Friday, 27 January 2012

Dragon Age II – The Chantry and Anders on Trial


When I started this post, I really had not idea that I would find myself writing such a long piece on it. I found that as I began to write out the various arguments and positions one could take on the following issues that there was so much one could say concerning these issues.

I will warn my readers from the outset that this post will contain detailed plot spoilers from Bioware’s game, Dragon Age II. If you wish to leave the results of the game to be discovered, then perhaps you should stop reading now or risk being very disappointed.

Before we go on, I would like to clarify that I own neither Dragon Age: II nor are any of the characters, places etc etc  of my own invention and that they belong to Bioware, EA and a bunch of other companies.

A Slice of Context…

In the universe of the Dragon Age series, one of the most central conflicts is between two groups of individuals: the Mages and the Chantry. Mages are individuals who are born with the ability to work with the force of magic, something which, in the world of Dragon Age, is a natural force which is just as naturally prevalent as magnetism and gravity. This force of magic supposedly originates in a realm of existence known as the Fade, home to spirits and demons, which is separated from the mortal realm by a barrier named the Veil. When mages use their powers, especially when they use them consistently in the same location, the weaken this barrier and occasionally allow spirits to slip through.

The beings of the Fade can be divided into two separate kinds of creature: spirits and demons. Spirits are beings which represent the positive elements of the mortal realm (such as fortitude, justice, healing etc) and are perfectly content to remain in their distant realm, yet willing to cross at the behest of a mage to lend their aid. Demons, however, represent the darker sides of human nature (breaking down into the categories of rage, hunger, sloth, desire and pride, their role reflecting which aspect of a mortal’s psyche they prey upon) and are constantly seeking to worm their way into the mortal world. When the a mage uses their powers and the veil is thinned, their attention is caught and they are sometimes able to slip across and take possession of mages, turning them into hideous abominations, taking control of their bodies and their powers to unleash terrible horrors upon mortals. Additionally, demons will constantly seek to meet with mages and tempt them with offers of the secret powers of Blood Magic, a school of forbidden power which permits a mage to transform life into power as well as permitting them the ability to dominate minds among other things.

On the other hand, the Chantry are the most dominate religion in the Dragon Age Universe, believing in a single deity: The Maker. They teach that “Magic exists to serve man and never to rule over him” which they take as meaning that Mages should use their powers to serve others and not to serve their own ends. This, coupled with the constant threat of demonic possession, leads the Chantry to rule that all Mages must be members of a Circle, which is an organisation in which mages are kept to be monitored. When a child or adult shows magical ability, they are forcibly taken from their family and placed in a Circle. The circles are ruled over by a First Enchanter and a council of Senior Enchanters, all of whom are mages. However, Circles are far from being independent, for each are watched by an organisation of warriors known as the Templars, who are trained to combat magic and slay mages who abuse their powers by consorting with demons or mages who simply fall prey to demonic possession.However, the Templar’s are constantly accused of abusing the most basic rights of the mages and generally making their lives a living hell. Any mage who leaves the circle is branded an Apostate and hunted down which leads to them being returned or slain.

Additionally, apprentice Mages are subjected to a test known as a Harrowing, in which they are tossed into the Fade to confront a demon. Success enables the apprentice to fully join the circle, by displaying the ability to resist the temptations of the Fade. Failure results in their becoming an abomination which is then slain. However, there is an alternative to the Harrowing. Mages can opt out of this and instead by made Tranquil. Tranquil mages are cut of from the Fade and therefore they cannot use magic or be possessed. However, this has the additional effect of leaving the mages unable to experience any form of emotion or dream, leaving them entirely without desires.

And here we are introduced to the central conflict. The Chantry stir the fear of the people concerning demons and therefore the people support the Chantry so that the “nasty Mages” will be kept under control, unwilling to show any support for those with Magical ability even when magic saves their lives. The Chantry controls the Templars and the Templars abuse the basic rights of the Mages, all because they fear that a mage might resort to blood magic or become suddenly possess. However, this spurs many mages into grasping for forbidden power in an attempt to free themselves of their chains.

