Ethical Considerations For Fantastic Situations

Are Your Sci-Fi & Fantasy Heroes Ethical People?

In the real world, we usually understand that there are some things that we should really, really try to avoid doing unless a situation is dire. "Dire" usually entails situations where someone's welfare or safety is in imminent danger, or situations where there will be catastrophic consequences if a particular action isn't taken. For example, we hold that it's unethical to give people surgery without their consent, but if someone has been in an accident, is unconscious, and will die without immediate medical intervention, then necessary measures should be take to save that person's life - it's better to assume this person wants to live and take accordant measures than to assume otherwise and be wrong. Likewise, it's considered wrong to just up and kill someone, but if killing someone who is actively trying to kill you is the only way to preserve your own life, then you do what you have to. We agree that reading someone's diary is a personal violation, but an exception to the rule that one shouldn't read a diary can be made if reading it could prevent a planned crime from being committed.

Without really good reasons, we consider it wrong to perform these actions. And "I really just wanted to," "it was convenient for me," or "I was a little nervous" are not really good reasons. Just as "this shady person over there seemed a little suspicious" is considered a poor reason to put someone in handcuffs, so should it be a poor reason to put this person under a body-freezing spell.

Yet when it comes to fiction with fantastic components, we often fail to carry these kinds of principles through. Something that most people would consider atrocious to do with drugs suddenly gets a free pass if it involves potions or psionics. Personal violations that would be considered completely beyond the pale are often overlooked if magic or superpowers are used. Characters with superhuman abilities aren't held to even half the standards of responsibility as people using weapons or heavy machinery of similar effect.

The result is that we end up with characters who are easily perceived as awful people who get away with awful things. This in turn can damage their credibility as heroes and make them seem very unlikeable. (And as the odds that they've severely injured or traumatized someone go up, the worse this perception will likely be.)

You are of course free to write unethical characters; such characters can be very entertaining, even. But if you want your characters to be perceived as heroes or as representatives of ideals of fairness and justice, then these are things that you really need to take into account.

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Ethical precepts compared to various fantastic scenarios

We usually accept that people have a right to decide what happens to their own bodies and minds. For this reason, there are a lot of things we consider it wrong to give people without consent: sex, surgery, drugs (both medicinal and recreational), body modifications, etc. Violations of this type can include:

Now, when Obi-Wan Kenobi used the Force to make an Imperial stormtrooper let him pass (essentially using brief mind control upon the stormtrooper), it was arguably justified in that trillions of lives were on the line. To argue that it would be better to let the Empire kill and tyrannize countless people rather than briefly subvert the free will of one stormtrooper would be absurd. (After all, the Empire was clearly disregarding the free will of countless others by forcing them to die against their will.)

On the other hand, those who use love potions to make people suddenly experience feelings for them are inexcusable violators, plain and simple. Their purpose is entirely selfish, even if they think that they're going to be so very nice and kind to those they've chosen to violate.

Something else to consider here is that many of these things carry a high risk of leaving long-lasting mental trauma. Assaulting someone with horrifying visions and crushing emotional pain isn't referred to as "mind-rape" just to be dramatic. Likewise, many forced involuntary transformations essentially entail the violation of the entire body, which would hardly be a walk in the park, either.

We usually accept that people have a right to privacy. This is why we consider it unacceptable to enter people's private spaces (EG, bedrooms), go through their things, and read their personal documents. This is why posting people's secrets in public spaces is considered beyond the pale. Violations of this type can include:

Those who cannot help reading other people's minds should still endeavor to respect people's privacy by keeping what they hear to themselves (unless keeping silent would mean allowing harm to befall someone). It's neither funny nor cute to read someone's most intimate secrets and blurt them out to everyone within earshot. It's a serious personal violation.

