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Save Your Best Friend or Save the Town: The Important Moral Dilemma in 'Life is Strange'

Updated on August 6, 2020
RachaelLefler profile image

I've always been interested in political and philosophical discussion. Analyzing and critiquing fiction has greatly informed my beliefs.

Which would you choose?
Which would you choose?

In the ending of the indie game Life is Strange, you are given a terrifying dilemma; save your friend and the town you live in will be destroyed. Save the town, and your friend will die. This doesn't seem very fair, considering that you spend much of the game up to that point defending her, saving her from death, and sharing intimate moments with her. But my answer to the question "Where do you get your morality from, if not from religion?" is utilitarianism. That is, the idea that good can be understood to mean that which does the maximum good for the maximum number of people, and evil is that which causes the most harm to the most people. Surely, a utilitarian cannot justify killing thousands of people to save one, no matter how important to them that one is?

The interesting thing is that a deontologist, or person who believes ethics arise from a moral duty, could not justify saving their friend over thousands of people, either. If one believes in "divine command" theory, then according to most religious sources, it would be wrong, because of the intrinsic, God-given value of human life. If one believes in Kantian ethics, it violates the categorical imperative.

That is, "Act only according to that maxim by which you can also will that it would become a universal law." You can't draw from the action of saving your friend Chloe over the town in the game, the conclusion that everyone should do that.

So the question arises over whether this means that all the leading ways people think about ethics is wrong.

I propose a new ethical framework, I'm calling Object of Highest Loyalty ethics. That is, people are born without attachments to anyone. They eventually come to learn what it means to love friends, family, teachers, God, country, and so on. Then, they will almost always have to make decisions that arise from conflicting loyalty. For example, let's say I grew up in a very strict church, but I also grew up loving and respecting my mother a great deal. Let's say my mother then has a fight with a church leader, is excommunicated, and says bad things about the church at home. I would then be faced with a choice whether to be more loyal to my mother or to my church. I would either keep going to church, defend the leadership of it and their decision to kick my mother out, which is disloyal to my mother, or I would quit my church out of love for my mother, but that's disloyalty to my religion. The interesting bits of a person's life are in how they face and handle such dilemmas. I've had to deal with several, and I'm sure that most people have.

This means that over time, people create hierarchies of their different potential Objects of Loyalty, out of their decisions. I chose my mother as my highest object first. Then came my closest friends in high school. Among them, I was never forced to choose, so my group of friends could all be on one tier of loyalty. Only when they conflicted between themselves was I forced to choose between them. Principles and beliefs came after that. My mother could have ordered me to stop being a Wiccan, and I would have, but she didn't. My best friends' ideologies (many of them were fervently communist) ended up influencing me, but then, paradoxically, when I grew apart from many of them, I ended up rejecting their beliefs as well. Because well, the friendship had been why I had believed in what they believed. Not because I had my own convictions in anything that was stronger than friendship. So that's why I did a 180 from communism and became a libertarian right after high school. Now that I've had more time to form my own beliefs without friend influence one way or the other, I've settled on favoring democratic socialism and achieving social reforms through peaceful means, rather than a bloody revolution. So I differ from communists mostly in terms of what I think the solution is to the problems that they have identified with capitalism. Anyway, the point is, a person's ideology is governed by that which they choose to have the most loyalty to. Sometimes, as in under an authoritarian leadership, cult, or some other highly controlled society, people's choices of who or what they can be most loyal to tend to be limited. If they choose other than to give highest loyalty to their leaders, they risk death or other punishments. People living on the street might have a choice between starvation and loyalty to some entity offering to take care of them, whether it be a religion, government, private charity, family, cult, or individual. In other words, beggars can't be choosers. But, because ethical philosophy is largely thought up by the most privileged in society, ethicists tend to assume everyone has complete freedom of choice.

To most people, it comes natural, if given a choice like the one in Life is Strange, to save their best friend. After all, they know their friend. They would be greatly upset by the death of their friend. They love their friend. A town, consisting of a handful of people you know but don't like as much, and numerous off-screen "NPCs" whose deaths won't affect you personally at all, is easier to stomach killing.

The reason "friend" seems natural to people is that people naturally form intense, personal social bonds. The person they bond with, whether as a friend or romantic partner, or even a close bond with a family member, is more important to them than anything else.

This choice being self-evident shows up in countless works of fiction. Friend loyalty is demonstrated by Homura in Puella Magi Madoka Magica, when she repeats the same events over and over again using time travel to try to save Madoka.

Most people not only value their own personal besties more than countless more abstract human lives, but they would hold them as exemptions to any moral rules they follow. My Catholic ex bf loved me, whether or not I believed in God with him. Racists often are capable of having a friend of the race they dislike, because they come to view that friend as the exception, the one who's much better than others like her. I am also reminded of people like Charles Manson, who had followers who were able to love and admire him, despite being a murderer. For most people, if a person is our Object of Highest Loyalty and they became a murderer, terrorist, or something else we would normally find morally abhorrent, we would still be more loyal to them than to abstract ethical principles.

It's also safe to assume that if most people are faced with a variant of the "trolley problem", they will always value the life of a person they're loyal to over the lives of many faceless, unknown strangers. I wonder how many people I would kill or let die for my wife to live. The maximum for me is probably somewhere between 500,000 and a million. The thought of that should be horrifying, but how often do we say, "I would kill for him/her", as if that were a good thing, an expression of the intensity of our love and a show of how much we value that person? But objectively, such thoughts are immoral.

