The owners of D&D, Wizards of the Coast, recently issued an article on diversity. The response, as expected, divided mostly along ideological lines. In addressing this specific matter, I advanced two general arguments in defense of some of what Wizards has proposed. One is the utilitarian argument stolen from Plato that harmful aspects of art can harm a person’s character and could increase their chances of behaving badly for real. The second is a Kantian style argument that it does not matter whether immoral content causes harm, what matters is that the content is immoral. I ended the essay noting an obvious concern with my argument: the same reasoning would seem to apply to two core aspects of D&D: killing and looting.
As an aside, I am aware of the Satanic Panic D&D faced in the 1980s—having lived through that time. The public argument made against D&D was like Plato’s argument from corruption with a Christian modification that D&D would lead people to Satanism and other cults. Like other panics about Satanists, this was debunked long ago. For those who want to refight these battles, I will leave that to others to address—now back to killing and theft.
Using Plato’s argument as a template, it is easy enough to argue that violence and looting should be removed from D&D: engaging in fictional violence and theft could corrupt people and make them more likely to behave badly in real life. I can also reuse the Kantian style argument: even if hacking up dragons and looting their hoards had no impact on people, allowing the immoral content of killing and stealing would be immoral. This would provide a clear argument from analogy: if D&D should be cleansed of racist elements in favor of diversity on moral grounds, then it should also be cleansed of violence and theft on moral grounds. There are two main options as to where this reasoning should take us.
The first is to accept the analogy on its face and agree that D&D should also be cleansed of violence and theft. This would radically change the game, although there are some tales of violence-free campaigns. The second is to take this analogy as a reductio ad absurdum of the original argument. If using the same logic (what is known as parity of reasoning) leads to an absurd conclusion, then this can be taken as also refuting arguments with the same logic. A well-known example of this is philosophy is Gaunilo’s reply to St. Anselm’s ontological argument.
Since D&D is inherently a game of combat and looting, it would be absurd to remove these elements. This would be analogous to removing cars from NASCAR or removing skating from ice hockey. Since the violence argument is reduced to absurdity, the diversity argument is absurd as well. D&D should remain unchanged: killing, looting and no diversity changes. While this line of reasoning is appealing, it can be challenged.
For this reasoning to be good fictional violence and theft must be analogous to fictional racism (broadly construed) within the game. Interestingly, someone agreeing with this reasoning would need to agree that racism, killing and looting are all bad—they would just hold that these should not be removed from the game. Someone who thinks that racism, killing, and looting are all morally fine would not need to make the absurdity argument—they would just argue there is no moral reason to remove any of these from the game. So, can a person believe that killing, stealing and racism are bad while consistently supporting diversity on moral grounds while also allowing killing and looting? The answer is “yes” and supporting this requires arguing that the analogy between killing and racism breaks down.
The easy and obvious way to do this is to note a relevant difference between racism and killing: while racism seems to always be wrong, there are numerous moral arguments that support the idea of morally acceptable violence. These include such things as Locke’s moral argument for self-defense and centuries of work in just war theory. In contrast, there seem to be no good forms of racism or cases in which racism is morally defensible. While someone might use violence for self-defense against a wrongful attack and be morally justified, there seem to be no cases of racism self-defense: that one must use morally acceptable racism to protect oneself against wrongful racism. Likewise, there is no body of ethics that constitutes just racism theory. To be fair to the racists, they would certainly argue in favor of the ethics of racism and I certainly invite good faith efforts to publicly make such a case.
Because there are moral distinctions in violence, D&D could include ethical violence with no moral problem—it would not be corrupting nor would it be inherently evil. In D&D people typically play heroes doing heroic deeds—fighting evil foes and looting their foes to continue their heroic efforts. There are, however, three obvious counters to this move.
One is that there are arguments that all violence is always wrong—one could be a moral absolutist about violence. If violence is always wrong, then it would thus be wrong to include it in D&D. While not without its problems, pacifism is a coherent moral view and would certainly make D&D morally problematic if it were correct.
The second is that people play non-good and even evil characters in D&D who engage in immoral acts of violence. I have played evil characters myself, my favorite being my delusional anti-paladin D’ko. One could argue that playing evil PCs would be immoral. The obvious reply is that if one is playing the role and it is not impacting the person, then there would be no moral problem: no one is being harmed and the evil deeds are fictional. If someone were to get into the role too much and engage in behavior that did hurt other people, if only with their awful behavior at the gaming table, then that would be wrong—real harm would be done. For example, a player who has their character rape defeated foes and graphically describes this to the other players could be doing real harm. A Kantian might disagree about the distinction between fictional and real evil—that to will evil even in play would still be evil.
The third is that even in games where all the PCs are good (or at least not evil), the DM must take on the role of any evil NPCs the players interact with and engage in fictional acts of evil violence. As such, it would seem rather hard to avoid including unjust violence in D&D. From a utilitarian perspective, this would be morally acceptable if the fictional violence did no harm—either in terms of corrupting people or inflicting suffering on those involved. Again, a Kantian approach might forbid even harmlessly playing an evil being as a DM—but some Kantians are notorious as killjoys.
As my closing argument, I contend there is a meaningful distinction between playing an evil character doing evil acts of fictional violence and having the game content mirror the racism of the real world. To use an obvious analogy, this is the distinction between an actor playing the role of a racist in a play that recognizes racism as evil and acting in a play that advances racism in a fictional context. As such, D&D can retain violence and players can play evil characters (within limits) while avoiding moral harms. But the racism should certainly go.