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Does it Matter if Synths are People? | The Philosophy of Fallout 4

Moving forward, I'm going to start sharing the scripts for the series I'm now calling "Philosophy and Ethics in Games" over on YouTube. This series is near and dear to my heart as it combines my love for gaming with my passion for philosophy and teaching. I'll share the videos here in case you want to check them out as well!

This article is the first of a series where I’ll be diving into some moral and ethical decisions and ideas in games. I love philosophy and debating moral and ethical dilemmas, so this should be a fun journey. To begin with, I want to talk about the Synths in Fallout 4 and how they should be classified both in game, and in our world.

So recently, I’ve started playing Fallout 4 again. The last time I really played it was probably back in 2018 or so on Xbox, though I did start a playthrough a couple years ago where I never got much further than rescuing Preston Garvey before moving on to something else.

It’s not that it’s not a great game, it’s just that I was never really one to dive deep into the lore of games, preferring a quick run through of the story and maybe a few side missions before getting bored and moving on. The biggest reason for this is that I normally only have myself to talk to when I’m playing, so the big revelations and story moments didn’t really hit like they should have. I also had no one to discuss the lore with, so it didn’t really feel fun to dive into it.

As I started this most recent playthrough on Twitch, I decided I was going to really focus on the lore, read the terminals and pay attention to the dialog. This style of play has introduced me to some new stories within the game and made me really think about things like the ethics and morals contained in the game universe.

I’ll be sticking specifically with Fallout 4 because I haven’t really played the other games in the series, and I don’t want to speak on something I don’t know much about. As far as I know, Fallout 4 is the only game with synths, but even if they exist in the other games, it won’t really change how I address them. We aren’t working with in-game ethics or talking about what would be right or wrong based on the lore, this is bringing the concept out of the game and into our world to be picked apart.

Let’s start with what might seem like the obvious question.

Are Synths people?

To even begin to answer that, we would need to have a definition for what a person is.

Miriam Webster defines a person as a “human, individual”, and while that definition is alright, I think it is a bit too narrow. In an article on The Mind Project, called “What is a Person”, David Leech Anderson puts forth an initial definition of “any entity that has the moral right of self-determination.” This definition is a little bit better, but it still feels like it’s lacking.

Legally, a person is seen as a human being in general, though that wasn’t even always the case. History has seen many groups treated as less than human and not given the dignity that is supposed to come with being a person.

So, there’s no good definition of what a person is but I would argue the real question we should be asking is, does it matter if we classify them as people? If we’re dealing with beings that think for themselves, act of their own will and desires and have the ability to empathize with those around them, don’t they deserve to be treated as equal to humans?

In Fallout 4, we find several groups with varying opinions on synths. The Railroad and Minutemen would see them integrated into society, though each in their own way. The Institute sees them as nothing more than machines, property to be owned and used as they see fit. The Brotherhood of Steel sees them as abominations that must be wiped out. Going beyond those groups, though, we see a fear of them in the wasteland and a general distrust. If someone is accused of being a synth, there is no defense that can be made and many Wastelanders will go as far as shunning or even killing the possible synth.

As the lone wanderer, you come across several storylines that require you to make a decision on how you think Synths should be treated, and your decisions in those stories have consequences. The biggest one that comes to mind, mostly due to how recently I played through it, is the main story of the Far Harbor DLC. You are sent to Far Harbor in search of a girl named Kasumi Nakano who’s gone missing. She left her family home after speaking to a group of Synths over the radio who were able to convince her she was also a Synth.

Upon arriving on the shores of Far Harbor, you find that there is a lot of distrust between the various factions on the island. We’ll set one of the factions, the Children of Atom, aside for now, and focus primarily on the town of Far Harbor and the Synths of Acadia.

Making your way to Acadia, you meet their leader DiMA, an early Synth prototype who has been on the island for over a century. As the story unfolds, you find out DiMA played a huge part in helping the Children of Atom settle and that he held the keys to destroying both them and the town of Far Harbor in the past. Realizing destroying the other two factions wasn’t something he wanted to do, DiMA hid this information away, along with one other secret.

