Please read this first.

Welcome! This blog is devoted to considerations of morality in the The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim by Bethesda. Rather than a fansite, review, or walkthrough, it is a serious attempt to examine the game through a moral lens. Please note that the purpose of this blog is to discuss morality within the context of the game, not to determine whether playing the game is immoral in and of itself; the latter type of "discussion" tends toward tedium and inhibits, rather than promotes, a meaningful conversation.

If you have not visited this blog before, it might be helpful to read the posts labeled "Orientation," most of which are the first few entries in the blog archive (see right). These posts include a short introduction to this project, a content-specific author bio, and a few other pieces that explain key concepts relevant to this study. These posts are of particular use to those readers less familiar with Skyrim (or video games in general).


If you have visited this blog before, thanks and welcome back!

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Ill Met By Moonlight

Ill Met By Moonlight is a Daedric quest involving Hircine, the Daedric Prince of the Hunt.  It began in Falkreath, where I met Mathies and Idara, farmers who were grieving the brutal murder of their young daughter.  They tearfully reported that an itinerant laborer on their farm had torn their little girl to pieces, like a wild animal.  That laborer, Sinding, was now in the city jail awaiting trial for his crime.

When I visited Sinding, he admitted both to being a werewolf and to killing the girl, but claimed that her death wasn’t really his fault.  Apparently, in an effort to control his transformations, he stole the Ring of Hircine.  The Daedric Prince, supremely displeased with Sinding’s temerity, cursed the ring so that he was now transforming at random.  It was during one of these random transformations that he killed the little girl.  Before he was arrested, he came to the conclusion that he needed to win back Hircine’s favor by hunting and killing a rare beast – the White Stag.  Obviously, being in jail made his plan untenable, so he asked me to help him by taking the ring and hunting the White Stag for him.

The first moral dilemma was, of course, whether to help Sinding.  Regardless of whether I believed his story or his remorse, he killed a child, so I was not inclined to help.  However, so long as Sinding possessed this ring, he was a threat to everyone, including his jailers, if for no other reason than Hircine would probably not stop until he was satisfied.  Furthermore, Sinding was already incarcerated and would most likely be executed, so there was no need for me to break the law by taking justice into my own hands.

The second dilemma involved the ring itself.  As a werewolf myself, if I took the ring, I would also take on the curse of random transformation.  In my consideration of the Companions questline, I discussed the moral implications of lycanthropy in some detail.  Ultimately, I concluded that being a werewolf in Skyrim is morally neutral because the PC can not only choose when to transform but is also in complete control of his actions when transformed.  If choice is removed but control is retained, as seemed to be the case with the cursed ring, then the issue becomes only slightly more complex.  If I were to transform in the marketplace, for example, I would immediately draw the hostility of every witness, and would therefore have to choose among fighting innocent people, running away as fast as possible, or dying.  Given my previous experiences with Beast Form, decided that it was a calculated risk worth taking.

Once I agreed to take the ring, Sinding did something that, had I anticipated it, would have led me to kill him in his cell, regardless of the legal penalty.  As soon as the ring was in my possession, he transformed voluntarily and escaped out of the hole in the high ceiling of his cell.  The lesson here is that even the most carefully thought-out moral plans can have unintended consequences.

As much as I wanted to hunt Sinding down, I now had to deal with the curse, so I decided that the best course of action would be to hunt the White Stag and get Hircine’s attention as soon as possible.  Fortunately, I completed this stage of the quest quickly, only transforming right after I killed the White Stag out in the wilderness.  Hircine did in fact appear and informed me that Sinding was hiding out in Bloated Man’s Grotto and that he had already sent other hunters after him.  Knowing that the hunters would probably be no match for a desperate werewolf, I headed straight for the Grotto.

When I arrived, I found that my suspicions were correct; Sinding had already killed several of the hunters.  I felt bad about my role in their deaths, but as they were evidently Hircine’s cultists, and therefore a brutal lot to begin with, I did not lose much sleep over it.  I tracked down Sinding, at which point he asked that I let him go.  His plan was to live in the wilderness, far away from innocent people who could be hurt by his Beast Form.  All I would need to do was to kill the remaining hunters.

