moduffy12 February 26th, 2010
At the beginning of the game, upon entering the lighthouse the player is greeted with an enormous statue of Ryan with the slogan: “No Gods or Kings. Only Man.” Reminiscent of the Lenin/Stalinist statues, this statue is a brilliant demonstration of Ryan’s quest for pontification. Of interest however is that atheism and the denial of God is promoted above the Randian concept of promoting self-interest over altruism. In the words of Rand:
❝Rationality is man’s basic virtue, and his three fundamental values are: reason, purpose, self-esteem. Man, every man, is an end in himself, not a means to the ends of others; he must live for his own sake, neither sacrificing himself to others nor sacrificing others to himself; he must work for his rational self-interest, with the achievement of his own happiness as the highest moral purpose of his life.” Thus Objectivism rejects any form of altruism—the claim that morality consists in living for others or for society…❞
This looming pontification and deification of Ryan runs contrary to the teaching of Rand, which doesn’t seek to replace one God with another. In this way we could say that Ryan’s desire for power has overshadowed the objectivist teachings, a first step in the move towards becoming a dystopia.
Following Rapture’s civil war between Fontaine and Ryan all the original supplies of ADAM were destroyed. The Little sisters were physically and psychologically altered prepubescent girls, created with the express purpose of extracting ADAM by extracting it from the dead and modifying it within the genetic structure of their own bodies turning it into EVE. The Little Sisters are protected by Big Daddies; genetically altered men enhanced with superhuman strength and bulletproof deep diving suits. Here lies the moral dilemma Bioshock presents to the player, kill the Little Sisters and extract the full amount of ADAM needed to progress through the game or allow them to live, making advancement through the game far more arduous and difficult.
Ultimately, the decision of whether or not to kill or rescue the little sisters is the focal point that the game’s objectivist premise hinges on: if one can look at a individual as an expendable resource, then that promotes the objectivist ideology. On the other hand if you rescue the little sister and can recognize that the benefits received from ADAM should not come at the expense of an individuals life, then objectivism is rendered inert. The player is given a choice to accept Rapture’s Weltanschauung or to reject it.
Bioshock raises some fascinating bio-ethical questions. Some women today have objections to solely becoming “incubators” for children. Bioshock may instead be making a clear argument against abortion, that the removal of ADAM (masculine) from EVE (feminine), results in death. Clearly, the objectivist view of treating the girls as less than human, as incubators for ADAM shows that it is wrong to treat an individual as something less than human, as just another resource. Clearly ADAM, in both the context of the game and from its original biblical origins is “life” but it is conditional life as it is based on the taking of life from another.
Bioshock’s use of little girls is of particular interest and received much media criticism with some saying that “[BioShock] is testing the limits of the ultraviolent gaming genre with a strategy that enables players to kill characters resembling young girls.” Kenneth Levine, director of 2K games stated in response “As a piece of art, we want to deal with challenging moral issues and if you want to do that, you have to go to some dark places and BioShock certainly does go to some dark places.”
morality and freedom: mutually exclusive?
Rapture’s approach can be best summarized in the words of its founder Andrew Ryan:
❝ A city where the artist would not fear the censor.
Where the scientist would not be bound by petty morality.
Where the great would not be constrained by the small.
And with the sweat of your brow, Rapture can become your city as well. ❞
Here the logically incoherent of nature’s laws and morality appears. The concept that, if not explicitly banned, man will perform the darkest and morally repugnant deeds which may or may not correlate with his own moral persuasions. This is similar to the fallacious argument that the legalization of drugs will lead to widespread usage including those who find the use of drugs to be erroneous. Here lies the true philosophy of Rapture, the freedom of thought leads to the loss of morality. Similarly, the creation of ADAM and subsequent genetic manipulation, designed to improve mankind, began with forced human experimentation against the individual’s wishes. This idea runs contrary to the idea of Objectivism, as proposed by Rand:
❝ [Objectivism] is a system where no man may obtain any values from others by resorting to physical force, and no man may initiate the use of physical force against others. The government acts only as a policeman that protects man’s rights; it uses physical force only in retaliation and only against those who initiate its use, such as criminals or foreign invaders.❞
Here we can see that clearly forced genetic experimentation runs contrary to the philosophy of Objectivism. Clearly this perpetuates the myth that without mans central locus of control for morality, he will degrade into immorality. Similarly the inverse implication is also a fallacy, that man with laws man in risen above his animal nature into a moral paragon. If taken to the levels of Rapture, the proposition is that if given the freedom to do so, man will commit horrific immoral actions. Therefore the fall of Rapture into a dystopia is the result of two factors. First an inherent flaw of mans humanity but also that the lack of true objectivism in the founding principles of Rapture.
