Deus Ex: Human Revolutions – The Problem of Moral Dilemmas

Hello everyone! Last week I introduced you all to what I think is not only a great video game, but a great example to us writers as a very well executed sci-fi world. Last week I covered my basic impressions on the game as a world, and this week I want to dig into the major philosophical problem in the story, which I think is a great example of success where most writers fail.

To stab with double armswords or not to stab with double armswords: that is the question

The World of Deus Ex: Human Revolution

As I hinted at in the section title of last week’s post, Deus Ex: Human Revolution plays with a lot of deep philosophical themes, many of which are common to the cyberpunk genre. The title alone is a play on the phrase “Deus Ex Machina”, which is Latin for “god out of the machine”, which is a plot device in which a seemingly impossible problem is suddenly solved in a sudden, often humorously contrived way. This came out of greek theator, where at the end of a play, an actor dressed up as one of the gods would be hoisted onto the stage via a pulley system (the machine), say a few words, and solve the conflict of the plot. It is considered bad form and cliche unless it is purposefully satirical, and I’m sure all of you have run into a movie or story that has ended this way, much to your annoyance and confusion. In the case of Deus Ex, however, this play on words references the philosophical problem of making man into gods through the augmentation of technology.

In Deus Ex: Human Revolution, two factions have emerged in society: those who favor augmentation as an advancement of the human species, and those who scorn it as a science gone wrong. People like David Sarif, who runs one of the world’s several large cybernetics developers, see their work as the savior of mankind, and there is undeniable proof that their work has done the world a great deal of good. However, there is also Bill Taggart and the Humanity Front, who want to convince the UN to regulate the cybernetics industry to try to slow the spread of the new technology until it can be adequately controlled. There are also normal people on both sides of the argument, many of whom you can hear debating the issue during the game, which makes it clear that this is a global problem and not something left for the intellectual powerhouses of the day.

It seems that every story nowadays has to have some huge moral dilemma, but most fail to actually create a meaningful one. Whether or not to burn down a village full of innocent children is not a much of a moral dilemma to most people, and writers always seem to feel the need to up the ante in a contrived fashion (Ex: The children’s village is sitting on top of a dark portal to the underworld, and unless all of the children burn to death in their beds, that portal will open and the world will end!). Deus Ex’s dilemma, however, feels real. Yes, augmentation can give wounded vets back their mobility, can cure blindness, and advances can make people safer and more capable in their daily lives, but it all comes at a cost. Neuropozyne is expensive, and anyone who has augmentations installed must have it to survive. This issue has destroyed people’s lives, driving them to suicide, crime, and riots in the streets of the future world.

Can man truly transcend to godhood? If he tries, does he risk flying too close to the sun?

There are extreme sides in the issue, of course, but most characters are not overly polarized. David Sarif, for instance, realizes that augmentation technology has its flaws, but he sees Neuropozyne problem as a mere scientific hurdle that, once it is cleared, will become unimportant in the long run. Taggart and the Humanity Front are for regulations, but they also allow for the aid of people in need, if they so choose. They claim to have no problem with wounded vets getting prosthetic replacements, but offer programs to have them removed and treatments for those who want to get off Neuropozyne.

This is one of the few times that I think I’ve experienced an actual moral quandary in a story. I was not force-fed any opinion, and was actually forced to come to my own conclusions on the debate as I played the game, and it actually got me thinking about the state of our own world, and the larger debate of scientific ethics. How far is too far, and should mankind be allowed to pursue godhood through his own machinations?This is what effective literature does: it calls us to reexamine our perspectives, and to think critically about important topics in our world, even if the story’s issues don’t translate directly.

To anyone interested, I’m sure you can pick up a used copy of this great game on amazon, or else support the game industry directly by purchasing a new copy for a little more. Next week, I’m going to get into some of the tech of the story world, which I think illustrates many of the things I’ve been saying in my Science Fiction Problems posts over the last year. Until then, has anyone else played this game, or any of the others in the Deus Ex series (I’ve heard Invisible War wasn’t very good)? Anyone else come across a moral dilemma in a story that actually got them to stop and think? Let me know in the comments below!


7 thoughts on “Deus Ex: Human Revolutions – The Problem of Moral Dilemmas

  1. I like your example of kids sitting on top of a portal. I’ve noticed how books and movies do enjoy making heroes angst about tough decisions that honestly did not need to be as tough as they were. A real moral dilemma is so much more stressful to deal with because you can honestly see two sides of an issue rather than just a tragic decision that has to be made and you already know what he/she is going to do.