This third moral crossroads was, despite its climactic nature, the easiest one to navigate.  Sinding had to die; even if I had confidence in his plan (which I didn't), he needed to pay for his crime. As I pointed out earlier, Bethesda is clearly capable of writing an “addiction mechanism” (progressive ability and attribute penalties for non-compliance) for their games, as evidenced by their handling of vampirism. Had they chosen to do so, they could have created a similar system for lycanthropy.  The fact that they didn’t leads me to the conclusion that Sinding’s desperation is purely psychological.  Even Aela, who presents as a bit too enthusiastic about her Beast Form, is always in control, even as a wolf.  Therefore, Sinding’s uncontrollable blood lust is a psychological condition at best, and a manipulative mask for his sociopathology at worst.  To drive this point home even further, I myself transformed before I killed him, thus infusing Sinding’s execution with a touch of poetic justice.

After I killed Sinding, Hircine appeared once again to reward me for a successful hunt; the Daedric Prince gave me enchanted armor made from Sinding’s own skin, which was gruesome and not all that powerful.  The real prize for me was the chance to put down a vicious child-killer.

In my usual post-quest research, I learned that I could have double-crossed Sinding and received two different Daedric artifacts – the aforementioned armor (the Savior’s Skin) as well as the Ring of Hircine, which allows the wearer to transform as often as he wishes.  To gain both prizes, I would have had to agree to help Sinding, kill the remaining hunters, collect the ring from Hircine, then return to kill Sinding and collect the armor.  While I would have had minor qualms about deceiving Sinding (he deserved to face his execution head-on), I would have had a very hard time justifying the killing of the hunters.  As Hircine’s cultists, and therefore big game hunters, they accepted the possibilty of death at the claws of their prey, not murder at the hands of their comrade.  The ring is certainly the better prize, but it was not worth the lives of the hunters.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

The Companions (after The Silver Hand)

After the completion of The Silver Hand, I went out on two more simple radiant quests as a Companion.  Eventually, Kodlak Whitemane took me aside and expressed his concern about our actions against the Silver Hand.  He then revealed the origin of the Circle’s lycanthropy and its potential cure.  Unlike Aela, Kodlak viewed the Beast Form as a generational curse that consigned the afflicted to an eternity in the Hunting Grounds of the Daedric Prince Hircine, rather than in Sovngarde (the Skyrim version of Vanhalla).  Because the curse/gift had originally been brought on by a pact a former Harbinger had made with the Glenmoril Witches, Kodlak asked me to obtain one of their heads to use in a purification ceremony.  I agreed to help, and set out for the Glenmoril Coven.

The first and easiest moral facet of this quest (called Blood’s Honor) is the killing of the witches.  As it turns out, the witches are, in fact, very hostile Hagravens, and therefore fair game.  While collecting their heads may seem macabre, it is a necessary act to fulfill Kodlak’s wish, which engages the other moral issue in the quest.  

Kodlak’s desire to rid himself of lycanthropy arises more from a longing for Sovngarde than from any compunctions about his own actions during transformation.  Hircine’s Hunting Grounds is not a Hell of tormented souls; rather, it is a plane of constant struggle between predator and prey.  For someone like Aela, whose fondness for hunting borders on obsession, an eternity in Hircine’s realm would be a just and welcome reward.  Kodlak, however, is a true Nord son of Skyrim, and as such, aspires to a place among the honored dead in Sovngarde.  He believes that his status makes him ineligible for his rightful place, and the thought of an eternal hunt depresses him.  Even though I had enjoyed being a werewolf so far, I sympathized with Kodlak’s plight, and agreed to help him cure himself.  The salient point is that lycanthropy is a gift to those who welcome it and a curse to those who don’t, which makes it a morally neutral state.