We usually accept that people have a right to know, especially when there's a risk of harm or when something will directly affect them. This is why we have concepts like "informed consent," which means that someone is fully informed of any potential risk factors in a medical procedure or treatment, and is why drugs come with side effect warnings. This is why people are often legally required to disclose their HIV positive status with potential sex partners. This is also why the US has right-to-know laws, which enables citizens to find out what sorts of chemicals they might be exposed to in their daily lives. Violations of this type can include:

As for that last one, "it has to be done to prevent mass panic!" or "they deserve to have peace of mind!" just doesn't cut it, either. In real life, we don't consider those to be legitimate reasons not to inform people about risk factors in their food, household products, environs, etc. If anything, we consider them to be vile excuses to weasel out of taking responsibility. And neither does "it's just not their business to know!" The minute something affects other people's safety and welfare is the minute it becomes their business.

We usually accept that people have an obligation to minimize risks to others insofar as they feasibly can. This is why OSHA laws and regulations exist and why negligent homicide is a punishable offense. Violations of this type can include:

We usually accept that people have an obligation to solve problems in the least-harmful and least-damaging way. Because any harm and damage that you could have prevented but failed to, you are responsible for. Violations of this type can include:

We usually accept that people deserve equal rights and respect. This is arguably the backbone of all ethical precepts. Violations of this type include:

But what if it's my character's power?

Then a character who is intended to be perceived as an upstanding person should aim to avoid using that power in an unethical way when at all possible.

Let's use incendiary devices as an example. They aren't banned simply because someone went "lol fire is bad, let's not allow people to use it." They're banned because of just how horrible their effects are. Victims, if they survive, will likely be severely disfigured and maimed for life. Others might spend days or weeks slowly dying of necrosis. Sure, other weapons can still do awful things to people, but they still carry a much lower risk. Such unnecessary misery is something that any conscientious individual would want to avoid inflicting upon others unless there was absolutely no other choice. (And bear in mind, someone who had fire as a power could most likely train to use ordinary weapons!)

Alternatively, you can just write a character who isn't supposed to be all that great and wonderful. Anti-heroes can make for very compelling characters, after all. And acknowledging that what these characters do isn't great can make for some interesting conflict in your story if you have characters who are bothered by what this character does.

But what if my characters meant well?

Then they still did wrong.

Having good intentions is a good start to being a good person, but that's all it is. Having noble and pure intentions does not change the fact that one has behaved unethically.

Even if your characters were "just trying to be nice" or "just trying to help," they still acted wrongly. Help that's been forced onto someone is usually no help at all. Even staging an intervention for an addict isn't about forcing treatment onto the addict, but more about making it clear that something's gotta give because things can't keep going on like this. The only real exceptions are when people are a danger to themselves or others - EG, being in a state of severe psychosis, being suicidal as a result of severe depression, etc. (And no, being in danger of "making themselves unhappy" because they aren't doing whatever you think will make them happy does not count.)

This isn't to say that your characters are complete monsters, of course. If they were genuinely trying to do their best in the best way that they knew how, they should hardly be put on the same level as those who acted out of deliberate intention to harm. But it does mean that for whatever strong sense of justice or morality they may have, their sense of ethics still needs some work.

And this is not always to say that your protagonists need to all be perfect all the time. Flawed protagonists who do horrible things can be entertaining to watch in their own right. But if your intention is for your characters' actions and choices to be seen as good, then you need to ask yourself whether they really are good.

You might also take a look at:

Moral & Ethical System Development Questions
Character Morality & Ethics - What Separates Your Heroes From The Villains?
"Is This My Character's Fault?" - A Flowchart
Protagonist-Centered Morality: What It Is, And How You Can Avoid It

Things You Need To Do In Your Science Fiction Or Fantasy Story
Things Your Fantasy Or Science Fiction Story Needs
Tips To Create Sensational Superhero Introduction & Origin Stories

On Writing & Roleplaying Characters Who Are Good Leader Material
On Writing Sympathetic Morally-Ambiguous Characters
Why "Purity" Is An Overrated Character Trait
Basic Tips To Improve Your OCs & Fan Characters

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