    1. Exactly! You can see both sides, that’s what makes it a dilemma! A dilemma is not a simple, morally-charged decision that every reasonable (Read: not insane) person would choose, or even just a “hard” choice in a lose-lose scenario; it is the choice in which, good or bad, the reasons behind each side are relatively equal in merit. That’s what this game gives you- the whole world is in conflict with itself, and both sides are given freedom to convince the player.

      If the “Pro-Augmentation Group” was exclusively a group of deranged, maniacal, pro-terror, anti-human mega-corporations, the obvious choice would be to oppose them. Instead, what you have is a bunch of idealists who are trying to better humanity, and there is evidence that shows both their successes and their failures. The lazy, cliche thing to do is to demonize one side or the other, but Deus Ex doesn’t do that. It actually tries to demonstrate how such a conflict might be handled in the real world, and that is GOOD writing.

  2. I’ve had this game since Christmas of 2011 and I have to say, it is a very interesting game as far as issues on trans humanism goes. Every time I replay Deus Ex:HR, I get stuck in the thought of “is being mechanically modified a right thing? Is it religiously wrong to do so? Is it ethically a problem? Etc, etc, etc.” I’ve become more aware of the fact that it isn’t just an ethical, political and moral issue, it is also a religious issue because I recall hearing during gameplay how it is quite unnatural to give yourself mechanical limbs or attachments cause it is quote unquote “F****** with nature”. God being a part of nature, God-believers would find this to be a horrible thing to have as an option no matter what purpose you want to acquire modifications.

    And to add, (And I apologize greatly for any/all spoilers) when you had to go to a convention to find out what Taggert knows of Sandoval (Spelling) location, just before you enter through some doors, you hear two people debate about how one should not determine how the other lives or chooses (modify or otherwise). And the other debating that you shouldn’t have the right to expose your body to said modifications (drugs and etc..). I believe I personally agree with what the woman (the one that was FOR augmentations) says about how it is her right. No one should have a say what you can or can’t do with your body. If what you do to yourself benefits you then hooray, but if it damages you or kills you then that was your choice and you also have the choice to get help for whatever problems came to be. As far as religious moral conundrum goes, if you believe your God frowns upon augmentation then don’t do it but at the same time respect others choices.

    I know this was a lot to type up but I just needed to get my thoughts out and quickly :). Please tell me what you think of this. And thank you for taking time to read my babble.

    [Edited by erikthereddest to further mask the F-bomb ;D]

    1. Thanks for the comment, Eric! Just an FYI, we have a pretty strict language policy, so keep that in mind (even starring the word is kind of borderline).

      One of the greatest things about how Deus Ex handles the philosophical issue of transhumanism is that is is perfectly reasonable to side with either, including the “anti-aug” position of people like Taggart in the game. Augmentation is not just a problem because a bunch of religious biggots will yell at you if you do it; it means a guaranteed, incurable reliance on a very expensive drug. People like Taggart see augmentation as a system of oppression and exploitation of impressionable people, and as it turns out in the game, at least for companies like Tao Yung Medical, this is exactly what’s going on. There is a definite evil in the equation, and anyone choosing augmentation is confronted with the decision of either signing away their lives to people who will pay for their life-preserving drugs, or bearing the severe financial burden alone. There are radicals on both sides, terrorists who will stop at nothing to see augmentation either flourish or fail, and neither position can legitimately lay claim to the throne of reason, yet there are reasonable voices in both camps.

      The religious element is an interesting one, although I think your impression of it is a bit off. I don’t recall there being any specific verses mentioned in the game, but the same argument made for not artificially modifying the human body would be made for things like getting piercings, tattoos, and doing drugs, using a verse like this:

      “Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you?”
      1 Corinthians 3:16 (ESV)

      In the Christian faith (and in many other religions, actually) the body is a sacred vessel, in this case, one in which the Holy Spirit resides after salvation. Because of this, as the argument goes, it is sinful to dishonor the “temple” by doing things to it like I described above, and in the case of Deus Ex, to make large parts of it artificial. However, this is not explicitly the position that any anti-augmentation characters in Deus Ex take. Many people, religious or not, promote healthy living and organic medicine and food, all in the belief that the human body is something that should be cherished, preserved, and kept healthy. Even from an atheist perspective, preserving the natural form is usually considered the primary method for protecting what it means to be human in a world increasingly filled with non-human technology. At what point does man stop being man and starts being machine? Even if you don’t believe in a soul, the idea of accidentally and irrevocably losing what makes us human is a scary thing.

