Dungeons and Dragons and Final Fantasy and Philosophy

I never did a round-up post for D&D&P, so now that FFP is wrapped up, I’m doing a two-for-one.

Dungeons and Dragons and Philosophy

Sympathy for the Devils
Paragons and Knaves
Is Anyone Actually Chaotic Evil?
Save vs Death
To My Other Self
Player Character Is What You Are In The Dark
Imagination and Creation
Dungeonmastery as Soulcraft
Menzoberranzan: A Perfect Unjust State
Who Is Raistlin Majere?
Expediency and Expendability
By Friendship or Force
“Kill her, kill her! Oh, God, I’m sorry!”
Berserker in a Skirt
Others Play at Dice

Final Fantasy and Philosophy

The Spiky-Haired Mercenary vs. The French Narrative Theorist
Kefka, Nietzsche, Foucalt
Judging the Art of Video Games
The Lifestream, Mako, and Gaia
Gaia and Environmental Ethics in Spirits Within
Objectification of Conscious Life Forms in Final Fantasy
Final Fantasy and the Purpose of Life
The Four Warriors of Light Saved the World, But They Don’t Deserve Our Thanks
Shinto and Alien Influences in Final Fantasy VII
Kupo for Karl and the Materialist Conception of History
Sin, Otherworldliness, and the Downside of Hope
Cloud’s Existential Quest for Authenticity
Is the Fear of Stopping Justified
What’s In A Name: Cid, Cloud, and How Names Refer

You may have noticed that this post is 1) three hours late and 2) on a Sunday. My wifi access is tepid this entire week, so while I’ll try to keep up an average of one post per day, you may end up actually getting those posts in weird bursts. For example, there should be a video GM’s guide post within six hours of this post going live.

Final Fantasy and Philosophy: What’s In A Name? Cid, Cloud, And How Names Refer

Despite the lack of coherence across FF games, some peculiar features may arouse curiosity from a longtime fan. For instance, the name “ Cid ” appears in many of the FF games. More paradoxical is the case of Cloud Strife, who appears to be the same individual, referred to by the same name, in different FF worlds — FFVII and FF Tactics .

I am extremely skeptical of this essay’s ability to wring a genuinely interesting philosophical point out of easter eggs.

This essay begins by throwing out the idea of direct reference theory, the idea that names refer directly to specific objects or ideas in the world. This seems straightforwardly true at first, but an example (taken from Final Fantasy, natch) quickly reveals its limitations: The name of the protagonist of FFVIII is Squall, and the name of the somewhat grumpy mentor figure from Kingdom Hearts is Leon. Those who don’t pick it up immediately from character design have it confirmed pretty soon in the story that Leon is Squall. So what’s the problem? Under direct reference theory, because Leon and Squall both refer to the same person, stating “Leon is Squall” is trivial, no more informative than saying “Squall is Squall.” But that’s obviously not the case. While some people pick it up from his similar (but distinct) character design and for others it doesn’t click until dialogue makes it explicit, all players of Kingdom Hearts eventually realize that Leon is Squall, and that is new information for them. You don’t automatically know that Leon is Squall just because you know that Squall is Squall.

Bertand Russell has a better theory of names: Names are shorthand references to longer, more cumbersome descriptions. So, “Squall” is shorthand for “the gunblade-wielding protagonist of Final Fantasy VIII who was trained by Garden in a secret plot to hunt down the villainous sorceress Ultimecia and who was rivals with a fellow student named Seifer who [insert entire plot of Final Fantasy VIII here].” “Leon” is shorthand for “the gunblade-wielding mentor figure of Kingdom Hearts originally from Radiant Garden who came to Traverse Town seeking the Keyblade, who Donald and Goofy were instructed to seek out in Traverse Town and who found Sora as the Heartless were [insert every part of Kingdom Hearts’ plot involving Leon here].” Simply describing every fact we know about a specific object, being, or idea takes all day. Even describing enough facts to narrow it down – “the gunblade-wielding protagonist of Final Fantasy VIII” rules out everyone except Squall, although we cheated by using another name, “Final Fantasy VIII,” to get there – is way longer than just saying “Squall.”

So when we say “Leon is Squall,” we’re taking one set of facts about the mysterious grumpy adventuring mentor from Kingdom Hearts and adding a critical new fact, that this is the same entity as the gunblade-wielding protagonist of Final Fantasy VIII. The new fact is that every fact applied to Squall applies equally to Leon.

This stands up well when we consider the case of Cid, as well, which also fares poorly under direct reference theory. Every Final Fantasy game has a character named Cid (although I think Cid from Final Fantasy 1 may have been added in only in remakes? Certainly he is only referred to by dialogue rather than actually being present in the game), and all of them are different people with different backstories and personalities. Under direct reference theory, “Cid” must refer to some abstract idea that each of these individuals somehow inherits, which breaks down because anything that applies to every Cid (i.e. is good with machines) always applies equally to other, non-Cid characters. Under Bertrand Russell’s theory, “Cid” is a shorthand reference that refers to fifteen and counting different characters. So, it’s not a very good shorthand reference, but it usually works in context, and in any case, that is actually how discussions about Cid work.

