I read, and liked the question about Courier Ethics. I liked it enough to actually try and answer it. Later I returned to the question as a result of a comment on my answer. It took a minute before I realized it had been placed on hold as primarily opinion-based. I'm new to the site, so I don't pretend to know the parameters used for on-topic/off-topic. A short review of some suggested questions given by the system as I typed the title seems to suggest that maybe this one shouldn't have been closed after all.

Of course, any "idea" presented in answer to this question will be evaluated by the OP and their opinion will rule as to which one is best. Of course that works the same on any SE stack. Similarly, any answer given can be equally valid, in some context, as any other. This is fiction so suspending belief is inherit to story enjoyment. How far the world creator wants to stretch that line is a personal choice. Adding in the criteria of which answer fits better into the OP's world, however, removes the "all equally valid" argument.

In my reading of the question, the OP defined well what the objective was, and excluded a certain range of options:

I'm looking for ideas on how they could correctly or mostly correctly identify messages they found unethical. Magic is OK but I'd prefer to avoid just hand-waving everything with a spell that "knows" if a message is evil or not.

At least 3 well rep'd users, one >10K user deemed it answerable as well, so I know I'm not alone in thinking it to be a decent question.

As an extra note, I still don't see any comments suggesting an edit, or way to improve the question, so as to not be "primarily opinion-based", contrary to recent meta post, “Primarily Opinion Based” is a reason to edit, not to close.

As a site scope issue, should this question, as posted, remain closed? What part of the question is triggering the "opinion-based" evaluation? How could it be improved to remove the opinion-based evaluation, if that is even possible?


2 Answers 2


Since I was the fifth close vote, I'll identify the items that caught my attention as problematic.

  1. The question specifically calls out that the asker is "looking for ideas" for a solution. This means there aren't really any constraints to define a "best" answer other than being within the concept of a Medieval/Fantasy setting.
  2. Magic is allowed, but the asker has failed to specify how magic works in his/her world. Every solution is now valid, and each person will envision the magic system differently, bringing in an opinion-only aspect.
  3. The asker has failed to identify why the simplest solution (i.e., reading the message, as identified in the first comment) does not work. Answers must then either use this as their solution, or devise a reason for why it cannot be used, which would be altering the asker's world to suit the answer and make each answer an opinion rather than fact within the asker's world.

As is, I believe the question should remain closed. If the asker edits the question to address these issues (placing constraints, defining the magic system, and explaining why couriers cannot read the messages), then the question may be reopened.

