Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Objective Moral Relativism

Moral Relativism

I am a moral relativist.  More precisely I am a Meta-ethical moral relativist.  According to wikipedia "Meta-ethical relativism is the meta-ethical position that the truth or falsity of moral judgments is not objective."

But recently I've been having discussions with various people wanting to challenge my position -- apparently moral relativism has more than a few negative historical and cultural connotations beyond the basic definition of the term.  Who knew?

This sort of thing is nothing new to me.  My education is in mathematics, not philosophy, and certainly not history.   So of course what often happens is that I will first figure out my own position on a matter and only then go about attempting to find the appropriate established terminology by which to concisely relate my point of view to others.

So, returning to my assertion that I'm a Meta-ethical moral relativist, I thought perhaps I should write down much more precisely what I mean by that.  Perhaps I'll discover that I've misnamed my position entirely.

Objective Truth

In my search to clarify my position using common language I ran across an article on Moral Objectivism which, among other things, had an interesting explanation of what the author meant by objective truth.  The principal example given was whether an object was was red.  Whether or not an object was red was an objective truth because the "redness" was "in the object".  Now I'm not bringing up this definition of objective truth because I agree with it, I'm bringing it up because I find the statement "This object is red" to be wonderfully analogous to the statement "This action is morally wrong".

Now, let me be clear.  I'm not at all suggesting that moral truths are objective -- as a moral relativist I certainly cannot make that claim.  Nor am I suggesting that redness is subjective, I'm simply trying to point out that one cannot make a claim of objective truth without first defining one's terms.  What is meant by a "red object"?  One could define red light to be any light with a wavelength between, say, 648nm and 652nm.  And then one could define an object to be red if, when the object (in a certain temperature and pressure range) is placed in a beam of white light, that only red light is reflected away from the object.  And then one could finally make objective assertions about whether an object is red.

The point here is that the statement "This object is red" is no more inherently yielding to a determination of objective truth than the statement "This blarg is bilgeboppleful".  We can't even have a discussion on the objective truth of a statement until we mutually agree on what the statement means.

One final observation regarding objective truth is in order.  I claimed an analogy between the statements "This object is red." and "This action is morally wrong" and I maintain that the analogy goes beyond a mere requirement that we must define our terms before we can discuss objective truth.  I maintain that typical efforts to define the redness of an object will ultimately result in a statement about actions and reactions.   If you shine white light on it, red light will be reflected.  In the same way, when two people begin a discussion of what is meant by a morally wrong action, they often end up making claims about the consequences of so-called morally wrong actions.

If I did believe in any sort of universal moral truth, I do feel that this would be the "correct" way in which to go about defining one's terms.  Don't tell me that "This action is morally wrong" is universally true.  Instead explain to me exactly what you think the consequences of those actions would be.  At least then we can begin to have a discussion about the objective truth of statements.


Moral objectivists often use the human rights abuses perpetrated by Nazi Germany as examples of actions which were objectively and universally, morally wrong.  I agree that genocide is unacceptable.  But all I mean by that is that I will refuse to support groups wishing to carry out genocide and that I will do what I can to prevent such groups from taking action.  The only reason I need to support my actions in this area is that the thought of genocide makes me feel terrible.  Do I need more reason than that?  Do I need a reason to remove my hand from a flame other than that the flame is causing me pain?  Obviously I don't.

But then, how is my statement above that genocide is unacceptable a moral statement at all?  Well it isn't.  By reducing it to the level of "pain equals bad", I've effectively avoided the morality question entirely.  A system of morality is a system that assigns the concepts of "good" and "bad" to actions independently of the immediate painful or pleasurable consequences.

Personally I do place genocide in the "bad" category and I can therefore make the assertion that I find genocide to be not only unacceptable but morally wrong as well.  But what I'm not willing to do is make the additional leap that there is any underlying objective truth to my statement that genocide is morally wrong.  This unwillingness on my part has outraged certain individuals, but I tend to feel that the outrage is misplaced.

