Kant and Mill on trading a kingdom for a horse

Modern video games include complex ethical dilemmas, which are problems that have no good solution. This plays out in the action of gameplay, but quite often in conversations in between that action. Such is the case in Assassin’s Creed: Valhalla. In a dream-sequence quest, the player becomes the King of Asgard, the realm of the God’s of Norse mythology, and is tasked with the protection of the realm itself. The ethical dilemma posed seems unique, but can be broken down into simpler terms, through the lens of both Kantian and Utilitarian philosophy. After consideration, in either system of morality there is no clear solution to the great danger posed, but it is clear in them, that to trade everything for the promise of safety is unethical.

At a moment of great conflict in Asgard, a new and mysterious character emerges calling himself the Builder. He promises to use his magic to protect the realm, and were he to be granted the sacred magical water from the well below Asgard, he would prepare a demonstration. His request fulfilled, the Builder goes about preparing paint for rune magic, with the water from the well. He paints runes on a stone pillar, in a forest glade, and a green, magical forcefield of protection envelopes the area. He claims a larger version of this could protect the entire kingdom forever. As a test the player is told to attract the attention of enemies nearby, and as they follow through the forcefield they do die instantly. Then, as the forcefield attracts whole armies from nearby, it begins to glow red, allowing enemies through unharmed. Waves of them must be killed by the player, before the Builder is able to fix his rune magic. The player complains about what happened, and the Builder replies, “Everything is ok, if the end bears fruit.” The player retorts, “A sour fruit, not as sweet as you promised.” The Builder then reveals that the true price of his full assistance will be to marry Freja as his Queen- an ulterior motive. This implies the Builder will become King- an equivocation. Ultimately, the Builder’s demonstration proves that his power is not as guaranteed as he claims.

The Builder then asks the player to trade Queen Freja’s hand in marriage, for a forcefield that can protect all of Asgard. The dilemma here is that the player both wants safety for Asgard, and Freja does not want to marry the Builder. What should they ultimately decide to do? Does the end justify the means, and should they buy protection, or is there a value higher than the mere promise of safety one must consider? There may be many answers, but two major systems of thought which are highly relevant here are found in the writings of Kant, and Mill.

Kant values an action by the intention of the person who wills it, and says that good character is required for intrinsically good actions to be truly good. He writes, “There is, however, something strange in this idea of the absolute value of the mere will, in which no account is taken of its utility.“ (Marino, G., Ethics, pp.192). He says it is our duty to act according to the law, but not simply for that reason. He explains that people act good in their “conception of the law in itself, which certainly is only possible in a rational being, insofar as this conception, and not the expected effect, determines the will,” (pp.193). In saying this, Kant admits that to act in consideration of the consequences is not by itself good. He coins his Categorical Imperative with, “I am never to act otherwise than so, that I could also will that my maxim should become a universal law,” (pp.199).

The Categorical Imperative calls for actions which would be right if they are rightly acted by any given person alive, in the same situation. In applying Kant’s principle here, we must ask the question of, whether or not it is right for any given person to trade their entire kingdom right now, for the promise of safety for its people for the rest of time. Even if it were possible for this to turn out as expected, and safety is effectively guaranteed in the end, this will inevitably not happen every time. So, in applying the Categorical Imperative, it is clear that the trade in question would be unethical according to Kant.

Mill, like Kant, posits that a rational actor must choose what is right, but claims this must be based on consideration of the happiness of all, and of the prevention of pain for all. He states that actions are good when they are, “desirable either for the pleasure inherent in themselves, or as a means to the promotion of pleasure and the prevention of pain,” (pp.230). Unlike his predecessors, he contends that there is a difference between some pleasures and others. He writes, “Of two pleasures, if there be one to which all or almost all who have experienced of both give a decided preference, irrespective of any feeling of moral obligation to prefer it, that is the more desirable pleasure.” Mill begins to weave his sweater, by arguing that actions are good when they are desirable, and that actions which strive for higher-quality desires are the only truly good actions. He reduces people who only have lower-quality desires to non-human animals in stating, “It is better to be a human dissatisfied than a pig satisfied.” He then gets to the root of his position, which is that, “the ultimate end…is an existence exempt as far as possible from pain, and as rich as possible in enjoyments,” and should be, “to the greatest extent possible, secured to all mankind, and not to them only, but…to the whole sentient creation,” (pp.234). In saying all of this, Mill is arguing that a good action is one which considers not only the happiness of all humans, but all things which have thought and intelligence.

The entire list of sentient beings in this dilemma are the Gods of Asgard, the Builder, the citizens of Asgard and all animals. By granting the Builder the kingdom, the Builder would be very happy. The Gods would be very unhappy, and the people would at first be so-so. The animals appear neutral in their activity and behavior. In that, there is precise balance. There is a possibility the people would become unhappy with the continued rule of the King, or even happy, and an imbalance could grow towards one or the other. Without having any way of knowing what will truly occur, it is not possible to say this trade would be either ethical or unethical. It is worth noting, at least, that the situation amounts to a coin toss. The result can be either heads or tails, or there is a slight possibility the coin stands upright on its side. These are not the kind of odds that are certain to lead to the most happiness for the most number of creatures, and so overall to make this wager would be unethical according to Mill.

In considering the consequences of this trade, of a ‘kingdom for a horse’, through the lens of Kant and Mill one may find that the action is unethical either way. Will the Assassin’s Creed player find a third option that is at least more ethical than the other choices? We will have to play through this great side-quest to find out. The moral lesson here is, whether you consider what the intentions of all humans are, or what the consequences for all humans are, a trade of all liberty for the mere promise of safety is unethical by the standards of both Kant and Mill.

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