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Do Orcs have a Morality?

March 25, 2013

Yes.  Yes they do.  Now how moral that morality is, is an interesting thing to consider.

This is a question that has been on my mind recently and I want to spend some time on it.  I do note that in searching for others who have answered that question and I found one person, Zach Watkins who also wrote an essay on the subject called “The Morality of Orcs.”  Mr. Watkins’ essay can be found here:  I am sure that his work has influenced my work though I believe that I go into more detail but perhaps I am just being more verbose.

I’ve recently discovered the Age of Wonders video game series.  It is a tough game to be successful at even on easy but I find the environment compelling.  It is a 4x/adventure hybrid game (4x is like the Civilization series while an adventure game is like the Zork series) set in a Tolkienesque world.  The series has twelve species (which are called races for some reason. I’m sure that each species has racial differences amongst its members) latter increased to 15 then 18 and each has an alignment of good, evil or natural.  Some of the standard fantasy species are where one should expect them to be such as (wood) elves and dwarves being good, the humans being natural, and goblins and orcs being evil.

The fact that an entire species would be labeled as evil raises questions for me.  Certainty the orcs wouldn’t view themselves as evil. Right?   It has often been remarked by several sources and I believe it that few people go out into the world thinking “I’m going to do some evil today,” “I’m going to dedicate my life to evil,” or something similar.  People generally try to do good by some definition of good or to at-least rationalize one’s own behavior as good.  So if orcs think that they are doing good (and if so it would be likely that the elves would be doing evil?) then what is that good that they think that they are doing?

Mr. Watkins takes on this issue from three perspectives.  From the perspective of moral relativism, moral absolutism, and a third way that takes that if one acts faithfully in a despicable cause but one believes that the despicable cause is moral then one is acting morally.  The third is a medium between the two where one supposes that an absolute morality exists but respects the ignorance of individual beings as to what that morality is.  I do intend to talk about the issue from the first two perspectives and ultimately allude that they are the same.

The question of morality from the perspective or cultural relativism seams trivial at first glance.  Proponents of cultural relativism note correctly that any functioning society has acceptable and encouraged standards of behavior.  People who violate these cultural standards would need to be punished until they fit them, exiled from society, or killed.  Different societies have stricter or looser standards and punishments but a society that has absolutely no standards of behavior would be interesting to explore the possibility of though ultimately I think that such a society is imposable.  Every society needs some standards and one’s morality is often measured by the extent to which one upholds the standards that society would in general wish itself to have.

This in a sense makes the question moot.  Orc society functions because in both Tolkien’s works and in the above mentioned game there is clear indication of a lasting, established, and intricate orcish society.  This means that the society has standards and thus some morality and that there would be orcs that demonstrate the right standards to be considered moral by other orcs.  This raises the question of what would an orc consider to be moral?

I would like to start answering that question by asking a different question: how would orcs view humans?  We know how humans view orcs because Tolkien described them but if one wants to understand orcs, one cannot only take a human perspective.  TV tropes quotes Warhammer 4000 here: but I’m going to answer the question myself.  The character, Snotgrub, from Warhammer 4000 makes a tangentially appropriate point that orcs probably view humans as repulsive as humans view orcs and orcs probably have as hard a time telling humans apart as humans do orcs.  The same would be true when each other, at first glance at-least, tries to understand the behavior of the other species.

Orcish society seams very hierarchical and that hierarchy seams based on which orcs could kill other orcs.  This makes sense as a lot of species in this world use this standard to set up their hierarchies but orcs do seam bound to their masters.  Sometimes they do so begrudgingly but, unsurprisingly, orcs would have their own form of punishments to coarse adherence to the standards of orcish society.  Humans on the other hand have developed a system of determining hierarchy that involves things other than who could kill whom and humans through at-least written history have been fond of challenging hierarchy.  Orcs would think the nature of human hierarchy is as perverse and chaotic as humans would consider the orcish nature of hierarch ridged and cruel.  Both species have strong traditions of finding morality in the respect of hierarchy but the things that one species finds to be the moral way to practice hierarchy, the other species despises.

Also every description of orcs that I have encountered leads me to believe that orcs deal with conflicts directly, quickly, and with little question as to what the outcome is.  This is much different than human behavior both in this world and in most fantasy worlds.  Humans tend to find complicated ways to resolve conflicts.  This means that it can be a long process to try to resolve a conflict and that a lot of conflicts don’t get resolved at all or there is dispute about the resolution to the dispute.  This also means that many humans often employ, find acceptable, and even laud the morality of dealing with others in a way that one might describe as sneaky.  I would suspect that orcs would find such behavior reprehensible.  Humans may often find settling every dispute with a fistfight to be immoral but orcs may tend to view settling disputes in a way that isn’t the most direct way to be immoral.  This is understandable because, on this point, several humans would agree with the orcs.

