Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Google+ Worldbuilding Hangout Report: Morals & Values

We had a smaller group last week for our discussion of morals and values. I was joined by Jaleh Dragich and Glenda Pfeiffer.

Jaleh started our discussion by mentioning a multiplayer role-playing game featuring a team of people trying to stop an invasion of Earth - and hampered by the fact that all team members didn't share the same sense of morality. She specifically mentioned a Victorian English player who would get caught up over how little clothing her more modern character was wearing ("showing a scandalous amount of leg").

I thought this was a very perceptive place to start, because morals and values stand out most when they are put in a context of contrast - either between different members of a group, or between readers and characters. They are also a huge potential source of conflict (as they are in our real lives). Imagine a story where a priest and a pirate had to work together!

It's easier when working with fantasy or science fiction to set up groups with a huge contrast of moral value systems, but also important to remember that there is no such thing as a mono-culture. Even within groups who ostensibly possess the same morality, not everyone will agree. I thought immediately of sectarian disputes within religions, and all of the wars and terrible acts they have inspired - indeed, these have also inspired world-changing acts like the departure of the pilgrims for the Americas.

The second question we discussed was where morals and values come from. A society can have laws, but those are generally a later development that follows on a preexisting set of societal values and traditions, which may or may not be religious (indeed, it's hard to separate societal values and religious values).

So how do you go about creating morals and values in a world you are designing?

Glenda suggested that we consider that there were often practical purposes at the root of certain behavioral prohibitions (or other guidelines), and that these may fossilize while the world around the people continues to change. So in creating a world it's useful to consider what the initial conditions of environment and food production were, for example. "Be fruitful and multiply" is a pretty good admonition for farmers who need more laborers to help them bring in the harvest, and would probably also work well (but for different reasons) for hunter/gatherers in a position where child mortality might be high. Once we hit the post-industrial age, however, having a lot of children becomes less clearly beneficial and more problematic.

Leaders, and elite groups, can also have a large effect on societal values. Jaleh mentioned the influence of charismatic leaders whose beliefs can influence the larger society. There can also be aspirational values established by small groups, which make other people want to emulate them, but may be impractical for people who are not members of the elite themselves (I think here of certain types of conspicuous consumption in our world). Glenda gave a good example of the value of pale skin, which started out as a sign of wealth when people who had to work spent a lot more time outside - but which, now that industrial laborers work indoors, has changed to valuing tanning as a sign of wealth and leisure.

One question you might want to ask yourself is this: how do you define a good person, a good member of society? That definition will change depending on the social subgroup you ask. Each group will have specific ideas of the way a person "should be" in order to contribute in an ideal way.

Glenda mentioned manners here. The question of manners had already come up in passing once before, but they can be seen as critical indicators of whether one is a "good person." Using the wrong set of manners, and being "rude," can easily turn into a serious moral condemnation. We'll talk more about this in today's discussion (so come and visit!).

Outsiders coming in to join a group can give conflicting signals because they are not accustomed to the behavioral rules of the group. Jaleh noted that manners are a way to demonstrate that you have the proper morals.

In fact, two people can have the same basic moral code but their way of expressing it through behavior may differ significantly. People very often have a relationship with their own morality - they may hold a set of beliefs, and have a way that they know they should behave, but they may or may not be able to achieve this, and this can fundamentally influence their own self-value.

One interesting thing to do in a story is to take two people who ostensibly have the same morality system, and put them in a situation of stress. Chances are not bad that under those conditions the two people will diverge significantly in their decisions and behavior in spite of those basic moral similarities. Glenda mentioned a Regency context in which one person was more interested in preserving form and appearances, while another person was more interested in "doing the right thing" regardless of appearances; this meant they dealt with the poor very differently.

