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!

Saturday, December 7, 2013

The Necessity of Narrative for Understanding the Relation-Based Moral Agent

As I finished the previous two posts, I noticed that there is a distinct difference between the way I wrote about Lothar and the way I am writing about Katnyss.  Because Lothar is more of a direct extension of myself into Skyrim, I needed to delineate the rationale behind my decisions, but did not usually feel the need to explain the assumptions and definitions behind my rationale.  For example, in my post on Lothar's Unbound, I explained that I went with Hadvar because he seemed to value human decency over political ideology, but did not explain why I value the former over the latter.  Of course I know the assertion that compassion should be preferred to political orthodoxy is not self-evident, but that preference is so central to my own real-life moral profile that I didn't think to explain it.

Katnyss, however, represents such a departure from my own worldview that I feel as though I have to support every move with an explanatory narrative.  Lothar goes to Bleak Falls Barrow because one is supposed to help people in need -- no further explanation required.  Katnyss, who does not operate on principle, needs a more finely-tuned rationale -- helping Lucan might in turn help her avenge her sister.  Without larger principles to rely on, I feel as though I have to provide Katnyss's personal insight, along with any emotional coloring that might help make sense of her actions.

One side effect is that some of these posts are going to be longer that their mates in the first playthrough.  While I certainly indulged in some storytelling my first time through the game, it was usually as a way to document my first reactions to a given moral dilemma.  On the second playthrough, however, I already know how most of the quests turn out.  Furthermore, I am consciously trying to find a way to do the quests differently than I naturally did the first time.  Therefore, I feel as though I need to explain the reasons behind Katnyss's actions in greater detail than I did Lothar's.

The danger, of course, is that some of the posts will sound more like fan fiction than moral reflection.  I'm willing to take that risk in order to explore a moral system that differs significantly from my own.  I would argue, in fact, that exploring conflicting ethoses is one of the strengths of modern storytelling, and deserves the amount of time that it sometimes requires.

Take, for example, the most recent episodes of AMC's The Walking Dead.  Early in the series, we require very little explanation for Rick's moral profile: he is a sheriff with a wife and son, so we are not surprised when he does the right thing.  Even when he puts himself at great risk for his fellow survivors, we might marvel at the strength of his character, but we don't need an explanation of why he is so devoted to the principles of justice and service to others.  The Governor, on the other hand, requires a multi-episode apologetic for his ethos precisely because he judges everything through personal relationships rather than abstract principles.  In order to understand why he does what he does, we have to know much more about him than we need to know about Rick.

What makes the Governor such a compelling character is that even his most horrifying actions, especially in Season 4 (that is, post-Woodbury), are born of a sense of personal loyalty and responsibility to those who depend on him.  For the Governor, there is no greater good that the survival of his group.  When Pete refuses to raid the small camp of survivors, he places justice and mercy for strangers above the interests of his own group, thereby making him unfit to lead in the Governor’s eyes.  When Hershel pleads with him to consider the lives of the people in the prison, the Governor responds that they are not his people.  His ethics are based entirely on who “belongs” to him:

Hershel Greene: You say you want to take this prison as peacefully as possible. That means you'd be willing to hurt people to get it. My daughters would be there. That's who you'd be hurting. If you understand what it's like to have a daughter, then how could you threaten to kill someone else's?
The Governor: Because they aren't mine.
By allowing the audience to see the Governor’s post-Woodbury journey, the show runners give us the additional information we need in order to fully understand his worldview.  Without these episodes, we are in danger of seeing him as a mere megalomaniac who uses the end of the world as a chance to become the tyrant he could never be before.  With these episodes, we can see the Governor as a man who knows that he must be prepared to do brutal things in this brutal world in order to protect the people who depend on him.  By taking the time to make us understand the Governor, perhaps even agree with him a little, the show creates a far more robust conflict when he makes his move on Rick’s prison.

Similarly, I feel the need to tell Katnyss’s story with greater detail than Lothar’s.  While Katnyss is not meant to be a Governor-esque villain, she is definitely a very different kind of protagonist from Lothar, and therefore requires more in-depth explanation.  Like the Governor, she believes her actions are right, but because her value system runs contrary to the abstract principle-oriented ethos that we generally espouse in Western society, we need to hear more of her story in order to understand her moral agency.


  1. I did think the last post seemed more like a fanfic than the usual moral analysis you do on this blog. I was going to comment on it, but I didn't think it necessary, because I thought you were probably aware of it. Turns out I was right. Let's see where this goes then...

  2. So then, what kind of character development will Katnyss be going through? Will she become aware that revenge isn't always the best course of action? Will she be forced to see how morally grey the civil war is?

    1. I don't mean to be coy, but I'd rather not get into the "lessons learned" just yet. In the next few posts, I'll get into the Civil War and Dark Brotherhood lines, which are the defining ones for this character. Good questions, though!

  3. I think everyone - literally, everyone - takes it for granted that the world is divided into "us" and "them", and "we" are the ones who deserve full consideration, and "they" can go hang if need be. Hadvar, like your previous character, is a true imperialist, who sees all citizens of the Empire as "us". I noticed you got distinctly less sympathetic when discussing those from outside "the Empire", such as the Alik'r, Thalmor, and some of those you encountered on Solstheim (technically part of the empire, but maintaining a different religion).

    Nowadays, people who think of themselves as enlightened try to broaden their sense of "us" to include an ever wider subset of people, but very few manage to encompass the whole of humanity. That's why, for instance, there are very few people in your country (or any other, for that matter) who argue for complete abolition of border controls and unrestricted immigration.

    So really, the difference between your two characters is not as great as all that. Just a difference in where they draw the dividing line, and what criteria they use.

    1. Let me build on what you've said. I would argue that the difference between m two characters is that Lothar sees "us" as those who align with his worldview, while Katnys sees "us" as those with whom she has some kind of kinship -- by blood or by association. For Lothar, a Nord stops being one of "us" when he sides with the Stormcloaks, but for Katnys, a Dunmer with whom she violently disagrees is still one of "us." Lothar remains loyal to those with whom he agrees, while Katnys remains loyal to those with whom she belongs.

      Your point about borders is well taken, and I think that's one of the great unfulfilled promises of my country. We say that we are united by a set of ideals (like Lothar), but all too often act as though we only care about "our own" (like Katnys).