This is where the easter egg gets brought in, and yes, it is dumb: Is Cloud in Final Fantasy Tactics the same Cloud as the one in Final Fantasy VII? Answer: No, because the Cloud from Tactics is a non-canon easter egg with purely mechanical function, whereas the Cloud from Final Fantasy VII is an actual character. Like Cid, the same shorthand label is applied to two different characters, who in this case also look the same and have similar abilities, but are distinguished by the fact that one has a personality and a backstory and the other is just a hollow reference to its original.

But objections to Bertrand Russell’s theory aren’t limited to failing to understand how easter eggs work. The essay goes on to give the example of a hypothetical version of Final Fantasy X where Braska, the summoner who (temporarily) killed world-wrecking kaiju Sin just a decade or two before the game’s beginning, didn’t actually do that. Someone else kills Sin anonymously, and Braska steals the credit. Of course, killing Sin with the Final Aeon (the method Braska allegedly used) requires dying so Braska has to figure out a way to steal the credit from the real hero despite the fact that he has to already be dead in order to make his story plausible. But it’s a hypothetical situation, so just roll with it. He ropes Auron, the surviving member of his party, into propagating the deception somehow. Whatever.

This means that one of the “facts” people use the name Braska to refer to is “the man who most recently killed Sin using the Final Aeon.” In this hypothetical example, however, Braska didn’t actually do that. But Braska did actually live and breathe and used that name long before it was associated with a lie. Upon the people of Spira being deceived into thinking Braska killed Sin, does the name “Braska” suddenly stop referring to the real man and suddenly begin referring to the hypothetical Braska who actually did the things people believe he did?

Here’s a simpler example. If Cloud Strife had brown hair, would he still be Cloud Strife? In an alternate FFVII where Cloud Strife was completely identical to the Cloud we know, but also had brown hair, is he now a different person? When we ask “what if Cloud never defeated Sephiroth” are we talking about a different person from the Cloud from Final Fantasy VII?

Side note, the example used by the essay:

What if Cloud Strife died at a young age in Nibelheim and never went on to join SOLDIER?

He didn’t. Jesus, Cloud’s not having been part of SOLDIER was a major turning point for his character and the game is over 20 years old. Just referring to Cloud as a mysterious badass is missing the point of his character arc, but describing him as having joined SOLDIER is just completely inaccurate. Like, did neither Andrew Russo and Jason Southworth actually get through the entire game, or even think to look up its plot on Wikipedia? Why not just stick with examples from games they’ve actually completed? It’s not like you couldn’t have this exact same conversation using what-if scenarios about Squall.

End side note, because despite that rant, the philosophical point brought up here is that if Cloud had died at Nibelheim as a child (not part of the Nibelheim Incident much later but just because, like, he fell off a roof while trying to impress Tifa or something) and Tifa wound up picking up a buster sword and killing Sephiroth, does this mean that “Cloud Strife” the name now refers to Tifa, because she is now a buster sword wielding protagonist of FFVII who defeated Sephiroth? Obviously not, seeing as how in order to make that sentence comprehensible I had to refer to her as Tifa.

Of course, you don’t have this problem if you just assume that “Cloud Strife” refers to a much longer description. If we use Cloud as a shorthand description for everything we know about Cloud, then Tifa can’t yoink that whole description just by picking up a buster sword and killing Sephiroth.

But is hypothetical brown-haired Cloud a different person to the blonde Cloud we got in the actual FFVII? Why not? Like, sure, if Cloud dyed his hair brown we wouldn’t say he’s a different person, but that’s because his hair color changed as a result of something that happened to him (he put dye in his hair – not an earth-shaking event or anything, but it did happen). Hypothetical brown-haired Cloud isn’t the same person as actual Cloud, and you can tell because I have to refer to them by different names in order for the sentence to make sense. Just like with Cid, “Cloud Strife” can reasonably refer to two different things, with which is which being made clear by context. When we talk about both of them at the same time, however, we need to expand their name to distinguish between them, making them clearly different entities.

But, okay, new example: Squall as a child lived in an orphanage with all of his future party members. He then became an amnesiac due to the magic system of the game and re-met his party members at Balamb Garden, the special school that trains high school kids to be mercenaries. Is child Squall a different entity from teen Squall? I had to refer to them separately just now, and a different set of facts applies to each of them. Child Squall has his memories intact, but teen Squall can use magic superpowers. And in fact, most of us think of our younger selves as separate entities. It’s not uncommon (not ubiquitous, but not uncommon either) to imagine hypothetical conversations with past versions of yourself, and the conversation goes differently depending on whether you’re talking to 5-year old you or 15-year old you – which is why we have to refer to them with separate names.

Ultimately, the only limit on when a different name has to be applied is when we need to refer to a different entity, and entities can be subdivided almost endlessly. I can’t imagine a non-contrived circumstance in which “Chamomile in his kitchen” and “Chamomile in his bedroom” would be distinct enough to be worth bothering to refer to us separately, particularly since one can become the other with about five seconds of effort, but if such a circumstance arose, we would in fact use different names to refer to one and the other. In a certain context, even the minutest of differences can qualify entities as separate from one another, even when we usually consider them the same.

Final Fantasy and Philosophy: Is the Fear of Stopping Justified?

As is often the case, I’m writing the first paragraph before having read the entire essay, which I usually use when a snarky opener occurs to me and I decide to write it down before I forget. This time it’s because the essay’s opening pages ask whether it’s reasonable to fear death, and I want to register in advance my prediction that the argument for death secretly being a good thing is probably going to be one of those dumb arguments where someone desperately tries to self-delude themselves into being okay with something they’re not okay with.

