Several of the ethics are ambiguous in their meaning

stellaris 5 - Several of the ethics are ambiguous in their meaning

By 'ambiguous' I mean that they can be taken to represent multiple different – and sometimes incompatible – ideologies or modes of thought.

I am one of the people who when playing…not quite roleplays, but puts a great deal of significance in the ethics, story civics, and overall ideology of the empires I play or interact with.

Connected to that is that I invariably play as a modded empire I hand-designed with a ton of custom scripting and tweaks to better suit its story and ethos (which is in turn a large part based on my personal values and thought patterns), and the fact that I have also created a number of other custom empires as "counterpoints" to it, again built on some general mentality I either have seen or can imagine.

This has led to a number of discussions or even arguments with people who see an empire with those ethics and do not agree that said ethics fit the empire they are assigned to. Almost without fail this takes the form of "X ethic does not mean that, it means this!".

Additionally, this potential for disagreement has been especially noticeable lately, as I am using a few "more events" and "more flavor" mods this playthrough, and am noticing a LOT of assumptions their writing is making about how my empire would think and conduct itself, for example in the options presented to me at an event or the flavor text attached to some kind of action.

In particular, these ethics are the most ambiguous:

  • Authoritarian: The game itself is somewhat in self-conflict with this one. By its literal meaning, and which I usually use it to mean, it just means a "top down" style of governance, with one or a few individuals or bodies setting the rules for everyone else; the masses do not in general have much influence to the legislative or executive process. Assuming a well-intentioned leadership, this could be labelled as a kind of paternalism. However, the game also uses it to mean a more "stereotypical" format of regime we see all over fiction, where the hierarchical power structure is reflected in society itself, where some members are (seen as) inherently lesser than others, often to the point of being undesirables or slaves. In-game, authoritarian empires are the ones most likely to be given the options to do things like enslave a species, subjugate some other empire as a show of dominance, or restrict the benefits of some advancement to only the "upper classes".

  • Materialist/Spiritualist: The game once again takes a kind of hybrid stance on these; they are ostensibly about the nature of life and consciousness, i.e. whether something like what could be called a "soul" exists as a discrete, concrete real-world phenomenon, but the more common "perceived" meanings of rationalism vs faith are heavily factored in as well. That is, a materialist or spiritualist empire is more than just taking a stance on the nature of life and sentience. Most directly is their raw bonuses to tech and unity – i.e. science and tradition – respectively, but it goes beyond that; materialist empires have a hell of a lot of flavor text to reinforce the idea that they take a more "critical thinking" stance on things, whereas spiritualists are painted as focused on traditionalism and what usually comes across as blatant religiosity. And indeed, there are many empire designs that can arise from both ethics to reinforce that dichotomy.

  • Militarist: Again a case of "popular depiction" vs "literal meaning", and where the game again sort of plays both sides. On one hand, the usual militarist empire ingame, and a lot of flavor text, is more of the "martial" kind of empire, i.e. it seeks war for its own sake or sees value inherent to the use of force. The militarist advisor voice certainly sells that side of it, sounding like it was directly lifted from any one of the common manifestations of these kinds of empires in media. However, there are several places in the game where it seems to hint more at the literal meaning of militarism instead, i.e. the stance that force is a valid and acceptable means to attain some other goal. For example, a militarist spiritualist empire would be happy to use their armies to forcibly "convert" some other empire, whereas a plain spiritualist would likely prefer nonviolent measures given the choice (or refuse violent ones outright if pacifist). Any liberation war could be seen as an embodiment of this form of militarism.

Further confusing things a bit is that when it comes to interactions between empires, authoritarianism and militarism kind of blend; you could fairly readily say that empire A imposing its will on empire B is just a larger-scale version of the government of A imposing its rules on the rest of A.

