At the risk of flogging a dead horse, I thought I'd do a bit more on ethics, partly in response to the comments made on last week’s post.
My examples were, quite rightly, described as ‘tasteless’ and it was pointed out that there is no single boundary, it turns out be a personal decision. Our tasteless wargames may offend some people, but how much should that determine what we play?
There seem to be two extreme reactions to wargaming. The first is ‘it is only a game so it doesn’t matter’, and the second is ‘how can you turn violence and suffering into a game?’ The former is often the response of wargamers, and the latter of non-wargamers. People can be offended, in principle at least, by our games, but is that a problem for us as wargamers?
John Stuart Mill’s harm principle states:
That principle is, that the sole end for which mankind are warranted, individually or collectively, in interfering with the liberty of action of any of their number, is self-protection. That the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others. His own good, either physical or moral, is not sufficient warrant.
In other words, my right to swing my fist stops at the end of your nose.
Harm in Mill’s view, does not include offense. My views or actions may offend you, but they do not cause you harm so you cannot prevent me from doing so. There is a thought experiment to show how this works. Suppose you are on a bus. You do not need to be on the bus, but getting off it would cause you some inconvenience.
Various people get onto the bus as it proceeds on its journey; people with clashing clothes colours, unpleasant odours, and similar things. As the bus proceeds, the activities of the people get more offensive: eating their own vomit, defecating, indulging in heterosexual and homosexual activity and so on. The thought experiment (the author of which I cannot recall, sorry) has about 40 examples. The question is at what point do you get off the bus?
This is the utilitarian approach to harm and offence. So long as I don’t harm anyone, except perhaps myself, you cannot do anything about my activities. Offence is insufficient to take action. However, the bus thought experiment indicates that there is some point (for most of us, anyway) at which we become so offended that we withdraw; at some point offence shades into perceptions of harm. This I think is the boundary and why it moves for us. The points at which we perceive harm to be starting is that point at which we object, and that is different for each of us.
There is another approach to public ethics, which dates back to Aristotle and has been revived in recent decades, called virtue ethics. This argues that what we do does make a difference to ourselves, to our character and hence has an effect in the world. We build our characters by what we do in the world; habit becomes ourselves.
Thus, I think the objector to wargames would argue that the representation of violent acts, even in the imagination, makes those violent acts more acceptable and thus lowers the threshold for actual acts of violence. It is the sort of argument that people make about pornography, for example, and has certainly been used to bash role-playing games when people who commit violent crimes have been found to play RPGs or, more recently, video games.
On Mill’s harm principle, we cannot but agree with those wargames who play tasteless games but claim ‘it is just a game’. They do no harm to anyone, and even if they did, it would only be to themselves. No one else can intervene; the toys go back in their box at the end and are not hurt.
On the other hand, I cannot help but feel that the virtue ethicist has a point, but a difficult one to defend as a wargamer. Various defences for a wargaming virtue ethicist can be advanced, such as that the game is complex chess, or it encourages the study of history, or it is social and the violence is abstract and not represented (which is probably why people may be more uneasy with RPG and first person shooter video games), but these don’t seem terribly strong to me.
Perhaps the best virtue ethics defence of wargaming is that of George Santayana:
Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.
As a species, we have a predilection for violence, as is clear from any study of the past. Wargaming, at least, brings that to the forefront, instead of hiding it behind the respectable veneer of civilisation.