Since Thomas More’s utopia in 1506, scholars have debated the precise meaning of the word Utopia. word comes from Greek: οὐ, “not”, and τόπος, “place”, indicating that More was utilizing the concept as allegory and did not consider such an ideal place to be realistically possible. It is worth noting that the homophone Eutopia, derived from the Greek εὖ, “good” or “well”, and τόπος, “place”, signifies a double meaning that was almost certainly intended. Despite this, most modern usage of the term “Utopia” assumes the latter meaning, that of a place of perfection rather than nonexistence. Some scholars believe it should remain a literary term without the flourishes of precise meanings other fields insist upon precise meaning. As Utopian fiction generally applies to literary works a broader meaning is required to encapsulate Bioshock within the genre. As Bertrand de Jouvenal says,
❝Eutopie, it shall be, if and when brought into being: till then Utopie. A dream: aye but that is a capital point, a dream, while less than reality, is much more than a blueprint. A blueprint does not give you the “feel” of things, as if they existed in fact; a dream does so. If you can endow your “philosophical city” with the semblance of reality, and cause your reader to see it, as if it were actually in operation, this is quite a different achievement from a mere explanation of the principles on which it should rest. This “causing to see” by means of a feigned description is obviously what More aimed at: It is also the essential feature of the utopian genre. ❞
Fye is in broad agreement with Jouvenal, stressing that at its core a Utopian dialogue will have several elements at its core. First “the utopia-writer is concerned only with the typical actions which are significant of those social elements he is stressing.” Fye goes on to state that the second element is “for someone, generally a first-person narrator to enter the utopia and be shown around it by a sort of tourist. The story is made up largely of a Socratic dialogue between guide and narrator, in which the narrator asks questions or thinks up objections and the guide answers them. In the second place, rituals are apparently irrational acts which become rational when their significance is”
It is clearly evident that Bioshock, in creating the city of Rapture, has created more than a philosophy but a living breathing metropolis which encapsulates at its heart the philosophy of objectivism and the literary meaning of Utopia. However can Rapture also be described as a dystopia? Andrew Ryan envisioned Rapture as a Utopia which quickly destabilized into a dystopia?
As Sargant states:
“When a convinced utopian tries to build a eutopia, conflict will arise because, failing to achieve eutopia, he or she will use force to achieve it. Force will be necessary either because people question the desirability of the utopia or because there is disharmony between the perfect blueprint and the imperfect people.”
Indeed life in a perfect society is best even for imperfect people because they will accept it as better or law (force) will impose it. Indeed some believe that a deliberately constructed society of this sort can only be maintained by continual use of force. As Karl Popper, the best exponent of this philosophy states:
“”The Utopian approach can be saved only by the Platonic belief in one absolute and unchanging ideal, together with two further assumptions, namely (a) that there are rational methods to determine once and for all what this ideal is, and (b) what the best means of its realization are”
It is important to realize that according to Sargent “both (a) and (b) are impossible as 8T his is due in part to our lack of knowledge and in part to the inevitability of unanticipated effects, the certainty that we cannot perfectly reproduce our blueprint.”
Of course it could be argued that, if these totalitarian methods are employed in every Utopia then the very meaning of the word becomes distorted. Beauchamp takes this view “Utopians tend to assume that there is one, and only one, right method of doing everything and consequently that all other alternatives must be rigorously excluded, by whatever methods the society has at its disposal.” The intent of utopia is, of course, benevolent, but the techniques are totalitarian. For Beauchamp all utopias are dystopias.”
In this sense one could argue that the original Utopian Rapture was in fact a dystopia, albeit with benign intents which eventually became replaced with the dystopian Rapture of Bioshock.
However to take this of argument, although intellectually appealing, negates the original meaning of the word. Indeed many utopias are, from the perspective of individual freedom, dystopias. Some have this appearance because the author wants to emphasize a value seen to be in conflict with freedom.