Now, it’s worth noting that evolutionary forces would make us fear being removed from the breeding pool no matter how obviously superior death was to life. For example, imagine that Heaven verifiably existed and you could Skype with people there whenever you wanted and various scientific experiments had proved to every non-crazy person’s satisfaction that it wasn’t any kind of hoax or illusion. When you die, there is undeniably an afterlife, but the trip is completely one-way, with only video calls being able to go back from Heaven to Earth. If that suddenly happened to the world we live in right now, then it might indeed cause mass suicides as people had no reason not to go there. Our fear of death has evolved around the death we actually experience, and suddenly introducing a far more transparent vision of what happens after death would change our behavior. If that was what we had evolved with, however, we would evolve to fear Heaven in almost exactly the same way we fear regular mysterious death, because Heaven’s out of the breeding pool. Every baby born of people on Earth would be born of people who stuck around long enough to have kids. Genes that encourage people to go straight to Heaven at soonest convenience would become scarce, cultures that raised people not to fear death would become extinct and cease propagating their memes.

So “is death something we should fear” is a legitimate question, for the same reason we should question all instincts that are clearly useful to propagating our bloodline and culture. Such instincts will always remain strong regardless of whether they’re useful to us, and can continue on inertia for a long time after they’ve ceased being useful. Instincts once useful to survival and reproduction don’t disappear because they’ve stopped being useful to those ends, only when they become detrimental to those ends.

With that said, this essay makes the assumption that death is a total cessation of all sensation and being, that death is pure nothingness. This isn’t an unreasonable starting point, because a significant fraction of people believe this and the argument over whether it’s true is a completely different topic of discussion. More people reveal a belief that death is cessation than will admit as much, in fact, which we can tell because people react very differently when speaking of the dead than when speaking of people who’ve moved to another country, and did so even before the rise of the internet made it easy to communicate back and forth across large distances. Someone who believes with certainty in an afterlife should react to someone’s death the same way as someone who’s going to be out of touch for a couple of years or even decades, but much fewer people actually behave this way than claim to believe with certainty in an afterlife.

The problem is that if death is cessation of being, then almost any argument that it is good or even neutral is deluded. With few exceptions, any system of morals is better served by living (or afterliving) adherents than by a lack of being. There’s a few exceptions, for sure: If you’re a utilitarian and also believe that to live is to suffer, then a state of feeling (and being) nothing would be an improvement. And yet, utilitarians who claim to believe this rarely become anime villains who go around killing people all the time in order to reduce the suffering of the world, despite the fact that presumably they would have no qualms evading capture via suicide if they were ever cornered.

People who claim to believe such radical things as “death is a blessing” reveal through their non-radical behaviors that they don’t actually believe these things at all. They might have convinced themselves, but a belief that doesn’t inform behavior isn’t really a belief, it’s a fashion accessory.

So when this essay presents the Epicurean view that happiness is the absence of pain, and death is the absence of everything, therefore death is eternal happiness, the answer is that this is stupid, because obviously it is possible to be happier than a mere absence of pain leads to. It happens all the time. And Epicurus and his followers committed suspiciously few suicides and murders for people who claimed that death brought about eternal happiness.

Final Fantasy and Philosophy: Cloud’s Existential Quest for Authenticity

I’m beginning to suspect that 2009 was near some kind of peak Nietzsche, a point in time when every two-bit philosopher tried to seem edgy and profound by citing all the ubermensch stuff all the time, and that we’re now living in the era of the backlash. I suspect this because dear God does Nietzsche come up a lot in Final Fantasy and Philosophy.

Nietzsche, in this case, is just used to set up the idea of radical freedom, although he didn’t call it that. Instead, Nietzsche uttered the famous line “God is dead,” meaning that the notion of absolute morality delivered from above was no longer viable in the modern world. Without a source of absolute morality, everyone has to figure out for themselves what is right and wrong, an idea that today is usually considered to be a normal part of growing up.

The essay’s back half focuses more on Sartre’s notion of authenticity, however. Sartre gives the example of a waiter who tries to imitate a good waiter, having stiff and overly formal movements and mannerisms. This is a dumb example, because wanting to be good at a job is something that plenty of people might just genuinely want to do, even if it means straightening out a slouched posture.

Final Fantasy VII gives us a much better example, though: Cloud’s efforts to pass himself off as a SOLDIER. In the first half of FFVII, Cloud is cold and aloof from the rest of the party, committed to his paycheck as a mercenary rather than any ideals. He (allegedly) doesn’t care if the planet is dying and Shinra’s killing it. He even wears a Shinra uniform. After the truth is revealed midway through the game, that Cloud was never a SOLDIER, just a common grunt who played sidekick to Zack, an actual SOLDIER first-class, Cloud’s mannerisms change. Cloud tried to behave like his image of what a SOLDIER was in order to pass himself off as something he wasn’t, not just someone who held the literal rank of SOLDIER, but as a badass anti-hero who played by his own rules and wasn’t scared of anything. It was inauthentic, because the truth was that Cloud was a kid from Nibelheim who never fit in and wanted to do great things to win the respect and admiration of his hometown – but who never did. At least, not until the back half of the game, when he saves the world from a SOLDIER juiced up on JENOVA cells who’s trying suck the planet’s life force out and become a god. That all happened after Cloud came to terms with the fact that his life was unexceptional and kind of pathetic, though.

