Before introducing the grave resolution, it may help to provide an indication of what is meant here by graveness (for this property will play a central role). Graveness refers here to something like seriousness or solemnity. For example, Covid-19 is very grave, as it’s spread has resulted in the deaths of over a million people; this loss of life being both serious and solemn. Whereas, a red traffic light luckily turning green just before you were about to stop your car isn’t grave; such an occasion is neither serious nor solemn. One thing to stress is that graveness is here intended to be an objective property. That is, it is not determined (at least not completely) by what people think is serious or solemn. For example, the Holocaust is both serious and solemn, regardless of whether people regard it as thus. Note that this is not an attempt to give an account of graveness; it is merely an indication of what is intended here (and the resolution itself may be compatible with alternative understandings.)
Our focus is the graveness of wrongdoings. A key point to note about the graveness of a wrongdoing is, that it is sensitive to both extrinsic and intrinsic factors. This point is related to one made by Öhman (2020), who stated that “the permissibility of some actions appears to depend on the degree to which they are abstracted from their natural context” (p.133). So, two wrongdoings that might seem equally grave in abstraction (their intrinsic graveness), might not seem equally grave once we also consider other factors (their extrinsic graveness) - such as: the social context of the wrongdoing; how long ago the wrongdoing occurred; how distanced from reality a fictional wrongdoing may be; and who committed the wrongdoing (and there is bound to be further such factors.) Let’s examine each of these factors next.
Let us begin with the social context of a wrongdoing. Öhman (2020) rightly states that,
…it seems that a proper ethical analysis of the gamer’s dilemma would also require a full analysis of the social systems in which the actions—virtual murder and virtual paedophilia—take place. (p.139)
Patridge (2013)Footnote 22 also championed this factor, arguing that some wrongdoings are “egregious, long-term, systematic denials of justice that are of a particular kind: oppression” (p.310). Rape, molestation and homophobic insults are examples of such oppressive wrongdoings. For, not only is there a long history of these wrongdoings being disproportionately suffered by disempowered groups (such as women, gay people, and children), they also constitute the cruel and/or unjust treatment of the disempowered by the empowered. The point to highlight here is that some wrongdoings (such as rape) can also be instances of other wrongdoings (such as oppression).
As some wrongdoings are also instances of other wrongdoings, they may be graver as a result. For example, although rape is intrinsically an extremely grave act (that is, by its nature, extremely serious), because of extrinsic and contingent factors, such as the role it has played, and continues to play in the oppression of women, it is graver still. If this is correct, then other off-limits wrongdoings, such as homophobic abuse and child molestation, may also be graver in the same way, since they too are instances of oppression.
Can the same be said of our examples of fair-game wrongdoings (murder, stealing, and false imprisonment)? They do not seem, at least not to the same extent (or perhaps in the same way), to be instances of other wrongdoings on par with graveness of systematic and long-standing oppression.
One might argue against this last point, perhaps by pointing out that murder is also an instance of other wrongdoings. For example, murder is a necessary part of mass murder. So perhaps murder is graver as a result. Maybe…but there does seem to be some important differences. For murders are not predominantly instances of mass-murders; whereas, conceivably, rapes are predominately (or at least more often) acts of oppression. Likewise, although undoubtedly murder affects some groups more than others, it seems rape is, and has been, to a far greater extent disproportionately enacted upon women.
These historical features allow us to explain an intuition, and answer a challenge, introduced by Luck (2009a). Namely, why it is that,
…although computer games which entail virtual murder may be socially acceptable, it is doubtful that a game involving, for example, only murdering Jews or homosexuals, would be tolerated. It seems therefore, that unfairly singling out a group for harm is, in itself, additionally harmful. (Luck, p.34)
This additional harm is noticeable as the Jewish and gay communities have both been the victims of oppression, so unfairly singling them out for virtual murder makes the action graver still. In contrast, if the group singled out for harm were, for example, non-disabled people, we probably would not register any additional harm.
We might wish to consider further counter-examples at this juncture. For example, imagine a shooter game where you exclusively murder white Americans as a black American.Footnote 23 Many people would presumably think playing such a game would be impermissible. But it couldn’t be suggested that this is because of a history of black Americans oppressing white Americans. Yet, racially motivated attacks in general may be graver than their counterparts. Perhaps because there is a shameful history of racially motivated attacks. And this reason is compatible with further reasons: perhaps such attacks are also intrinsically worse (conceivably murdering someone because of their race, constitutes both murder and an instance of racism); or perhaps because the game heightens xenophobia in general, cultivating an us-and-them mentality that feeds the view that “black people are threats”.Footnote 24
On this point I should be clear that, although some off-limits wrongdoings (e.g. molestation, rape, and homophobic and anti-Semitic aggression) may be graver than some fair-game wrongdoings (e.g. murder, stealing, and false imprisonment) as they are also instances of oppression, I am not suggesting they are graver only because they are instances of oppression (there may be additional reasons). Nor am I suggesting: that all off-limits wrongdoings are acts of oppression; that all grave wrongdoings are acts of oppressionFootnote 25; or that fair-game wrongdoings (such as murder) aren’t grave (just that off-limit wrongdoings are graver still). My aim here is merely to illustrate one way that some off-limits wrongdoings may be graver than fair-game wrongdoings because of their social context. But off-limits wrongdoings may be graver than fair-game wrongdoings for other reasons. That is, there may be other ways of affecting the graveness of a wrongdoing beyond it being, for example, an instance of oppression.