Unfortunately, I did not get to inform Kodlak of my success; I returned to Jorrvaskr to find that the Silver Hand had retaliated against the Companions for our earlier raid.  Not only had Kodlak been killed in the attack, but all of the fragments of Wuuthrad had been stolen…thus began The Purity of Revenge.  This next quest was ethically simple; we were avenging our fallen Harbinger and reclaiming our rightful property.  Once again, I felt it fitting to kill the Silver Hand leader while in Beast Form.  Viklas didn’t seem to mind.
After completing The Purity of Revenge, The Companions gathered at the Skyforge for Kodlak’s funeral.  I have to say, this was one of the most moving moments in the game so far.  Aside from the pathos of the funeral itself, I was struck by the tragedy of Kodlak’s eternal fate; just when I had made it possible for him to be cured of his “curse,” he was struck down and therefore prevented from entering Sovngarde. Still, I hoped against hope that Kodlak’s assumptions about the afterlife were mistaken; after all, he had no real proof that he would automatically be consigned to Hircine’s Hunting Grounds.

Manly tears were shed.
Following the funeral, Eorland White-mane used the Skyforge, which had just been used to cremate Kodlak’s remains, to re-forge Wuuthrad.  The Circle (of which I was now a part) gathered in the Underforge to mourn Kodlak’s fate.   Of note is the fact that, even though many of them did not agree with “the old man’s” stance on lycanthropy, they truly lamented the possibility that he had missed out on Sovngarde.  This sympathy really impressed me; even Aela was able to put aside her enthusiasm for “hunting” and observe that Kodlak deserved better.  Fortunately, Eorland appeared and informed the Circle that it was not too late.  If we took the re-forged Wuuthrad to Ysgramor’s Tomb, we would be able to perform a purification ritual that would cleanse Kodlak’s spirit, even after death.  Once more, it should be noted that the Circle immediately agreed to risk their own lives in order to fulfill Kodlak’s final wish – a wish they themselves rejected.

This quest, Glory of the Dead, posed a few minor ethical issues.  Ysgramor’s Tomb contains the ghosts of former Companions who, according to Viklas, are there to test the courage of anyone who would dare enter.  Because the ghosts were “in the family” and the battles were part of a warrior’s test, I was able to overcome my misgivings about fighting the spirits of fellow Companions.  Once we reached the burial chamber, we encountered Kodlak’s spirit, warming his hands at the Flame of the Harbinger.  Sadly, Kodlak had been right all along; he was indeed trapped in Hircine’s realm, constantly pursued by the Daedric Lord of the Hunt.  According to his wishes, I threw the head of a Glenmoril Witch into the Flame, which sundered the wolf spirit from Kodlak.  A brief fight ensued, and after I defeated the wolf, Kodlak thanked me for freeing him.  Before he passed on to Sovngarde, Kodlak named me his successor as Harbinger of the Companions, which the rest of the Circle accepted.

Even though the quest was complete, I had a few decisions to make.  First, because I still had four Glenmoril Witch heads, I could have cured myself of the curse that had tormented my predecessor.  I decided that, since I had suffered no ill effects and that I was no more inclined to immoral behavior than I was before, I would remain a werewolf, at least for the time being.  Second, as I left the tomb, I had the option of taking Wuuthrad, which had already served its function of opening the burial chamber, back from Ysgramor’s Tomb.  On the one hand, it rightfully belongs to Ysgramor and should be left with him as a prized possession in accordance with Nord burial traditions.  On the other hand, it is a powerful weapon designed to be used against elves, not to sit forever as a decoration.  As the new Harbinger, and therefore a successor to Ysgramor himself, I felt justified in keeping the battleaxe in order to continue my private war against the Thalmor.

When I returned to Jorrvaskr as the new Harbinger, I explored Kodlak’s bedchamber further (I had been in the room earlier to retrieve a Wuuthrad fragment for Eorland).  In it, I found and read Kodlak’s journal, in which he described not only his sadness over his condition, but also his increasing admiration for me and his confidence that I would be the new Harbinger.  For the second time in this questline, I cried.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

The Companions (up to The Silver Hand)

I began writing about the Companions in an earlier post, but the full questline requires its own article. Poignant and morally complex, this quest has lasting consequences for the PC and all subsequent quests.

