Beyond Life and Death IV: Are the Undead Evil Because Their Souls Do Not Proceed Properly to the Afterlife?

This is the fourth post in our series on normative and metaethical issues surrounding the undead in Pathfinder. To start at the beginning, with the introductory post, click here.

On an administrative/personal note: no, this blog has not been abandoned. Various issues, both personal and professional, have kept me from writing for a while now…but I’m hoping that we’re starting to get back on track now!

On a separate note: the elephant in the room these days is how Pathfinder’s Second Edition (or at least the version of it presented in the current playtest) is going to affect interpretations and applications of rules surrounding alignment and morality more generally. Short answer: somewhat, but not enough to invalidate thoughtful discussion thereof. Long answer: that will probably be the focus of our next series, so just hold your horses a little bit longer.

We’ve now seen why just hating on the undead because they’re “unnatural” doesn’t justify the view that they are necessarily evil. Might there be a better, more nuanced account of undead ethics that does justify this conclusion?

For instance, one often sees (not as often as the appeal-to-nature argument, but often enough) the idea that the undead are evil because being/becoming undead interferes with the normal, healthy progress of souls through from life to the afterlife*. And because such interference necessarily harms the person whose soul this is (or perhaps harms the soul directly; the metaphysical relationship/distinction between a person and her soul is a question best left for another time), any instance of the undead necessarily constitutes a harm, and is therefore evil.

I’m happy to say that this argument is better than appealing to nature (hardly a high bar)…but I still don’t think that it’s going to justify the view that the undead are necessarily evil. Nevertheless, it’s important to look into why that might be, as I suspect that this view is still going to lay some important groundwork for future, even more sophisticated arguments on the topic.

So while there is certainly some debate over whether and how undead status specifically prevents a soul’s passage to the afterlife, I think it’s safe to assume for our discussion here that at the very least, being undead interferes with a soul’s “proper” passage through to the afterlife (reading between the lines, this explains Pharasma’s abhorrence of the undead).

Why, though, should we conclude that this does indeed cause harm to the soul in question? Granted, it’s no great leap to suggest that for good beings, whose souls are bound for an eternity of pleasure in Heaven or Elysium or the like, anything which holds them back from the afterlife is going to constitute a harm; therefore, it makes sense to say that making goodly creatures into undead is evil because it harms them.

But what about evil creatures, whose souls are bound for damnation and eternal torment in the wastelands of the Abyss or the twisted servitude of Hell? I don’t know that anyone has ever argued that being undead is a total picnic, but I’d be surprised if it wasn’t quite a sight better than being repeatedly eaten alive by demons or whatever (even if the soul is completely unconscious and unaware while trapped in an undead vessel, this is probably still true). And if that’s the case, then evil creatures which are also at least minimally rationally self-interested would probably prefer to be undead, rather than proceeding on to the afterlife in a horrifyingly orderly fashion. If this is so, it’s hard to argue that those souls are somehow harmed by being undead – indeed, in the absence of better ways of keeping people out of the afterlife, truly evil creatures are probably harmed by not being turned undead upon their demise.

If we accept all of the above, we might also adopt a plausible (if hardly uncontroversial) type of “cosmic utilitarianism,” whereby some action is evil insofar as it produces more harm/reduces pleasure (generally speaking) and good insofar as it produces more pleasure/reduces harm (again, generally speaking). On this view, then, the undead and their creation can’t simply be inherently evil because of the way they interfere with a soul’s passage to the afterlife, because that interference is sometimes good and sometimes bad, depending on the details.

Perhaps, though, the problem has less to do with that interference in a soul’s passage and more to do with this “cosmic utilitarianism” we’ve presupposed. More specifically: perhaps it’s not harming a soul that is necessarily evil, but preventing that soul’s passage through to the afterlife, regardless of whether that would constitute a help or a harm in any particular case.