People seem to associate my denial of objective moral truth with a willingness to accept any system of morality.  I cannot stress enough that this is not the case.  I have my own system of morality and do not find immoral actions acceptable or justified.   The only place I draw the line is when I'm asked to assign some sort of objective or universal truth to any moral statement.  How can I agree to something to which I am unable to assign a meaning?   Asking me to assert that "The wrongness of genocide is objectively true" is the same as asking me to assert that "All blargs are bilgeboppleful."   Until we have some sort of agreement on what we mean by a statement, how can we possibly agree that the statement even has meaning, let alone whether or not the statement is true?


It seems at this point that I've merely reiterated the same point over and over.  I cannot accept, in fact I cannot even discuss the objective truth of moral judgments until we all agree on what is meant by the objective truth of moral judgments.  It probably seems that I've simply avoided the question.  Well in a sense I have, at least for now.  Clearly the next stage of my analysis must address the possibility of actually defining objective truth for a system of morality.  Because if we were to do such a thing, and agree on our definitions, then all of a sudden I would be forced by my own reasoning to use said definitions to finally address the objective truth of specific moral questions.   And an obvious side-effect of this would be that I would no longer consider myself a moral relativist at all.

Well I do have some additional thoughts on this, on how one might go about defining objective truth for a system of morality.  But the short version is that I don't really believe that acceptable universal definitions even exist.  I do plan on elaborating in a followup post, but at least if you've read this far you now have the punchline.  There are no objective moral truths because the concept of an objective moral truth is inherently meaningless.  Furthermore, any attempt to give it meaning will fail.  I don't claim to have proven either of these assertions by the way.  These are simply things that I believe.  Perhaps at some point in the future I will believe something else entirely.

Friday, November 18, 2011

A "crisis" of faith

Note: This post has nothing to do with games, writing or mathematics.

When asked if I believe in God, my response if I provide one is usually something along the lines of: "Do you believe I have change in my pocket?"  Despite the confused looks I receive, I really do feel that this is the perfect response.  Of course the other person doesn't "believe" I have change in my pocket.  Nor do they "believe" I don't have change in my pocket.  They don't know either way and, more importantly, as long as they remain uncertain, the existence or non-existence of change in my pocket is unlikely to change their behavior in any way.

There may be a God.  In fact, one can relax the definition of "God" to the extent that there is almost certainly a God.  But, dispensing with the self-defeating task of trying to define the almighty, let us just assume for a moment that God does exist.  Let us throw in some additional qualifications as well.  God is aware, God had something to do with my creation, God has some sort of plan, and God is so far beyond me on the spectrum of being that, to me, his nature is incomprehensible.

Despite those rather impressive attributes, or perhaps because of them, I would claim that the question of God's existence is irrelevant to how I live my life.  Like most people I have a sense of "right" and "wrong".  It's neither constant nor infallible, but it's certainly there.  I have free will as well, and at every moment I can chose to do "right" or "wrong", but experience has taught me that doing "right" yields better long-term results than doing "wrong".

I take no issue with those who believe this sense of morality is God-given.  But, to return to my original analogy, the question of where my ideas of correctness come from is as irrelevant to me as the amount of change you have in your pocket.  Honestly, if a great being appeared to me, claiming to be God, and if that great being directed me to perform actions that went against my own code of ethics, then I would be forced to conclude that such a being was not God.  Of course such a being might modify me in some way to bring me in line, but then I would no longer be the person I am now and this entire essay would become moot.

In conclusion, not only is the existence question both unknowable and unimportant to me, it must always remain so.  If God plans to allow me to keep my free will and my ability to question all things, then God cannot reveal herself to me.  Doing so would either fail, or would change me into something else entirely. 

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Inaccessible Content

For many players, raids are inaccessible content.  They were for me all through classic WoW and, while I wasn't particularly happy about the fact that I still hadn't gotten past the first few trash mobs in Molten Core when Burning Crusade came out, I still loved the game as a whole.