Final Fantasy and Philosophy: Sin, Otherworldliness, and the Downside of Hope

This essay uses Final Fantasy X as the lens through which to examine Nietzsche and Machiavelli’s opposition to religion. The essay draws on Machiavelli’s non-Prince work, so it’s not in maximum edge mode, but it does still describe the situation of FFX like this:

The people of Spira suffer for the promise of an otherworldly reward. They want the Calm, but the religion preaches something more. Beneath the veneer of the Calm is also the complete eradication of Sin, which can be accomplished by the piety of the people. They shun technology as forbidden, in the hope of this potential reward. But should they?

“Sin,” by the way, is the name of the kaiju that constantly wrecks Spira until someone manages to kill it, which results in a temporary period of peace called the Calm before Sin’s inevitable return. So, don’t be fooled into thinking that “the complete eradication of Sin” is a reference to some promised utopia. It’s just a military objective. Also worth noting that the shunning of technology, though taken as a matter of dogma by the people of Spira, also serves a military purpose: For various convoluted backstory reasons, Sin wants to keep the people of Spira too low-tech to explore the ocean, and will prioritize places that use technology for attack. There’s no actual connection between the piety of the people and the final defeat of Sin, so that part actually is pure dogma, but it’s not like the true secret to defeating Sin is being kept secret (the theocratic government is keeping some secrets from the populace, but they don’t know how to perma-kill Sin). People are just turning to faith to give themselves hope in what otherwise seems to be a hopeless situation. Without knowing the secret truth about the Final Aeon (the only weapon known to be powerful enough to destroy Sin but which, unbeknowst to its wielders, also allows Sin to regenerate), Sin is ultimately indestructible.

The weird thing is that trying to attach an afterlife to the Yevonite religion of Final Fantasy X is not hard. There is an actual afterlife that you go and visit. It’s called “the Farplane” and it’s a place where weird astral spirit things called pyreflies congregate. Pyreflies are released by creatures upon death and, when successfully sent to the Farplane, reform into visages of the departed. According to the heretical Al Bhed, this is just pyreflies reacting to memories of visitors, and the reason why the departed can’t hold intelligible conversations is because you can’t remember a new conversation. According to the Yevonites, it’s just a limitation of being dead. The people are still there, they just can’t talk to you.

The ending of the game implies the Yevonites are actually correct, in that (spoiler alert) protagonist Tidus dies and either (possibly metaphorically) ascends to the Farplane with the dead father he’s finally reconciled with. Sort of. In the final battle, he expresses continued spite towards his father, but then in the ending cutscene they’re friends. Tidus being angry that his father died before he ever got to tell dear old Dad how much he hated him was an ongoing theme of the story, so I think at the final battle, confronted with his father’s departed spirit possessed by an evil demi-god (it’s complicated), he just felt the need to get it out of his system, despite having come to understand his father better during the quest.

Final Fantasy X always gets me sidetracked like this. That game’s plot makes sense upon close analysis, but dear God is it a mess in the telling. The important thing here is that the Yevonites do have an afterlife, which could either be a real thing where the spirits of the dead end up or else a natural phenomenon without any particular deep spiritual importance, and the essay ignores that to instead talk about Sin, the evil kaiju which presents an inarguably real military threat to the world, the end of which would be a better world for entirely non-spiritual reasons. It has to do this, because its whole point revolves around people making worldly sacrifices for otherworldly rewards, and Yevonites don’t do that. They do have a false dogma about Sin being a punishment for Spira’s transgressions, but the actual actions taken by the Yevonite religion to fight Sin are simply using the most effective weapons they have to destroy a worldly, military threat.

Continue reading “Final Fantasy and Philosophy: Sin, Otherworldliness, and the Downside of Hope”

Final Fantasy and Philosophy: Kupo For Karl And The Materialist Conception Of History

In which Michel S. Beaulieu conflates economic class with character class.

That’s just a snarky opener, though. So far as I can tell the paragraph in which Michel says he tends to privilege his mages while treating knights and thieves like expendable laborers is just a joke, or maybe an example of how all-pervasive the paradigm of economic class conflict can get. He doesn’t actually rest his conclusions on it.

This essay asks the question: Are any of Final Fantasies heroes Marxist heroes? A Marxist hero being one who seeks to overthrow an oppressive regime in order to usher in a new and better society. Not even necessarily a utopian society, as Marx posited that society had progressed from tribalism, to feudalism, to capitalism, and only from there would it progress on to the final stage of communism. That last one didn’t actually go so well, but the basic concept of a Marxist hero is nevertheless someone who leads society to a new and better way of doing things in a time of upheaval.

You’d expect the answer to be yes, that Final Fantasy heroes are frequently Marxist heroes. I mentioned in an earlier post that Final Fantasy is rife with ecoterrorists, sky pirates, and rebel alliances. Nevertheless, Michel makes the claim that none of the Final Fantasy heroes are Marxist heroes – and I think I agree with him. In FFXII, Vaan and company thwart a belligerent emperor’s plan for world domination using his newly built superweapon, although the real emotional climax comes a few scenes earlier when Princess Asche rejects the use of magic nukes to defend her kingdom’s sovereignty. The thing is, the game calls her “princess” because that’s the title she held at the time when Dalmasca recognized her authority, but by the time the game takes place, her parents are already dead and she is the queen in exile of Dalmasca – and is reinstated on the throne afterwards. So far as we can tell, Dalmasca was a capitalist constitutional monarchy under both Vayne and Asche’s rule, Vayne was just more of a jerk about it.

