Lately, I've found myself thinking about morality, and how people process the idea. I'm particularly interested in how, in a fictional context, the setting of the work can impact the moral decisions. This is an interesting subject because both audiences and creators have a tendency to examine the morality of Fantasy and SciFi characters through the lens of our own world, and I think this does a disservice to the moral quandaries these characters face. Let's take a look at a couple moral dilemmas in speculative settings and examine how we would react in our own world, and how the characters should react in theirs.
OK, so first off, I should note that ethical philosophies can be very broadly split into two categories: Moral Relativism and Moral Absolutism. A Moral Relativist believes that nothing is set in stone and that extenuating circumstances exist that can change moral choices. A Moral Relativist will probably judge the morality of an action on a specific case-by-case basis (for example, Bob was wrong to hurt Alice because he was angry at her, but Chuck was right to hurt Dorothy because she was coming at him with a knife). A Moral Absolutist, however, believes that right and wrong are set in stone, and certain actions are always morally reprehensible no matter the circumstances (for example, both Bob and Chuck were wrong because it is never OK to harm another person).
For what I hope are obvious reasons, this article will mostly focus on Moral Relativism. However, I will tackle how speculative settings can effect absolute morality toward the end.
First off, we should remember that, when judging moral dilemmas under this situation, context is key. I really cannot stress this enough. With the right context, even something that we hold as absolutely right could end up being wrong, and something we hold as absolutely wrong could end up being right. Of course, even in the real world, people hardly agree about what is right and wrong. Sure, we may all nod our heads whenever someone says that murder is bad, but what about war? The death penalty? Euthanasia? Abortion? You'll find people-- especially with that last one-- who will be at each other's throats, so passionate they are regarding the morality of the act.
And, because I just love to make people irrationally angry, let's talk a bit about abortion, specifically how it was handled during a brief storyline of the Science Fiction show Battlestar Galactica.
Here is the situation without context: a pregnant young woman seeking an abortion is banned from doing so by her parents, so she runs away from home and takes shelter with people who will give her the abortion she wants.
If you've seen the episodes I'm talking about, I'm going to ask you to kindly forget about everything else that happens and focus entirely on the contextless situation I described.
There are many ways to interpret this morally. Someone who supports a woman's right to abortion ("Pro-Choice") would say that the parents who banned the girl's abortion were wrong to do what they did, and the girl had every right to do what she did. Someone who opposes the practice of abortion ("Pro-Life") would say that the girl was morally wrong to do what she did, and that the parents had the right to ban her from getting an abortion for the same reason someone would have the right to prevent you from murdering someone. Depending on your feelings on the subject, you have probably come down on either the Pro-Choice or Pro-Life stance.
Now I'm going to ask you to do something very difficult-- set it aside. We are about to put that plot in context.
The premise of Battlestar Galactica is that humanity lived on twelve planets called the Twelve Colonies. The most popularly practiced religion among the Colonists is a polytheistic religion that worships the Greek gods (no, I don't know why). At some point in the past, humanity created a mechanical race called the Cylons, but these beings rebelled against their creators and were driven out into exile. When the show begins, the Cylons have suddenly returned in full force, having improved upon themselves and become a bio-mechanical species with a monotheistic religion. The Cylons launch a full scale nuclear invasion on the Colonies, and roughly 50,000 survivors manage to escape on a fleet of starships.
The new president of the Colonies, or rather, president of the Colonial Fleet, is believed by the religious authorities to be fulfilling a prophecy to lead humanity to its ancestral home. The president, for her part, finds herself believing as well, which brings her at odds with the military leader who commands the titular warship, which has been charged with protecting the fleet. She also experiences a personal struggle, as some of the religion's tenets clash with her own views on morality (abortion being one).
In the scenario previously described, the girl takes refuge on the Galactica, and has her abortion there. However, it doesn't happen immediately, due to her parents demanding her return, and the religious institution rallying behind, turning this into a hugely publicized controversy-- especially since, given the sheer destruction that these people have experienced, the religion is far more popular than it ever was before.
The president is initially against giving the girl back, as she believes that she deserves the right to choose for herself whether she should have an abortion, but then her adviser points out the problem with that.
The number of living humans drops every day. If the human race is to survive, then as many humans must live as possible. In short, abortion is simply a luxury that humanity cannot afford. The president is forced to acknowledge this, and following the girl's abortion, it is announced that abortions are now illegal.
Regardless of your own opinion on abortion, given the context of the situation, banning it was most likely the right thing. The survival of the species was a number one priority. Efforts needed to be taken to increase population growth and decrease population shrinkage. Banning abortion was one way to do this.
Someone who identifies with Pro-Life will have no problem accepting this law's enactment. Someone who identifies as Pro-Choice, however, would have difficulty, as it goes against a belief that they likely hold dear. However, you must acknowledge that this context is not the same as reality, and as such different moral conclusions must be drawn.
I brought up Battlestar Galactica specifically because it was the first work I could think of wherein the context of the setting specifically altered the moral conclusions of a situation. Another example, with a similar "the fate of the human race is on the line" situation, is the comic series Y: The Last Man. The cloning of humanities, in the real world, is banned, and considered by many to be unethical. In Y: The Last Man, however, all the males have died, leaving only women alive on earth, and cloning is the only thing that can ensure that humanity won't end. In this context, human cloning is the morally right thing to do.
I really wish I could see more works where the setting alters morality, preferably one in which the survival of the species is not on the line, but I can't think of any specific instances. Sure, there are settings that simply have different values than we do (for example, George R.R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire is set in a country that closely adheres to medieval customs such as trial by combat and marrying girls off as soon as they get their first period), however, in these worlds, it's easy for us to disapprove of their values, in the same we'd disapprove of values held by people 200 years ago. While exploring these foreign cultures may be interesting, there's nothing that truly justifies their actions.
This is, perhaps, why fantastical races can get away with alternate moralities-- because their physiology can work to justify their different code of ethics. For example, the khepri of Perdito Street Station by China Mieville are misandrists, and care nothing for the males' well being. This is because male khepri are small, mindless animals that exist solely to impregnate the females, who, in contrast, are tall, intelligent artisans. While one could possibly make a case for the male khepri in the same way as one could make a case for animal rights, trying to institute any form of egalitarianism in khepri society would be nonsensical, since their males literally lack the higher brain functions necessary to be part of society. They're basically just football-sized, beetle-shaped, rapist sperm banks.
So, yeah. Morality in fantasy universes doesn't necessarily have to work the same way it does in reality. Even absolute morality. In a world explicitly created by some god or force, it is the creator, after all, who makes the rules. If a setting was created by a god who sees no problem with murder, then murder might not be wrong in this world, and murder being alright is literally written into the fabric of that universe. Maybe the characters can oppose this god in a sort of Rage Against The Heavens plot, but maybe not. What would a world where murder is condoned by universe itself be like to live in?
Fantasy is about exploring other worlds. It's about entering alien universes and encountering impossible things. Write a fantasy where the rules are different from our own. Let us visit these worlds and immerse ourselves in them. Too many writers just create a pseudo-medieval European setting and impose modern day values on it, and, really, that's go to stop.
Give us something unique. I'm not going to be offended by the Murder-Is-OK world. It's just fiction. It's a thought experiment.
Fantasy is a type of speculative fiction, and speculative fiction asks the question of "What If?"
So, ask yourselves, fantasy writers: What If?