The Witcher

the side quest “Now or Never” really has us engage w/ a very interesting ethical dilemma

So I just got this beautiful game last week and I've fallen in love. In particular, I love the moral dilemmas the game forces the player to engage w/. And more specifically, earlier today, I completed the side quest "Now or Never," the one where you help Triss escape from Novigrad w/ the mages. In this quest, a particular decision caught my attention: the decision you basically make for Triss, of whether you'll try to save two mages from certain death, risking all of the other mages under Triss' care, or to allow those two mages to walk themselves into certain death, but mitigating the risk that involves about the 30ish other mages from their own capture and death.

As far as I know, this decision doesn't actually lead to any significant consequences in the game. The two mages are minor characters you've never even heard of until that point, and your actions have no influence on Triss' perception of you. I played thru both decisions and did some research, and it looks like if you choose to try and save the two mages, you save them but an innkeep that is helping you dies, while if you don't choose to save them, the two mages will die and the innkeep will be alive.

But regarding the ethical assessment of this decision, I don't think these outcomes are relevant. It's not particularly fair to have a crystal ball that tells you what the exact outcome of the decision will be; in reality, you have to assess the decision in itself, and examine the hypothetical, reasonable consequences that might arise w/ each pathway.

In particular, I feel like this moral dilemma illustrates the dichotomy b/w utilitarian ethics (i.e. consequentialism) and deontology (i.e. normative ethical theory). Now I was never a philosophy major in college, so my "expertise" in this field is limited to a couple introductory classes and a single upper division class on Greek philosophy that I took as an elective. In other words, I know very little on the precise expertise of ethical philosophy. However, w/ my limited knowledge, I nevertheless found this decision to be extremely interesting, and I have been subsequently thinking very deeply about it.

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From my view, the decision to not intervene to save the couple, allowing the pair to walk themselves into a certain death, but mitigating all of the associated risk that would have involved many more individuals, represents the utilitarian side. To put it simply, w/ the fundamental principle of utilitarian being, "the greatest good for the greatest number," I found this particular decision to be an application of said principle. As said earlier, there are about 30 other mages (as estimated by Geralt) that are under your care that would have been put into significant risk by this decision. And although the actual outcome of this decision would go against the utilitarian principle, (considering the outcome of this decision actually leads to the couple being saved while the innkeep dies, i.e. trading two lives for one), as I said earlier, it's not fair to play God by referencing this outcome, since we wouldn't actually get to know the tangible consequences in the moment we make that decision. Ultimately, in the moment we make that decision, the reasonable assessment at least imho, is that the decision to NOT save the couple would be adhering to the fundamental utilitarian principle. I say this because in the moment you make this decision, there's is already an enormous amount of risk involved: the guards locked the city down, and there are witch hunters in every corner, and they're right on your tail. So by choosing to try and save this couple, it would be reasonable to assume that this decision would increase the risk to the point that you would be endangering many more people (i.e. around 30) to try and save a much smaller amount (just two people).

On the other hand, the decision to intervene and save the couple seems to me to illustrate the fundamental principle of normative ethics. The subsequent risk that would arise from this decision, although affecting many more individuals, is an estimated endangerment nonetheless. In other words, the endangerment of the bigger population in this case is probabilistic; it could be 50% chance of death, 60%, 70%, etc. Bottom line is, we can't say for certain, and no matter what, it's reasonable to assume that there is at least a considerable chance that all of them would survive and be able to nullify the increase in risk. On the other hand, based on the way this decision is presented in the game, NOT intervening leads to CERTAIN death of two seemingly innocent individuals. Moreover, these aren't just seemingly innocent people, but individuals that Triss decided to take care of, which by proxy of you making this decision for her, I'd argue that you assume the burden of Triss' obligation to them as well. And ultimately, I would say that it is fundamentally wrong to NOT intervene to save innocent people, when you know that not intervening would lead to their certain death. Basically, although we can acknowledge that such a decision would be endangering many more lives to help a much smaller number of people, I would argue that the combination of: (1) your assumed obligation to help people you agreed to take under you care to the fullest extent of your abilities, (2) the fact that you know the decision to NOT intervene would lead to the certain death of these individuals in the moment you are faced w/ this dilemma, and (3) the prioritization of mitigating a certain negative outcome over a probabilistic quantification of the same negative outcome (i.e. capture and death), would all make it so that the decision to play bystander and NOT intervene is FUNDAMENTALLY wrong as an ethical decision. Moreover, if the principle you used to decide to NOT intervene in this situation was universalized, the verbal promises individuals make to another to help the other in dire situations would be rendered useless, and people would have to calculate probabilities of risk associated w/ each sample of people involved in similar intense situations, which doesn't make much sense, especially considering that such risk estimates are completely subjective and one always has to assume there'd be at least a chance the risk would be completely nullified. Of course, I would concede that this overall argument would need to make use of an assumption regarding the moral responsibility a bystander has to help people in situations where said bystander KNOWS the decision not to would certainly harm them.

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I think it's pretty obvious which decision I committed to (I chose to save the couple if it wasn't clear enough). Would love to hear others' opinions on this matter though.

Idk how to make a tl;dr on this since there are a number of intricacies, but here goes: In the side quest "Now or Never," the decision to save two mages from certain death while endangering many more other mages vs. allowing said couple to walk themselves into certain death while mitigating the aforementioned associated risk, illustrates the ethical dichotomy of normative ethics (the former choice) and utilitarianism (the latter choice).

Source: reddit.com

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