Final Fantasy II? Same deal, evil emperor taking over the world, heroes defeat him, reinstate deposed monarchs who are capitalist if not feudal. Final Fantasy I? You restore like three kingdoms to power. Final Fantasy VI? It’s not entirely clear what happens to the world after Kefka is defeated, but our heroes were fighting to restore conquered monarchies before the world ended and are some of the last potential leaders of society left standing after Kefka’s near-omnicide, so probably they’ll be able to shape society in their image, which seems like it’s either feudal or maybe a constitutional monarchy (a variant on capitalism, by Marxist reckoning).

What about Final Fantasy IX, in which the heroes are a scrappy thief who robs from the rich, a member of an oppressed artifical class used as cannon fodder, and a runaway princess enemied to her monarchial mother? Capitalist Lindblum and its regent Cid is an ally of the party and the runaway princess is crowned queen partway through the game, not as a betrayal of all the heroes stand for, but simply because replacing an evil queen with a good one is how you solve the problem of evil queens in Final Fantasy IX.

What about Final Fantasy VII, the one with an evil megacorporation as the primary villains? A distinctly modern world, not the magepunk Renaissance or Victorian (ish) settings common in other games. Surely this one gives us Marxist heroes? …Kind of? Final Fantasy VII ends very ambiguously. All we know is that centuries later, the destroyed Midgar remains depopulated and has been reclaimed by nature, and at least one party member survived. The others presumably do not live for centuries, but the fact that Red XIII made it out alive does imply that the party in general didn’t immediately die as a result of the massive clash between Holy and Meteor immediately following Sephiroth’s defeat. Advent Children also confirms that society is actually mostly intact after the fall of Shinra, and also that the former president of Shinra is apparently explosion-proof but reliant on a handful of his elite corporate goons rather than commanding all of society like he did during the original game.

So, Shinra was defeated, and in its place there is…some kind of society. Advent Children was mostly about fan service – the entire second act was basically just a deluge of callbacks to Final Fantasy VII while the plot waits around for Sephiroth to come back – and doesn’t really do a whole lot of worldbuilding about how things have changed. It doesn’t seem especially communist, though, which means Cloud et al sure didn’t push the change that Marx claimed would follow on from the failure of capitalism. So, no, not even Final Fantasy VII really has Marxist heroes, despite using a megacorporation as a villain.

If you’re wondering how materialism – that is, the belief that all that exists is the material world, and that consciousness therefore arises from some kind of physical thing – factors into all this, so far as I can tell, it doesn’t. Marx was materialist, but his materialism never seems to actually come up.

Final Fantasy and Philosophy: Shinto and Alien Influences in Final Fantasy VII

If you’re asked to contribute an essay to Final Fantasy and Philosophy, you are immediately faced with a problem straight out of game theory: Do you write about Final Fantasy VII, by far the most well-known game in the franchise, or do you write about one of the other installments? Writing your essay by itself, picking Final Fantasy VII is a no-brainer, but there are other contributing authors, a dozen or more of them, and they’ll also want to pick Final Fantasy VII. If you went with Final Fantasy IX to make your point, you’d probably have that whole game all to yourself, and your essay would be burned into the memory of all FFIX fans. But what if everyone else thinks the same thing, leaving FFVII vacant, or even just underpopulated? After all, if there’s only one or two other FFVII essays in the collection, yours could still stand out. And if everyone avoids FFVII for fear of the competition, you could have that sweet, sweet FFVII turf all to yourself. But what if half the other authors decide to take that same gamble? Then you’d be better off staking a unique claim to FFIX again.

Jonab Mitropolous took the gamble of writing for FFVII and lost, submitting the fourth (and counting) essay rooted that talks mostly or exclusively about that game (and I’m being generous in not counting Objectification as one of them, since it discusses FFVII, VIII, and IX – and gets VII and VIII confused with each other). Special shout-out to Greg Littman, who did the smart thing and drew from just about every main line game in the series, thus guaranteeing that he’d have an exclusive claim to whichever game the other authors didn’t land on.

Jonab argues in this essay that JENOVA, the evil alien entity seeking to annihilate all life on the planet, is analogous to western influences on Japan. He also asserts that the Shinto religion/culture that gave rise to this depiction totally isn’t xenophobic, you guys. You can’t really have a culture that depicts foreigners as world-devouring aliens and claim it’s not xenophobic. The analogy between JENOVA and western influence is pretty much completely unsupported to begin with (it pretty much begins and ends with “they’re both some kind of outsider”), but the weird doublethink that 1) JENOVA represents western influence but 2) the game is about (among other things) Shinto’s adaptability and ability to incorporate new thought into itself without abandoning old traditions hangs over the entire essay like a specter. JENOVA is not negotiated with. It is pure evil that corrupts everything around it and both it and those who serve it must ultimately be destroyed. The essay even specifically highlights later on that JENOVA is a source of corruption that turns everything exposed to it for too long into a tool of evil. You can’t reconcile that with JENOVA being a metaphor for western influence and the ultimate point being Shinto harmonizing with (rather than being radically, xenophobically opposed to) foreign influence.