The fear of Mages turning into Abominations is augmented by the fact that in an empire, which stands elsewhere in the Dragon Age Universe, the Mages were once controlled in a similar way, yet were deemed able to look after themselves. Once they were freed, however, it was not long before the mages of this Tevinter Imperium turned to the forbidden arts and overthrew the established government to take power for themselves.

The Chantry desires to protect the people from the Mages powers should they either attempt to abuse them or become possessed. The Mages simply wish to live a life free from being chained and branded as evil.

The Event…

So, during Dragon Age II, we meet an apostate by the name of Anders (who was introduced in the Dragon Age: Awakening expansion for the previous game), who acts as an activist for Mages Rights. He dues what he can to assist the Mages and fight the Templars and generally fight the good fight for the Mages. However, his actions eventually reach the extreme.

Tired of the constant compromises between the views of the Templars and the Mages (which he views as being entirely incompatible, with only one view or the other being possible) Anders decides to make it so that there can no longer be a compromise. He publicly uses his powers to Destroy the Chantry (this time referring to a building, like a church), killing the Grand Cleric (the equivalent of a High Priestess) among countless other innocents in an attempt to goad an all out war between the Templars and the Mages. Through this conflict, he will see the conflict resolved with the Mages either free or dead.

The Ethics…

So then, having examined the context of the situation, we can distil a lovely pair of ethical questions:

  1. Is the existence of the Circle of Magi and the oppression of the mages morally correct?
  2. Are the actions of Anders justified?

The Chantry

Let’s start by analysing the first question. The actions of the Templars and the Chantry are justifiable on Utilitarian Grounds. Utilitarianism states that what is morally good is what causes the most happiness for the most people and goes on to say that happiness most evenly equates to pleasure, therefore concluding that what is good is what brings the most pleasure to the most people. In an advanced form, the hedonic calculus (a metaphorical tool) is used to calculate whether an act is moral or not, based on the factors of duration, intensity, remoteness, purity, richness and extent of the pleasure and pain involved.

Therefore, the attempts to prevent harm coming to the people through the subjugation of the mages is perfectly justified, for the number of mages is less than those who are protected through their subjugation.Even with addition of Mill’s Harm Principle (an additional principle combined with that of Utility to produce another form of Utilitarianism), which states that a man’s freedom can only be limited or restricted to prevent harm to another individual, Utilitarianism can be used to support the actions of the Chantry and their Templars.

However, this exploits one of the flaws of Utilitarianism, which is that it is open to abuse in the manner that it seems to declare that good is whatever provides pleasure and happiness for a majority, thus literally turning ethics into a form of popularity contest. In fact, it epitomises the sadistic guard example, in which a group of captors abuses his captive because of the pleasure it brings them (this being something that some Templars have inflicted upon some mages) which is perfectly justified on Utilitarian grounds. The pleasure of several guards is more bountiful and widespread than the pain of their victim, thus it is morally right.

Additionally, Utilitarianism in general seems to defy the principle of Justice, which demands fair treatment for all individuals. Though the Templars are able to prevent some of the damage done by mages through the existence of the Circles, they can only do so by restricting the rights and liberties of perfectly innocent people, some of which are in fact driven to defy Chantry Law and turn to forbidden powers due to their fear of the Templars and the restrictions of their liberties. Therefore, we could arguably say that the existence of the circles acts to generate more harm. If this generated harm outweighed the output of pleasure, the Circle would be morally wrong.

In fact Utilitarianism does not allow or account for the existence of civil or moral rights. They are not reconcilable with the principle of Utility which acts as the foundation of this ethical perspective.

Additionally, Utilitarianism dares to invoke the wrath of the Naturalistic Fallacy which when basically stated states that you cannot derive and “ought” from an “is”. The Naturalistic Fallacy is broken when one attempts to take a concept of ethics, such as the concept of good, and compare it to a natural concept or phenomenon. Therefore, by arguing that good is equivalent to happiness is logically incorrect in terms of the naturalistic fallacy.

As a final point of criticism, it violates a persons personal identity. Bernard Williams argues that personal identity is consistent of a persons moral commitment and values. A person’s identity is what they stand for and therefore a response in a moral dilemma will be based on their commitments. Utilitarianism discards these, instead attempting to be objective and using utility. Therefore, Utilitarianism discards personal identity and integrity during the moral decision making. However, many people argue that personal identity is far more important in a moral situation, that personal values are core to this process.