  • $\begingroup$ The question of idea generation as mentioned by @green elsewhere, may give grounds for closure. Outside of a reality-check question, however, I suspect that nearly half the site's questions could be found lacking in methods for determining a "best" answer to the situation. How magic works in the world shouldn't matter to a magic-based suggestion, though it could filter possible answers. A reply to the first comment about reading it would have been nice, yet the second (and third) comments could invalidate that anyway. It's even possible that "reading the message" is the answer. $\endgroup$
    – user39523
    Commented Jul 31, 2017 at 20:52
  • $\begingroup$ @GypsySpellweaver Actually Green mentioned idea-generation was no longer grounds for closure. I agree that a large proportion of this site's questions lack the mechanics of determining whatever are the best answers. Much like life really. You have debunked some of the fallacious excuses given for closing the question. Excellent! $\endgroup$
    – a4android
    Commented Aug 1, 2017 at 2:30
  • $\begingroup$ @a4android Debunking anything wasn't my objective, gaining understanding of this stock's culture through explanations was/is my purpose. Though I would be pleased to see that question reopened. $\endgroup$
    – user39523
    Commented Aug 1, 2017 at 2:46
  • $\begingroup$ @GypsySpellweaver Asking the right questions can have the same affect. You can click "reopen" underneath the question to start the process of having it reopened, but only if enough votes to reopen it are received. $\endgroup$
    – a4android
    Commented Aug 1, 2017 at 2:53
  • $\begingroup$ @a4android To which "fallacious excuses" are you referring? All three reasons I listed have been used before, and frequently, to close questions until clarification is provided. $\endgroup$
    – Frostfyre
    Commented Aug 1, 2017 at 3:12
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ It's great as a VTCer you provided your reasons. I wish there was more of that, it would help clarify matters enormously. I wasn't specifically aiming my comment at your reasons. There are classes of VTC rationales that often demand more of the questions than is reasonable. This includes all three reasons you gave if they are applied incorrectly or inappropriately. Too often WBers decide to VTC and their reasons don't engage the question. Often they are fallacious excuses, even though as reasons they may have been applied often. $\endgroup$
    – a4android
    Commented Aug 1, 2017 at 5:00
  • $\begingroup$ Can you help here?: Green says above ideas-generation isn't a VTC reason, yet you give "looking for ideas" as a VTC reason, can you clarify if they are the same thing or different? I ask because I am genuinely uncertain. You both may be thinking of different things. It's just that the form of words is similar. $\endgroup$
    – a4android
    Commented Aug 1, 2017 at 5:02
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ @a4android Voting to reopen requires 3,000 rep (same as voting to close), which Gypsy Spellweaver doesn't have (206, to my count). So Gypsy can't vote to reopen, at which point bringing the matter up on meta or in Worldbuilding Chat to draw the community's attention to it is the appropriate course of action. $\endgroup$
    – user
    Commented Aug 1, 2017 at 8:59
  • $\begingroup$ @MichaelKjörling Thanks for reminding me. My brain was asleep at the wheel. So, yes, meta is his appropriate course of action. Now to go and bang my head against the wall. $\endgroup$
    – a4android
    Commented Aug 1, 2017 at 11:55
  • $\begingroup$ @a4android Please take care to not do excessive damage to said wall? :) $\endgroup$
    – user
    Commented Aug 1, 2017 at 11:59
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ @a4android Idea generation used to be a close reason, but we got rid of it because every question that used it also fell under either too-broad or primarily-opinion-based. When I see "looking for ideas" type questions, I take it to mean the asker doesn't really know what kind of solution they want, so they'll take anything and don't really have limits on what they are willing to accept. $\endgroup$
    – Frostfyre
    Commented Aug 1, 2017 at 12:24
  • $\begingroup$ Thanks for the clarification. I can see the sense of it. Although too often I see especially too-broad VTCs don't follow WB's criteria for too-broad, but that's another issue. Most "looking for ideas" question seem to me by asked by querents who having come up with a concept are flummoxed about what to do or where to go with it & asking the question is a way to clear their head. Personally, if I have that problem, I go & talk to a writer friend. On the other hand, I'm more likely to give OPs the benefit of doubt & not make assumptions about what's on their minds. $\endgroup$
    – a4android
    Commented Aug 1, 2017 at 12:45
  • $\begingroup$ I do appreciate the time and effort you took in responding to my query. It's certainly given me food for thought and raises points I will need to take into account. Thanks again. $\endgroup$
    – a4android
    Commented Aug 1, 2017 at 12:47
  • $\begingroup$ @a4android Always happy to help! $\endgroup$
    – Frostfyre
    Commented Aug 1, 2017 at 12:48

Opinion-based Question very often involve the Respondent's own inferences because the question doesn't describe enough

Last year, year before, we had a huge meta discussion about the relative merits of a no-longer-existent close reason known as "Idea-generation". The results of that discussion was the identification of Question Constraints as an essential component of an answerable question. If a question was insufficiently constrained, it could not be answered in the time and format available on WB. (Alternatively, if it was overconstrained, it probably wasn't a good fit for WB either since it was too specific.)

While I didn't cast a VTC for this question, I probably would for the following reasons:

  1. The Courier's ethical code wasn't identified.
  2. Any kind of hint about how they might go about identifying good and evil. This alone would push me to VTC because this is a question that philosophers and ethicists have been asking for thousands of years and there is no universal answer.
  3. There's a little bit of a distraction in the question about how to conceal messages from hostile parties (but this is a minor point in the question).

To answer this question, a respondent would have to infer the courier's ethical code (and the priorities inherent in all ethical codes), then invent a set of rules for match messages with that ethical code. Since a huge portion of the answer depends on whatever the respondent pulls out of thin air, there will be far too much variation in the answers.

I also note that the question doesn't indicate anything about identification of second-order effects from a successful delivery method. How do the courier's deal with messages that don't explicitly order the death of innocents but indirectly cause their deaths anyway?


