Long-term readers will know I am a big fan of the podcast Econtalk. If you consider yourself to be a thinking person, you ought to be listening to it - Russ Roberts is in my opinion the best interviewer currently working today, and his guests are fantastic. This week sees a regular guest, Mike Munger, taking on the topic of slavery in the antebellum Southern US. It is exceptionally interesting and you should listen to it now.
It coincides with slavery appearing in a recent game I was involved in. My character in the game (a mute white ape) is the slave of another PC. Slavery in the setting is also a completely ordinary thing with no real moral opprobrium attached, and slaves appeared in the first session. And the session itself already had me thinking quite a bit about slavery - because my character had quite a strong reaction when he came across some captive slaves and decided to lead a bit of a rebellion of sorts - and I started wondering why I had gone down that road. If slavery is normal in the setting, and my character himself is a slave, was it really a very realistic or setting-sensitive thing to try to foment slave rebellion?
Let me say straight away that I don't have a problem with slavery or other "dark" topics appearing in games, particularly. I am not one of those people who thinks that fiction or imaginary worlds really matter and nor am I massively squeamish. Grown-ups, and adolescents to a lesser degree, are perfectly capable of dealing with subjects like that sensibly, and even if they don't, I don't care as long as they don't actually go around physically enslaving people.
Let me also say straight away that, let's face it, Yoon-Suin is full of slaves and slavery is completely normal there. PCs can even trade in slaves if that's what they want to do. If conspiracy to commit imaginary slave trading is a crime, I must plead guilty of it.
But that said, I think (and this is a new thought for me) I want to make a moral statement of sorts: there is always space for PCs in games to push the moral envelope of the setting. In other words, while a fantasy setting may be based on all manner of repugnant assumptions - slavery is okay, torture is acceptable, genocide is a leisure activity - I think it is cool for PCs to challenge them, even if it might not appear totally realistic.
That's because, to put it in the context of the Munger Econtalk episode, I suppose I am a Smithian rather than a Humean. Hume was a moral positivist in the sense that he seemed to think that basically any norm can arise in a given society - you can get a society that exists in which people think that slavery is not just a necessary evil but a good thing (the antebellum South being an example) and there is no real external standard to judge this against. Adam Smith wasn't so sure. He understood that such societies could arise, but he also thought that those societies could be judged against abstract moral standards and that you could get at those abstract moral standards if you imagined what his famous"impartial spectator" might think. While your imagining of an "impartial spectator" is itself influenced by custom, culture, fashion, and so on, there is an impartial spectator of posterity who is better positioned to judge. While most white Southerners convinced themselves that slavery was good, some were able to consider the institution as though an impartial spectator looking at the practice through the lens of posterity - and freed their slaves as a result. They were able to see that an impartial spectator looking at them from the future would see an inconsistency in the institution of slavery: that it couldn't be justified even accepting its initial premises. (This is a sort of reformulation of Montesquieu's thought experiment: get everyone, slaves and slave-owners, in a room and mix them all together. Now tell the slave-owners that once everybody leaves the room, it will be randomly determined who gets to be a slave and who gets to be an owner. If slavery is such a good thing, they'll be fine with that, right? You can get this concept even if you have been brought up in a slave owning society.) You cannot really be a Christian or a good person or a believer in freedom and also own slaves, and you can understand that if you judge your own beliefs taking the perspective of a person outside of the culture and time in which you live - even if that person is imaginary.
Can a white ape slave in a nightmare sea do the same thing? Can he look at the practice of slavery, which he has known all his life, as though an impartial spectator looking at it through the lens of posterity? Can his owner and other characters around him, who are not themselves slaves?
I like to think so. Not that they ought to, of course (I am not being a bore about this). Nor should they do so in a way that will fuck up the setting, or get in the way of what the DM wants to do, or annoy the other players. But there is a justification, I think, for a PC to act outside of the moral box in which he exists within the setting.