Basically, the whole essay just free associates between plot elements of Final Fantasy VII and cultural elements of Shinto, completely ignoring things which very obviously don’t fit and even forgetting its own metaphors halfway through. It does the same thing to Japanese history, strongly implying that the militarization of Japan in the 20s and 30s was a result of a failure to keep out western influences, but Japan’s xenophobia was never stronger than in the years during and immediately before World War II, when they were raping Nanking and all. The essay tries to attribute this to western influence, but it’s not exactly out of step with Japan’s long history of militant xenophobia leading up to that point. Quite contrary to the essay’s implication that the Expulsion Edict of 1825 was the first time Japan had tried to close itself off from outside influence, but Japan closed itself for the first time in the 17th century under the Tokugawa Shogunate, 150 years before then. In the 1850s when the United States showed up with a few gunboats full of diplomacy, the reason why this relatively small flotilla was able to intimidate an entire nation into (briefly) reversing their centuries-long policy of total isolation because their cannons were far more modern and thus had much better range and could bombard Japanese ports with impunity.

Like, look at this:

As three different forces (Lifestream, Meteor, and Holy) converge, the same image of Aerith’s face from the beginning of the game flashes across the screen, suggesting that the way of the Earth (as Aerith’s name shares a phonetic correspondence with the word Earth) mediates this convergence. We see her mediation, like Shinto, is not articulated but simply lived.

Aerith is supposed to represent the Earth because her name kinda sounds like the English word “Earth,” and the mere presence of her image at all is supposed to imply a mediation (rather than conflict) between powers that up until now had very clearly been split into good (Lifestream, Holy) and evil (Meteor), this mediation apparently being “not articulated but simply lived” because there is no dialogue that would, y’know, lend any credence at all to this interpretation.

This whole essay is just Jonab Mitropolous free associating from the contents of Final Fantasy VII to the conclusion he wants to push, and no effort is made to actually chain a coherent line of reasoning from one to the other.

Final Fantasy and Philosophy: The Four Warriors of Light Saved the World, But They Don’t Deserve Our Thanks

This title is one of the ones where I have no idea which words should be capitalized. Maybe I should do what the book itself does and get around this problem by just screaming the title at the reader in all caps.

Essay author Nicolas Michaud is a professor for at least one Flordia university. Rate My Professor gives me three different results, all in Florida, so I’m pretty confident in the accuracy of the contributors’ section claim that he uses university teaching as a cover while training an army of minions for world domination. For one thing, look at that name.

The title gets my hackles raised that this might be one of those “free will doesn’t exist if you redefine free will to mean something dumb” essays, though. We get confirmation on page two that this is, in fact, the case:

But to know whether we should thank the Warriors for saving the world, we need to know whether they have free will. If they don’t have free will and have no choice but to save the world, then why thank them? Why thank someone who has no choice but to do something?

The practical answer is because gratitude is an instinct for long-term cooperation by establishing trust that debts incurred will be repaid, and it is beneficial to demonstrate this in general even if the specific person you’re repaying would keep helping you regardless of your reaction. Also, if you’re belaboring whether or not to express gratitude to people who have already fulfilled a prophecy to save the world, then whether or not they will continue to help you is up in the air, so it’s a good idea to encourage them to keep protecting you from danger.

The moral answer is that gratitude is an expression of justice and fairness, that people who help others deserve to be helped in return, and the fact that someone was able to predict in advance that the Warriors of Light would be both capable and generous enough to get up to world saving does not change the fact that they were willing to risk life and limb to help others. The prophecy didn’t single them out by name, only number and accomplishment, so it’s not like they knew in advance everything would turn out okay. For that matter, the prophecy never said all four would survive the final battle.

The whole premise of the front half of this essay is redefining free will from “capable of choosing one course of action over another based on internal deliberations” to “capable of making completely and utterly unpredictable decisions,” and then after switching to the second definition, pretending that you’re still using the first to make declarations about morality and justice. If “free will” just means “unpredictability,” then who cares whether or not the Warriors of Light have it? You’ve redefined “free will” to have nothing to do with making decisions, and the Warriors of Light still made the decision to help the world, regardless of the fact that the decision was predicted in advance. This is the part where Nicolas Michaud would say “aha! But if you can predict in advance with perfect accuracy how someone will decide, was there ever really a decision made at all?” The answer is yes, and also, why would you think otherwise? Holding someone accountable for their decisions is about intention, not predictability. If we can perfectly predict in advance that these four level 1 losers have the intention (and ability) to save the world, not only should we thank them, we should start thanking them right now rather than waiting until they pull it off. Whatever future-predicting magic we have in this hypothetical is perfect, so we don’t need to wait for them to prove they deserve our gratitude. We already know. Thanks in advance for saving the world, have a free sundae. This argument is literally “they only saved the world because they’re kind, generous people who believe in justice and want to help others! What’s so praiseworthy about that?”

This argument always comes off like “it’s not my fault I missed my kid’s baseball game! The universe is deterministic! I never had a choice!” When we say “you had a choice” we aren’t talking about the boundary conditions of the universe, dumbass, we mean that the critical factor that led to you missing your kid’s baseball game was you. Your car didn’t break down, you didn’t forget, you just decided to stay home and watch TV instead, which means we can expect you to act selfishly as a general rule and we will repay your anti-social behavior by excluding you from the parts of society that we reserve for people who act in a reasonably pro-social manner.

(I apologize to any people named You who may have felt attacked by that last paragraph.)

