There seems to be a trend developing from the creative teams at Ubisoft regarding the portrayal of the Assassin Order. Perhaps it stems from a desire to shake things up a bit, or maybe it is simply expanding the world to provide different and previously unseen points of view. Whatever the motivation, the world of Assassin’s Creed has become a lot greyer.
It reminds of a comedy sketch from Mitchell and Webb in which two Nazi officers are talking and one notices their skull insignia as if for the first time and asks, “Are… are we the baddies?” More and more I find myself wondering that myself. Are the Assassin’s the baddies in the world of Assassin’s Creed?
The central conflict in the series is between two secret societies, The Assassins and the Templars. When Edward Kenway asks Mary Read about the Assassins, she answers, “We kill Templars”. At times that seems to be the sole purpose of the Assassins and the Creed is little more than a mask covering the simplistic model of, “My team is against your team”.
It is easy to say that the Assassins are the baddies in the Assassin's Creed series. After all, they murder powerful and influential people and thus altering the course of human events in unforeseeable ways, not to mention the countless guards and hired muscle that are just doing their job. Who are they to decide who lives and who dies without any sort of trial or legal mandate? They say “nothing is true” and yet seem to impose their vision on others. They say “everything is permitted” but punish the actions of others.
First, we need to remember that this is a video game and killing pixelated people and getting away with it is what it is all about. In the Assassin's Creed novels, the body count is much lower because it is a medium for story not gameplay. What about translating Assassin’s Creed into the medium known as real life? Are the ways of the Assassins the path of good or evil and how is this reflected in the series?
Understanding Ethics and Values
One thing that science teaches us is that things are not always what they seem. When looking at the horizon the Earth seems flat. When watching the procession of celestial objects across the sky, it seems they are moving around the Earth. The same is true in the study of Ethics. What seems right or wrong may not be. Just as people ignorant of science think they just know, so too do people who have never studied Ethics believe that they intuitively just know good and bad or right from wrong and that these notions are universal and absolute. Whether the people in question are religious or not is irrelevant to the fact that this approach to Ethics is ultimately derived from religion. God has ordained right and wrong and these laws, like Him, are eternal, universal, perfect, and immutable. But the study of Ethics tells a different story. Before we can judge the Assassins, we must first understand the basics of Ethics.
The philosophical branch of Ethics is not about good and evil, right and wrong. It can be described best as the study of human action. What actions are beneficial (good), which are harmful (bad), and which are destructive (evil). Ultimately, the goal of Ethics is happiness. This is very different from the common top down view of “do I say or else because I am God’s representative” approach to morality that most people assume the study of Ethics to be.
At the centre of Ethics is the concept of values. Values are things that are valuable. They are those things that people strive to gain or to keep. The story of values begins with two very primal questions. “Can I eat it?” or “Will it eat me?” If I can eat it, then it is a good to strive to get and fight to keep. If it will eat me, then it is a bad that I must fight, avoid, or escape. If I cannot eat it and it will not eat me, then it is a neutral and therefore irrelevant to me.
One theory of emotions states that all human emotions are derived from four basic emotions determined by values. The gaining of a value brings happiness and the loss of a value brings sorrow. Since humans have the power of abstract thought, we can imagine gaining a value, which is desire, and we can imagine losing a value, which is fear. For example, emotions like anger, aggression, and frustration are born of the fear that we will not get what we want or we will lose what we have.
What makes people unique is that we all value different things to different degrees. This is often referred to as the value system. I value A and B, but I value C more than I value B, but not as much as A. In order to determine our value system we have to make value judgements. This gets complicated for a few reasons. Most of the time, these judgements are made unconsciously and too quickly for the conscious mind to keep up. So instead of reasoning out that one thing is good and another is bad, we just feel something. We feel joy, pain, disgust, pleasure, or any number of emotional responses without knowing how or why these value judgements were made. We also take values for granted. There is a saying that the quenched man turns his back on the well. Water is a life sustaining value, but when we are not thirsty we take that value for granted and do not appreciate its importance. Another factor that can affect value judgements is habits, routines, and pre-existing programming that can cloud our approach to values. Smoking is bad for you, but a smoker makes cigarettes a very high value because of habit and addiction. Or people may be so caught-up in a routine that they miss what is truly important to them. Or people may see a particular lifestyle as a high value because that is how they were raised as in “my parents were middle-class, so being middle-class is important”.
This pre-existing programming is what I call the “should”. People “should” act this way. I “should” be this kind of person. My life “should” be like this. It’s a mental template, a yardstick with which we measure the world. The good is whatever meets or exceeds my should and bad is anything that falls short. The technical term for these shoulds is standards of judgement. And they form the basis of our value judgements.
It is impossible not to judge. We are constantly judging the world and everyone in it to determine what we should pursue, what we should avoid, and what we should fight for and against. When people say that we should not judge, which is a judgement in itself, what they are really saying is that we need to accept that different people have different values, make different value judgements, and choose different purposes.
