The Ethics of the Imperium of Man

As a mature group I have noticed some people have trouble getting into the setting of this roleplaying game because the player characters are working for a cross between the oppressive theocracies of the dark ages and the Soviets – not exactly Camelot for those seeking a medieval fantasy feeling sci-fi setting.
I honestly feel the setting material is actually fairly well written and should be looked at from a different light than the various table top and computer games (which exist to make money naturally). Certainly the Imperium doesn’t fit in with our modern sensibilities in most respects but it should be given some slack for the following reasons:


Actors always say that when they are playing a bad guy, they start by trying to find a way to be sympathetic to his position. No one ever thinks of themselves as a ‘bad guy’ and even if you think these agents of the Imperium are evil, you won’t be able to take on the challenge of playing them convincingly unless you can ‘get inside their head’. Imperial agents don’t think they are evil – they believe what they are doing is just, righteous, and holy. They have their reasons and they are often darn good reasons as well, based on a core ideology of wider human survival in the galaxy. Indeed, the Imperium cannot rightly be called evil by us in the modern world because it is such a distant, far flung and alien reality to our own.


Most sci-fi settings take place in possible futures just a few centuries ahead of our own – and tend to project our modern stereotypes, concerns and fears. Dark Heresy takes place forty thousand years in the future. Even Dune was only around ten thousand years in the future!
The people in the Imperium have never heard of Confucious, Buddha, Thomas Jefferson or Jesus. Their myriad culture has gone through more incarnations over periods of time longer than our entire recorded history: it is natural that the setting will feel alien to us. This would certainly include their ethics and ideologies. Yes this will give you a fish-out-of-water feeling but this is exactly how it should feel to a 21st Century human.


In the Dark Heresy universe, mankind went to the stars and found it to be cruel Darwinian feast of unimaginable competition and death. There were no tribbles or ET – even the Borg would have trouble in such a reality, a reality where entities exist that can consume entire planets. In such a reality the only choice for humanity would be to band together to face any onslaught. This is exactly what the Imperium represents – for any Imperial world under threat can be sure of only one thing…when help is needed it is given. Even feudal worlds with little in the way of tithes have been protected by the might of the Imperial Navy and where needed, the untold billions that make up the Imperial Guard and it’s myriad armies.

Harsh environments of high competition have tended to produce powerful and treacherous predators in natural history. In human history, we have found that cultures in harsher environments tend to develop harsher ideas about the world and more extreme perspectives on life, death, and conflict. Even in short term emergencies of violence or disaster, we usually consider it normal and appropriate to declare Marshal law and enforce more extreme measures. Imagine this on a galactic scale lasting for tens of thousands of years and the effect it would have on the majority of people exposed to it generation after generation. Individual life would be cheaper, the whole would be more important and “benign cruelty” would be the norm.
Individuals born to such a world turn their attention to some kind of ideal they can know will transcend the cruelty of it all. Try to imagine growing up in that world, and being taught these perspectives all your life when you get into character.


In the past, whole civilizations believed that the Emperor was divine and maintained their well being. Since discovering that was a load of humbug designed to serve the greedy interests of those in power, we rightfully baulk at such Empires today, and the concept of emperor worship especially. Furthermore, we have learned important lessons about the value of pluralistic democratic government.

We might imagine alternatives like the planetary representative style government of Star Wars’ Old Republic. But where Star Wars had thousands of worlds, The Imperium of man has at least 15-20 million worlds under it’s control. Add to that the fact that travel across the Imperium is much slower, and communications uncertain. A centralized form of government and society becomes the a workable option.

And unto this, the Imperium has a wild card up it’s sleeve which trumps any God Emperor of the past. The Emperor of man is actually real, he exists and he serves as a beacon upon which all ships in the Empire may navigate far more safely and accurately than without. If the Emperor goes the Imperium would fragment, many worlds to be picked off by the many enemies of humanity.

Further, the Imperium is actually not as invasive as it might seem. It asks only for tithes (taxes) to support the Imperium, and otherwise leaves planets to have the governments they will – even democratic ones if that doesn’t go against the Imperial Creed and affect tithes. These tithes are used to fund the military and government. In this regard the Imperium would be less intrusive than most modern Democratic governments.


Things like monitoring people and containing technology may be necessary in a world where a city-levelling bomb can be cheaply made, and carried on a necklace. There are outside threats that would love to get their hands on the highest, most secretive levels of human technology. Keeping tight control over technology would seem unavoidable for the continuation of any civilization that level of advancement and the circumstances.

From a complex systems point-of-view, even the smallest diversions in a system can have profound effects down the line. Extremity it many areas (from punishments, to regulations, to ways of life) becomes necessary when dealing with such long distances over such vast periods of time. Playing loose with rules, with our genetics, and so on can lead to drastically unpredictable results when looking at the course of history over the centuries and could lead to chaos (quite literally and without pun), which would spell doom for humanity.

Part of those rigid rules require that certain principles be held in the utmost reverence. among them, the primacy of the emperor, the rigid enforcement against threats to humanity, and the willingness to fight for the survival of humanity. Given their non-supernatural views, the language of religion and worship might easily find their way into the place of representing these most revered principles, essential to survival of all mankind.


Maybe those in power are just scaring people with overblown rhetoric about threats to humanity in order to maintain the system through fear. Maybe the galaxy isn’t all that bad?

If not, then maybe there are other ways. Maybe some sort of pluralistic confederacy or other system might be able to allow humanity to band together to face its relentless enemies and threats. But if this were a real world, people would have to deal with what has been handed to them, not with what they might wish the world to be. How would we begin to move to a system other than what had come to pass for such an unimaginable vast Empire, without opening the door to disruptive chaos and risk downfall of our collective ability to defend ourselves. Most nations on earth, when undergoing even relatively smooth revolutions, go through a period of disorder. For one the size of the Imperium, such a period is likely to last centuries if not millennia. And during that time, we would be at the mercy of the enemies of humanity.

What then, is there an agent of the Imperium to do, but go with confidence and commitment about his or her duty?

The Ethics of the Imperium of Man

The Shape of Things to Come Optimusnorm