Saturday 20 August 2011

Wargaming Beyond Morality

Supposing that we came up with a theory that wargaming in particular, and leisure activities in general were in some sense beyond moral decisions. How would you feel about that?

Now, first of all, let me give a brief outline of the sort of argument which might lead to leisure activities being beyond morality. It goes something like this:

Moral judgements are made about the outcomes of activities.

Leisure activities have no outcome. This is because the point of a leisure activity is the process of the leisure activity, not the result of that activity. Thus, the point of wargaming is to have a wargame, not to have had one.

Therefore, as leisure activities have no outcome, there can be no moral judgement passed upon them.

Therefore, wargaming is an activity which is beyond, or at least outside the normal range of our moral activities.

Thus, wargaming is beyond morality.

Now, your response to this might vary. Some might say “wonderful! He can stop wittering and worrying about it now on his blog.” Fair comment, perhaps. Another response would be ‘of course it is, because it is something that I do with myself and a group of consenting adults. How can morality possibly come into play?’ Again, that is, as the argument above suggests, a defensible one.

However, I suspect that a number of us might not be too comfortable with the idea that wargaming, or any other activity for that matter is entirely beyond our moral range, so perhaps we need to look a little more closely at the above argument.

Firstly, it is interesting to note that some of the activities that we have worried about here, such as promoting neo-Nazi agendas, are ruled out. To promote a political agenda thought the leisure activity is to slip an outcome into it. The argument then is invalidated, and the outcome ruled out by normal morality being applied. Further than this, it might be that the argument also rules out bragging rights and being able to recall the game. This might be a little harsh, but I suppose it depends on what you regard as being within or outwith the leisure activity.

The second thing to note is that the argument is based on utilitarianism. There is an assumption in the initial statement that the thing of interest is the outcome. Now, utilitarianism argues that the morally correct decision is the one that brings the greatest good for the greatest number of people. It is consequential; the consequences are important. However, the argument above explicitly states that the activity has no consequences. It is the engagement in the activity which matters.

Now, utilitarianism is widespread in our public discourse. Most political decisions which are made are informed, or at least argued over, from utilitarian perspectives. I suppose that in a liberal democracy, this is fairly inevitable.

Utilitarianism does have its problems, however. The most obvious is the impossibility of calculating the ‘goods’ which a particular course of action might entail. For example, I might think it good that the country remains with a high debt to maintain a good public health service. You might well agree that a good public health service is important, but you might argue that if we maintain a huge debt to fund it, our children will not be able to have such a service for themselves. The argument then revolves around who the greatest good applies to: us or future generations?

I don’t want to get into the details of the arguments for and against utilitarianism. In our context, it rules out any application of morality to the game itself. I think the problem with this approach has already been indicated. No activity is actually an activity entirely without outcomes.

Some outcomes are good. For example, figure manufacturers, rule writers and terrain makers will all benefit from your activities, as may metal manufacturers, paint mixers, paintbrush makers and so on. These are all beneficiaries of your wargame, albeit indirectly, but they do make the point that no wargame can be isolated from the rest of the world. As hinted above, even the winning of bragging rights suggests an outcome beyond the activity, and then the argument does not apply.

Therefore, it would seem that while a utilitarian argument that wargaming is beyond morality can be constructed, when the details are examined, it might be that the circumstances under which it would apply are so restrictive that the argument cannot apply to a real world scenario. After all, it rather defeats the object of having a wargame if we cannot recall it pleasure, talk about it to our friends and so on.

The other thing which the utilitarian argument does not deal with is morality within the game. While the above argues that wargaming is not a moral argument per se, it does not tackle the issue of dealing morally within the game. I don’t mean, here, the morality of the game level, of what our symbols of real actors are doing, but at the player level. By this, morality means not cheating, not trying to obtain more than is your due under the rules and so on. Utilitarianism may have some bearing on this behaviour (in fact, I think it does) but it is not included in the above argument.

So where does this leave us?

I think that the utilitarian argument described is quite a useful one for thinking about the morality of wargaming as a leisure exercise. However, I think I have demonstrated that it does not actually get us very far. Perhaps the most useful thing it does is rule out definitively some of the more extreme behaviours which a minority might engage in, to make some sort of political point. But, as we have discussed before, that is a tiny minority of people associated with wargaming. The argument has helped a bit, but still leaves a wide open field for further pondering.


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  2. Two recent threads on TMP that might be of interest in considering the morality of wargaming: