Author’s Note: In honor of the Leviathan DLC coming out soon, in which it is likely we will learn more about the history of the Reapers and their inception; I thought it would be interesting to ponder whether or not the Reapers should be called evil.
Can an honest man be evil? Must the actions of a man motived by a selfless good be condemned as evil? If a man believes that murdering a hundred will save the lives of a million is he evil? Is evil in the intention or the action or must it always be both? In Mass Effect 3, the Reapers were brought into being to save the galaxy from an unending cycle of death. Rather than let the cycle of war between synthetic and organic continue to an inevitable end the A.I. Construct decided to commit genocide only on the higher species in the galaxy thereby letting the lesser species grow. But in doing so the A.I. stopped one cycle of destruction and started another.
It’s not known for certain how long the Reapers had been performing their so called benevolent genocide on the galaxy in the Mass Effect universe but the years have been between hundreds of thousands to tens of millions of years. The Reapers came every 50,000 years and words spoken by Javik imply evidence of at least a few times before the rise of the Protean Empire.
Some people believe that the Reapers were indoctrinating Shepard throughout the Mass Effect trilogy. Let us look at that argument. Indoctrination as written in the mass effect wiki is the term used for the "brainwashing" effect the Reapers and their technology have on organic beings. A signal or energy field surrounds the Reaper, which subtly influences the minds of any organic individual in range. The belief is that Shepard is no longer in control of his/her own actions and thus cannot make a good, informed decision. Simply looking at the cause and effect of her actions Shepherd in two of the four scenarios destroys the Reapers, seen by the epilogue of Mass Effect 3. In the first of the two other choices, the Reapers wipe out every council race, and the last choice has the Reapers leaving back to Dark Space, presumably as a sword of Damocles if things get out of hand. In any case, the idea that Shepard is indoctrinated is a good one, but cannot be supported by evidence revealed in the epilogue after her death. Besides the purpose of indoctrination makes an indoctrination of Shepard unlikely, if the outcome of the meeting of the A.I. Construct allows for the best outcome for the Council races then what would have been the purpose of Indoctrination? Without getting into a metaphysical discussion of ‘everything is a lie, and nothing is true’ we must believe that what Shepard experienced truly happened, else we have no foundation from which to speak from. To be frank the idea that the Reapers and thus their forebear were lying to Shepard seems at best somewhat disingenuous. The Reapers have never displayed even the ability, let alone the need or desire, to lie; the idea that they would start now seems out of character.
I remember a novel that I read in which a small planet was being attacked by a larger planet. First the larger planet had sent their criminals and malcontents by starships that could not fly for much longer in the hope that the smaller planet would blow the ships out of the sky, and thus spark an incident to be used to go to war. In the end thousands, and then millions, and then finally billions of people died to end the war. If killing those few thousands on the ship in the beginning could have ended the war would it have been justified? Even then how can one be certain of the effect of ones actions?
The Protean Empire is also an interesting case study. Peripheral evidence suggests that the Protean Empire were upraising species to forcibly join their empire in the Metacon War. The Metacon War was a war between all intelligent organics against synthetics that were likely created originally by the Protean Empire. Javik said that when the turning point had finally been reached in that war the Reapers appeared. And yet that is exactly the reason the Reapers were made in the first place, a Construct to figure out a way to stop the cycle of war between organics and synthetics. It implies that their makers, who they themselves were the first race to be forcibly made into Reapers were concerned that galactic history was picking up speed into the inevitable end point of the destruction of all life.
This must be true because there are only three outcomes of the cycle, one that the synthetics win and destroy all galactic life which seems an unlikely outcome if one creates a synthetic to solve the problem. Two, it is possible organics would stop creating synthetics. An altogether unlikely event however, organics make tools, tools become machines, and machines become synthetics. Third, the more likely event is that the makers of the Reapers were concerned with the destruction of the galaxy. By creating an A.I. construct, they could create in a single entity containing all their collective intelligence and understanding. And thus we get to the crucial end point that the Reapers weren’t killing of all organic life; rather they were crushing the ‘high races’, those that had raised themselves up to the zenith of their species. They left the so called ‘low races’, those that had not achieved space flight alone. The Reapers were Galactic foresters, cutting down the mature trees right before they began to rot and decay thereby leaving the saplings time to grow and mature in the sun.
And so we come full circle, do a man’s actions make him evil or is it his intentions? Must the actions of the Reapers be condemned to be called evil, even if their intention were to further life? The Reapers had no intention of destroying organic life, at best if their intentions are to be disbelieved then their actions were merely evolution of the strong. It is a hard point to argue that genocide of a few races is necessary for other races to live. Especially when Shepard is able to unite organics and synthetics as one, and yet the Reapers very own construction implies that the Galaxy had been asking the question even before their birth. In the end I have no answer, I don’t feel that I have the wisdom to answer the question but I ponder the significance of a universe that allows the question to be asked.