Jaleh told us a really interesting story about two monks who encountered a woman beside a river. Neither one was supposed to "mix" with women, but one of the two monks decided to help the woman by carrying her across the river. He carried her across, set her down, and she went on her way, but once the two monks continued walking, the one who had not touched the woman started criticizing the other for helping her. The first monk then said "I carried her across and set her down. So why are you still carrying her [mentally]?"

Not only was this story a good example of divergent behavior based on the same morals, but it also demonstrated that morals are often passed on through stories. It's definitely worth thinking through what the parables and morality tales of your world are, and what kinds of language are associated with morals and values. Is there such a word as "scandalous" or "indecent"? What other judgments might use special words in your world?

Our last major topic was the question of placing value on objects/substances. This phenomenon ranges from assessing whether an object is generally valuable or not, to imbuing certain objects with spirit or with other sacred value (around which there may be considerable ritual).

I mentioned that in Japan's history there was a period where Portuguese traders brought Christianity to Japan, and gained quite a large number of followers, but when the local Daimyo realized that Christianity was becoming imperialist and wasn't simply going to be an additional religion that people could follow (since Shinto and Buddhism were side by side), they decided to stamp it out. This led to a period of terrible violence against both the Portuguese and the Japanese Christians. The relevance of this to sacred objects is that one of the tests for seeing whether a Japanese person was secretly Christian was forcing them to walk over an image of the Crucifixion. If they didn't see the image as possessing sacred value, the idea was, then they would walk over it no problem. Other images and objects have had sacred value throughout history, like the holy grail, relics of the saints, the Shroud of Turin, temples and statues of all sorts. Some places come to be imbued with similar value because of the depth of their sacred history. Glenda mentioned a rebellion in India where Hindu troops refused to use their guns because they had been told that the black paper around their shells (which had to be torn with the teeth) had pork fat on it.

This kind of thing is so potent and so omnipresent in our society that I urge writers to try to include something like it in their stories. The lack of any such significance (regardless of whether it is religious or based on some other belief system) will likely seem strange. Thus, unless that strangeness is a deliberate choice, it's good to think these things through for your world.

The question of pork fat also brought us to the value of foods. Is there a concept of clean vs. unclean in your society? Where does it lie? Did the fact that one food isn't acceptable to your people arise from some condition in their early history where the food could not be prepared properly/safely? Might it have been based on an injunction against over-fishing? Or based on the seasonal algae bloom?

Often, even when the original purpose of a prohibition or of a moral rule has been lost, the practice that arose from it has come to have inherent social value. In fact, it can serve as a marker of membership in the social group that holds this particular set of morals. We thought of both the Holocaust and the Spanish Inquisition as examples of people outside a religious group using social practices to single people out for persecution.

Would you be willing to break a taboo to save your own life? Would your character?

An example of a very common substance that gets a special value is water. I wrote about this on the blog once before (A different value: water). Is it for drinking? Is it for bathing? Is it, as in the novel Dune, your entire earthly wealth and something to be preserved at all costs (but wasted extravagantly by the people in power)? Is it something that should never be wasted because of frequent droughts? Or something that should be used to purify yourself and the area around your business?

The list of possible things goes on and on. We also mentioned how often people bathe, and whether a person's smell has social value, as in Babylon 5's Mars domes where any kind of strong smell was not approved of.

It was a good discussion, and at the end we decided to move over into the arena of Manners for this week. I hope you will stop by and join us later this morning.


  1. Sounds like a grand discussion. I wish I could have been there. I keep meaning to come, but the timing is an odd one for me. At least this way I get a glimpse of what happened :).

  2. Thanks, Margaret. It's nice to know (as people at the hangout today also told me) that these reports are helpful to people.

  3. I like these Worldbuilding Hangout reports, and this one comes at just the right time. I'm planning a story for NaNoWriMo where three characters are going to kill another character, and I'm struggling with finding them reason for doing so. This post has given me some ideas on how to approach this problem :)

  4. Sirithduriel, that's great. I'm so glad I could help. Good luck with your NaNo!