The opening quests of this line followed what one might expect for a group of mercenaries -- bandit raids and enforcement, all for profit. The main moral issue of the questline, however, was revealed when I agreed to act as backup for Farkas, the Companions' Heavy Armor expert, on a more important quest (Proving Honor). While hunting for the fragments of Wuuthrad, the legendary battleaxe of Ysgramor himself, I got myself trapped behind a iron gate. Before Farkas could free me, he was set upon by a group of thugs who revealed themselves to be members of the Silver Hand -- a band of warriors committed to the extermination of werewolves. The reason for this ambush became clear when Farkas transformed before my very eyes and dispatched his attackers with fang and claw.

After killing the last Silver Hand, Farkas reverted to his more familiar state and freed me from the trap. He explained that the inner circle of the Companions was, in fact, a small pack of werewolves. Some of them, like Aela the Huntress, accepted the lycanthropy as a gift from the daedric prince Hircine, while others, such as the Harbinger (as close to a leader as the Companions will admit to having) Kodlak Whitemane, viewed it as a curse that precluded their proper destiny in Sovngarde. Farkas's revelation shed light on several interesting aspects of the Companions: the tight-knit nature of the group, Aela's fascination with hunting, and the wolf-themed armor of the Companions. We completed the quest (killing several more Silver Hand and draugr in the process) and returned to Jorrvaskr, where, after becoming a full member of the companions and completing another radiant quest, I was eventually given the opportunity to join the Circle, and thereby become a werewolf myself.

The ritual in the Underforge

Some explanation of Skyrim's approach to lycanthropy is in order here. Unlike traditional werewolves, who are bitten and then involuntarily transform during the full moon (or some other external condition), Skyrim's werewolves can assume the Beast Form once a day, and can choose to extend their "beast time" by feeding on their kills. In addition, lycanthropy can only be transmitted through a voluntary ritual in which the initiate drinks the blood of another werewolf. In other words, my becoming "the monster" would be entirely voluntary -- the only negative effects would be the loss of any rest-based bonuses (Rested, Well-Rested, Lover's Comfort). While werewolf NPCs sometimes talk about how addictive the Beast Blood power is, the werewolf PC suffers no downside from refusing to transform. This condition contrasts with Skyrim's approach to vampirism, in which the PC, who typically is infected involuntarily, suffers attribute penalties for refusing to feed.

Given the level of choice available to the Skyrim werewolf, I decided to partake in the ritual. Lycanthropy seemed like an additional power that could be used for good or for ill. Furthermore, I was interested in becoming a member of the Circle, and thus part of the leadership of the Companions. I submitted to the ritual, took on my Beast Form for the first time, killed a few deer, and blacked out.

When I came to in the woods, Aela was with me to "talk me down." We immediately began an attack on the Silver Hand in their hideout at Gallows Rock. During the assault, I learned a few things about the Silver Hand that reinforced my decision to eradicate them. Not only had they been capturing and torturing werewolves, but they were in the habit of skinning them and mounting their heads as trophies. When we encountered their leader, Krev the Skinner, I transformed again and slaughtered her in a manner befitting her crimes. Unfortunately, we arrived too late; Skjor, who had been scouting ahead of us, had already been captured and killed. The quest ended with Aela in mourning, and me left to return to Jorrvaskr alone.

Several moral issues arise in these quests. After the unprovoked attack on my friend Farkas, killing the Silver Hand felt justified, and my discoveries in the later quest only served to confirm my stance. While the Silver Hand might see themselves in the same light as the Vigilants of Stendaar -- that is, righteous warriors ridding the land of an evil abomination -- I could not ignore certain key differences. Daedric cultists tend to commit random acts of violence against innocent people, whereas the Circle appears to be very selective in its use of the Beast Blood power. Given the presence of hostile werewolves in Gallows Rock, I can only conclude that lycanthropy is similar to many other powers, such as magicka or the Thu'um, in that it is a powerful tool that can wreck havoc in the wrong hands. Therefore, the Silver Hand wiping out all werewolves would be on par with killing all mages because some of them misuse their magicka. Furthermore, the obvious delight the Silver Hand takes in fashioning trophies out of their kills, who are basically human, separates them from the businesslike Vigilants. In short, the Silver Hand seems more like a band of thugs with a cause than a noble troop of monster hunters, and killing them seems in line with my character's moral profile.

