Like many people, I like fiction. When reading a science fiction or fantasy novel, I am especially interested in worldbuilding (the process of constructing an imaginary world). What fantasy creatures live in some imaginary universe? How do they behave? How different species interact with each other? What kind of awesome technology or magic is there? What about the geography, the planet itself, the physical laws that govern the universe?
For me internal consistency is extremely important. For example, if some advanced technology or magic exists, I won’t like it when a protagonist gets the idiot ball and conveniently forgets to use their superpower in some scenario where it could have solved their problem much more easily compared to that arduous and lengthy trip to some distant volcano. I also like when writers think carefully about the full implications that would arise from some magical power, technology, protagonists cohabiting with some imaginary species of living beings, etc.
This time, I will discuss the Pokémon world and the relationships between people and Pokémon in it. For those unfamiliar with Pokémon (are there still any?), here’s the short explanation: Pokémon are animal-like fantasy creatures with supernatural powers. Some of the people who share the same planet with these creatures are Pokémon trainers. They forcefully capture these beings from their wild habitats and make them battle each other in the arena for sport. At first glance, the premise sounds like animal abuse. This makes Pokémon universe a perfect example for discussing the ethics of interspecies relationships in fantasy universes.
Unless you want to create a dystopian universe with villain protagonists, there are two mutually exclusive approaches to characterizing human-Pokémon interactions.
Option #1. Pokémon have human-level intelligence
Most Pokémon understand human speech fully and directly. Nonetheless, most Pokémon species cannot produce speech that would sound like any human language, because their vocal tracts are shaped differently. In general, people and Pokémon communicate with a sign language. Some Pokémon work as translators, who facilitate communication between humans and those Pokémon species that lack limbs making communication in generic sign language difficult for them. Or maybe there’s some technology that allows people and Pokémon to communicate. Or telepathy. Whatever, you can invent whatever you like.
Relationships between trainers and their Pokémon are similar to those between human athletes and their coaches/trainers. Trainers aren’t masters and Pokémon aren’t subordinates expected to obey every command. Trainers seek the most promising Pokémon to train and Pokémon look for the most suitable trainer. Agreements to cooperate are mutual; a trainer cannot just kidnap some Pokémon from their home. A Pokémon can leave their trainer at any point for any reason. Poké Ball usage is strictly limited by various laws. A trainer cannot put a Pokémon inside a Poké Ball without a signed contract that states for how long and under what conditions a Pokémon can be placed inside a ball.
Humans are vegans and do not eat Pokémon meat. Trainers cannot choose a mating partner for their Pokémon. Pokémon are not bread in ranches.
If Pokémon have human-level intelligence, they are essentially people, merely with differently shaped bodies. Thus they get all the human rights and must be treated as people in universe. Humans can be allowed to kill a Pokémon only for self defense.
Option #2. Pokémon are animals with superpowers
If Pokémon have animal-level intelligence, they are essentially animals. People can capture them from their homes in the wilderness, humans can own and trade them, and they can train them like a human would train a dog or a horse in the real world. People can breed and eat Pokémon, they can keep them as pets that aren’t treated as equals and given full autonomy.
Mixing and matching
If Pokémon have animal-level intelligence and they are treated better compared to how humans treat animals in the real world, that’s fine. Choosing not to eat animals does not make a fictional protagonist into a villain, in fact it can be a positive trait that showcases some protagonist’s empathy. But giving Pokémon human-level intelligence and treating them like animals creates a dystopian society and turns some protagonist, presumably a Pokémon trainer, into a villain protagonist. Then a story revolves around slavery. Of course, it is also possible to create a universe in which some Pokémon species are more intelligent than others. In such case it could be ethically permissible to eat Magikarp (a fish Pokémon, basically a carp that can jump really high) but not Alakazam (a humanoid psychic creature renowned for its high intelligence among Pokémon).
How do you justify Pokémon battling for sport?