Therefore, we can see that although the actions of the Chantry could be argued for on Utilitarian grounds, the very principle of Utility itself causes terrible clashes with the concept of human rights and justice, weaknesses which could lead one into discounting the theory as being realistically applicable.

I would argue that Utilitarianism cannot convincingly support the Chantry and the Templars, for the theory itself has been harshly criticised and I feel that it is unable to truly rebound from these criticisms.

So, if we instead analyse the stance of the Templars using an approach which is more centred on the moral agent themselves and less focused on the actions they commit, will we be able to pass some of the problems with Utilitarian theory and reach a successful ethical analysis of the Chantry’s actions?

Virtue ethics is such an agent-centred ethical theory, which places its basis for morality in the nature of the moral agent and not in raw actions irrespective of he or she who is committing the act. This ethical standpoint states that in order for a person to act in a moral way, they must be a virtuous person. In turn, in order to be a virtuous person, an individual must not only be in possession of the virtues but they must also act in accordance with them. According to virtue theory, the virtues are the path used to reach the state of eudaemonia, or the state of flourishing and reaching ones full potential.

Plato argued that virtue was an inner state of being which was produced through inner harmony. The three qualities of Wisdom (good judgement), Courage (the undertaking of calculated risks) and Self-Control (resistance of temptation), needed to exist in a harmonious manner in order for virtue to be achieved. When an action promotes the harmony of these three personal aspects and therefore contributes to the production of a virtuous state of being, it can be considered a good action. Conversely, when these three qualities were in balance, all actions a person would undertake would be good.

A virtuous person does virtuous things.

However, there are several objections to the solidity of virtue theory. Firstly, a foundation of Virtue ethics rests upon the idea of things in this world, most importantly humans, having a purpose which must be fulfilled. However, we could question whether or not such a purpose exists. This, however, is more of a question concerning Telos, though still has a large impact on the nature of this ethical theory. Though one can argue that this is reason enough to doubt this theory, that there could be an underlying purpose to human existence is not logically absurd.

However, even if we do not doubt that there is a purpose, which virtue ethics states there is, it could be argued that eudemonia is not this purpose. Not only this, but one could also argue that eudemonia is not the only purpose. Additionally, the concept of eudemonia is a hard concept to define. Without clarity of a fundamental principle, an ethical theory tends to become far less convincing.

However, for all its falls, virtue ethics remains convincing. For example, unlike Utilitarian ethics, it takes into account the emotional response of an agent and shifts the attention of mortality from the actions to those who are committing them, the agents. We can see that the earlier problem, raised by Utilitarian ethics, concerning personal identity, permitting if not encouraging emotion’s role in the ethical process.

Where Utilitarianism attempts to use specific rules to govern morality, virtue ethics uses a more practical approach to moral dilemmas. Absolute rules, the kind of which are found in Utilitarianism are liable to clash and cause paradoxes, whereas virtue theory, without having these absolute rules, is not susceptible to this logical pitfall.

A final point in support of Virtue Theory, and one which I personally find among its most compelling advocats, is the fact that the theory does not commit the offenses of those ethical theories which place the weight of morality on actions rather than agents, which is that Virtue Ethics does not reduce morality to merely actions. It allows for the development of morality, treating it more as a continuum or a scale as opposed to a simple matter as right or wrong.

So using virtue theory, we may have an argument for the templar’s actions. If the Chantry and the Templars were incarcerating the mages out of the virtue of compassion, then this would be the right thing to do. They would be acting in accordance with a virtue, and therefore their actions would be correct. This would, of course, still frown upon abusive Templars and would therefore encourage the system to change into a more harmonious one.

However, another question we must ask is are the Mages entitled to violently rebel against Templar rule, paying the cost of many lives for the liberty of a minority group?

Using virtue ethics, it would depend on whether or not the reasoning and desire for this rebelling was based on virtue or vice. For example, the mages might attempt a rebellion in order to promote the liberty of their people and therefore be acting under the virtue of justice. Reversely, they could rebel out of the desire to punish the Templars for having suppressed them, thus invoking the vice of vengeance. However, where does the line between virtue and vice lie? Surely a mage could rebel for both reasons, thus acting in accordance with both virtue and vice at the same time. Virtue ethics says one should always act in accordance with the virtues, but does this still apply if one is also satisfying a vice at the same time? Also, punishing an abusive master for what they have done could be considered a form of justice. This illuminates the tricky nature of the virtues and how their concept can become confused.