Another moral dilemma concerns one of the features of the Beast Form itself; the PC can extend his time in wolf form by feeding on the bodies of those he slays. This is not the first time I have confronted the issue of cannibalism in Skyrim, but I would argue that feeding the werewolf is subtly different from the Namiric cannibalism at the center of A Taste of Death. Worshippers of Namira look at their fellow citizens as cattle to be slaughtered and consumed, which they do in their normal, human form. The werewolf, on the other hand, is a beast, and therefore feeds as a beast. The complication, from a role-playing perspective, is that the werewolf form is under the direct control of the character, as evidenced by Aela's behavior during the ritual. Despite being in Beast Form, she is completely in control of her actions. The question, then, is whether feeding on fallen victims while in Beast Form is morally equivalent to cannibalism. The two actions feel different, perhaps because of the usual dissociative implications of lycanthropy, but I cannot yet provide a well-reasoned, empirical distinction.

I can, however, say that feeding on Krev the Skinner felt right. It seemed a just end for the woman who delighted in the slaughter of werewolves and who killed my Shield-Brother Skjor.

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Civil War Epilogue: Season Unending

One of the things that bothered me about the Civil War quest was the absence of a peaceful solution to the conflict.  While I am well aware that Skyrim is a combat-oriented game, Bethesda does provide non-violent solutions to several other quests, so I was hoping for a non-partisan option for resolving the rebellion.  Obviously, as I outlined in my previous post, that option did not exist in my playthrough.

During my post-quest research, however, I discovered that the two parties can be brought to the negotiating table in a quest called Season Unending, which is part of the Main quest line.  Because I had decided it would be wiser to settle the civil war before attempting to deal with the dragon crisis, I had not advanced far enough along the Main questline to open Season Unending.  Initially, I was disappointed that I had missed out on an opportunity to bring a peaceful end to the rebellion, but upon further reading, I realized that the truce afforded by Season Unending is, at best, temporary and at worst, completely illusory. 

Jarl Balgruuf the Greater insists on a Greybeard-hosted and Dragonborn-mediated end to the hostilities before he will allow his castle (Dragonreach) to be used as an instrument to defeat Alduin.  His logic is that, because Whiterun is both geographically and politically betwixt the Stormcloaks and the Legion, a risky adventure such as the one proposed by the Dragonborn could be seen as a opportunity by one of the sides to gain advantage by taking Whiterun while its Jarl is distracted. General Tullius and Jarl Ulfric Stormcloak sit down at the table and agree to the terms of the truce negotiated by the Dragonborn.  Regardless of the specifics of the negotiation (and the combinations of possible interactions and outcomes is one of the most complex in the whole game), the quest ends successfully when everyone leaves the conference with a hard-won cease-fire.

The negotiation table.
The problem is that, as soon as Season Unending is complete, the player can pick up the Civil War questline wherever he or she left off.  In other words, both sides are willing to violate the terms of the truce to which they just agreed hours ago (in game time).  If Bethesda really meant for the truce to last, the Civil War questline would have been complete (or perhaps failed) at the end of Season Unending. Furthermore, I learned that completing the Civil War quest for either side renders Season Unending not only unavailable, but automatically completed when the player reaches that stage of the Main quest.  I am therefore left to conclude that the civil war was never meant to end peacefully.