Consider again my old friend G. E. Moore, a central figure in the history of both utilitarianism specifically and analytic ethics more broadly. In Principia Ethica, his key work in ethics, he attempts (among many other great things) to find a way of reconciling the rather obscure notion of “justice” with the (purportedly) more clear-cut, comprehensive, and applicable structure of utilitarianism. That’s a long story in itself, but the key element for us here is a single thought experiment (which I will, of course, paraphrase):

Suppose there are two parallel worlds, completely identical in all ways…except one. There is precisely the same amount of crime in each world, committed by the same criminals and with the same harm resulting, but in World A, those crimes (and criminals) invariably go unpunished, while in World B, those crimes invariably are punished (the details of how they’re punished don’t matter too much, but feel free to insert whatever you think of as fair, firm, consistent, humane punishment).

Now, there’s no doubt that World B contains more harm – it has all the same harm caused by crimes and the like as World A, but it also has the harm caused by punishment. Nevertheless, according to Moore, World B remains a better world in that it is a more just world, because evil going unpunished is, ceteris paribus, worse than that same evil being punished, never mind that the latter scenario explicitly involves more harm.

While it’s certainly open to objections, this argument of Moore’s seems right to me. More importantly for our purposes, this argument shows why even though evil souls are not necessarily harmed when something interferes with their progression to a painful afterlife, that interference might nevertheless be morally worse than allowing those souls to move on to that terrible hereafter.

That’s a lot of moral and metaphysical baggage to carry along…but it still strikes me as plausible. Moreover, it gives us a strong argument for the position that the means used to create undead are invariably evil, at least to some degree: whatever else might be involved, creating undead is always unjust because it prevents good souls from being rewarded and evil souls from being punished accordingly.

Unfortunately, that’s not enough to say that the undead themselves are always evil – after all, the end result of an evil process is not necessarily evil itself in any way. Sexual assault, for instance, is an invariably evil act, but children conceived of rape are not evil. In this same way, there is nothing inconsistent in saying that the means used to create undead are invariably evil, while the undead themselves are not necessarily so. Therefore, while this “argument-from-interference-in-the-afterlife” is certainly a powerful, compelling, and important one when considering the ethics of undeath in Pathfinder in general…I simply don’t think that it’s enough to answer (or even really address) the question of whether/why the undead are themselves invariably evil.

Does this conclusion resonate for you, or have I missed some important step here that should give this afterlife question more weight? Conversely, do you think Moore’s thought experiment about justice making the world “better” is somehow wrongheaded or insufficient? I’d love to hear it all, either way!


*My focus on this type of argument is owed to a view presented by “Josiah,” commenting on the previous Detect Alignment post. This specific characterization of it, however, I have shaped largely myself; any errors or misidentifications in this post are therefore strictly my own doing.

Beyond Life and Death III: Are the Undead Evil Because They’re Unnatural?

This is the third post in our series on normative and metaethical issues surrounding the undead in Pathfinder. To start at the beginning, with the introductory post, click here.

So if it is the case that all undead in Pathfinder are necessarily evil, why might this be? It’s about time we start looking at some of the major reasons proposed for what it is about the undead that makes them not just evil, but necessarily so.

For today’s post, we’ll look at what might be the single most common reason offered in favour of this view…which also happens to be (spoilers!) perhaps among the worst possible reasons to think that the undead (or anything else, for that matter) might be evil. This type of argument can generally be captured under the umbrella we call “appeal to nature.” They are usually (including, I’d say, in this case as well) truly bad arguments indeed.

Applied to the undead, the basic structure of an appeal to nature argument usually goes as follows:


Premise 1: Anything unnatural is evil.

Premise 2: The undead are unnatural.

Conclusion: The undead are evil.


Now, there’s no question that this argument is technically valid (the conclusion follows from the premises). The problem is that it is spectacularly unsound, in that both premises are likely false (at the very least, their truth would be rather dubious and/or have to be narrowly construed). In order to demonstrate why, let’s take each premise in turn; show, in detail, why appeals to nature like this don’t really work; and therefore show why we don’t have to talk about this anymore (positive side effect: you hopefully won’t try or accept these kinds of arguments in your everyday lives either).

