Tips To Create Fictional Philosophies & Value Systems

Aiming to develop fantastic cultures with philosophies and value systems that are supposed to be different from our own? Not sure how to go about it without resorting to handwaves like "they're just too alien for us to comprehend!"? Or are you unsure of how a value system might develop in the first place? Whatever your troubles may be, here are some tips that will hopefully help you out on this.

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First of all, get your mind outside of modern western dualism (if you haven't already).

This section presumes that you live in the Western world, as most readers of this site do. As it is, western culture today is entrenched in a particular dualistic mindset, and unless you can train yourself to think outside of it, you're going to have a hard time creating anything genuinely different from it. This becomes a problem if you're aiming to create a culture that seems truly different to your fellow westerners without resorting to fiats like "their ways are simply incomprehensible to us!"

So what is western dualism? In a nutshell, it's that whole good vs. evil, darkness vs. light theme. In manifests in media in many ways: angels vs. demons, seelie vs. unseelie, heroes vs. villains, the light side of the Force vs. the dark side of the Force, etc. Western dualism holds that the "bad" side is always plotting and scheming to destroy the "good" side and/or that it'll probably pounce full-force as soon as good lets its guard down even a little. (This sort of thinking has led to cautionary moral stories of characters whose one-time indulgence in something selfish or morally questionable leads down a slippery slope to indulging every sin and vice ever, or even going full-blown villain.)

We're so used to this paradigm that we don't think twice about it, and yet this idea is far from universal. This doesn't mean that other cultures don't a concept of right and wrong, because they absolutely do. What they don't necessarily have is an entire cosmology or mythos that wraps around this whole dark vs. light, good vs. evil idea the way Western culture does.

A good example of modern western dualism versus other viewpoints is how modern westerners perceive other people's deities associated with death. In their original cultures, these deities weren't seen as evil per se. They might have been seen as frightening and intimidating, but they weren't necessarily more likely to do horrible things to you than any other deity, and they weren't all plotting to overthrow the other gods so they could take over and rule. This is what westerners, accustomed to the narrative of Lucifer and his fallen angels, assume they must want to do. Go and look at how deities like Hades, Hel, and others were originally perceived - it's a far cry from the evil mustache-twirling attitudes that many people ascribe to them today.

Now, at this point some of you might be asking, "All right, so what if I write a story where the guys who are usually 'bad' are actually good and the guys who are usually 'good' are actually bad?" You can certainly do that if you really want to, but you're still operating within the framework of western dualism. All forms of dualism think in terms of opposites; so if you simply try to reverse or invert something, you haven't escaped it at all. Trying to escape duality by reversing or inverting it in some way is like trying to escape your coat by wearing it inside out. You haven't escaped it at all because you're still wearing it. If you really want to get away from your coat, you have to take it off altogether and leave it behind.

One thing you might do is look at the concept of yin and yang. It's a form of dualism that operates very differently from western dualism. Neither side are good, nor evil; they are simply opposite, yet complementary forces that create a unified whole when working in tandem. The concepts that each side represents have nothing to do with western concepts of "darkness" and "light." Rather, they represent an entirely different system altogether. Thus you can see how another form of dualism can be far removed from western dualism.

For a pop culture example, you might also look into Dungeons & Dragons's alignment system. Although its concepts are recognizeable to those who are familiar with western dualism, it incorporates additional axes that add new depths of complexity. Being lawful does not encourage one to be good nor discourage one from being evil, because laws can be oppressive. Being chaotic (having no real inclination to follow other people's rules per se) does not mean that one is necessarily going to be gleefully torturing and stealing from people for just no reason. This site explains them fairly well.

A few more things you might look into (though by no means the only things) include Taoism, wabi-sabi, kintsugi, the Havamal, Stoicism, and Dudeism. The idea, of course, isn't to end up copying somebody else's system, but rather to expand your ability to conceptualize systems beyond your current comprehension and to come to appreciate just how many ways people can perceive things.

Know how philosophies and value systems might originate in the first place.