From a moral role-playing perspective, the question of who to blame for the truce violation is vital.  While this issue depends somewhat on the stage of the Civil War questline at which the player completes Season Unending, most scenarios suggest that the Stormcloaks are the aggressors.  First, the Empire has nothing to gain by violating the cease-fire.  The Legion is fighting a defensive battle against secessionists within an Imperial Province; if the rebellion stops fighting, then the Legion has no more reason to expend its already stretched forces to "punish" the rebels.  Second, the Empire's major flaw is its adherence to the law, even when the law is unjust (such as the White-Gold Concordat), while the Stormcloaks have little interest in sticking to agreements that violate their ideology; if someone is going to break the treaty, its probably going to be the party that formed around the breaking of another treaty.  Third, and most importantly, nearly every stage of the Civil War questline, regardless of the side chosen by the player, starts with an aggressive act by the Stormcloaks (finding the Jagged Crown in order to legitimize Ulfric's bid to replace Torygg as High King, taking a fort that legally belongs to the Empire, etc.).  In fact, Ulfric's willingness to agree to the terms of the truce forged at High Hrothgar seems, in retrospect, to be a complete sham.  As an ideologue, Ulfric has little to gain by holding to the terms of an agreement that is only slightly more palatable than the Concordat itself.

In my second playthough, I will be sure to complete Season Unending; the number of variables is impressive, and it is a rare moment of NPC communication in a combat-based game.  Still, I wish that Bethesda had scripted a peaceful outcome to the civil war.  While the player can certainly choose to not complete the Civil War quests, the hostilities do not resolve until the player, in effect, chooses a winner by fighting for either the Stormcloaks or the Legion.  As it is currently written, Skyrim does not offer peace as a viable option.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Civil War

While the Civil War questline presents a variety of gameplay challenges and opportunities, its moral component boils down to one choice: to side with the Empire or with the Stormcloaks.  As I hinted in some previous posts, I had been leaning toward the Imperial side since the opening quest, but did not fully commit until well into the game.  I visited Solitude to hear the Imperial argument from General Tullius, then traveled to Windhelm to listen to Ulfric Stormcloak’s side of the story.  Not wanting to rush into anything, I set about earning the title of Thane in as many Holds as possible, which gave me the opportunity to listen to sympathizers on both sides.  While everything I heard and experienced ultimately led me to join the Legion of the Empire, the choice was by no measure easy. What follows is a breakdown of my considerations in choosing a side.

The White-Gold Concordat

There is no question that the Stormcloaks’ disgust at this egregious treaty is completely justified.  The fact the Empire would allow the Aldmeri Dominion to dictate religious practices within the Imperial Provinces is utterly outrageous, and permitting the Thalmor free reign to enforce the ban on Talos worship almost defies comprehension – which is exactly the point.  Having gained the upper hand after fighting the Legion to a standstill, the Dominion was in a position to ask for anything; why, therefore, would they demand a purely ideological concession (rather than another material or strategic one)?  The answer lies in the ultimate goal of the Aldmeri: total domination of Tamriel.  Because they could no longer afford to wage direct war with the Empire, they had to find a way to use the peace to their advantage.  They had already separated Hammerfell from the Empire; if they could sever Skyrim as well, they would effectively cut off the Empire’s supply of skilled warriors.  What better way to drive a wedge between the Imperials and the proud Nord race than by forcing the Empire to outlaw the worship of their apotheosized ancestor?

Ulfric’s primary error is in taking this bait, thereby weakening not only his beloved Skyrim, but the whole of the Empire as well. As I have suggested before, the ideal scenario would be a untied Empire biding its time, rebuilding its forces, and focusing the Nords’ righteous indignation on the real enemy in preparation for a renewed assault on the Dominion.  While I concede that I have yet to hear any Imperial representative suggest such a strategy, there is a strong possibility that this plan is being kept under the tightest of wraps in light of the Thalmor propensity for espionage.  However, even if the Empire did simply roll over to save itself, Skyrim only stands to lose by divorcing itself from Cyrodiil and High Rock.

Jarl Ulfric Stormcloak vs. General Tullius

Because I am playing with an eye toward moral agency, I have to consider not only the moral claims of the warring sides in the Civil War, but also the ethics of the men and women who represent each party.  One of Bethesda's major accomplishments in this game is the creation of morally complex antagonists; both Ulfric and Tullius possess a melange of admirable and lamentable traits, which makes following either one far more complicated than a simple good/evil split.

