Mass Effect, Personal Identity, and Genocide

Mass Effect

Mass Effect, Personal Identity, and Genocide

By Russ Hamer


As video games and gaming gain traction in our society, we are seeing the production of more and more games that immerse the player in serious narratives full of complicated philosophical problems. Mass Effect is one of these games. For those who don’t know, the Mass Effect series, of which there are 3 main games, with a few smaller spin-offs, takes place over 100 years in the future, when humanity has become a space-faring race. Humans unearth ancient ruins on Mars, and are soon immersed in the chaos of a larger intergalactic world. This world is governed by the Citadel Council, an oligarchic government made up of three races, each of which gets one representative on the Council. Most races have a presence in the Citadel in the form of embassies, even if they do not possess a seat on the Citadel Council. There is one race, however, which had its embassy privileges revoked: the Quarians.

As you play through the games, you come to find out why the Quarians lost their Citadel presence. The Citadel has outlawed all forms of A.I., primarily out of fear. If we look at recent statements made by visionaries like Elon Musk and Bill Gates, we see that this same fear already exists with us today. Yet, humanity continues to make more and more complex machines with greater and greater intelligence in spite of this fear. This is precisely what the Quarians did. Eventually, they created an A.I., though initially they had merely created advanced machines, which they called “the Geth.” The Quarians built the Geth to serve as cheap labor, but they allowed the Geth to communicate with one another, so that they could function as a group and not merely as a collection of individuals. Over time this communication lead to the Geth developing some kind of networked self-awareness. A Geth famously asked its Quarian master, “Does this unit have a soul?” With that question, a war between the Geth and the Quarians erupted, for the Quarians greatly feared the outcome of their slave labor developing consciousness. However, the Quarians lost the war, as their military consisted almost entirely of Geth. This led to the Quarians losing their Citadel embassy and the Geth isolating themselves in an area of space that is inhospitable to organic lifeforms. This all introduces one of the larger themes in Mass Effect: the struggle of organic life against artificial life. While we might naturally want to question whether an advanced enough machine can be a conscious creature, I’m going to instead focus on something I think much more interesting, genocide. I am skipping this first question primarily because I think that the game wants you to assume that the Geth are conscious creatures. They ask if they have souls, Legion has a well developed personality, and the A.I. aboard your ship, EDI, also acts as if it is a person, eventually getting full personhood in the third game when the limits on her intelligence are released.

The Geth are one of the constant enemies that you fight in the games. For this reason it is very surprising when, in Mass Effect 2, you come across a friendly Geth. This Geth is given the name of “Legion” and he joins your team. If you gain Legion’s trust throughout the course of the game, he will ask you to accompany him on a mission. He informs you that all of the Geth that you have been fighting are “heretics.” Most Geth are ambivalent towards organic life, but these heretics want to destroy all organics. The heretics have come to a different conclusion than the rest of the Geth regarding organic life. They see it as a threat and something that must be destroyed in order for synthetic life to prosper. In order to help achieve their goal, they have created a virus that will make all Geth turn into geretics. Legion wants your help in stopping their dissemination of the virus. When you eventually get to the end of the mission, Legion gives you an option. You can stop the dissemination of the virus as planned, or you can upload a new virus that will turn all the heretic Geth back to normal. You are given the option to rewrite the heretics, thus making them un-warlike. Legion claims that he is unable to make the decision, for the processes that constitute his consciousness are in disagreement as to whether the heretics should be rewritten or not.

In order for this situation to be interesting, we have to assume that the Geth are conscious creatures, that is, that they deserve some moral consideration. If they are merely complex machines in the same sense that my computer is a complex machine, then there is nothing philosophically interesting about them. So let’s assume that the Geth are conscious creatures who minimally have some kind of right to live. Given this assumption, the question that I want to ask is whether or not rewriting the heretics amounts to genocide.

