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!

Thursday, March 28, 2013

Update: Boethiah's Calling/Unearthed

I am interrupting my treatment of the Thieves’ Guild questline in order to provide an update on one of the Daedric quests that has been a real thorn in my side: Boethiah’s Calling.  In my first post on this quest, I declared that I would not complete the quest unless I found a follower who deserved to be sacrificed – a condition I did not expect the game to meet.  While some of the available followers inhabit a moral grey zone (e.g. Janessa), no one outside of the Dark Brotherhood really deserved to be deceived and murdered, and I could not justify joining the Brotherhood (and committing the prerequisite murders) just to sacrifice one of them.  Therefore, I resigned myself to leaving the quest incomplete (since there is no failure condition) for the remainder of the game.

The Dragonborn DLC, however, provided exactly the kind of follower I was looking for.  Most of the Dunmer NPCs  I met in Skyrim were either enemies or grim figures who, while perhaps on my side of the moral spectrum, were nevertheless prone to a kind of nihilistic cynicism.  My visits to Solstheim fleshed out my picture of the Dunmer, but still, I became accustomed to their overall lack of transcendent idealism.  Therefore, when I first met Ralis at the beginning of Unearthed, I felt comfortable funding his excavation project in spite of his obvious avarice and the distinct possibility that he was skimming off the top; after all, even if he was bilking me out of my gold, he was spending it in an economically depressed area and providing jobs for the locals with money that I would never miss: I was carrying about 120,000 gold at this point and had far more than that in loot at home. 

As the quest haltingly progressed through its stages, I became more concerned about Ralis’s seeming lack of regard for the safety of the miners, but I had little choice other than to provide more funds for the project.  By the final stage, I was in for 11,000 gold, but at least a half-dozen miners and guards had died at the hands of the draugr they awakened.  Of course, when I returned to the project site, saw the additional carnage, and read Ralis’s journals, I realized that Ralis had been slowly possessed by the Dragon Priest Ahzidal.  The truly unnerving part for me was that, unlike other similar possessions in the game, I had actually been speaking with Ralis as he slowly succumbed to Ahzidal’s influence; I had assumed he was just a sociopath.

After defeating the resurrected Ahzidal, I was able to speak with the now clear-headed Ralis about what happened.  Although his memory was clouded by the experience, he was aware that he had killed several of the miners himself as part of the resurrection ritual.  The fact that he was possessed would have exonerated him as far as I was concerned, but he completely failed to show any remorse; instead, he seemed far more interested in making sure that no one ever found out: 

If you choose the dialogue option "I can't let you go unpunished," Ralis flips out, claims that Ahzidal will "command us all" and attacks.  So, you can have a sociopath for a follower, or defend yourself from a raving lunatic.
 Tamriel is a hard place, and people sometimes commit great acts of evil.  Some characters, such as Erandur, are willing to do penance for their crimes, and should be permitted to do so in peace.  Others, such as Sinding and Ralis, lack the appropriate moral horror that should accompany their misdeeds, and therefore deserve punishment commensurate to their sins.  Therefore, the question was not whether I would kill Ralis, but whether I would execute him directly then and there, or gain his trust, then sacrifice him at the Saracellum of Boethiah.  I chose the latter:

  • As much as I dislike doing the will of a Daedra, killing someone I would have killed anyway hardly seems like an act of devotion.
  •  I also dislike deception, but given the fact that Ralis himself deceived the miners, and that, as a Dunmer, most likely worshiped Boethiah anyway, leading him to sacrifice feels like poetic justice.
  • Furthermore, my reward was to hunt down a gang of bandits and kill their leader in order to obtain the Daedric artifact (the Ebony Mail) he was wearing – something I would gladly have done anyway.
Certainly, my decision was a calculated and brutal one, but ultimately a just one as well.  Now that I possess the Ebony Mail (along with several other Daedric artifacts), I can be sure that it will not end up in the wrong hands.


  1. This is one of those cases where I can't agree with your reasoning.

    First, regarding Ralis's guilt. "Being possessed", while hard to prove in court, seems to me a pretty strong defence if you believe it - and in this case, I see no reason to doubt it. I might wish he showed a bit more horror or remorse, but really - are callousness or selfishness capital crimes? Not in my book.

    And if you see yourself as punishing him for his crime, I would have thought the least you owe him is to tell him why you're doing it. Not to befriend him and stab him in the back later. Heck, to befriend him *for the specific purpose* of stabbing him in the back later, when you have the perfectly viable option of killing him on the spot in a fair fight - to me, that's as bad a crime as his own.

    Then there's the assumption that as a Dunmer, Ralis "probably worshipped Boethia". If you've been into the temple in Raven Rock, you'll know there are three daedric lords widely venerated by the Dunmer - Azura, Boethia and Mephala. Of these, Azura is clearly benign, Mephala is as nasty a piece of work as you could ever hope to avoid, and Boethia is unpleasant but ultimately ambiguous. In addition, many Dunmer worship the Eight/Nine gods of the Empire. To assume that merely because Ralis is a Dunmer, he's probably a devotee of Boethia, and therefore fair game to be sacrificed to him, is scarcely more than racism.