Jarl Ulfric Stormcloak of Windhelm is obviously the aggressor in the conflict, but his rationale carries a legitimate claim to justification.  The Concordat is a direct violation of the freedom of religion that we in the West tend to view as inalienable.  Furthermore, his speeches reveal him to be a man haunted by the soldiers who laid down their lives at his side during the Great War, and a Jarl unwilling to insult their memory by acquiescing to the Dominion's blasphemous demands.  While not an blatant zealot (such as Heimskr, the street preacher of Whiterun), Ulfric cannot separate his worship of Talos from his love for Skyrim, seeing the abandonment of the former as a betrayal of the latter.  Despite the accusations of his Imperial foes, Ulfric does not appear to be acting out of an inflated sense of self; even his most extreme actions, such as the killing of High King Torygg, come from a deep passion for Talos and for Skyrim.

He did, however, kill the High King.  The question of whether the killing was part of a legitimate challenge according to Nord tradition or a flat-out murder is in some ways irrelevant.  Instead of making his case and biding his time, he plunged his homeland into chaos on ideological grounds.  Furthermore, one cannot ignore the fact that using the Thu'um against an opponent who did not possess that power is tantamount to attacking an unarmed foe.  Throughout history, many honorable men have allowed their devotion to a legitimate cause to mutate into a kind of monomania that excuses any evil in the service of that cause.

Although not directly related to the Civil War, Ulfric's record as Jarl of Windhelm did not sway me to his side, either.  First, not only did he seem largely unconcerned with the serial killer running loose in his Hold, he had no comment when the killer turned out to be his own court wizard.  Second, when the boy Aventius Aretino was in his hour of need, the childless Ulfric decided to send him back to an abusive orphanage in another Hold entirely, instead of perhaps adopting him and gaining an heir for himself in the bargain.  Lastly, his treatment of the Dunmer was utterly deplorable.  While it is true that I never heard him utter any racial epithets himself, I cannot ignore the fact that he consigned the Dunmer to a ghetto and allowed the racial harassment going on in front of his own palace to go unchecked.  None of this should be a surprise, however; a quick perusal of the Markarth Incident raises the question: if Ulfric was willing to wage a nearly genocidal campaign against other races of men (Breton/Reachmen/Forsworn), what can we expect him to do to the non-human races?  Add his experiences as a prisoner of the Aldmeri Dominion to the mix, and we have a recipe for a racially-intolerant Jarl whom I could not follow in good conscience, regardless of his other virtues as a warrior and a leader of men.

As much as I liked Jarl Ulfric personally, I found his political views impossible to support; quite the inverse is true of General Tulius, whose repellant personality failed to dissuade me from the Imperial cause.  Tullius is a culturally insensitive boor who routinely, if unwittingly, insults his faithful Legate Rikke's homeland with dismissive comments such as:
What do you mean, "You people"?
Nevertheless, Tullius is on the right side of this conflict.  The Empire had a hard choice: sign a treaty that insults the Nords and defames its own progenitor, or risk annihilation after a long and bloody war with a seemingly implacable enemy.  While it may be noble to sacrifice one's own life for religious freedom, committing an entire Empire to that cause is another story entirely.  Tullius, who is no fan of the Thalmor,  understands that signing the Concordat was the bitter pill that saved the Empire.  What Tullius lacks in personal magnetism and tact, he makes up for in judgement.

Perhaps the best indicator of Tullius's leadership qualities is his second-in-command, Legate Rikke.  A proud Nord "daughter of Skyrim," Rikke bears Tullius's slings and arrows for the good of the Empire, and in return, Tullius looks the other way when Rikke expresses sympathy for Ulfric's cause or lets a "Talos guide you" slip out.  Rikke agrees, as I do, with the justness of Ulfric's outrage, but believes, also as I do, that a unified Empire is the best solution to the Thalmor problem.  That Tullius is willing to overlook the fact that his most trusted lieutenant is not only clearly violating the Concordat but also is apparently an admirer of his enemy speaks volumes about his priorities.

