amount of time begin with ‘Is it wrong to pull the switch’ and ‘Is it wrong to do nothing and let people die’ to more complex variants. These demonstrate the increasingly close link between psychology and philosophy, such as ‘What if the person on the alternate track was your mother’ or ‘What if your family is on one side but your one true love for all eternity is on the other’ and other such themes.

I was thinking today (as usual) of videogames, and at one of the common criticisms they receive. Videogames are too simplistic, they’re all about shooting people and things, they lack subtlety, they’re dramatically impotent.

A videogame exploring the nuances of human interaction between building and spider superpowers.

All of the above are true. Videogames are creating worlds which are burdened by limited technology which tries to mimic the real world. It is a gargantuan task to try and perfectly mimic the nuances of a particular type of cloth falling through an unpredictable pattern of wind. This, however, is precisely where games are at. They try to recreate the most obvious (and therefore simplest to recreate) display of human emotion for the purpose of storytelling there is: violence.

How people used to pose when spear-throwing

Man A throws a spear at Man B. Game determines whether or not it hits by giving a few basic calculations to the physical properties of the scenario.

All too often, though, corners are cut when the calculations required become too complex. If the spear misses Man B and hits the rock behind him. At what angle does the spear ricochet? Does the impact of the spear in the rock cause it to jolt slightly? Does that jolt cause Man C standing on the rock to lose his footing?

The point is, we’re a far cry from the butterfly flapping its wings and causing a tsunami in a videogame.

An early videogame attempts to simulate human emotion.

But we’re trying. AND we’re trying to replicate other facets of human life as well. We’re trying to tell stories. These stories require us to mimic human emotions. Games can ‘script’ themselves to play out in the same way that novels can, but to create a character who responds in a natural way to stimuli requires creating an emotional ‘engine’, the very first baby-step prototypes of which are still laughably simplistic, and will be for a very long time to come.

Our own capacity to learn from birth isn’t all that dissimilar to the trajectory of representation now besetting videogames. The first thing we learn to do as creatures is move our vessels (violence). From there, we begin with identification and communication and eventually conform to societal patterns, and begin the hostile quest of navigating our social world to be as successful as possible.

In such a complex world, how much value does the Trolley Problem really have? Of course, it’s a hypothetical situation, and therefore shouldn’t be a realistic scenario. Moral discussions have been too extreme and too focused on such black-and-white topics as causation / prevention of death to be of significant daily use for some time.

Conflicts of life and death proportions rarely arise in daytime soaps, but they're useful moral teaching tools nonetheless.

They are, however, getting better. Moral study increases its complexity (alongside law) to determine the exact amounts people ought to be taxed for various goods, how to apply human rights in a very wide variety of situations, but the study doesn’t extend into the realm of the petty. Yet it is in this realm of snide comments, unwelcome gestures, fierce body language and more where we are determined to be ‘good’ or ‘bad’ people by our peers.

The fact is that once we’re dealing with moral concerns which are too small to fall under the purview of the legal system, we lose interest. It becomes infinitely more complex, harder to detail and harder to organise and understand.

Google Maps: Helping you not have to ask directions from strangers since 2005!

But what are these minutias if not moral dilemmas? When approaching a stranger on the street to ask for directions (until Google Maps was invented) it is customary to open with ‘excuse me’. This is of course shorthand for a sentence which goes something like ‘Please excuse my transgression of your personal space, I mean you no harm’. If a stranger on a plane points out the beautiful sunset visible from the window to the passenger next to them, is it aggressive? Even if the passenger responds appropriately with a ‘thank you’, is it ‘right’ or ‘good’ to place yourself in another’s space without being asked? Even if the intention is to share something beautiful with them? Each instance of unsolicited comment is ostensibly a ‘demand’ from another person for their attention. Is being demanding of others who are unknown ‘bad’ or must we constantly be ‘excusing’ ourselves for our transgressions?

This is not an area of study which appears very relevant. Surely the Trolley Problem is worth examining because it speaks to humans’ ability to manoeuvre the trickiest of situations, and therefore will determine our worth as a species at a more fundamentally important level. But how many times would it take for the moral transgression of a stranger interrupting someone’s calm without saying ‘excuse me’ before it were worth the same amount of Plato’s ‘evil’ as one instance of a salesman lying to a potential customer to ensure a sale? How many times would a salesman have to lie to that potential customer before the amount of evil were equal to someone neglecting to risk their own life when they knew that to do so would certainly save the life of another?

Of course, I’m not suggesting that ‘evil’ can be quantified, or that it should be. But the trillions upon trillions of instances every single day of the most minor of acts of ‘evil’ (at least in intent if not in scale) are worth examining because they form the fabric of our mundane lives just as much as the extreme instances of selfishness may on the battlefields of war.

There are countless aspects of everyday human interaction which could stand to be put through the rigorous examination of moral scrutiny. What to one person is ‘being friendly’ to another is harassment. What to one person is ‘playing the game of sales’ is to another outright lies. Indeed each and every discourse, arena, region or even time-of-day comes with a different set of social rules which subtly vary the meaning of the smallest of gestures.

Humans begin their lives learning to move, to use their senses to identify their surroundings, to communicate with what they perceive, and finally to learn the rules of engagement. The study of morality begins with the good or evil nature of violence, moves on to consider context (including the ‘letting die’ vs ‘killing’ concept), begins to consider smaller things including deception and lying (communication), and finally to a more thorough examination of the rules of a grand society. Surely the next logical step for morality is to go smaller than it ever has before, and determine the ‘goodness’ or ‘badness’ of the simplest of everyday gestures. As incidences of violence decrease and society reduces its propensity for conflict, morality must concern itself with hitherto unseen dilemmas.

A person’s out-of-line behaviour can sometimes come to a halt when someone is able to point out the social moral rule being broken. In a world where ‘looking at someone funny’ can be grounds for deserving an assault, shouldn’t we strive to establish a workable dialogue about what constitutes the difference between looking at someone ‘regularly’ and ‘funny’? If we were all armed with language which allowed for succinct declarations of what someone was doing wrong in (even the smallest of situations) we’d have more time spent not bickering… in which we can get on our spaceships… and conquer Mars… for looking at us funny.

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One Response to Moral Minutia

  1. Pingback: A Honeymoon of Cut Scenes and Gameplay « Restore, Restart, Quit?

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