See, DiMA realized that peace on the island would require trust between the groups. He already had the trust of the leader of the Children of Atom, but Far Harbor wasn’t so open. To fix this issue, DiMA decided to kill the leader of Far Harbor and replace her with a Synth.

After we uncover all of this, we have a decision to make as the player. Help DiMA hide the information or have him come clean to the people of Far Harbor. If you have him come clean, you can also decide what to do with Acadia. Should the settlement be allowed to exist?

My first instinct was to fight for Acadia, the Synths that call it home had nothing to do with DiMA’s decision to kill Far Harbor’s leader, they shouldn’t be held to pay for his misdeed. But then, who takes over as leader of Acadia and what’s to stop them from doing the same thing?

But then, if we’re going to start wiping out groups for what they might do, where does that leave us?

As complex as this whole story has gotten, you’ll notice that whether the Synths are people or not doesn’t play into it. Now, the people of Far Harbor or even the Commonwealth might disagree, but it isn’t so much the Synths most of them are afraid of as it is being replaced or having someone they love replaced. Many of them don’t even care if someone is a Synth so long as it is obvious to them who is a Synth and who isn’t. There is some distrust of Synths, but even that is more about the idea that the Institute could be controlling them.

Speaking of the Institute, they would argue that it does matter. They made the Synths after all, resources were used, and it took time, but is that really any different from a baby being born? The mother provides nutrients and her body to form and birth the child, then it has to be fed and diapered and clothed until it’s old enough to be on its own. Would we say that a mother owned the child? Does she get to make all the decisions for that child for its whole life, forcing it into unpaid labor for ever and ever?

The Brotherhood of Steel will argue they are machines, but if you can’t tell the difference between a Synth and a human being, are they really? Even a medical exam would point to a Synth being a person. That’s why there’s so much paranoia about being replaced, because there is no way to tell.

To the Railroad’s credit, they want to help the Synths escape, but even they are misleading in a way because they insist on wiping the memory of Synths they are helping, putting a whole new personality in place of what was there. In essence, they are killing Synths and replacing them. This procedure is optional, but it is also risky and the Synths don’t really know the full ramifications of it, beyond the Railroad telling them they will be free.

The people of the Commonwealth and Far Harbor in general are afraid of being replaced, but that is more about the Institute. They are also afraid of what the Synths will do. The idea is that the Institute can control them and make them do horrible things. Much of this fear is driven by a malfunction several years before the main story begins where a Synth killed several humans, but from what we know the Institute doesn’t have that kind of control.

The most the Institute seems to be able to do is shut down Synths with a recall code. If one goes missing, as in, it walks away and decides it wants to have its own life, they send Coursers to track and recover it.

Sure, Synths can malfunction, as mentioned before with the one who killed the humans in Diamond City, but humans can malfunction as well. Mental illness and breakdowns are a real thing, they cause humans to deviate from what is considered “normal” behavior.

Bringing it into the real world for a minute, Synths may not be real, but there are a lot of people working on making something like them a reality. If and when that time comes, we’ll have to decide how we’ll treat these new “machines”. Are they people? Does it even matter?

So, where does that leave us? An argument could be made that the Synths in Fallout 4 are people, just as an argument could be made for the opposite conclusion.

We can talk to Synths within the walls of the Institute, and even meet those who want to escape or have escaped. Whether they are people or not doesn’t matter, they have what we would deem as free will, a desire to go out into the world and see and do things on their own. They have hopes, dreams, ambitions. They care about their fellow Synths as well as humans, even sacrificing themselves to save others.

Like I said at the beginning, this is the first of a new series I am going to be putting out as I play through the stories of various games on Twitch. You can catch me live over there Tuesday Through Saturday starting at 6 PM Eastern Time. If you like this kind of video and want to see more, make sure to subscribe to the channel and comment down below to let me know what you think and what other subjects you’d like to see covered. Thank you for watching and I’ll see you in the next one!

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