Monday, 9 December 2019
Freedom, Ethics and Self-Enactment
D&D is just a game. And it's fun simply to play without thinking too deeply about. But there are lots of other things going on in it.
Why do kids play "let's pretend"? You're not allowed to say "Because it's fun". It seems to me that it's at least partly to do with discovery of the self. You can't have light without darkness, and you can't have a sense of self-hood without knowing what the self is not. Pretending to be other things gives you a feeling for what you are not, and in doing so provides you with the limits of what you are. It helps you map your own contours.
(Let me stress that I think it is partly to do with this - there are plenty of other reasons, too.)
As an adult playing an RPG you can do something similar. Foucault said "freedom is the ontological condition of ethics". For him, ethics was not doing the right thing - it was reflecting on one's own actions and the underlying motives for them, and then cultivating in oneself the sentiments and impulses which one desires to motivate one's future actions. In other words it was a continuous practice of self-critique against self-selected criteria. Ethics is not abiding by the rules - it is the practices by which one brings oneself to align oneself with a particular set of standards or, if you want to get fancy, telos. Free choice is a necessary condition of this.
Michael Oakeshott makes a similar observation in drawing a distinction between moralities of self-disclosure and self-enactment. A morality of self-disclosure is simply abiding by the rules so as to "disclose" oneself as moral. In other words, it requires no exercise of free will - just doing what the rules say. A morality of self-enactment, on the other hand, is reflective. It is a matter of acting, and then reflecting on what motivated one to act. This allows one to gradually choose to emphasise or discard such motivations in future conduct, in on ongoing process of self-realisation. Free agency is a pre-requisite.
(Mindfulness meditation helps in this, though French post-structuralists and High Tory philosophers tend not to get particularly new age.)
As an adult, playing "let's pretend" (i.e., D&D and similar) is in its own way a method of practising self-enactment of Foucauldian ethics - or can be. It is a kind of experimental safe space (I use those words advisedly) in which one can, as one's PC, make choices to act and then reflect, not on one's own motivations exactly, but on those of one's character. It like a dress-rehearsal for the real thing: why did my dwarf kill the prisoner? What were his underlying motivations? And what motivations are best cultivating to guide future conduct? At the same time - what does this say about my underlying motivations for acting?
Which is not to say you shouldn't just kill things and take their stuff. Rather, it's that you can peel away layers of the onion if you'd like to.