Now this is where worldbuilding gets tough. In the real world, cockfights, dogfighting, or bullfighting are utterly horrifying. How do you justify Pokémon battles without creating a dystopian society and turning humans into villains?
If Pokémon have human-level intelligence, it is simple enough. Just like a human can consent to getting beaten up in the boxing ring, an intelligent being of some different species could also choose to participate in fights for the sake of sport. In fact, just because Pokémon are intelligent doesn’t mean that they need to be creatures with essentially human brains placed into differently shaped bodies. Pokémon could have a different set of morals, different social structures, different values, different lifestyles, and you could come up with some kind of Pokémon cultural norms that encourage fighting as a sport.
If Pokémon have animal-level intelligence, then how do you justify trainers making their pets fight against each other? Actually, I can think of two potential excuses.
(1) Pokémon possess strong instincts that urge them to fight against each other. Fighting is essential for proper development of a young Pokémon. In fact, if trainers forbid their Pokémon from fighting, they get nervous, anxious, easily agitated, after a while their mental health deteriorates, they can even lose appetite and become apathetic towards their surroundings. Only a few species of Pokémon, many of those being commonly kept as household pets by non-trainers, can thrive without fighting on a regular basis during specific life-stages.
(2) Pokémon are dangerous. A Charizard (a fire-breathing lizard/dragon) can burn a human alive in a couple of seconds. A Pikachu (an electric mouse) can kill half a dozen people with a single electric shock. Daily life is hard and dangerous for people who share the planet with Pokémon. Bullets fired from a gun might kill a Rattata (a purple rat), but they are useless for protection against stronger Pokémon that have tough hides, psychic abilities, and many other defense adaptations.
Most people live in cities with defensive walls that separate human settlements from the wilderness that’s inhabited by these dangerous beasts. Nonetheless, flying Pokémon can just fly over any wall. Burrowing Pokémon can dig under it. The only way how humans can protect themselves from getting killed by wild Pokémon is by capturing and training some Pokémon as their bodyguards. Trainer battles in the arena exist, because this way people can train their captive Pokémon to obey commands and fight against other Pokémon on demand. Fighting skills and obedience to orders during battles are honed in captive Pokémon so that they could protect humans from wild Pokémon that could otherwise kill them.
To make the fighting less brutal and more palatable for fans who bother to think about ethics, you can also establish that Pokémon do not get seriously injured in these fights. They are fantasy species, thus you can make them less sensitive to pain and give their bodies regenerative abilities that allow enhanced healing. Or maybe human technology and medicine has advanced so far that any Pokémon injuries can be easily healed.
Avoiding the Stockholm syndrome
The Stockholm syndrome occurs when hostages or abuse victims bond with their captors or abusers and develop an emotional connection with them during some period of captivity or abuse.
If Pokémon have human-level intelligence, trainers simply cannot catch them. Period. In the Pokémon anime (which portrays Pokémon as rather intelligent beings) there have been plenty of cases in which a trainer captured some Pokémon that didn’t want to be caught. Basically, then kidnapped an intelligent being from their home and family. At first the Pokémon was disobedient and unruly but after a while they became friends with their new trainer and started obeying their trainer’s orders. Anime portrayed such cases as heartwarming—both trainer and their Pokémon found a close friend. In reality, those were just sickening cases of the Stockholm syndrome kicking in.
In my case, I can read books or watch movies or play video games that feature murder, kidnapping, slavery, rape, domestic abuse, etc. horrors as long as these actions are portrayed realistically as the horrors they are. But what utterly sickens me as a viewer are instances of these horrors being portrayed positively. Romance novels in which domestic abuse is portrayed as beautiful (example: Fifty Shades). Romance novels that portray kidnapping and rape as romantic. Or media that portray kidnapping and enslavement of intelligent beings as “friendship.”
