The Ethics of Pokémon Battles

This post started out as a joke that would have been published on April 1. Originally I was going to ironically argue that the Pokémon franchise was an allegory for why unregulated labor markets are good, sort of in response to a Pokémon philosophy video that Philosophy Tube made three years ago. However, I was deeply unhappy with the end result of my work. But rather than let it go to waste, I’ve repurposed the post to talk about the ethics of Pokémon battling in light of Earth Day since PETA believes that Pokémon portrays and promotes animal cruelty.

I’ll spend most of the post going over why Pokémon training and battling are seen as ethical within the world of Pokémon, and what a genuine ethical critique of Pokémon battles would require.

Welcome to the world of Pokémon

If you’re reading this post, I’m assuming you know something about the Pokémon franchise. Maybe you played the first set of games for the Gameboy in the 90s, or watched the main anime. If you were a huge fan, maybe you read the Viz translations of the Pokémon Special manga (I’m definitely showing my age here). But the Pokémon universe is a massive sprawling beast with over two decade’s worth of games, multiple television series, many comic books and other media, each with different continuities and contradictory facts about the Pokémon world. So to simplify things we’re going to point to commonalities that are, as far as I know, true of all portrayals of the Pokémon world. And yes… this includes that weird manga where humans transform into Pokémon if anyone’s asking:

  1. The Pokémon world is one that creatures called Pokémon inhabit. This may or may not be alongside “real” animals in some cases, although this isn’t directly relevant.
  2. Humans and Pokémon interact in a number of ways. However Pokémon battles, which are fighting competitions involving human trainers commanding teams of Pokémon which they’ve captured and tamed, is the dominant mode of Pokémon-human relations.

With that prefacing our conversation we can begin the discussion in earnest.

Pokémon has often been compared to dogfighting and other forms of real world animal cruelty. Superficially these criticisms make sense, but it’s clear that there are facts about the Pokémon world which make Pokémon battling distinct from any comparable activity involving animals in the real world. Again, these facts are true of all portrayals of the Pokémon world as far as I know.

First, Pokémon enjoy training and battling and most Pokémon battles appear to occur with the consent of the participating Pokémon. Nearly every iteration of the franchise makes this apparent, though, there are of course exceptions when it comes to specific individual Pokémon, such as those captured by criminal organizations like Team Rocket. Still, it’s generally the case that Pokémon like to battle. What is less clear is where this need to battle comes from and how it developed.

Second, and most importantly, Pokémon battling (and more generally the act of training Pokémon) is a highly, highly regulated activity which, much like a sport, has very clearly defined rules that are apparent to both Pokémon and humans. In the instances we see Pokémon trainers disregarding these rules, these individuals are shamed and ostracized.

These points are given further consideration below.

I wanna be the very best

Competition is clearly one of the driving forces of the Pokémon world. But it seems that Pokémon don’t simply want to better themselves as a matter of survival (some portrayals of the Pokémon universe do suggest that humans eat Pokémon and that Pokémon in turn eat each other, if not other animals, implying that adaptive fitness could be a driving force for Pokémon). Across all media, Pokémon are consistently shown seeking out what they deem to be strong trainers. Several of the Pokémon captured by Ash Ketchum/Satoshi and Red of the anime and Pokémon Special manga respectively are befriended before capture. The core video game series illustrates this tendency of Pokémon to seek humans by having wild Pokémon suddenly attack the player’s character party while traversing the world. Given the mechanics of role playing games, it shouldn’t necessarily be taken as a given that Pokémon initiate all encounters with humans – other mediums demonstrate this isn’t always the case – but the idea that Pokémon training is an enterprise that wholesale separates Pokémon families and destroys ecosystems is not at all substantiated by the franchise. In fact, the first episode of the anime shows us that wild Pokémon are sometimes jealous of trainers and their Pokémon, suggesting that Pokémon understand the benefits of human training and could have reason to seek out humans.

You teach me and I’ll teach you

As suggested above, in many instances, Pokémon are not averse to capture by humans with capture either occurring after a trainer establishes friendship or demonstrates strength in a battle with a wild Pokémon. What I want to argue is that Pokémon, like the humans in their world, and like us, the audience consuming Pokémon media, have the capacity for self-driven, goal oriented action. Like anyone driven towards a goal, Pokémon seek out resources to help them obtain the ends they desire. This tendency is best described through the language of teleology which focuses on essences, explanations, and reasons.

Some philosophers, like Aristotle, believed that teleology was an important aspect of metaphysics. For Aristotle, the concept of “telos” was one that was relevant in both the natural world and society. Telos, best translated as “ends” or “goal” is the state of affairs or purpose that some organism or activity strives for. Aristotle would say that the telos of medicine is health, the telos of an eye is sight, and that the telos of a cup is to hold a beverage.

While teleological accounts of metaphysics and the natural world have fallen out of favor, they very much so are effective at describing the Pokémon world. Pokémon can best be described as having a telos for acquiring strength, and it appears as if they were almost made to do so. For example, a Pokémon’s very ability to reach biological maturity (Pokémon evolution) depends on the amount of combat experience they gain, and this is usually most efficiently done under the care of a human trainer. Furthermore, some species of Pokémon actually can’t evolve at all without human interaction or exposure to specific human technologies.

This means that Pokémon battling isn’t simply a fun activity for the sake of human entertainment, it’s ontologically embedded into the core of the Pokémon universe and is an essential part of a Pokémon’s wellbeing, regardless of if a Pokémon lives in the wild or under the care of a trainer. We know, of course, the extradiegetic or Doylist reason for this is that Pokémon are made by game designers for a competitive monster battling series. In the Pokémon world, though, it’s not exactly clear why this is.

The ethical nuances of the Pokémon world

The facts mentioned above are in no way meant to justify every portrayal of Pokémon battling, indeed as alluded to, the franchise often contrasts “good” Pokémon training from bad examples. The key difference separating good and bad trainers is that good trainers have the consent of their Pokémon. Pokémon actually have the ability to refuse battle and this has been shown within the franchise. Additionally, good trainers follow a sort of etiquette around training Pokémon. While these rules are not formally listed anywhere, the etiquette basically breaks down into behaviors that minimize harm, like not making a Pokémon battle past the point it is willing to.

This means that the Pokémon franchise effectively levels its own critiques at Pokémon abuse. So if we want to say that, more broadly, the institution of Pokémon training in-universe harms Pokémon we’d have to develop a critique that established a more rigorous definition of harm. Our critique would have to take into account that many Pokémon consent to battles, that many (but not all) trainers respect the  limits of their Pokémon, and that many Pokémon gain tangible benefits that presumably satisfy deep biological needs when they’re trained. Of course, systems involving consent aren’t necessarily free from ethical complications and there are tons of issues that can emerge under such conditions. Questions of whether or not consent in the Pokémon world is fully informed or fully free might be valid places to start with an ethical critique of the Pokémon world.