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In Eberron, airships can be powered by bound elementals. This seems like a form of slavery or torture for a potentially sentient creature. A creature that is intelligent enough to have a language might be sapient enough to understand that it is being held captive. Is there anything in the loreworks that shows this dilemma? Is it different in different settings, like Eberron vs. Faerun vs. Greyhawk?

My personal thoughts are that it's either slave labor of a less developed race, or akin to a beast of burden, and might just be a cultural taboo or just accepted as the status quo because nobody knows any better.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Is there more beyond intelligence, language, and alignment that leads you to believe that, for instance, elementals don't want to fly/dig/burn/swim all the time? An elemental might be really happy doing all the time what a human might find incredibly boring. \$\endgroup\$ Oct 3, 2022 at 17:29
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    \$\begingroup\$ I think this question could be trimmed down to avoid D&D alignment implications, which would make it on topic. Asking "What are the ethical implications of using elementals as a power source?" is a question about lore and mechanics. It's only when you add "and what does that mean for alignment?" that you get into the peculiar hell that is D&D's alignment system. \$\endgroup\$
    – fectin
    Oct 3, 2022 at 19:07
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    \$\begingroup\$ @fectin Unfortunately, questions about ethics, divorced from specific RPGs' mechanics and lore, would be both off-topic and opinion-based. \$\endgroup\$
    – GMJoe
    Oct 3, 2022 at 21:30
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    \$\begingroup\$ I think this can easily be a valid question if asked from a lore perspective rather than alignment. There may be sourcebooks or novels where the ethics of this kind of behaviour are discussed, or at least we might be able to distil some personality types who do this, or the likes and motivations of elementals. \$\endgroup\$
    – SeriousBri
    Oct 4, 2022 at 11:39
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    \$\begingroup\$ @SeriousBri Definitely yes. There are parts of Eberron lore that explicitly deal with this very question. \$\endgroup\$
    – screamline
    Oct 4, 2022 at 13:57

2 Answers 2

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The Ashbound druids object to the use of elementals, but that seems to be it.

Khorvaire has "five well-established paths" defining druids, and one in particular, the Ashbound, are said to work to free bound elementals:

Ashbound


The Ashbound defend the natural world from anything that threatens it. Some Ashbound consider civilization to be a threat and strike at any settlement that encroaches on the wild. Others focus their wrath on the dragonmarked houses or seek to free bound elementals.

-Eberron: Rising from the Last War, pg. 149

Binding elementals is ubiquitous throughout the society of Khorvaire; elemental powered vehicles are the backbone of transportation, from air elemental powered sky ships to the famous Lightning Rail. Throughout Eberron: Rising from the Last War, the only mention of anyone objecting to the use of elementals is this brief paragraph on the Ashbound druids.

So as it is in real life, different people groups uphold different standards of ethics - most people in Khorvaire have no problem enslaving elementals, but there are some that do. So we cannot really answer the question exactly as it is written. We must ask, "ethical according to who?"

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Perhaps worth noting that, in addition to the Ashbound who represent the radical position, there's also the Power of Purity (described in Magic of Eberron) who represent a pragmatic position -- viz., that elemental binding is more effective when done via negotiation with elementals. FWIW Keith Baker has mused that the Power of Purity work for "more humane" binding methods. \$\endgroup\$
    – screamline
    Oct 5, 2022 at 1:33
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By default, elementals do not appear to be sapient creatures.

I think before considering the lore of the Eberron setting, we should look at the lore of D&D as a whole. What the Monster Manual says is considered to be true in all settings unless the setting itself specifically contradicts it. While an elemental is slightly smarter than most animals, the Monster Manual describes them this way (MM p.123):

On its home plane, an elemental is a bodiless life force. Its dim consciousness manifests as a physical shape only when focused by the power of magic. A wild spirit of elemental force has no desire except to course through the element of its native plane. Like beasts of the Material Plane, these elemental spirits have no society or culture, and little sense of being.

In addition, the section on creature types (MM p.6) says

Elementals... Some creatures of this type are little more than animate masses of their respective elements, including the creatures simply called elementals.

The Monster Manual seems to be going out of its way to say that elementals aren't sapient creatures, but just slightly willful blobs of elemental energy. Binding one into an elemental vessel is, arguably, merely returning it to the form it takes in its home plane. In any case, the monster manual says they don't really have a sense of self, which sounds like a functionally animal mind to me. (This is all referring only to the abstract elemental creatures that are actually called "Fire Elemental" or whatever; I'm not addressing creatures of the elemental type that are definitely sapient creatures, such as xorns, mephits, or efreet.)

I think the comparison to a trained animal is pretty apt. It's probably important to note that while most beasts have an intelligence score of 2 or 3, there's no rule anywhere that specifies a maximum "animal intelligence" (as there was in 3rd edition). Many creatures that we would think of as simple monsters have INT scores as high as an Elemental's, including Displacer Beasts and Wyverns.

Eberron doesn't say much on the matter.

All that said, there doesn't seem to be a particular statement in any of the Eberron books that directly addresses this point. Clearly elemental binding is considered ordinary and unproblematic to most of Khorvaire, but there are plenty of real-world examples of what we would consider unethical behavior being considered ordinary and unremarkable in another culture.

There are some Ashbound druids who attempt to free bound elementals, but the Ashbound are explicitly fanatics who "consider arcane and divine magic to be unnatural" and "strike at farms and ranches that attempt to confine or cultivate nature" (D&D 3.5e Eberron Campaign Setting, p.75), so they seem less specifically concerned about the rights of elementals than about the use of any form of technology or arcane power.

The people of Khorvaire as a whole don't seem to be concerned about elemental binding, so as far as the setting goes, it seems to be a non-issue.

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    \$\begingroup\$ While the observations you make are relevant, you are making assumptions about a certain ethic in your answer, particularly when you say, "concerns about an elemental's free will are probably unnecessary." Without citing a particular in-universe ethical standard, I think this is just your opinion. \$\endgroup\$ Oct 4, 2022 at 18:16
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    \$\begingroup\$ I would say "no society or culture, and little sense of being" is the rule book going out of its way to be specific that elementals shouldn't be considered individuals. \$\endgroup\$ Oct 4, 2022 at 18:35
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    \$\begingroup\$ Sure, but you're still assuming that is a particular criterion of some ethical standard, and you haven't said what that standard is. \$\endgroup\$ Oct 4, 2022 at 18:48
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    \$\begingroup\$ @ThomasMarkov I am not sure turning answers into essays on ethics is really useful. It is barely even in the question any more. \$\endgroup\$
    – SeriousBri
    Oct 4, 2022 at 19:24
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    \$\begingroup\$ @SeriousBri I agree, which is why I havent said anything to that effect. The question asks if it is ethical in Eberron, and answering that question requires referencing the established societal and/or cultural ethics of the societies in Eberron. This answer doesn't do that. This answer is ethics according to Darth, not ethics according to Eberron. \$\endgroup\$ Oct 4, 2022 at 19:28

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