As actual examples of how this ambiguity leads to the aforementioned kind of disagreements, imagine the following two empires:

-An empire with a moral code similar to what we would call utilitarian (i.e. minimize suffering) and which feels like it has an obligation to put an end to such suffering via things like enslavement or purges, wherever it finds them, regardless of what kind of norms it might have to trample to do so

-A Jonestown-style cult where the leader makes some proclamation, usually with some kind of (alleged) basis or justification, and the people have been so severely brainwashed that they willingly and blindly follow them to any extreme, even to their own destruction


I would quite easily assign the first one either xenophile/militarist or xenophile/authoritarian, and the second authoritarian/spiritualist ethics:

-The first is pretty clearly a case of valuing above all else the well-being of people – whatever their origin or location – and a willingness to impose those values by force on those who do not respect them, with a strong "I do what is right, not what is popular" angle.

-The second behaves very much like many of the more extreme religious groups and has a clear central figure who makes the policy, and where the obedience of the masses is by their faith in said leader.

However, both of these deviate quite substantially from both in-game depictions and common views on those ethics:

-The first breaks completely from the usual "caste system" depiction of an authoritarian structure and the "war is glory" depiction of militarism

-The second makes no mention whatsoever of the "root" alleged dichotomy between materialist and spiritualist, nor does it have stratification beyond that one leader being on top

Indeed, you can complicate these further:

  • What if the government in the first example is centralized out of a strong belief in a kind of technocracy or contempt for populism, that is, they truly believe that the majority are not equipped to make good judgement on matters of state and that it is more effective to find those best able to run things and not put roadblocks in their way?

  • What if the second takes the "wrong" (for the ethic) stance on the nature of the "soul", such as the cult leader personally being more of a "traditional" materialist worldview? Or maybe the whole cult is just a way to manipulate people into following him for some larger plan, which may be very much less "fantastical" than it first appears?

Ultimately, short of adding mods to split the ethics into a huge list of them, I am not sure there is much of a solution, but am I the only one who has – repeatedly – felt like people misconstrued or misrepresented a particular empire design because they disagreed on the fundamental meaning of one or more of its ethics?

Note 1: This itself has subcategories (for example, while the classical authoritarian structure is a king or dictator with absolute and unquestioned power, and who is "above the law", you could also have a system where while whoever is in charge has the final say, they are nonetheless subject to the general rules of society; your king could still receive and be expected to pay a parking ticket or be on a wait list for something like any 'normal' person). You could also have a kind of "constitutionally bound" ruler who has the final say in the running of the state but is still bound by a code of ethical governance, for which the penalty for large or repeated violations is removal from office (violently if necessary). All three of these systems have existed in the real world, at least for a time.

Note 2: I suspect this may in part be because in the real world, most of these centralized power structures existed either with the express purpose of or were co-opted by those with the intent on that kind of social stratification, either as a direct goal or because they wanted to put themselves "at the top". However, that does not mean one inherently must cause the other. Not only are there examples in history where a centralized power structure did not seek to create a kind of caste system, but the whole "power corrupts" root of that association is built upon the assumption of what to me seems like a very human mentality; take a species with a wildly different wiring for how they view the world and that is far from a foregone conclusion.

Note 3: This is somewhat related to a common topic of this discussion on this subreddit and other discussion platforms, that given that some kind of "soul-like force" definitely exists in the Stellaris universe, materialists would fully embrace it as part of reality. This further weakens the idea that this particular ethic pair is solely about whether a "soul" exists.

Note 4: To use a real-world example, the invasions of Nazi-occupied Europe were arguably a militarist response, and indeed a lot of the opposition to getting involved in the war (in the UK and North America, at least) at the time was that such a military response would be worse than whatever it was used to stop. In a more modern example, any deployment of peacekeeping troops to stop some kind of atrocity (eg in Rwanda) is an example of this kind of militarism, and again there is opposition from those who sincerely do believe that the use of force, no matter the cause, is crossing a moral line.

Note 5: You see this in the real world where a small group is determined to "enlighten" masses they consider to be – and may well actually be – more socially or intellectually backwards, or who fear that those masses having a significant say in the business of state would, by their own inability to properly conduct such business, result in worse outcomes for everyone.

Note 6: The "Apostles of Flame" from the Asimov's novel "Nightfall" come to mind, and I am sure many other examples exist in media I am unaware of.

Source: Original link

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