Once we have imposed meaning on something and assessed its value according to our standards of judgements, then we decide what to do about it. So values are part of the process of determining our purposes. When Jean Paul Sartre wrote that “hell is other people” he was writing about purposes. We all have them and achieving our purposes depends on the cooperation of others. We are happy when others align their purposes to ours and we are in hell when they don’t.
Sartre introduced this idea in his play No Exit where three people find themselves in a hotel room. There is a man who fancies one of the women, but she is a lesbian. The lesbian likes the other woman, but she is straight and fancies the man. It is later revealed that the trio is in hell and must spend all eternity thwarted by their desires.
Suppose there is someone you fancy. You think about them all the time in a state of constant infatuation. The value you choose to pursue is their affection towards you but in order to achieve this value another person, the object of your interest, must act in accordance with your wishes. You want them to want you, so you must make them want you in order to get what you want. The questions then become what are you willing to do to get it and how far are you willing to go. What actions are justified and which are not?
The study of Ethics is the study of human action. Values, standards of judgement, and purposes are all behind the scenes foundational stuff. The real action in Ethics involves getting others to do what we want, not do what we don’t want, and how we go about achieving this.
The Action Equation
The process of human action can be divided into three stages. The Pre-action is what occurs before the action takes place. Then there is the action itself. Finally, there is the post-action.
The pre-action stage is not simply a matter of saying, “I will do this” and then doing it. This stage is a lifetime in the making and largely unconscious. It begins with the meanings that individuals impose of the world. Everything you think “just is what it is” is actually the result of a complex cognitive process that occurs so fast that your conscious mind hardly notices. First you perceive a thing, then you assess its meaning in conjunction with your value system, make a value judgement deciding the thing being good, bad, or neutral, and from that you derive a purpose. Purposes can be broken down to: want, keep, don’t want, and avoid. Most of the time, these involve other people doing the exact same. They want something from you; they perceive you as a threat to what they have or an impediment to getting what they want; they don’t want you to do whatever you are doing; or they avoid engaging with you altogether.
This brings us to the action phase. When it comes to human action you have two components. The agent who initiates the action and the object who is forced to respond to the action initiated upon them. For the most part, the agent is deemed the one responsible for the outcome because he initiated the action and the object is simply reacting. Without the action of the agent, there would have been no reaction from the object and therefore no outcome. The exception is when the object over-reacts or responds irrationally.
In 1974, Kenneth W.Thomas and Ralph H. Kilmann introduced their Thomas–Kilmann Conflict Mode Instrument (TKI), a test to determine how a person deals with conflict. The TKI identifies five different styles of conflict: Competing, Avoiding, Accommodating, Collaborating and Compromising. Even though this was designed to examine different ways that people deal with conflict, it can also describe how an object may react when acted upon by an agent.
So imagine you’ve had a terrible morning, arrive at work miserable, and a co-worker that you can’t stand at the best of times gives you a big smile and says hello. This is not a conflict per se, but it is an agent acting upon an object. As the object you are forced to react. You can compete by challenging them aggressively, you can avoid by ignoring them, accommodate by forcing a smile and saying hello back, you can collaborate by realising that you still have to work together and be professional so you give a pretty convincing “good morning”, or you can compromise with a quick half-hearted acknowledgment. Hundreds of times a day people routinely force these decisions on us and we force them on others without a second thought.
Following the action/reaction sequence is the post-action. This involves assessment and consequence. How does what you have done make you feel? If your actions are consistent with your values, then you may feel pride, but if not there may be shame, guilt, or regret. This also comes into play when we assess others. If their actions are aligned to our values we may feel love or a desire to honour them as heroes, but if their actions are perceived as a threat to getting or keeping what we want, then we see them as being bad or evil.
The final part of the action sequence is consequence. The process of action/reaction, cause and effect, is one of the fundamental laws of the universe. The Sanskrit word for this is karma. An omniscient being would be able to trace the world you know it all the way back to the beginning by following this ongoing process of Karma. Causes and effects. Actions and Consequences.
At first glance we can see three types of consequences. Some are metaphysical, some natural, and others social.
I have been smoking since I was sixteen. The natural consequence is that I will most likely die from some smoking related illness. Without intervention this is the outcome dictated by the laws of nature. I met my first wife by asking her for a cigarette. Metaphysically speaking, if I never smoked then we would never have met and my life would have taken a completely different course. When I approached her, as an agent acting on an object, she had a few choices. She could have refused me or given me a cigarette and ended it there, but she chose to respond favourably to my advances. Once I initiated the action, the immediate consequences for me depended entirely on her social response.
In the life of a thief, there is no natural law forbidding theft and there are no natural consequences for breaking a non-existent law. A thief can be successful and never suffer consequences. Metaphysically speaking, a habitual thief may become dependent on prey and therefore never develop independent survival skills, but that is pure speculation. Socially, his victims may choose to respond in force and the consequence for the thief is injury or death. Plus there are the social mechanisms of police, courts, and prisons ready to dole-out consequences.
Consequence may be the natural check to freedom, the kind of radical freedom advocated in the Assassin's Creed, however when there are no natural consequences to “bad” behaviour and the metaphysical consequences are too...well…metaphysical, then the only consequential checks to freedom are the actions of others.