    Finally, regarding Boethia. He's not one of the worst daedric princes - he's no Mephala or Molag Bal or Mehrunes Dagon - but he is certainly not nice, and I wouldn't willingly sacrifice to him. (One of the nastiest moments in the game, for me, involved the Skal shaman on Solstheim - I'll say no more about that to avoid spoilers.) Did you consider that, by dedicating your act of murder to him, you may be empowering him to some degree? And by doing the whole thing as part of a quest to claim a powerful artifact, you're arguably showing yourself as quite corrupted.

    1. Thanks for your detailed critique. I'd like to address it point by point.

      As for the charge of racism, that's a fair accusation, and I wish to plead "nolo contendere." If I allowed myself to edit my posts for reasons other than factual or technical errors, I would take that out.

      As for your observation that I would be empowering Boethia, you have a point, but I noticed something interesting after completing several Daedric quests: most of the time, the Daedric Princes imply that the specific act of sacrifice is irrelevant; their interest lies in the acts that fit their "theme." Hermaeus Mora, for example, explains that everyone who seeks know is "worshipping" him in a way, whether they know it or not. I would argue, therefore, that it is the act of killing by deceit that Boethiah craves, not the religious dedication of that killing.

      The question, then, is twofold: is killing Ralis justified, and is deceiving him in the process also justified?

      I would argue that Ralis' crime goes beyond "callousness or selfishness." He leads about a dozen miners to their certain deaths at the hands of a Dragon Priest and his draugr, and he uses my money to do it! I know he was not in his right mind, but his claim of possession has always bothered me; I wouldn't say I completely disbelieve him, but he always interacted with me in a completely rational way, even though he was possessed so strongly that he was willing to sacrifice the miners. No other possessed NPC acts like that. Furthermore -- and I know I'm cheating here -- but if I offer to bring him to justice, he clearly indicates that he's still possessed. After all of that, he's still lying to me. In other words, even if I find a way to rationalize winking at his murders-by-proxy, I'm letting him loose to do it again. If he offered to turn himself in, or perhaps look for an exorcist, I probably would have let him go; instead, he just wants to keep things quiet...probably so he can continue Ahzidal's work.

      Ralis, therefore, must die -- but am I justified in deceiving him in order to execute him? The answer depends on the moral standards you employ. You, vet, seem to favor an almost Kantian approach; lying is never justified, even to a murderer, because it dishonors his rationality and violates the categorical imperative to tell the truth at all times (for a handy treatment of Kant, I suggest the following site: ). I respectfully have to disagree with this reasoning. If death is the appropriate available punishment for Ralis, then deceiving him in order to do it, while perhaps cold and unnecessary, is also appropriate. I would further argue that there is a kind of poetic justice in Ralis being deceived as he deceived the miners. That I am the one to enact this poetic justice may be distasteful, I would hardly call it a crime.

      If I'm being brutally honest, though, I have to admit that my motives were not entire pure. You hinted at this at the end of your comment, but you missed the mark slightly. I really had little interest in the Ebony Mail, and I have yet to use it. My true ulterior motive was more of an example of ludic interference: I wanted to complete an unfinished quest. While I have no problem failing a quest on moral grounds (see The Taste of Death), open quest objectives really bother me. The lack of closure gnaws at me; I suppose a parallel could be made here to the traditional Judeochristian view of temptation. The open objective is far more tempting to me than an Daedric artifact.

    2. Thank you, Todd, for the detailed response. I admit I didn't know how Ralis would react if you threatened to turn him in - I'm too much of a softie to have picked that option.

      I wouldn't go as far as 'lying is never justified'. However, I do feel it's something that *needs* to be justified, and shouldn't be used merely for momentary expediency, and certainly not for malice. I must admit, however, that I prize 'personal loyalty' highly as a virtue, and if I take someone as a follower, I consider I'm accepting a level of responsibility to them. I'll do my very best to keep them alive and leave them somewhere safe when it's time to say goodbye.

      I've learned to live with "open objectives", although they irritate me too. For instance, there's the Argonian thief in Solitude who wants me to become a wrecker - I picked up that quest just by walking past him, and I'm not going to touch it for anything. Similarly with the would-be exorcist who wants to examine that house in Markarth - he's standing there still, day in and day out. Better he never gets in, even if it means a certain amount of pollution in my journal.

    3. I wish I had your willpower, vet. That, or that I could fail any quest I didn't want to complete; I need that sense of closure. I, too, have left Lights Out! undone -- I even tried to kill Jaree-Ra, who I later discovered is marked essential until the quest is completed.