In a way, philsophies and cultural values are essentially opinions that went viral. Someone at some point thought that something was bad or good, or that things ought to work a certain way, and that person's opinion spread out and became the dominant viewpoint - whether peacefully or by force. And some of these opinions may have had better grounding in reality or practicality than others. For example, "don't be pointlessly cruel to people" is very practical - it promotes cooperation and reduces conflict, which makes everything better for everyone. On the other hand, "boys and girls must dress in certain ways or else they are failures at being boys and girls" has no practical value whatsoever - it mostly just makes people who have unconventional tastes miserable.

If you're trying to build up a cultural value system or philsophy from scratch, it can be useful to look back in time and ask yourself what could have happened that might have prompted a strong opinion about how things should be. Here are some ways that this can potentially happen:

Someone wanted to have control over someone else. It's not hard to imagine that a bunch of guys sick of their partners up and leaving them (perhaps because they just weren't very kind and considerate to them) might decide together that there ought to be laws and rules against such a thing - thus giving rise to an oppressive patriarchal system.

Someone really found the idea of something repulsive or disturbing. People can be repulsed over things for rational and irrational reasons, and when someone is really strongly repulsed by something, it's rarely hard for them to think of "moral" reasons why no one should engage in it. For an irrational example, someone strongly repulsed by instant gelatin desserts might come up with all kinds of "moral" justifications as to why nobody should eat it - EG, they encourage laziness by allowing people to make a sweet treat in a matter of minutes instead of putting work into something for hours, they encourage anti-intellectualism because they require no creativity, and they encourage anti-community values because they're bought from a store instead of being made from ingredients grown and harvested by the community.

Someone thought it would make a better world. For example, someone might decide that modern machinery is the source of everyone's woes (after all, Grandma insists that life was so much better when she was a girl!) and that the key to happiness is to eschew all of that and live rustic existences. Or for another example, someone might have realized that if people got into the habit of forgiving each other instead of taking petty revenge over each and every little slight, the world would be a whole lot less violent and nasty.

Somebody otherwise thought it made things fair and equitable. For example, someone might decide that if somebody destroys the property of someone else, then it's only fair that this person pays the other back for as much as the damage would cost one way or another.

Something was a necessity at one point. For example, in an era when war and strife were common, training every able-bodied person in combat may have been a matter of survival. At a time when food shortages were common, preserving and stockpiling large amounts of food may have been the only way to avoid starvation. These practices might persist as a cultural value even if they aren't strictly necessary anymore.

Something was believed to be a necessity at one point. For example, someone might have genuinely believed that unless children were brought up in a very particular way, they would all grow up to be too irresponsible and undisciplined to maintain an orderly society.

People found it enjoyable. For example, if people enjoyed listening to storytellers, they might come to consider storytelling to be a very valuable skill and encourage people to learn it.

People found it useful. For example, people who discovered that scientific development brought them lots of good things might go on to encourage others into making scientific endeavors for themselves.

Someone wanted to make an identity statement. Refusing to participate in a culture's normal conventions is an effective way to say that you are not one of them. You might have someone who finds the practices of a culture at large abhorrent or ridiculous decide to refuse to wear the same types of clothes or eat the same kinds of foods as they do.

Someone decided that because the enemy did it, it was bad in and of itself. People tend to extend their feelings about a group to that group's practices as well. So for example, somebody might refuse to play some musical instrument that an enemy group plays because it's perceived as evil. Over time, people might come to consider that instrument uncouth or uncivilized for no real reason except that they learned to think of it that way from other people.

Someone thought that avoiding it put them above someone they considered inferior. For example, someone might avoid dressing like a group of people considered to be uncouth rabble in order to remain "above" them, and encourage others to do the same so they don't "sink to their level" or somesuch.

A few more points to keep in mind.

An extremely detrimental value system is not likely to survive long. Cultures can absolutely maintain some heinous ideals for a very long time, but if a system severely impedes a culture's ability to survive and protect itself, it probably won't last long - either the culture will have to change or it will go extinct. Furthermore, extremely repressive values can provoke revolutions and rebellions.

People tend to assume that whatever they grew up with is the right and proper way to do things. They tend to automatically assume that there's a good reason things are done this way. Although they're not always wrong, this can sometimes lead to a counterproductive fear of change and cause them to get in the way of useful or even necessary questioning and reform.