I have examined two ways in which orcs might consider themselves morally superior to humans and these alleged beliefs have established backing in philosophies on this world.  Speculating on the full range of orcish morality would be difficult as I am not aware of any Tolkien works written from the perspective of an orc but it would be silly to think that orc society is any less complex than human society.  It is also easy to understand that literature written from the orcs’ enemies perspective wouldn’t necessarily explore this complexity because those enemies would be ignorant of what that perspective is.  How often in this world has one group of humans gone to war with another group without fully understanding the other?  There is still enough evidence to conclude that orcs do have their own moral principles, that they use various social means to encourage those principles, and to have some idea of what some of the principles might be.  One should also note that as humans often act in ways most humans would consider immoral the same should be expected from the orcs and that sometimes someone who acts immorally is rewarded by his or her society for such behavior.

Now the question is: assume that there exists an absolute morality: how well do orcs abide by this absolute morality?  In answering this question, the assumption is that an absolute morality exists and not that one knows what that morality is.  One needs to acknowledge ignorance of what that morality is in order to answer this question.  Mr. Watkins deals with this question succinctly by stating that most people would consider orcs to be far from being considered moral in this circumstance but I suspect that the orcs would disagree.

Orcs can point to behavior that they would claim make them morally superior to the so called fairer species.  I’ve already addressed two of them.  Humans often laud a revolutionary even a failure of one but, in orcish society, I am of the suspicion that if you lead a revolt and fail then you and all of your followers will be killed and if you succeeded the former ruler and everybody who didn’t support you will be killed.  (Modern) humans find such behavior reprehensible but orcs likely find it hard to believe that we would let such deviants, such dangers to a well-run society, live.  There is also the principle, which I share, that if someone is going to hurt another then that person should openly declare why, what he or she is going to do, and then openly do it rather than do these things in secret.

Now in the game, Age of Wonders, orcs have allied themselves with a faction that is trying to exterminate both humans and wood elves and that orcs are mentioned to practice rape and murder in victory during war.  I should note that until a few centuries ago at-most, most human societies considered such practices acceptable in war.  Do I fault the Romans for taking the women of the conquered as part of the spoils of war and for systematically trying to destroy some of the cultures that they conquered?  Yes.  Yes, I do.  I do point out that it is likely that a thousand years ago, most humans wouldn’t and perhaps I wouldn’t fault the Romans.  But I live today and I do consider the orcs immoral for practicing rape and genocide and while the game allows one to play from the perspective of the evil faction, I feel uncomfortable doing so despite my desire to understand evil and despite the fact that fiction is a great tool to try and do so.

In Tolkien’s universe it is important to understand what motivates the behavior of orcs.  The Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings is written from the perspective from the allies and not the shadow powers.  The allies tend to think themselves as good and that they are fighting a pure evil in the shadow powers and they give the conflict a black and white treatment.  This is common behavior during wars throughout human history on this planet.  It is important to remember the conflict that led to the war of the ring in the first place.  It began with Melkor who was one of the first beings in this universe and existed before middle earth.  Before the world was created Melkor dared to think thoughts that were different from those of his colleagues and the effects of the resulting disagreement was that Melkor became Morgoth and rebelled against the consensus of his brethren (the Valar) leading to much strife on middle earth.

The elves are the principle direct agents of the Valar in middle earth and have plenty of questionable ethics themselves.  The elves by and large try to put middle earth into the order they feel is fit whether or not the other species want the position bequeathed to them by the elves.  This, understandably, has led to strained relations between many the elves.  Much of the conflict of middle earth has been done by the agents of the Valar and of Melkor stemming from the first primordial disagreement.  This goes to show that when gods argue, mortals wage epic wars.  The war of the ring, the war between Elrond, heir of Finwë, and Sauron, lieutenant to Morgoth, was part of or at-least a remnant of this conflict between the Valar and Melkor.  It should be noted that Elrond’s daughter Arwen married Aragorn who had a son Eldarion and I believe that the Mouth of Sauron, Sauron’s lieutenant, wasn’t killed in the final battle for the ring leaving the conflict to continue.