Side note about forgetting, the reason why there’s no point in blaming people who forget to do things is that this is an engineering problem, not a moral one. If someone is genuinely forgetful and not just selfish, setting up a system that reminds them to do things will solve the problem.

Additional side note, addressing kleptomania:

Consider someone who can’t help stealing. If someone is unable to refrain from committing a crime, we often absolve the person of blame. That is the whole basis of the insanity defense.

No, it isn’t. The basis of the insanity defense is that someone who commits a crime because they have misunderstood the situation in a clearly deluded way is different from someone who commits a crime despite understanding the situation perfectly. The former is a medical problem. If we were able to cure this person of their delusions, they would no longer commit any crimes. The latter is a moral problem. The thief knowingly chose to harm someone else for their own benefit. The problem is not that they are confused, but that they are selfish. The problem is not with what they believe, but with who they are. Okay, so they didn’t choose to be a selfish person. So what? Why is “because I felt like it” suddenly a defense?

Final Fantasy and Philosophy: Final Fantasy and the Purpose of Life

Greg Littman is our first returning author from Dungeons and Dragons and Philosophy (technically the other way around – D&D&P was 2014, FF&P was 2009). In our previous foray into Greg Littman’s literature, he tried to convince us that no one could be held responsible for anything because the universe is deterministic, and then implored us to change our perspective/behavior based on this, something which he’d just got done telling us was impossible. This time he’s gong to try and discover the meaning of life.

This essay examines the moral philosophies of Thomas Hobbes, John Stuart Mill, and Aristotle by examining whether they would approve of the actions of the protagonists of various Final Fantasy games. It actually examines the actions of the protagonists of all main line Final Fantasy games released at date of publication (so, up to XII). Thomas Hobbes believes that all humans are fundamentally self-interested and that, in a state of nature, exist in a constant war of all against all, with a life that is nasty, brutish, and short. According to Hobbes, civilization is only possible because people give their absolute obedience to monarchs, and no matter how terrible a monarch’s rule, it is always better than civil war or revolution. Apparently he wasn’t familiar with Athens or Rome. Final Fantasy heroes get a poor grade from Hobbes, what with all the ecoterrorists, rebel alliances, and sky pirates.

John Stuart Mill generally approves of Final Fantasy heroes for all the world-saving they get up to. There’s an aside in each of these sections, more notable here than in Hobbes’, about Final Fantasy XI, the MMORPG, where it’s entirely unclear whether or not the vast and diverse army of PCs behave for one reason or another, but there’s also a discussion about whether or not the players themselves are moral for playing the game. According to Mill, kinda sorta, in that playing the game is fun and therefore increases utility, but probably players could get more utility helping other people even if they personally found it unpleasant. That’s true, but it’s not like John Stuart Mill didn’t live a life of idle leisure his entire life while the industrial working class lived in squalor, so what the Hell, man.

Aristotle claims to define his virtues as the balance point of moderation between two extremes, and like a lot of ancient Greek philosophy, this falls down under careful scrutiny because I guess once Diogenes bit it there were no more sardonic Devil’s advocates left in the entire Greek-speaking world and you could get away with practically anything. The flaw in this one is that you can redefine the extremes to push the middle wherever you want. Aristotle claims that courage is the balance point between recklessness and cowardice, but running away could just as easily be the balance point between fighting and being paralyzed with fear. Aristotle’s claim that being well-educated is the secret to virtue is not an easy one to evaluate Final Fantasy characters with. How did Cloud do in high school? How much education is involved in Yuna becoming a summoner? Even laying aside the fact that Aristotle’s virtue ethics are ultimately circular, we don’t actually know enough about Final Fantasy protagonists to determine if they’re keeping with the specific set of virtue Aristotle endorsed in the first place.

Overall, the essay is an exploration of three pretty well known philosophers through the lens of Final Fantasy. It’s pretty much exactly what you’d expect from a pop philosophy book and unlike Littman’s last essay it never ends up cutting off the branch of logic it’s sitting on.

Final Fantasy and Philosophy: Objectification of Conscious Life Forms in Final Fantasy

This essay discusses objectification from the three dominant ethical philosophies in our society: Kantian duty, utilitarianism, and Aristotle’s virtue ethics. Except that’s actually a lie, because objectification means to treat someone as though they have no ability to make decisions on their own, but this essay uses it to instead mean to use someone else as a means towards an end. These are obviously related, but the essay early on declares that Final Fantasy VIII protagonist Squall willingly allowing himself to be flung back in time to further the (pro-social, world-saving) agenda of Ellone is an example of objectification that would be moral according to Kantian ethics (contrasted with another example where Kantian ethics would oppose an act of objectification). But if Squall exercised agency, then he was not objectified. Although initially used as a tool without knowing what the Hell was going on, the essay claims that this is moral only because (and presumably, starting from when) he started going along with it willingly. At that point, his will is no longer being subverted, he’s not being objectified anymore, he just agreed to help someone.

For Kant, things like “don’t objectify people” are moral imperatives, inviolate laws which are always wrong, regardless of circumstance. Kant is someone who, when Nazis come to your house asking if you’re sheltering Jews, it’s immoral to say “yes, they’re in the basement” because being an accessory to murder is wrong, but it’s also immoral to say “no” because lying is wrong, so you have to say “I’m not helping your campaign of genocide” right to the Gestapo’s face and hope that turns out well not just for you, but also for the Jews, who now face a higher chance of capture because you’ve drawn so much attention to your house, specifically, as a place where they might be hiding. To Kant, the much higher chance that the Nazis successfully murder a few more innocent people doesn’t matter. What matters is that you, personally, kept the moral imperatives against both dishonesty and murder.