Indeed perhaps the real purpose of utopia is not to produce a blueprint of the perfect society but in the words of Sargant the real purpose of Utopia is to serve as “a mirror to contemporary society, pointing to strengths and weaknesses, more often the latter, this is one of its most important functions. The author need not intend that the details of her or his preferred society should be adopted. As an alternative to the present, utopia shows flaws in the present by picturing the more desirable.” Perhaps the real strength of Utopia is its multivocality. Indeed the two approach to Utopianism could be, in the words of Sargant that “in arguing that we cannot or should not attempt to improve on the present, he or she is saying either that we live in the best possible world, or that any change is likely to make our imperfect world even more imperfect. The first position is utopian. The second is basic to the classic anti-utopian argument.”
Whether utopias are simply a fantasy, a description of a desirable or an undesirable society, an extrapolation, a warning, an alternative to the present, or a model to be achieved. The utopian views mankind and its future with either hope or alarm. In the former case the result is usually a eutopia; in the latter, a dystopia.
But if we follow the view of Bloch, the Marxist theologian “utopianism is an optimistic disposition that translates generalized hope into a description of a nonexistent society.” In this sense we can see that Rapture is a clear utopia, which transforms into dystopia.
collapse to dystopia
One can see through progression of the game that one can see that the flaws of ethics that led to Rapture’s Utopian origin and dystopian ending were not the result of the philosophy of objectivism failing but failing to adhere to it. For example, through progression in the game, as the storyline reveals itself, one learns of a Fontaine’s black market operation. Objectivism holds as a central tenet the idea of laissez faire capitalism as Rand herself states:
❝The ideal political-economic system is laissez-faire capitalism. It is a system where men deal with one another, not as victims and executioners, nor as masters and slaves, but as traders, by free, voluntary exchange to mutual benefit. ❞
How can a black market exist in a laissez faire capitialist system especially in a supposed “Libertopia” where economic bans should not exist?
Here we can see the starting point of the decline was not the scientific discovery of ADAM but the divergence from the ideals of the objectivist society. It is learned through in game revelations that Ryan outlawed aspects of consumerism to maintain the monopoly of power and enhance his fortune, to exact control of Rapture. Ultimatly it was this non-rational greed and the obsession with power which overcame rational progress which led to the downfall of Rapture.
It is here that we see the divergence from a true objectivist society. It is learned that in order to exact control of Rapture, Ryan outlaws certain aspects of consumerism in order to maintain a monopoly of power and enhance his own fortune using forced torturous human experiments. It was this non-rational greed that lead to the downfall of Rapture, as well as the obsession with power which overcame the balance of rational progress.
Here lies a fascinating glimpse at the actions which can transform a Utopia to a dystopia. The human condition lies at the heart of the issue, that despite ideals, human greed, the desire for power can so quickly overcome.
The game could be imagined as a thought experiment, where the lofty ideals of Objectivism are practiced en masse. The problem with any philosophy is that it is practiced by people – good, evil, and all ultimately fallable people. However as demonstrated objectivism was never truly tried in Rapture.
In truth, BioShock’s philosophy seems more inspired by that of Charles Foster Kane in Citizen Kane. Kane was a man who ruled his world, who tried to impose his will on every one and everything around him, until finally descending into madness. The parallels in BioShock are obvious, and its clear to me that while the game’s jargon and imagery may be superficially Randian, its heart truly lies with Orson Welles.
In the end, Ryan the liberator becomes a tyrant, and Fontaine the common man empowered by “the sweat of his brow” becomes a monster. But others are able to rise to the challenge. Professor Julie Langford spent years making defoliants for the military, and in Rapture she grows a forest. Bridgette Tenenbaum is at first the slave of greed and curiosity, but ends up fighting for the salvation of those she once victimized. Ultimately, the question is left to the player – is the flaw in the philosophies, or in the men and women who hold them?
As Sargant states “The utopian laments that this life is intolerable and feels there must be a better way. War, crime, rape cannot be all that we are capable of achieving. We must improve-and some add even if it costs some people some freedom. There cannot be freedom to rape, rob, and kill.”
Today we are s skeptical of any real and lasting improvement in society but as long as we have hope, that intangible human quality, which tells us that we as a species can do better, that humanity can achieve harmony, unity and lasting peace. As long as we can hope utopias such as Rapture will always exist in the collective consciousness.