Role-Playing, Make-Believe, and Moral Complicity
My purpose in this paper is to explore the applicability of the philosophical literature on imaginative resistance and moderate moralism[i] to role-playing games (RPGs). RPGs seem immediately relevant to such philosophical discussions, not least because they are so admirably adaptable to Kendall Walton’s account of make-believe. Walton models our experience of fiction on games of make believe. Role-playing games bridge the gap between our experience of fiction and such games, in that they exhibit elements of each. Like our experience of fiction, participation in a role playing game involves us in a story. Like a child’s game of make believe, the decisions of players in RPGs generate fictional truths within the world of the game. Those who maintain that fiction can sometimes make us complicit in the moral perspective it endorses as correct typically infer that perspective on the basis of what is true in the world of a given work. If it is fictional that some action is morally correct, then the work can be taken to endorse it. Moral complicity is often thought to depend on our own conception of what is morally permissible. That is, it is held that we will not be able to imagine the correctness of an action in the absence of some genuine belief that it is possible for actions of that kind to be permissible (though perhaps only in the kind of circumstance depicted in the fiction), since we can’t imagine what we can’t conceive. This seems damning for RPGs when we consider the kinds of perspectives role-playing requires players to adopt. However, I will argue that the perspective of the tabletop RPG gamer is more analogous to that of an author or an actor, and that the arguments concerning moral complicity do not apply in any necessary way to writing and improvisational acting.
[i] Noel Carroll, "Moderate Moralism," British Journal of Aesthetics 36 (1996): 223-238. Carroll goes on in several articles to argue that literature can be a source of moral knowledge and education. See, e.g., "The Wheel of Virtue: Art, Literature, and Moral Knowledge," Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 60: 1 (2002): 3-26. See also "Art, Narrative, and Moral Understanding" in Aesthetics and Ethics: Essays at the Intersection, Jerrold Levinson, ed., (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998), pp. 126-160. Roughly similar approaches have been taken by: Berys Gaut, "The Ethical Criticism of Art," in Aesthetics and Ethics: Essays at the Intersection, Jerrold Levinson, ed., (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998): 182-205; Oliver Conolly and Bashshar Haydar, "Narrative Art and Moral Knowledge," British Journal of Aesthetics 41 (4/01): 109-124; Matthew Kieran, "In Defence of the Ethical Evaluation of Narrative Art," British Journal of Aesthetics 41 (1/01): 26-38; Amy Mullin, "Evaluating Art: Significant Imagining v. Moral Soundness," Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 60: 2 (2002): 137-149. Contributions have been made by Mary Devereaux in “Beauty and Evil: The Case of Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will,” in Aesthetics and Ethics, Levinson, ed., pp. 227-256 and “Moral Judgments and Works of Art: The Case of Narrative Literature,” Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 62 (2004): 3-11. There are also significant contributions from James Harold in “On Judging the Moral Value of Narrative Artworks,” Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 64 (2006): 259-270, “Infected by Evil,” Philosophical Explorations 8 (2005): 173-187, “Narrative Engagement with Atonement and The Blind Assassin,” Philosophy and Literature 29 (2005): 130-145, and “Flexing the Imagination,” Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 61 (2003): 247-257.