There’s obviously some room to argue with that, but there’s no actual conflict within Kantian ethics on the issue of objectification. If one person decides, for their own reasons, to act in the interests of another, that’s not objectification. That’s just cooperation. Even if Squall is behaving exactly as Ellone would want him to if Ellone were to use him as a tool, if Squall is doing it of his own volition, then he’s not being objectified. It’s just super convenient for Ellone that he has decided to help her.

In the next section, after claiming to have demonstrated Kant’s incapability to resolve objectification (but not actually doing that), the essay claims to demonstrate utilitarianism’s inability to resolve objectification (but doesn’t actually do that). It does land closer on the mark this time, in that it hits upon the common objection to utilitarianism that it theoretically demands that people sacrifice their lives or well-being for the greater good, whether or not they want to. I’m not surprised that people first encountering utilitarianism frequently raise this objection to it. I am surprised that academia hasn’t followed that thought experiment to its obvious conclusion: Demanding that people sacrifice themselves (either by literally dying or by giving up their own happiness so a greater number of people can benefit) requires a coercive organization of some kind to force the sacrifice, even if you somehow managed to guarantee that organization was always and forever operated only by solemn utilitarian martyrs who used it solely in situations where those who benefited genuinely outnumbered those who were harmed, people would still live their lives in constant fear of being the next target of that organization, which would be a constant downward pressure on utility that the organization couldn’t realistically outpace, which means it ultimately creates negative utility which means utilitarianism is opposed to the creation of such an organization.

Some anti-utilitarians are clever enough not to point out that their alleged knock-out punch against utilitarianism is a thought experiment in which a bunch of utilitarians go around decreasing utility, i.e. doing the one thing their philosophy tells people not to do. Robert Arp and Sarah Fisk are not this clever:

Although mandatory self – sacrifice would create a tremendous amount of happiness for some people, the amount of misery for the widows, the families, and the friends of the departed would be just as substantial. Such a system would induce paranoia, undermine security, and destroy humanity as we know it, thereby making it worse.

If you admit that this scheme would ultimately result in negative utility, why do you insist that utilitarians are compelled by their philosophy to pursue it?

The essay’s ultimate goal is to establish virtue ethics as superior to moral imperatives or utilitarianism. The essay claims that Aristotle’s virtue ethics oppose objectification because they are actions of someone with a vicious (i.e. characteristic of vice rather than virtue) character, which is tautological. Aristotle’s virtue ethics doesn’t actually oppose objectification at all. Aristotle was explicitly in favor of slavery. Now, virtue ethics is inherently tautological, in that its fundamental statement is “the right thing to do is whatever a virtuous person would do,” which is synonymous with “the right thing to do is whatever a person who does the right thing would do.” For any specific virtue ethicist philosophy to be valid, it must first define and defend some specific virtues. Aristotle did this, but as mentioned, that set of virtues was totally okay with slavery. You can argue in favor of a different set of virtues, but then you have to lay out what specific virtues you’re defending. Without an actual list of virtues, virtue ethics is a hollow shell with nothing to say on any subject. When someone mentions “virtue ethics” it’s usually safe to assume they specifically mean Aristotle’s virtues, but again, Aristotle believed that some people were naturally fit only to be slaves, so it is difficult to imagine how an essay could get the issue more wrong than by saying that he’s the one who got the issue of objectification exactly right.

The essay does acknowledge other virtue systems than Aristotle’s. Specifically, it recognizes Nietzsche’s:

Friedrich Nietzsche (1844 – 1900) advocated a form of virtue ethics that was very different from that of Aristotle. Nietzsche believed that power was the ultimate virtue, and that we all must express power if we are powerful. Society consists of domineering master – slave relationships.

This is a technically true but extremely misleading summation of Nietzsche’s philosophy. Nietzsche saw “master morality” and “slave morality” as opposed ideologies locked in eternal struggle with one another, and didn’t really endorse either of them (although his philosophy was closer to master morality). Nietzsche’s historical perspective is wrong – “master morality” and “slave morality” crop up as situationally useful ideologies that people and nations tend to rapidly and hypocritically bounce back and forth between based on which is presently more useful to them, not declare their allegiance to permanently and use as banners around which a battle for society is fought – but his ultimate philosophy is one of individualism, of not letting other people tell you what to do whether through sheer power or by trying to convince you that it is immoral. He frequently expressed this as some variation on “imposing your own power on the world,” but saying “Nietzsche believed that power was the ultimate virtue” as the introduction to the concept is not helpful to getting people to understand his philosophy.

It gets better, though:

For example, the character of Cloud in Final Fantasy VIII is attracted to being in control, whereas his nemesis, Seifer, is prone to being controlled.

For those unfamiliar with the games, Cloud is the protagonist of Final Fantasy Seven, Seifer is a villain from Final Fantasy Eight. This is not a case of putting the wrong number of Is on the end of the Roman numeral. This is either getting the names of the protagonists of two different games confused or getting the games themselves confused with each other. How did neither the original essay writers nor the compilers of the book catch this in editing?

Ultimately, this is an essay about how great virtue ethics is that mainly just expresses an inability to understand how moral imperatives or utilitarianism actually work.