People will create justifications for maintaining what they're used to. Going back to the combat training example, people might decide it's still a necessity because it teaches the youth discipline or somesuch (never mind that there are any number of other things, arguably far more useful, that can do that). With the musical instrument example, somebody might justify continued refusal to use it by claiming that using it in their music would destroy their own music's distinctive qualities.

Exessive admiration of something can lead to it becoming grossly exaggerated. Again with the combat training example, if too many people idealize this as a cultural value, it can lead to a culture becoming excessively militaristic. Or for another example, someone who admired somebody's somewhat stern method of child-rearing might decide that the best way to improve upon it is to make it even sterner.

What to do (and avoid doing) now that you know all this.

Tailor the philosophies and value systems to fit your fantastic people. You don't want to end up imposing mores on them that are a complete mismatch for what they are and how they live. For example, if you're writing about a non-human species with a very different reproductive cycle from humans, then their values and ideas about mating and reproduction should be about equally different. (The belief that you should be a doting and attentive parent doesn't really apply if you spawn thousands of eggs into the ocean and you don't meet your offspring until they find their way back to the colony as adults!) Also, environment can play a huge role, too - places where scarcity is common will probably develop different values from places where it's relatively unheard of. Put yourself in their shoes and think about the challenges and pressures they face (or don't face, as the case may be), and consider how these might shape how they see the world.

Resist the urge to try to show up humanity with a "superior" system. It can be tempting to create a fantasy or science fiction culture that embodies what we consider to be perfect ideals and have them come and tell humanity just how much they're awful. However, this usually just a very good way to end up with a bunch of smug know-it-alls your audience will hate en masse - especially if they scold humanity for doing things they really have no feasible alternative for right now.

Remember that "they're aliens, they have different values from us!" is not a free pass for them to ignore and violate human boundaries. It's on them to try to learn and respect our boundaries just as much as it's on us to accept that they aren't like us and that it's not our place to tell them how they have to live and conduct their personal affairs. If they act like a human is doing something wrong or cruel by telling them to stop it with the personal contact or to get out of a private space, the problem is them, not the human. (See also "Is This My Character's Fault?" - A Flowchart for how one might handle an alien who doesn't understand human culture very well and makes a few innocent mistakes along the way.)

You might grab a pair of six-sided dice and roll them to determine how positively or negatively they regard certain things. 2 would be complete disapproval; 12 would be ubiquitous encouragement. 7 would be neutral or mixed opinions. So, how do they see, perhaps, different forms of affection, and when? How do they feel toward martial force? What's their view on hair dye? When you've figured a few things out, stop and think up some reasons that all of these views got started.

Think up some particularly unusual or eccentric viewpoints you've heard, then imagine a culture where they're normal. What might a culture like that be like? Could it actually work out? If so, you might have yourself an idea to work with.

If it's supposed to be oppressive or unfair in some way, this section of this article should be taken into account, and Mindsets & Rationales That Lend Well To Villainy might be useful in general. Factors That Contribute To Abusive & Dysfunctional Systems/Institutions might also be of help.

If this system is supposed to be informed by experience and wisdom, On Writing & Roleplaying Wise Characters, On Writing & Roleplaying Characters Who Are Good Leader Material, On Writing & Roleplaying Characters Who Are Competent Tacticians, and On Writing & Roleplaying Smart Characters all have points to take into consideration.

Ask yourself some critical questions about your system to minimize consequences or implications you never intended. Moral & Ethical System Development Questions can help you with this.

Remember that any well-developed and "deep" philosophical system will have been passed through numerous thought experiments and critical debates. A good philosophical system can start with one person, but it ends up refined by many. This refinement process can involve up to generations of people questioning, debating, troubleshooting, and re-interpreting it.

Also check out:

Points To Remember When Worldbuilding
Country & Culture-Development Questions
How To Create Fictional Structured Religions
Human Psychology and its Effect on Myths, Legends, and Superstition
Basic Tips To Create More Believable Sci-Fi & Fantasy Religions & Belief Systems
Tips To Create Richer & More Realistic Fantasy & Science Fiction Cultures & Civilizations

Moral & Ethical System Development Questions
Tips to Create Better & More Believable Fantasy & Science Fiction Species
Points To Remember When Designing SF Creatures & Species
Fantasy & Science Fiction Creature Development Questions

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