So, having analysed the actions of the Chantry and the Templars, finding support for them in both theories. However, the support for the mages had no Utilitarian support and the support gained on virtue ethics incurred several problems in terms of how we could accurately apply the virtues. 

The Actions of Anders

Concerning the actions of Anders, we can come up with some mixed results.

Utilitarian ethics may on face value seem very damning to his actions, for he has killed many individuals, therefore defying the principle of Utility by bringing widespread pain. However, as a consequentialist theory, we can only judge the moral weight of his actions based on the consequences of his actions. Though in the immediate aftermath he has caused pain and death for so many people, there could be greater benefits in the future which grossly outweigh the current losses. Considering that the hedonic calculus does indeed attempt to include future pleasure and pain, as well as the fact that it does not specify how far into the future we are allowed to consider, any possible future pleasures should be factored into the decision making process.

For example, should his actions lead to, for example, the liberation of mages across the world, then arguably we could say that his actions were acceptable, for though many people were killed through his actions (causing pain), many more would be liberated (causing pleasure). However, this does depend on us viewing the liberation of the mages as a good thing (producing overall more pleasure than pain), for if freeing the mages is morally wrong then the Utilitarian support for his actions is torn away. Additionally, the Templars would no longer have to uphold their duties and may therefore benefit from this as well.

However in both these possible benefits lies the possibility of future pain. If the Templar’s abandonment of their vows caused them to feel uneasy and experience great discomfort at the thought of liberated mages, then they would shift the debate towards the morally incorrect end of the spectrum. Also, the liberation of the mages, though it would likely cause them pleasure, could cause the people to panic and live in fear, thus causing a disproportionate amount of pain.

If we use Utilitarianism, then Ander’s actions are almost certainly morally incorrect.

But what about Virtue Theory?

Fundamentally, we have to ask whether Ander’s actions are aligned with virtue or not and from this we must conclude as to the moral status of his actions. So what virtues could apply to his actions?

One of the virtues which could be considered applicable is that of Fortitude or Steadfastness, which represents a firm standing in ones position. Fundamentally, the virtue of Fortitude means standing for what you believe in and therefore being loyal to your viewpoints. However, Fortitude or Loyalty cannot be thought of as a virtue on its own, for being loyal to an immoral cause does not make one morally good based entirely on their loyalty. Though Fortitude is an admirable quality, the true weight of Fortitude’s morality lies with that which one is loyal to.

Another virtue which could apply is that of Justice. If Anders was acting out of the desire to achieve Justice for his people, then we could justify his actions based upon the concordance of his actions and the virtues. But can we honestly say that his destruction of innocent lives, lives with may have had tenuous connections with the actually controversy, could be considered justice? Had Anders’ actions harmed only Templars or those who were fully part of the conflict, then arguing for his actions under the pretence of justice would be more acceptable. However, that his victims were innocent renders the use of Justice almost completely dead.

Finally, he may instead be fulfilling the virtue of vengeance, therefore committing one of the foundational offences in Virtue Theory, rendering his actions completely immortal.

Having discounted Fortitude as being a fully fledged virtue, I would argue that Anders’ killing of so many innocent (non-involved) individuals cannot be an expression of Justice, therefore cutting this other possibility of explanation. Virtue Ethics deems his actions immoral.


However much I may sympathise with the condition of the mages, it seems that, through the analysis presented, we can clearly see that the liberation of the mages from Chantry rule is immoral according to two separate theories of ethics. Utilitarianism simply argues that, as more people would be pleased that those with magical ability be contained, for this prevents their abilities from causing more widespread harm, then it is morally correct to contain them.

Personally, I find Utilitarianism unconvincing, though I find Virtue Ethics far more compelling and feasible. Therefore, as Virtue Theory has shown that, provided their captors act out of the desire to fulfil the virtues of compassion and protection, the Templar’s are morally correct in keeping their vigil and restricting the rights and freedoms of those with magical ability.

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