Now that MMOs have become rather mainstream, inaccessible content is verboten.   In my last post, I toyed with the idea of a new type of content which would probably be inaccessible to some -- especially if such content were randomly generated each time, thus eliminating the possibility of looking up the answer.  And I'm certain that the forum-rage would be significant if some foolish developer went forward with the idea.

But, in my opinion, it is not in any player's best interest to rebel against such things.  Would anyone really wish to live in a world where any activity that was inaccessible to the mainstream was banned?  I think existence in such a world would be terribly depressing.  What's the point in attempting new things if success is guaranteed from the outset?  And doesn't such a philosophy completely ignore the fact that our abilities and desires change over time?

Raids were inaccessible content to me at one point.  They are no longer.  I don't particularly enjoy them, but that's a different topic entirely.  I'm glad I was able to experience the journey that took me from wishing I could raid to finally being part of a raiding guild.  And if I had never experienced raiding?  Well then it would still be something that I could work towards.  I don't think a sense of entitlement towards all things is healthy.  I think immediate gratification of all our desires is destructive, and I wish developers would start showing us some tough love.

Sadly, I have the feeling that we're already screwed.  Perhaps five or six years ago a company could have developed a successful MMO where there were dozens of types of activities which were mostly inaccessible to players.   If our expectations had been managed early on and if we had been taught to appreciate games in which we couldn't really hope to ever master all things, I suspect fewer people would be burning out on the MMO genre today.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011


There's an old type of logic problem which I know by the name of Saints and Pirates.  The central premise is that Pirates always lie and Saints always tell the truth.  Given this, and given a number of statements made by people who are assumed to be either Pirates or Saints, one sets out to determine which ones if any are Pirates.

There are often additional criteria given to assist the solver, and there may be additional information that is to be determined, such as the name of the Pirate, but the overall idea remains the same.

Here is a simple example of such a problem.

There are 4 numbered suspects whose names are Bri, Dee, Cay and Ann, though it is not known which suspect is which.  It is also known that three of the suspects are Saints and that one is a Pirate.  Given the following statements made by suspects 1 and 4, determine the name and suspect number of the Pirate.

Suspect 4: I am not Cay and Bri is not a Saint.
Suspect 1: Either Dee is not a Saint or Cay is not a Pirate.
Suspect 4: Either Suspect 2 is not Bri or I am not a Saint.

Now, feel more than free to solve this and post the answer or, if I've screwed up and allowed for multiple possible answers or no possible answer, feel free to point that out as well.

But the real question is, if you encountered such a problem in an mmo, would you:

1. Look up the answer because you view such problems as annoying obstacles.
2. Look up the answer because you wouldn't want to risk possible negative consequences.
3. Look up the answer only if you couldn't solve it after some time.
4. Avoid looking up the answer even if you were never able to solve it.

I think I'd fall into category 3, though its a moot point since I suspect we are well past the time when developers would bother putting such things into an mmo as they fail to cater to the average player.

Note:  I've made up hundreds of such problems over the years -- so if there were any interest at all, I might post a few more.  Heck, I might post more even if there is no interest.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Diablo 2 Memories

All the recent talk on the various blogs about Diablo 3 has me fondly remembering all the good times I had in Diablo 2.   For a time, I was a frequent poster on alt.games.diablo and some of the friends I made there and in-game became friends in real life.   In anticipation of good times to come, and possibly of chances to re-connect with people I haven't spoken to in almost a decade, I thought I'd repost one of my old posts from 2003.

So here is a brief chronicle of  my adventures with the passivezon build which, at the time, was a fairly new concept.  Variations of this have since been taken all the way through hell, but I still think I was the only one who added the restriction to avoid attacking anything directly.

Oh, and there never was a part 2.  The original thread does contain some followup, but nothing worthy of note.  Ultimately I seem to recall that EvenSong was unable to progress beyond Act 2 Normal.

Hello All.
Some of you might recall that I asked earlier for thoughts on an amazon
build using only skills in the passive tree.  Well today I started
EvenSong and, just to make things interesting, I decided to try playing
without attacking.