Without specifics about the ethical code, the situation or the message to deliver, I don't think anything useful can be said about the decision function to deliver or not deliver a given message.


Extract details from ethical system A, combine with information extracted from courier situation s and message content m then define a mapping from all that information to "good " or "evil". Which information to pick from A, s and m and what to do with that information will be the algorithm contained in D. Some information will be deemed unimportant and discarded. Conversely, other information will be deemed important and retained.

Since A may specify conflicting outcomes, D will need to be robust enough to resolve those conflicts since D must always resolve to "Good" XOR "Evil". Perhaps, A will be internally consistent, in which case D doesn't need to include a conflict resolution mechanism for conflicts in A.

Long Answer

Given, message $m$, courier situation $s$, ethical code $a$ and decision function $D$, resolve $$\{good, evil\} = D(a, m, s)$$ Observe that $a \in A$ where $A$ is the set of all possible ethical systems. The OP hopes for a description of $D$. That's fine. $s$ and $m$ are free variables, dependent on the storyteller and can be anything. Since $a$ can also be anything, including internally inconsistent ethical systems, how do we resolve those conflicts to simple "good" and "evil"? Ideally, we want $D$ to resolve exclusively to "good" or "evil", never both and never neither.

$A$ represents all possible ethical systems. It cannot be less than all possible ethical systems since no constraints were placed on $A$ by the OP. We know that any ethical system will fall somewhere on the continuum between being complete but conflicted, or, it will be incomplete and consistent. No non-trivial system can be both complete and conflict-free.

Systems of the first kind, $A_{complete}$ [complete-conflicted], make the job of $D$ harder since $D$ must now resolve extra conflicts from $a_{complete}$. Systems of the second kind, $A_{incomplete}$ [incomplete-consistent], are amenable to our task of resolving {good, evil} since they always provide consistent answers even if they can't handle all situations described by $s$ and $m$.

The resolution of conflicts inherent in $a_{complete}$ must either happen in $D$ or be prevented entirely by the definition of $a \in A_{incomplete}$. As only data, $s$ and $m$ don't carry any interpretative power in and of themselves to make assertions about their own goodness or evilness. Thus, $a$ makes assertions/interpretations about the important characteristics of $s$ and $m$. $D$ combines the rule set embedded in $a$ with information from $s$ and $m$ then returns "good" XOR "evil"; or more specifically, "will deliver message" XOR "will not deliver message". $D$ must be robust enough to handle instances of $a$ where the rule sets are inherently contradictory.

  • $\begingroup$ As to the ethics involved, they are immaterial to the question. Defining them, if possible, is part of the world view the OP creates for the couriers. How to determine if the message violates their ethics is the question. Even teh mobsters of America had ethics in their view, even if most outsiders didn't agree with them. As to 2nd order effects the OP did address them, tangentially, with the phrase correctly or mostly correctly. Rather than inferring anything into the question, why not address the question as stated? It seems constrained enough to address, without being too localized. $\endgroup$
    – user39523
    Commented Jul 31, 2017 at 20:46
  • $\begingroup$ @GypsySpellweaver , I've written out what I think you can learn about resolving "Good" or "evil" with what the OP specified. $\endgroup$
    – Green
    Commented Jul 31, 2017 at 23:18
  • $\begingroup$ And not be snarky but your answer to the question doesn't address the ethics component at all, only the confidentiality portion of the question. I'd be curious to see your thoughts on ethics component. This has been fun to think about, thanks for asking this question :) $\endgroup$
    – Green
    Commented Jul 31, 2017 at 23:19
  • $\begingroup$ I didn't infer that OP wanted an ethics definition, or how to apply the courier's ethics to the message, but how the courier could know enough about the message to apply their own "rules" to it. The in-system ethics, consistent or not, is the OP's problem, the issue for the question is how can the courier "know" the message. Obvious answer is "read it" but that comment got no response. $\endgroup$
    – user39523
    Commented Jul 31, 2017 at 23:22
  • $\begingroup$ @GypsySpellweaver Ah, thank you for clarifying. I thought the OP was asking for a method for determining whether a message was ethical....hence the ridiculously overwrought answer. :) $\endgroup$
    – Green
    Commented Jul 31, 2017 at 23:52

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