If Pokémon have animal-level intelligence, their ability to consent to things becomes rather limited. After all, when a human adopts a dog from an animal shelter, we won’t call that “kidnapping” even though a dog didn’t consent to being taken somewhere else. Nor can we talk about the Stockholm syndrome when after a while this dog becomes best friends with their new owner.
But even if Pokémon are animals, you still need some justification for capturing them and taking them away from their wild habitats. “Got to catch them all” is a flimsy justification if afterwards a trainer plans to just discard their unwanted Pokémon. Capturing wild Pokémon for scientific research? OK fine, that could be reasonable if scientists treat caught Pokémon ethically and don’t harm wild populations. Acquiring bodyguards that can protect humanity from wild Pokémon attacks? OK, fine with me. Or maybe humans have damaged natural ecosystems thus causing a population explosion among some Pokémon species. Or maybe some Pokémon are an invasive species that disturbs the ecosystem.
Thinking about interspecies relations in fictional universes
It’s interesting how authors commonly fail to carefully consider how different species will (fail to) get along in their fictional universes. In the case of Pokémon, people who own the franchise seem to be intentionally vague and contradictory about how intelligent these creatures are and how exactly trainers treat them. In the anime, Pokémon are generally portrayed as possessing human-level intelligence (yet they are still treated as animals by the human protagonists in various contexts). Meanwhile, the games sometimes suggest that at least some species have animal-level intelligence. For example, games state about Houndour (a fire-breathing dog) that, “It is smart enough to hunt in packs. It uses a variety of cries for communicating with others.” If being able to hunt in packs is called “smart,” it sounds like Houndour are just dogs with superpowers.
Why am I writing about this now? Well, to begin with, I am the generation that grew up with Pokémon anime and games. I loved Pokémon as a kid. And then at some point I started wondering about the ethics of the whole premise. Humans kidnap wild animals from their homes and force them to fight against each other? Wait a minute… It’s fascinating how a kid can fail to notice some glaring ethical issues in their favorite game.
But the main reason why I am discussing Pokémon right now is because the same issue pops up in fiction everywhere. Those stories in which a group of brave heroes go on a journey to kill a dragon? Wait a minute, what justification do they have for slaying a dragon? Oh, they want to kill a dragon just because its skin is very valuable in-universe. What a great reason for killing animals! The author has unintentionally created villain protagonists. Those stories in which human protagonists kill demons or some kind of supernatural monsters just because they are a different species? Where’s the in-universe justification that a peaceful cohabitation with these creatures is absolutely impossible? Those stories in which some creatures (trolls, goblins, etc.) are abused by people just because they are ugly and don’t feel like kissing protagonists’ boots?
In fictional universes authors generally include humans as one of the species and have a human protagonist. Why? Go figure. (OK, actually there are some storytelling reasons.) In such cases, there are two questions that an author must answer: (1) how do people in general treat other species in this universe; (2) how do protagonists treat other species in this universe. I separate these two questions, because it is possible to create a dystopian fictional universe in which most humans are genocidal bigots but protagonists disagree with such attitudes and try to protect members of other species instead.
To give an example, in the Harry Potter universe there are countless species of various fantasy creatures, and wizards tend to treat them pretty terribly. What does this say about the wizard society? Nothing good.
By the way, writers commonly justify bigotry towards other species by indicating that there have been wars in the past and members of this species have killed humans before. Simultaneously, they also fail to establish that the war wasn’t caused by human greed and that these other creatures weren’t merely trying to defend their homes.
Bigotry, genocides, discrimination, slavery, and speciesism in fictional universes are interesting topics to ponder about. The kind of fantasy universes writers create are a fascinating mirror that displays a reflection of the kind of bigoted attitudes humans have in real life.
Also, in case among my readers there is anybody who enjoys rational fiction, there exists a Pokémon fanfic that tries to portray the Pokémon world in a way that is logically consistent. They have created a world in which Pokémon are dangerous animals with superpowers and cause human deaths on a regular basis.