This tendency among supporters of the Empire to ignore the most offensive element of the Concordat is one of the main reasons that I feel good about my choice.  Yes, the Temples of Talos have been closed in Solitude and Markarth, but beyond that, no one seems to be enforcing the ban.  Balgruuf lets Heimskr preach in front of his Shrine all day every day in public.  Tullius knows that Rikke worships Talos, but says nothing beyond "Excuse me?"  In fact, the only character who ever reported any Talos worshippers was, well, me -- which I did in order to gain Ondolemar's trust, then promptly assassinated him and returned the Amulet of Talos to Ogmund.  The Imperial laxness in enforcing the Concordat beyond the bare letter of the law undermines Ulfric's claim that the Empire has become the lapdog of the Dominion.

Rikke and Balgruuf the Greater

The two characters I most admire in the Civil War quest both side with the Empire, which certainly influenced my decision.  I have already mentioned the long-suffering yet formidable Legate Rikke who, unlike Galmar Stone-Fist, her Stormcloak counterpart, resists the urge to demonize her opponents.  I cannot say this strongly enough: the fact that Rikke sympathizes with the Stormcloaks but grudgingly fights against them because she believes they are wrong is evidence of a moral character that approaches Kohlberg's Principled stages (5 and 6).  Galmar, on the other hand, relishes the prospect of savaging the Legion he and Ulfric once served.  Even if I sided with the rebellion, I would find Stone-Fist's taunts about "Deadking Torygg" tough to abide.

The other character who swayed my choice was Balgruuf the Greater, the Jarl of Whiterun.  Unlike Legate Rikke, Balgruuf has no real love for the Empire; his primary concern is the welfare of the people in his Hold.  As much as he hates the Concordat, and as much as he resents Imperial interference, he lambasts Ulfric for throwing Skyrim into chaos.  He knows that the Thalmor are the real enemy and, above all, he really wants people to focus on that pesky dragon problem.  He remains neutral as long as possible, because he knows that his decision will hasten a full-blown civil war.  When he finally chooses a side, it is because Ulfric forces his hand;  Balgruuf makes no secret of his reluctance to garrison Imperial troops within the walls of Whiterun and makes it abundantly clear to Tullius that he has no intention of giving up control of his Hold to the Legion, even as he sides with the Empire.

Rikke and Balgruuf demonstrate that one need not love the Empire nor agree blindly with its actions in order to see that seceding from the Empire would weaken Skyrim and further strengthen the Aldmeri Dominion's hand.

The Death of Ulfric Stormcloak

Once I chose a side, the individual quests in the Civil War line were morally simple. A band of Legionnaires and I would take a fort from the Stormcloaks, then I would be called in to do a more stealth-oriented quest (lean on a Stormcloak sympathizer, steal plans, etc), then take another fort, and so on.  There were very few serious ethical decisions to make until the end of the Battle for Windhelm.

The final battle of the Civil War took place in Ulfric's own Hall.  Legate Rikke, my Solitude housecarl Jordis, General Tullius and I faced off against Ulfric, Galmar, and a small band of Stormcloaks.  After Galmar fell, we forced Jarl Ulfric to surrender.  When Tullius offered him the chance to face the formal execution he had escaped after the dragon attack on Helgen, Ulfric refused, saying that he wanted me, the Dragonborn, to have the honor of killing him.

To be perfectly frank, I had no desire to kill Ulfric; as I said earlier, he is a good man with a bad idea.  Ulfric's death, however, was inevitable, and I sympathized with him enough to spare him the humiliation of dying by Tullius's hand.  In fact, when Tullius offered me his sword in order to do the deed, I refused.  Jarl Ulfric Stormcloak of Windhelm was a great man who committed great crimes, and his death needed to reflect both of those realities.  I therefore decided to kill Ulfric in the same manner he had killed High King Torygg -- a Dragon Shout.  A fitting end for one of Skyrim's greatest warriors.