Political Ideologies Understood in Terms of Competing Loyalties

What does this do to political ideologies? Well, all of them seem to be based upon an assumption that all people, regardless of other differences, share, or ought to share, one unifying principle as their Object of Highest Loyalty. To that end, people are expected to be willing to sacrifice their lives and the lives of their loved ones, in the event that a political battle becomes realer and messier than a mere civilized debate.

Anarchism is a lot of things, but the common thread is opposition to external power structures outside of the individual's control, meaning that there is an underlying assumption that all people's true OHL is themselves.

Authoritarians are the opposite, promoting the adoption of the country's strong-willed leader as everyone's unifying OHL.

Communists believe class solidarity is or ought to be a person's OHL - the proletariat will all rise together if they can be convinced to be more loyal to their class than to anything else. This is why Marxists tend to dismiss identity politics, which emphasize the importance of other kinds of solidarity, such as race, gender, sexual orientation, etc., which they see as diluting class solidarity.

People who believe in unregulated free markets (call them an-cap, libertarian, neoliberal, liberal, etc.) tend to think people's true OHL is their accumulation of property and wealth. Perhaps they think that even if people pay lip service to other types of loyalty, true human nature is to be loyal to one's own bank account first. They think like that, and so they assume everyone else does too.

That's generally the problem with any and all political ideology: People have a strong feeling towards a governing principle as their object of highest loyalty. They project that onto all of humanity, assuming either that that particular idea is or should be everyone's OHL.

You can see this in the famous "sell-sword dilemma" in Game of Thrones:

A sell-sword sees before him a priest, a king, and a rich man seated at a table. Each one tells him to kill the other two. That is, the power in that situation depends on who or what the sell-sword chooses to value most. There's no objective right or wrong, no way of knowing if it's better by God or best for humanity if you spare the priest, king, or rich man. That is, there is no way to know if it's better to choose religion, leadership, or money as your OHL. But which people choose to serve is what shapes history. That's why the Bible says you cannot serve both God and Mammon (wealth). It also explains why Jesus tells everyone to renounce or hate his family in order to follow him. He's not saying to hate your family in the way we would think of it, but to remember that loyalty to them should not come before loyalty to him.

A state's ability to control people is then based on how many people they can get to be more loyal to the state than to anything else. That's also why religions with martyrdom are more successful at converting people - we are moved when we see that people value their religion above anything else, including their own lives, families, friends, etc. It's easy to argue against the existence of God in a scientific way, but it's hard to engage with martyrdom, and know that many people gave their lives for nothing. The same goes for the pity we may feel for those who give their lives for losing political causes or sides in a war. It's possible to, for example, hate slavery while sharing pain with the fallen Confederate soldiers and their families. People who die for nothing also make us question our own beliefs or the people we most highly value. Are we fighting for nothing, or for a cause that is doomed to lose? Worry about that kind of thing might cause despair, or the fear of being wrong may drive us to fear taking action, even when action becomes necessary.

What Does This Mean for Capitalism?

Capitalism is very good at selling us the idea that stuff, commodities, and the pleasures of buying, can replace whatever our Object of Highest Loyalty might be. It can also commercialize common Objects of Highest Loyalty; nationalism is now an Olympic pin, your religion is now a bumper sticker. Your love for your children is a t-shirt. You get the picture.

For a long time, I considered mind - the development of one's mind through study and meditation, to be my Object of Highest Loyalty. Or certainly, I regarded it as highly important, after consideration of family, significant others, and closest friends. This has been commercialized through geek culture - you try to develop your mind by choosing smarter, "more evolved" entertainment on purpose, and those forms of smarter entertainment are sold to you as conventions, autographs, DVDs, posters, stickers, bookmarks, even the occasional body pillow. It's not a terrible thing, but it's important to remember that the objects we purchase are symbols of our OHL but not the OHL itself. It can be the same way with overly commercialized forms of religion.

This moment in 'Neon Genesis Evangelion' forces Shinji to choose between love/friendship and loyalty to humanity, even if all other humans Shinji knows have treated him badly.
This moment in 'Neon Genesis Evangelion' forces Shinji to choose between love/friendship and loyalty to humanity, even if all other humans Shinji knows have treated him badly.

Object of Highest Loyalty ethics would reshape ethics as a field of study. Most forms of Western ethics are attempts to create universal moral principles that are true for all of humanity, regardless of class, race, gender, culture, etc. But this has proven futile, because of differences between people, which boils down to a difference in personal loyalty. Anarcho-capitalism assumes people will always be more loyal to their pursuit of wealth than to anything else. Marxism assumes people will always be more loyal to their class than anything else. Traditionalists assume people will always be more loyal to family, clan, ancestry, tradition, and traditional religion, than anything else. Authoritarians not only assume loyalty above all else, but demand it, killing or imprisoning those even suspected of having another loyalty. Therefore, under an authoritarian regime, loyalty to anything besides one's leaders is punishable, so one will likely be forced to kill, or allow to die, friends, romantic partners, family members, co-workers, etc. who don't fall in line.

Because humanity will never unite under one object of highest loyalty, we will never have one answer to politics, or how to govern society.

© 2020 Rachael Lefler


Submit a Comment
  • John Plocar profile image

    John Plocar 

    13 months ago from Weatherford

    This is a strange coincidence as I just played 'Life is Strange' for the first time this week and just finished it the other night... I sacrificed the town...


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