This all said, what stake do the orcs have in this conflict?  The shadow powers have shown themselves far more willing than the alliance to tolerate the behavior of the orcs.  The alliance largely views the orcs without any or barley any sympathy, understanding, or acceptance.  They profane the species and often commit atrocities towards them.  The shadow powers do seem to want to keep the orcs in bondage but in a bondage that the orcs can accept.  The shadow powers let the orcs be orcs, provide an environment suited to the species in which it can thrive, and allow the orcs to manage their own societies.  All the masters ask in return is that the orc chieftains provide allegiance to their masters but, as stated above, the orcs likely find such to be a moral virtue.  The orcs act oppressively to other species that they can dominate but the orcs are oppressed themselves especially by the allied powers and even by the shadow powers.  I am reminded of a lesson from human history on this planet which is that when an oppressed people suddenly find themselves to be the masters, they tend (but aren’t always) to be bigger oppressors than the former masters.  In any case, intentional or not, the orcs are fighting for allowing variety of thought amongst the gods of their universe.  I don’t know enough about the Valar to know if this is a good cause or an evil cause.  Also, from the orcs perspective, the orcs are fighting for a world which they find comfortable and it is hard to fault a people for not doing the best they can to satisfy their needs.

It should also be noted that these aren’t different races that we are talking about but rather different species.  There are clear similarities but the difference in physiology and psychology between orc and human and elf are far greater than exist between any two human races in this world.  What can be oppressive and cruel behavior to a human can be comfortable behavior to an orc.  Tolkien was a master of many things but I don’t know of much of what he wrote that would really illuminate the biology of middle earth.  This further exacerbates our ignorance of trying to answer the question of morality because there is a real possibility that due to the different psychology of the different species that punishing an orc with violence for a wrong doing could be more torturous to the wrongdoer than letting the offence slide.

Another thing to note is that the Tolkien works and most derivative works are set to medieval European culture (there should be more fantasy set in industrializing or post industrializing societies.  Steampunk has the industrializing societies down and I do enjoy it but I want a society in which there are elven basketball players and orcish lawyers).  This isn’t a society that is big on recognizing or respecting cultural differences no matter whatever reason the differences occur.  I know that I’m grossly oversimplifying; some medieval European cultures were accepting of others.  One shouldn’t expect elves or humans or especially dwarves to try and understand why the orcs do what they do from the orc perspective and thus we shouldn’t expect such a nuanced view from Tolkien’s main works.

That said, middle earth will one day industrialize.  Some species may willingly or not go extinct before the industrialization process is completed and we only have the history of one planet going through industrialization and one data point has zero statistical significance but at some point one should expect that human and orcish societies would integrate.  There may be limitations on how much integration can occur due to species (and not racial) differences but at some point in an industrialized society, if Earth is a model and not an exception, a good degree of integration would have to occur and this would bring challenges.  One may not want human and orc first graders in the same class but in the same school might work.  Integrating an overall set of social standards and thus integrating a morality (even if such integration allows for deviations in the sub-cultures as our cultures do) would be a big part of the challenge.

Age of Wonders provides another interesting situation.  The backstory to the game is that for the first thousand years of creation  elves ruled the world (the blessed continent) and managed the world’s species from the exclusive Valley of Wonders.  Then humans came and they didn’t like the position given to them by the elves and thus they made war on the elves.  During this war elvish society was nearly annihilated, the king of a thousand years was killed, and humans claimed the Valley of Wonders as their own.  This split elves into wood elves and dark elves and caused a great deal less order on the Blessed Continent.  During this period of increased freedom, the humans thrived and threatened to displace all other species.

Thus, in the video game, humans as a species are the biggest villains which is unusual and refreshing.  Wood elves lead the good faction that wants to return elvish peace to the Valley of Wonders but preserve and reform humanity while dark elves lead the evil faction that wants to restore the elvish court as it was and exterminate humans and wood elves in the process.  There are more radical elements of each side too.  In the way this is presented, I  have no problems calling the wood elf faction good and the dark elf faction evil but that is based on my own guess as to what the before mentioned absolute morality is.  I expect that from an orc’s perspective that the wood elf faction is evil and the dark elf faction is good.  The orcs after all do support the dark elves in their quest.

In closing I stick by my initial answer: yes, the orcs do have a morality.  They have a moral code that is a non-exclusive influence on their behavior and just as we judge orcs by our standards of morality, it is likely that orcs judge our behavior by their standards of morality and neither judgment is likely to be good.  I do think there exists an absolute morality and despite the time I spend trying to better my guess as to what that is, it is still a guess and I cannot objectively claim that my guess is better than anyone else’s even an orc’s.  Also, if such universes actually exist, orcs have more virtue than most works of fiction give them.


One Comment
  1. Tolkien fought in World War I as a very reluctant recruit, I wonder if that experience affected the decision to write the orcs as unambiguously evil. During the war, the Germans were painted in England as pure evil monsters, and then the war ended and everyone suddenly remembered that “we’re all just people” and that the Germans are basically OK. Maybe seeing all his friends die fighting an enemy that didn’t turn out to be irredeemably evil (LotR was written in the 20s and 30s IIRC) made Tolkien want to create a fictional enemy that was.

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