Another way of affecting the graveness of a wrongdoing may be to do with the passing of time; with the graveness of a wrongdoing decreasing over time. This might help explain the too soon phenomenon in comedy, where some jokes should not be told too soon after the tragic events to which they refer. Perhaps this is because some events are too grave at the time of their occurrence (and for some time afterwards) to treat lightly. And so, by telling a joke about an event too close to its occurrence, one is doing something wrong (like being insensitive or disrespectful). This might explain why virtually murdering people in a computer game as Peter Niers (a German bandit who died in 1581 and reputedly killed over 500 people) might seem less wrong than virtually murdering people as Stephen Paddock (the Las Vegas gunman who killed over 50 people in 2017).
Likewise, perhaps the graveness of a wrongdoing decreases as it is distanced from reality.Footnote 26 For example, a computer game that allows you to play the fictional alien over-lord Zlarg, whose aim is to wipe out other alien races, might be more permissible than a game which allows you to play the fictional German Fuhrer Padolf Pitler, whose aim is to wipe out the Jewish people. Perhaps this is (at least partly) because sometimes the graveness of a fictional wrongdoing increases the more similar it is to a real instance of a wrongdoing. We might call this the too close phenomenon, to mirror the too soon phenomenon.Footnote 27
Furthermore, the graveness of a wrongdoing may depend on who commits it. Kieran gives us an example of this regarding jokes:
We might laugh at or gasp in horror at the same joke depending upon who's telling it and why. Take a joke that relies on assuming the fecklessness of black men. If Chris Rock tells the joke we might laugh but if someone from the Ku Klux Klan tells it we might be appalled.(p.142)
A further example, provided by Davnall (2018), is that of people playing GTA; a game that arguably represents “working class people of colour as violent”(p.7).
There may be reappropriative ways for black people to engage with Grand Theft Auto games, analogous with the reappropriation of slurs...Any white person engaging with these games, though, must be subject to careful scrutiny for the ways in which they contribute to the symbolic reinforcement of racism and class. (p.5)
Davnall’s example helps us to see the possibility that the same act (in this case playing GTA) might be graver when performed by white people. As “a white person playing the game participates in a representation that has historically been used by white people to justify racial discrimination against people of colour”(p.7). In other words, participating in the misrepresentation of people based on their race might be a grave wrongdoing, but it graver still when undertaken by groups that have a long history of systemically benefiting from such acts.
So, to summarize, graveness is sensitive to a number of factors. A wrongdoing might be graver: the more it entails further wrongdoings (like rape being both a sexual attack and an instance of oppression, or a racially motivated murder being both a lethal physical attack and an instance of racism); the more recently it has occurred (like the recent exploits of Stephen Paddock being graver than Peter Niers); the closer it is to an real instance of a wrongdoing (like a game where you play the fictional German Fuhrer Padolf Pitler); if committed by people who have systemically benefited from such a wrongdoing (like the misrepresentation of black people by white people). And there will be further factors than these. The point here is to suggest that the graveness of a wrongdoing can be affected by such factors; factors that we may not notice when wrongdoings are “abstracted from their natural context”(Öhman, 2020, p.133). And once a wrongdoing is sufficiently grave it may become off-limits.
And why is it that treating off-limits wrongdoings lightly is wrong? I am attracted to an explanation from virtue ethics, as is McCormick (2001), Corvino (2002), and Patridge (2013). Corvino offers a theory that might be adapted to explain why treating off-limits wrongdoings lightly is wrong; for treating off-limits wrongdoings lightly involves possessing an attitude to the wrongdoing which is incompatible with a proper appreciation of its graveness. Thus, the action demonstrates a failing of character.Footnote 28 And so, as Partridge suggests, anyone who treats off-limits wrongdoings lightly therefore exposes a flaw in their character (p.312). Which we might register as being disrespectful, ignorant, insensitive, cavalier, or offensive etc.Footnote 29
The aim here has been to provide reason to think that, although one wrongdoing might not be obviously graver than another when we only consider the nature of the wrongdoing itself, it might be graver once we consider other factors (such as: the extent that a wrongdoing is part of another; how long ago the wrongdoing occurred; how similar is it to an real instance of a wrongdoing; and who performed the wrongdoing). And it is because of such factors that off-limits wrongdoings may be graver than fair-game wrongdoings all things considered. And if off-limits wrongdoings are graver, then it is possible they may be too grave to make light of, whereas fair-game wrongdoings might not.
These points are being made in order to support the following argument:
Fair-game wrongdoings are not too grave, and off-limits wrongdoings are too grave.
Treating a wrongdoing lightly is permissible only if the wrongdoing is not too grave.
Fair-game wrongdoings have some property off-limits wrongdoings lack, where treating such wrongdoing lightly is permissible only if they have this property.
Where if this conclusion is true, proposition 2 of the paradox of treating wrongdoing lightly will be false. Which would resolve this paradox and in turn resolve the gamer’s dilemma.