Let me repeat that:  No attacks allowed whatsoever,  no bow, no throw, no
melee, no spells -- at least not by EvenSong herself.  Truly a Passive

Anyway, here is a rough outline of her adventures through Blood Raven.
And yes, she did take down Blood Raven, untwinked, simply using a
strategic running-around-wearing-the-right-equipment technique.  ;-)

First, before ever leaving the rogue camp she sold her starting equipment
and set her left and right "attacks" to throw.  That way she was in no
danger of accidentally attacking a monster (since she wasn't wielding a
throwing weapon).  Her next concern was then gold -- being unable to
damage anything she was, at the moment, in no position to start thinking
about gaining experience.

Several chests later, and several hops through the cold plains portal,
she was finally able to buy a Sturdy Quilted Armor of Thorns (an entire
1pt. of damage done to attacking monsters).  Excited, she ran right back
out into the Blood Moor and promptly stood smack dab in the middle of a
pack of Fallen.

Sadly, to no avail.  It seemed that her fine Suit of Armor was providing
sufficient defense to prevent frequent hits upon her person by said
Fallen.  They'd hit EvenSong occasionally, but then would fully
regenerate before hitting her again.  Then a voice from above (whom some
know as my wife) said:  "Run!!!!".  Ok, the voice wasn't quite
that emphatic. ;-)   The point being that running makes you more open to
attack -- something I didn't know until now.

Anyway, prompted along by the Powers That Be, EvenSong started running
madly back and forth through the pack.  Success at last!!!  Moments later
she had her first few experience points and the game had finally and
truly begun.

Some short time later, EvenSong reached Level 2.  She placed her skill
point in Inner Sight as a pre-requisite for her eventual Valkyrie, but
had no need of skills as of yet.   Also, by then she had pretty much
liberated (that's what she calls it) every Fallen she could find, was out
of gold, potions, chests, and was completely unable to kill anything
other than Fallen effectively.

A quick "nap" in the Rogue's Camp (i.e. A New Game conveniently provided
by those same Powers That Be) allowed all the Fallen to regenerate and
the Chests to refill -- though she did notice that they were repositioned
somewhat, and she certainly didn't remember those two Experience Shrines
placed conveniently near the Cold Plains Portal.  She wasn't one to look
a gift horse in the mouth however, and after purchasing a Sash of Thorns
(another 1pt of damage, but a 100% increase from EvenSong's point of
view), she very quickly arrived at Level 3.

Charsi at that point was beginning to get the idea, and pulled a Shield
of Thorns out of the back room and sold it to EvenSong at a very
reasonable price.  Finally, at level 3, and doing 3 points of damage to
attackers, EvenSong was able to start taking on Zombies, Fallen Shamans
(yes, they really do have a melee attack if you stay close), and Dark
Hunters,  --- but not Gargantuan Beasts, at least not in packs, and
certainly not that Nasty Extra Strong Unique Gargantuan Beast and his
Minions who were hanging out right on top of the Cold Plains Portal.

Fleeing wildly from that, ummm, situation, EvenSong decided another nap
was in order (but it would be the very last one before Blood Raven, lest
you start thinking she's a bit on the lazy side).

A new Morning Dawned and with it, EvenSongs first big test.  A pack of
Champion Dark Hunters had moved in (right where those Vicious Gargantuan
Beasts had been the previous night) and proved to be her greatest
challenge yet.  With Flavie's help and strategic use of fences along the
boundary between the Blood Moor and the Cold Plains, she was able to
isolate them one at a time and eventually prevailed.  Lo and behold, what
should one of them drop but a Small Brown Leather Cap which would
completely change EvenSong's way of thinking.

A Cap of Charged Bolt.

Yes, I know one doesn't normally talk about (even less Capitalize) a Cap
of Charged Bolt, but it had a 10% chance to cast level 3 charged bolt
when struck -- more than enough to wipe out entire crowds if she was
lucky enough to get the thing to fire off twice in rapid succession.