      You should also notice that there are very few characters in the game (if any) that oppose wounded vets and handicapped people from getting cybernetic replacements, although many encourage them not to be augmented because of the problem of Neuropozine reliance. Because of this, augmentation presents a social issue far more important than whether or not people should be allowed to get noserings or use marijuana recreationally, it is a problem of keeping people out of an impossible situation that has ensnared countless people and created a humanitarian crisis in and of itself, which is why people like Taggart are trying to get the UN to finally respond to the situation. While you can certainly fault him for his political methods and willful blindness to the radical elements in his organization, Taggart honestly believes that he bears the responsibility for representing those who are affected by Neuropozine, and is fighting for what he believes is a better future for mankind. He’s not a narrow-minded religious fanatic, he is a humanitarian activist in the strongest sense, and a noble character, if a little naive.

      All of that said, I came down against the Humanity Front because I thought they were misguided in their activism, and chose to let the world decide for itself what the actions of Hugh Darrow meant in the end of the game. As a Christian, I believe that I am indwelt by the Holy Spirit and should therefore not abuse my body because it dishonors Him, however, I also believe that we were commanded by God in Genesis to go out into creation and subdue it, and that advancing medical technology is a part of that mandate. I am excited to see how cybernetic technology develops in the future, and believe that as long as we do not fall prey to foolish “because we can” scientific ethics, these advances can make great strides to ease the pain of a world in need, and that’s not something
      any Christian should be against.

      BTW, as far as wordiness goes, I can beat out anyone ;D

      1. There’s one part of your response that I would like to draw attention to as representative of a potential flaw in your reasoning:
        “Even from an atheist perspective, preserving the natural form is usually considered the primary method for protecting what it means to be human in a world increasingly filled with non-human technology.”

        One of the beliefs of many Transhumanists is that this is a false dichotomy. Intelligent machines are not really non-human any more than a newborn child is. In fact, intelligent machines may be more of a person than a newborn child if we take personhood to mean possessing intelligence, creativity, a sense of self, an ability to communicate and empathize, and all those characteristics which make human life valuable. If we define human as “sharing a similar genetic code to human beings”, and use that as our standard of value, then of course we will
        sooner or later be faced with destruction. Evolution is a fact of life. Things
        change. They have to change. If not intelligent machines, then it will be biological
        evolution. We will not live more than a bit over a century at best individually. The
        only legacy we can hope for under any circumstance is a mental one- having
        someone carry on our ideas. Rationally, an intelligent machine, a sentience hand
        designed by yourself is a superior vessel for this than even living offspring.
        It is possible that the human race will die out, but in the long run, this is actually
        desirable if we become obsolete.
        There are of course some specifics that must be emphasize when espousing this
        view. For example, this reasoning applies only to truly sentient machines when it
        comes to actually replacing human intelligence (although it applies to any
        machinery that replaces human muscular force), but the point is that the body
        has very little if anything to do with what it means to be a person and that
        humanness and personhood are distinct only to the extent that only personhood
        is the exclusive moral standard.

  3. There actually is one part of the Deus Ex moral dilemma where I think they fall down a bit. The Neroprozyne thing is a legitimate argument against non-voluntary augmentation, but it isn’t the argument given by most of the Humanity Front’s in-game representatives. Instead, you see a psuedo-religious (or in some cases actually religious) idea that the human body is sacred, or that augmentations are an attempt by humanity to fly too close to the sun and risk divine punishment. At that point, it actually is just a silly choice like not burning down villages. Humans have been augmented in the sense of having technology physically attached to them since the invention of glasses and wristwatches, and have been augmented in the sense of using technology to augment their natural abilities since the dawn of human history. We’re tool users. That’s what we do. The Neroprozyne issue gives the Humanity Front a rational reason to oppose augmentation in some circumstances, but because it is a merely technological hurdle rather than a fundamental part of the technology, that argument only covers a limited scope. It’s hard to really feel the two sides a lot of the time because, while the other side is there, it has holes that the plot can’t help but fall through from time to time.

    I’m inclined to think that this might be a deliberate reference to certain real world issues such as abortion, stem-cell research, or air pollution’s contribution to climate change in which, while both sides may have a reasonable argument, one side is so ridden with misinformation as to partially discredit itself. This hypothesis is corroborated by the in game radio station, which seems a deliberate reference to real life political demagogues on the far right. But even though it makes a valid satirical point, it gets in the way of the plot, and personally, I’ve always been of the opinion that a story should always be complete on the literal level. The layers of metaphor and satire are the icing on the cake, but it’s not worth it if the icing gets in the way of making a good cake.

    Deus Ex: Human Revolution is still a great game. It’s a great game to practice criticism on because what it does wrong it does wrong fairly obviously (stealth kills having to recharge is a stupid mechanic, there’s no reason to ever do a lethal takedown, melee attacks are uninterruptable and initiate a flow breaking cutscene, etc), but at the end of the day, it is undeniably a good game, and one of the few full size games to really raise valid philosophical questions. There are a lot of things that could be improved upon, in both the gameplay and the story, but there are even more things that were done right.

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