For those who are not familiar with video games, Dogmeat is an animal character in Fallout III. He is, of course, based on the character of the same name from the earlier game. This character is, of course, based on Mad Max’s dog. If none of this makes sense to you, suffice it to say that he is a dog in a violent video game.
Back when I was playing Fallout III, I ran across Dogmeat and “rescued” him (he helped out by killing few bad people), thus making him a companion. This gave me the option of bringing him with me into various dangerous situations, abandoning him, or leaving him in the relatively safety of my modest hut in a post-apocalyptic town. Like most gamers, I usually shamelessly exploit NPCs (non player characters-those controlled by the computer) and allow them to soak up damage for me. However, I elected to leave Dogmeat at home, safe from the virtual dangers of the radioactive wasteland. Being a philosopher, I wondered a bit about this choice and have been thinking about how this relates to ethics on and off since then.
The main point raised by this, at least as I see it, is whether or not we can have moral obligations to such virtual beings. Or, to put it another way, is it possible for there to be virtually virtuous acts regarding such virtual entities or not? Interestingly enough, I found that perhaps the best philosophical fit for the situation could be found in Immanuel Kant.
In his ethical theory Kant makes it quite clear that animals are means rather than ends. Rational beings, in contrast, are ends. For Kant, this distinction rests on the fact that rational beings can (as he sees it) chose to follow the moral law. Animals, lacking reason, cannot do this. Since animals are means and not ends, Kant claims that we have no direct duties to animals. They are classified in with the other “objects of our inclinations” that derive value from the value we give them.
Interestingly enough, Kant argues that we should treat animals well. However, he does so while also trying to avoid ascribing animals themselves any moral status. Here is how he does it (or tries to do so).
While Kant is not willing to accept that we have any direct duties to animals, he “smuggles” in duties to them indirectly. As he puts it, our duties towards animals are indirect duties towards humans. To make his case for this, he employs an argument from analogy: if a human doing X would obligate us to that human, then an animal doing X would also create an analogous moral obligation. For example, a human who has long and faithfully served another person should not simply be abandoned or put to death when he has grown old. Likewise, a dog who has served faithfully and well should not be cast aside in his old age.
While this would seem to create an obligation to the dog, Kant uses a little philosophical sleight of hand here. The dog cannot judge (that is, the dog is not rational) so, as Kant sees it, the dog cannot be wronged. So, then, why would it be wrong to shoot the dog?
Kant’s answer seems to be rather consequentialist in character: he argues that if a person acts in inhumane ways towards animals (shooting the dog, for example) then his humanity will likely be damaged. Since, as Kant sees it, humans do have a duty to show humanity to other humans, shooting the dog would be wrong. This would not be because the dog was wronged but because humanity would be wronged by the shooter damaging his humanity through such a cruel act.
Interestingly enough, Kant discusses how people develop cruelty-they often begin with animals and then work up to harming human beings. As I point out to my students, Kant seems to have anticipated the psychological devolution of serial killers.
Kant goes beyond merely enjoining us to not be cruel to animals and encourages us to be kind to them. He even praises Leibniz for being rather gentle with a worm he found. Of course, he encourages this because those who are kind to animals will develop more humane feelings towards humans. So, roughly put, animals are essentially practice for us: how we treat them is training for how we will treat human beings.
In the case of virtual beings, like Dogmeat, they are clearly and obviously lacking in any meaningful moral status of their own. They do not feel or think. They have no independent existence-they are just code in games. As such, they lack all the qualities that might give them a moral status of their own.
Oddly enough, these virtual beings would seem to be on par with animals, at least as Kant sees them. After all, real animals are mere objects and have no moral status of their own. The same is true of virtual beings.
Of course, the same is also true of rocks and dirt. Yet Kant would never argue that we should treat rocks well. Perhaps this would also apply to virtual beings such as Dogmeat. That is, perhaps it makes no sense to talk about good or bad relative to such virtual beings. Thus, the issue is whether virtual being are more like animals or rocks.
However, I think a case can be made for treating virtual beings well. If Kant’s argument has some merit, then the key concern about how non-rational beings are treated is how such treatment affects the behavior of the person engaging in said behavior. So, for example, if being cruel to a real dog could damage a person’s humanity, then he should (as Kant sees it) not be cruel to the dog. This should also extend to virtual beings. For example, if being cruel to a virtual dog would damage a person’s humanity, then he should not act in that way. If being kind to the virtual dog (in this case, saving Dogmeat) would make a person more inclined to be kind to other rational beings, then the person should be kind.
Interestingly enough (or boringly enough), this sort of argument is often employed to argue against people playing violent video games. The gist of such arguments is that they can condition people to behave badly in real life or at least de-sensitize people. What Kant’s argument adds to this is that it would seem to grant virtual beings the same sort of indirect moral duties that he claims we owe to animals. If Kant is right (and I am right in bending his theory) then I did have an indirect duty to save Dogmeat.