In any case, after picking up and selling all the great stuff dropped by
the Champion Dark Hunters, EvenSong had about 6000 gold saved, and was
able to purchase another Charged Bolt Item at Charsi's.  A Belt, which
unfortunately meant she had to make a decision between direct thorn
damage and an increased chance of casting Charged Bolt.  After some
experimentation, wearing the Charged Bolt Cap and Belt, and the Thorns
Armor and Shield, seemed to be the most effective combination.

At this point, EvenSong had reached Level 5 and finally decided to go
clear out this so-called "Den of Evil" she had been hearing about.  Turns
out she needn't have waited so long.  The Den was quite easy at that
point.  Strategy mostly consisted of luring lots of Fallen near the
larger monsters, rushing into them, and letting the resulting Charged
Bolts take everything out.  She tried to leave the Shamans alive as long
as possible because being hit by the extra revived Fallen running around
actually helped a great deal with the larger Gargantuan Beasts and such.

Unfortunately she ended up fighting CorpseFire all by himself.  Took two
trips back to the Camp for Potions, but he eventually fell and dropped
nothing of note.

Feeling heady after her first major victory, EvenSong headed to the Rogue
Camp and prepared to tackle Blood Raven.  Preparation pretty much
consisted of purchasing extra potions and adding 15 points to her
Vitality, bringing her life total up to 103.

Blood Raven was tough.  EvenSong had some quick early luck when Blood
Raven decided to stand right in the middle of her undead army.  Simply
standing there alongside Blood Raven and quaffing potions was enough to
generate sufficient Charge Bolts to bring her life bar down to about
half.  Unfortunately, that killed off the army and for some reason Blood
Raven was smart enough not to raise more dead -- at least not for about
the next 3 minutes.

EvenSong spent those minutes trying desparately to stay close enough to
allow the, now rarely seen, Charged Bolts to actually hit.  But
controlling the direction of the Charged Bolts was difficult and Blood
Raven proceeded to heal back up to about 2/3. 

Eventually though, EvenSong was able to gather Blood Raven's remaining
(and slowly growing in number) troops in a fairly tight bunch and won the
day in a Charged Bolt Spectacular worthy of Song (well, worthy of
EvenSong at least).  ;-)

No drops to speak of there at the end.  And EvenSong was pretty tired at
that point so wandered off to take a nap.

And that's all for now.  Mostly I just wanted to see if I could get
through to Blood Raven.  Now that EvenSong has a merc, things should go
much more smoothly.  I still do plan on avoiding any sort of attack and
playing untwinked as well, so if I have anything interesting to say (and
if there's any interest here) I may post a part 2.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011


from the North Island Scrolls, Vol 39 , author unknown, translated by Aaron Greyson

Prophecy is therefore a different sense entirely, not a vision, not sound or smell, but something closer to simple knowing.  Any analogy is of course imperfect, but consider an archery tournament.  Spectators will often react almost immediately when an arrow is released as if the knowledge of the result were some sort of foretelling.  But while the arrow is in flight, no-one has seen the result.  There are no visions of precisely where the arrow will land.  And a gust of wind could certainly offset the course of the arrow, as could minute imperfections in the weight and balance of the arrow itself.  Nonetheless, an experienced archery enthusiast will instinctively absorb dozens of tiny clues the moment the arrow is released and know with some reliability whether the arrow will hit its mark.

Coupled to this sense of knowing is a sense of rightness.  By rightness, one does not mean correctness, factual or ethical.  Rightness is simply that feeling a prophet will get when faced with a choice.  One choice will often seem to be the right one even if, which is most often the case, the prophet has no understanding of the consequences of said choice.  It is important to note here that rightness is very much dependent on the desires, both conscious and sub-conscious and both short and long term, of the prophet herself.  Consider for instance a game of wind-and-water*.  A prophet might play against one untrained** and lose even though she expected to win and despite the fact that she chose her move at every stage according to her sense of rightness.  While this phenomenon is not fully understood, most explanations boil down to a combination of the ideas that, for whatever reason, she didn't really want to win or that, in the long term, losing was the better outcome for her.