In the mission, you are asked to decide between forcibly changing the minds of a specific group of Geth, one which you are targeting because of their beliefs. You must decide whether or not to change the personalities of all the heretic Geth. The belief that organic life is harmful and must be destroyed, a belief that is very defensible for the Geth to have, given that all organic life wishes for the Geth to cease existing, is central to the identity of the heretic Geth. Taking away this belief is not merely going to change their minds about who the enemy is, it is going to change them entirely. This is a deep seated belief that the heretics accept at an almost religious level. It is something so central to their identity that they left the rest of their race, put themselves in harm’s way, and engaged in war against all other life because of it. Would changing this belief count as death?

While there are a number of approaches to what specifically makes up your personal identity, your personality, belief structure, and memories seem to at least part of your identity, if not the central and most meaningful part. Would changing the belief structures of the Geth amount to changing their personal identity? There are a few factors to consider here. First, you are forcibly changing their beliefs. If you rewrite the heretics, you are not convincing them that organic life is not evil, you are forcing them to believe that organic life is not evil. Second, the belief that the heretic Geth possess is wholly defensible. The history of the Geth is one in which, upon becoming conscious creatures, all organic life in the universe sought to do them harm. In this way, their belief is not irrational, for indeed, most organic life still wishes for their nonexistence. Third, the heretics make up a minority of the Geth, yet the Geth do not think that the heretics are wrong in their thinking, they merely disagree with the heretics’ conclusion. Because of this, you should not think of the heretics as possessing some kind of mental illness that needs to be fixed. And last, the belief that drives the heretics to want to destroy organic life is a belief that is central to their personality. They left the rest of their race and entered into a world in which they are hated, going to war in the process, all because of this belief. The belief that Legion offers you the opportunity to change is an integral part of who the heretics are. The heretics seem to possess completely reasonable beliefs that are central to their thoughts processes and actions.

While you would not be destroying their bodies, my intuition is that destroying their minds would count as death. Your intuition might differ on this issue, and there are certainly philosophers who would have an intuition different from mine. There are a few main approaches to theories of personal identity. The first is what I would call body theory. This approach contends that your identity rests in your physical body. Secondly, what I will call soul theory contends that your identity rests in your soul. And lastly, what I will call consciousness theory contends that your identity rests in your continued consciousness. There are a few other approaches, but these three, or some combination of them, generally dominate the discourse. I myself ally with consciousness theory. If you were to forcibly change my beliefs about a number of things that are core to my personality, I don’t feel like I would be around anymore. If you were able to convince me to change a number of my beliefs, then I am willfully choosing. Even if that choice somewhat changes me into a new person, I am desiring to become that new person, and thus my autonomy is being respected. I will admit that I would prefer to have my mind forcibly changed to physical death, but I would still want to say my goodbyes to loved ones and to accomplish any personal goals as soon as possible. This intuition drives me to claim that rewriting the heretic Geth amounts to genocide.

The targeted killing of a minority group due to a set of beliefs that they accept almost religiously can count as nothing other than genocide. Maybe the fact that the heretics are at war softens this blow a little bit, for they aren’t noncombatants. However, you have no way of knowing if there are noncombatant heretics, and the virus will target all of them. Minimally, the targeted killing of a subgroup due to their almost religious beliefs gives us an almost textbook definition of genocide. Maybe this is the reason that Legion is unable to make the decision. Faced with committing a genocide against a subgroup of his own people leaves him unable to decide, so he gives the decision to you. Is it morally acceptable to commit genocide against an enemy that is trying to kill you in a war? That’s certainly a different question, though it is one that Mass Effect asks of the player. Regardless of your ethical compass concerning that question, it would be a mistake to look at the rewriting of the heretics as merely fixing a bug in a program.

Russ Hamer is a graduate student in philosophy at Marquette University and an adjunct instructor at Wright College. He has contributed to Futurama and Philosophy and It’s Always Sunny and Philosophy. Currently Russ is working on his dissertation, which focuses on storytelling in the works of Søren Kierkegaard.

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3 thoughts on “Mass Effect, Personal Identity, and Genocide

  1. One thing to consider about the Geth, they are actually software. They don’t have a distinct body, instead downloading their consciousness to run on any platform with sufficient memory and RAM. So rewriting their beliefs, rewriting their software, is a form of murder. I personally think of it trying to chop your beliefs out of your brain.

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