  2. Wow. I've been reading your entries from time to time and usually agree with you, but this time I could not disagree more. It actually bothers me, I mean it's not just the blatant racism and the asumptions about the Dunmer (btw: killing people you don't like is not more justified than killing those you do as long as they are all inocent). It is the entire purpose of why you are doing it that makes your reasoning like a bad joke.

    What's worse, getting people killed because of an external influence and with no free will involved or plotting to befriend and decieve someone who trusts you so you can sacrifice them to a less than nice entity in exchange for personal gain? You say you don't like the Dark Brotherhood but at least they don't pretend any high morality when killing for profit. And there is no decieving either (well, usually).

    It's doesn't even matter that much who Boethiah is, there is no way you do that quest and keep pretending to be a good guy. In fact you are much worse that Ralis, because even if you feel you have the moral right to decide who lives or dies, there are ways and ways and there is the motivation. What was his? Did he gain something with the whole mess? He didn't. When your motivation is to gain something from his death, you are not exacting poetic justice or justice at all, you are simply killing for profit.

    Now, I know how annoying can get to have unfinished quests, but with this game you better get used to it because they just keep piling up whether you say yes or no or just run away from (coffBrynjolfcoff) the quest-giver.

    That Ralis would say that nonsense if you decide to kill him may be a glitch, it really makes no sense for him to say that *after* you've already killed Ahzidal. However his entire aggro behavior is proven glitched, so... Who knows. I personally let him live (found no reason to kill him except for the fact that he and the entire quest annoyed me to hell) and then never spoke to him again (let him drink sujamma and think of what he's done). Don't want that guy guarding my back, thank you very much.

    PS. Sorry if my English is not very understandable. And I mean no offence with any of this, of course, it's just that the whole "justice by execution" concept in itself has never sit well with me; you wanna kill, cool, but don't call it justice. I'm too much of a Batman fan, I guess. xD

    1. You need not apologize for your English, as it is excellent, nor for your scathing critique of my moral reasoning on this quest, as I take no offense.

      In your passionate and well-reasoned comment, you cut to the heart of my misgivings about this quest, as well as a few others. Even if you agree that the Dovahkiin has the right to execute people for their misdeeds, how can a player really determine when an NPC deserves to die? More importantly, how can one ever be sure that one is acting with objective justice when making this kind of life-or-death decision?

      The one point I would object to in your comment is the idea that I am "pretending" a high-minded morality -- which actually makes the situation that much more troubling. I convinced myself that leading Ralis to sacrifice was, in fact, the right thing to do. If I were merely pretending, then I could rest assured that my moral compass was functioning properly, but that I was choosing to ignore it. Instead, I managed to rationalize some pretty disturbing behavior.

      I would, however, ask you to consider the miners. While my way of dealing with Ralis may be suspect, yours does nothing to redress Ralis's fatally gross negligence. Those miners died because of Ralis's foolishness and greed; do you really think allowing him to drink the past away is the just thing to do here?

  3. What's surprising is how few people realize that the Champion has changed his life around, and has devoted himself to heroic deeds. If you calm him down with magic, he reveals that he no longer follows his old lifestyle, "Mind my words or I'll mind them for you: I'm slave to no man, no god, and no Daedra. Boethiah talks about leaving your mark, a sign of your passing. Well, you can make a mark on the world without treachery and murder. Whenever a man's life is saved by armor made with these hands, these hands have changed that man's destiny and his family's. So you can tell that heartless Daedra bitch I'm done doing her dirty work."

    1. Thanks, Maximo; I never knew that. I never really used Calm in this playthough. But, if he really has changed his ways, what do you make of the bandits he's hanging out with?

    2. I've wandered into the relevant hideout several times as different characters, and I don't recall even one instance of them being hostile towards me, except when I was there during the quest. I've come to believe -between that and the quote above- that Boethiah is simply lying; they're not bandits to begin with.

  4. This is one of the instances in which a mod saved me from doing the morally wrong thing. I had a mod installed which allows advanced customization of followers as well as having the feature of making anyone in Skyrim your follower ( At the time of doing Boethiah's Calling, I had a Misc. Quest active "Kill the leader of Druadach Redoubt". Since I had completed "No one escapes from Cidhna Mine" along with the Forsworn, all Forsworn at Druadach Redoubt were friendly to me, even the leader. So I made him my follower, and as you can probably guess, two birds with one stone. ;)

  5. You're welcome, Todd. That's an excellent question, and one I've considered myself, since his dialogue makes no mention of it. It's not helped that the "bandits" attack the Champion of Boethiah if they come into close proximity with one another.

    Perhaps Isi is correct, and they aren't meant to be "bandits" at all, but we (as the player) simply assume they are because that's what we are told. It's something that I've wrestled with when I played as a Redoran warrior, since Boethiah is one of my character's God-Ancestors, but her decrees in this quest are in direct contradiction to my Dunmer's ethics and morality.