* The translation wind-and-water is misleading as the original runic text is but a single word which has been seen to refer to both wind and water depending on context.  A certain level of instability or unpredictability is also implied as the term would never be applied to a steady breeze or current and certainly not to a still pond.  "chaotic flow" might be more appropriate, but as the term in this particular context refers to a deterministic game that bears some resemblance to our whites-and-blues, it seemed that wind-and-water would be most appropriate.

** This word, apparently used here to mean non-prophet, does not appear to be a literal opposite of the word used for prophet.  Broken down, it more closely resembles without-study.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Advancement and Challenge

The nouns in the title are two things that tend to contribute to a games enjoyment. 
  • Progress Quest takes advancement to the extreme and removes all challenge. Surprisingly it still retains some entertainment value, at least until the player feels they have seen all it has to offer.
  • An arcade style game such as Doublewires has no advancement to speak of, unless one counts advancement of the timer, and relies almost entirely on challenge to appeal to the player.  Such a game can remain fun as long as the player keeps getting better but will quickly become tiresome once the player either is unable to improve their skill or masters the game entirely.  In this particular example, mastering the game simply means that one is skillful enough to play indefinitely without dying.
Now one could argue that challenge in this context is merely a mechanism used to provide another form of advancement, namely the advancement of the players actual skill level (as opposed to some notion of virtual skill level).   But its more than that because challenge can remain fun even after one has mastered the game in question.  Whether a game falls into the latter category is purely subjective, but for many people Sudoku seems to be an example of this.  With challenge, at some point one moves from advancement of skill to maintenance of skill, and the latter can be fun even with no hope of further advancement.

Nonetheless, I personally tend to have little patience for a game unless it has a good measure of both challenge and advancement.  Disgaea was one such game and it took both of these elements to rather extreme levels.  Advancement was available for both characters and items, the level cap was 9999, and mobs continued to grow in power with the player.  At every point during this progression, players could effectively choose the difficulty by repeating earlier missions or by forging ahead to new missions when they felt they were ready.  On top of all this, the game was kept interesting through the use of randomized dungeons.  Unfortunately the level of variety provided by the randomization in Disgaea was not sufficient to keep things interesting for 10,000 levels.   Nor do I think it could have been, but that's something I plan to discuss at length in another post.

So what about mmos?  Well, WoW certainly has plenty of advancement.  But from my point of view, Blizzard has been systematically removing the challenge from the game.  Its no Progress Quest, at least not yet, but it does seem to be heading in that direction.  Now, lest I sound like some elitist, saying that something isn't providing me with enough challenge is not the same as saying it is too easy.  There are definitely things I'm not able to do in wow.  But for something to be a challenge, it has to be neither trivial nor impossible.  Its not challenging for me to travel to Australia for lunch today, its completely out of the question.  Regarding WoW, and Rift as well, what many companies seem to be doing is separating advancement from challenge so that for 99% of your advancement, there is no challenge, and for the remaining 1% of advancement, the challenge is no longer a challenge, but effectively impossible for a large percentage of the player base.

LOTRO has challenge in the way of skirmishes.  In concept, these are rather perfect from my point of view.
  • Joining one is painless.  No travel time or waiting in queues is required.
  • One may choose the type, mob level, tier (difficulty level), and number of players.
  • The only drops are various types of marks (currency) which can be used at NPC vendors.
  • One gains personal advancement in skirmishes which applies to the game outside of skirmishes.
  • One gains skirmish-related advancement in the way of experience for one's skirmish warrior.
  • Skirmishes have a random component in the way of enemy lieutenants and encounters.
  • Advancing one's character in the main game unlocks additional skirmishes.
  • Completing achievements within skirmishes unlocks additional achievements.
  • All skirmishes are soloable, but there are incentives to group.
 Advancement and Challenge for everyone -- most definitely possible.