There is the scene in Assassin’s Creed Cry Freedom, after Adéwalé fails to save all the slaves who perished in the slave ship sunk by his enemies, when he calls for vengeance and says that his Creed demands it. How does he figure that? How does “nothing is true, everything is permitted” demand vengeance? Everything being permitted is not a pardon from consequence. Humans make other humans pay for their sins. You push someone and they push back. If you are mean to people, they choose not to associate with you. Action and consequence. In Adéwalé’s interpretation of the Creed, people have a responsibility to enforce consequence by doling out justice. This opens a whole new world of questions. Who decides? Who enforces? Who judges? Who condemns and punishes? And who watches the watchmen?
The Ethics of Assassination
Existence is each human being’s highest value. People generally like living and losing that value really sucks. So naturally we tell people not to kill because we ourselves don’t want to be snuffed. So why feel the need to bring God into this with "Thou shalt not kill" to try to lend authority to a pretty obvious moral position?
The thing is that as much as we don't want to be killed, killing each other is part of human existence. The Bible does not actually say, “Thou shalt not kill.” Hebrew, like English, makes the distinction between killing and murdering. The actual commandment is “Thou shalt not murder.” So what’s the difference?
Humans are small group animals whose main survival skill is cooperation, but there is also competition with other groups of humans who want to take your group’s stuff or you want to take their stuff. This is not about greed. It's about the resources required for the survival of your group.
In this competition people are killed. Killing “them” is great. We make heroes out of the guys who kill as many of them as possible. But killing someone within your group is not cool. He may be the village doctor, butcher, farmer, or baker. Killing him diminishes the strength of the group. So it's okay to kill them, but murdering us is really bad.
This moral distinction with one rule for us and another for them seems strange but it is actually the human norm and only began to change within the past few hundred years. To put that into perspective, if all of human existence was described as one hour, it was a few seconds ago that we decided that killing them is just as bad as killing us. Needless to say, we still celebrate our good guys who kill as many of them bad guys as possible in our entertainment. Assassin’s Creed is no different. Us Assassins versus them Templars and whoever kills the most pixelated Templars wins.
Real life is a bit different. In our postmodern globalised system, the distinctions between us and them are blurry to say the least. Nations are no longer nations in the traditional sense of being a people with a common culture, history, religion, and language. Nations are now more like multicultural political units, the us/them divide now has more to do with ideological differences than group survival, and deciding who are us and who is them becomes completely subjective. This brings us back to the “one man’s patriot is another man’s terrorist.”
As individuals, we feel pride and confidence when we live up to our values and we feel shame or guilt when we do not. Likewise, when we see others as living-up to or exemplifying our values we see them as good or great, while those who violate our internal codes of how people should behave we see as bad or evil. The villain is the guy who threatens our values while to hero is the one who exemplifies, upholds, and protects them. Deciding whether the Assassins or the Templars are the baddies depends on your value judgements and which ideology you choose to align yourself with.
In the Ezio Trilogy, the writers presented two members of the Precursor Race who exemplify the Assassins and the Templars. For the Assassins there is the Ancient known as Minerva, the Roman version of Athena, the Greek goddess wisdom and freedom. For the Templars there is Juno, the Roman version of Hera, the Greek goddess of motherhood, which can be seen to signify social order. The Assassin’s attitude of radical freedom is characterised by Minerva when she declared that it would be better that the world burn than to be a slave to Juno, the social order.
The key division between the Templars and the Assassins lies in their differing concepts of humanity. The human animal is a small group primate forming bands of 100 to 150 individuals (monkeysphere). The success of this species is largely due to its ability to coordinate and work together to accomplish goals. However, the human animal is also a self-aware creature possessed of an individual consciousness. We are not sheeple in a herd, but neither are we solitary tigers. We are both, and this is a constant source of internal and social tension since both have their advantages and disadvantages.
For the Assassins, the existence of individual consciousness mandates freedom. Since each individual ascribes meaning to reality and then derive purposes from these meanings, to deny an individual’s right to choose their purposes is to deny the expression their individual consciousness.
In the Assassin’s world, each person is free to choose their own purposes free from imposed controls. So the Assassins are largely reactionary. They are not looking to create anything or impose any social rules or restrictions. They only fight those that do, because nothing save Objective Truth gives one person’s perceived meanings and purposes more intrinsic value than another’s.
So if you value social order, security, with its benefits and sacrifices over freedom, then the Templars are the good guys and the Assassins are the baddies. If you value radical freedom over imposed social order, then the Assassins are the good guys and the Templars are the baddies. However, human are both small group animals and creatures individual consciousness. We are both Templars and Assassins by nature.
Ezio tells us that the Creed is an observation on the nature of reality and not doctrine. Edward Kenway realised that the Creed is only the beginning of wisdom, and not its final form. The Creed will not teach you right from wrong. It does not command us to act or submit - only to be wise. My own personal meaning for the word wisdom is simply "knowing how the world works". Understanding Ethics is part of that. It is up to each individual to know how the world works and then make their own choices accordingly concerning what and who is right or wrong.