“Some vices miss what is right because they are deficient, others because they are excessive, in feelings or in actions, while virtue finds and chooses the mean.”
— Aristotle, “Nichomachean Ethics”, Datalinks
Ethical Calculus is a second-tier exploration technology. It depends on Social Psych and enables the faction to build Children’s Creches in their bases (which increase the population growth rate of the base) and enables the adoption of a Democratic social model. Democracy, in the game, increases efficiency and growth at the expense of increasing unit support costs.
These strengths and weaknesses, combined with the other social choices, lead to some interesting gameplay implications. For instance, Democracy synergizes well with all three economic models. When running Planned, the efficiency bonus cancels out the penalty from central planning, which enables excellent population growth and good industrial production. When running a Free Market economy, the efficiency bonus mitigates energy loss from far-flung bases, so there’s some good synergy there. And when running a Green economy, the democratic growth bonus cancels out the growth penalty, enabling maximum efficiency along with a high Planet score. For many factions, this means that Democracy is the one right political choice when not at war.
As for the quote, I must admit that when the game first came out, Ethical Calculus was the future technology that seemed the most absurd. I mean, it has to mean that people have generated a brand-new mathematical science of ethics that yields quantifiable answers to ethical conundrums. That seems pretty impossible. And why would you possibly need something like that in order to unlock Democracy? Most countries nowadays have something resembling democracy right now, in real life, and it’s working out all right.
But, in thinking about it, I think Reynolds deserves some more credit here than I was previously willing to give him. In practice, democracy has a lot of problems. Virtually everyone, no matter where they might fall on the political spectrum, agrees that democracy has a key flaw: terrible ideas are often popular. In that case, the system needs to do something other than just blindly put these terrible ideas into practice.
But what if we really did have a science of ethics? And that science told us exactly how we should weight public opinion, minority rights, and private interests? Well, then, suddenly a democratic system of government would be a lot more appealing. As would giving up children to be raised by the state in creches. It’s analogous to how having powerful enough computer programs makes a centrally planned economy a lot more plausible.
I think this points toward the genius of SMAC as envisioned as a clash of philosophies. Each one gets to put its best foot forward; there aren’t any strawman arguments here. At the same time, there are tradeoffs presented. Even at their best, they aren’t all the just the same thing. That adds to the feeling that there are real stakes at play here.