Premise 1: Anything unnatural is evil.

You’ve probably seen this kind of thing around from time to time, often with notions like “not good” or “unhealthy” in place of “evil;” in either case, it boils down to the same kind of assertion.

Some of the thrust of this view is, of course, going to depend on what we mean by “natural,” but we’ll look at that more in the next section, on the second premise. For our purposes here, we’ll assume that there is some agreed-upon standard of what counts as natural vs. unnatural, and focus on the following: what is it about something being “unnatural” that might make it evil (necessarily so, moreover)?

It just doesn’t seem like “natural” is the kind of characteristic or category marker that implies good or evil one way or another. At most, when the idea that “x is unnatural” is evoked under these kinds of circumstances, it usually ends up being equivalent to nothing more than “x makes me uncomfortable” or “I don’t much care for x at all.” That is to say, accusations of “unnaturalness” tend to actually be vague attempts to express our own preferences, our own likes and dislikes, as some kind of objective property in the interest of making them seem more universally justified.

But, of course, personal preference is simply not going to cut the mustard when it comes to genuinely moral categories like good and evil. Some people are grossed out by homosexuality or cola or dogs wearing clothes, but that discomfort doesn’t contribute one whit towards saying that any of those things is actually morally wrong (let alone evil)…no matter how much some of us might like cola to be declared an affront against decency and permanently banned.

This is the kind of thing you particularly need to watch out for when you see words like “abomination” thrown around – this usually tends to be another effective synonym for “thing I don’t like at all and therefore should not exist, no matter what other people think.” And yes, I’m looking at you on this one, Pharasmins: the mere fact that Pharasma “despises undead” does not make them evil (necessarily or otherwise), any more than the preferences of gods can, on their own, determine any other moral truths (for more on why that might be the case, click here).

So there doesn’t seem to be a good reason to believe that unnatural things are necessarily evil, undead or not. While we’re on the subject, though…what does it even mean for something to be “unnatural” in such a significant sense? For that, it’s time to have a hard look at that second premise…

Premise 2: The undead are unnatural.

So this premise really turns on what we mean by “natural” and “unnatural.” Some things are pretty obviously “natural,” even to those who say this kind of thing: trees, fresh water, unformed rocks, and so forth – things created by undirected, unguided, unintentional processes, largely unaffected by humanoid life. But what about, say, a shovel? Shovels don’t occur naturally, so they don’t at all fit this strict conception of “natural”…but do we really want to think of them as “unnatural” in this highly normative way?

What about beaver dams and ant colonies – artificial structures built by non-humanoid, arguably non-intelligent creatures?

Maybe it’s that the materials of construction have to be “natural” for something to not count as “unnatural” for this purpose – so the shovel is fine, but, I don’t know, plastics aren’t. Of course, the components of any “unnatural” material are themselves natural (i.e., plastics are made from things ultimately found in the natural world – they aren’t magically conjured out of nowhere), so this just pushes the question back further. This tack isn’t going to get us anywhere either.

That’s at least true in the real world; in Pathfinder, though, perhaps the distinction between natural and unnatural actually does rely on magic. That is, perhaps “natural” things are those not created/affected by magic, while “unnatural” things are those which are somehow caused by magic. Again, though, this would seem to throw the baby out with the bathwater: if you want to say that what makes the undead “unnatural” is that they are created by magic, full stop…then you’d have to say the same thing about healing magic, barkskin potions, and so on. Maybe all of these things (including the undead) are coherently unnatural in the same way,* be they potions or skeletons or summoned monsters…but why would this be important for moral purposes?

If your concept of “unnatural” lumps all of these things together, then it doesn’t imply any kind of moral value with regard to natural or unnatural status – some of these things are good, some are evil, most can go either way dependent on the context. “Natural” is just not a moral concept on this view, and so not useful for this kind of argument.

On the other hand, if you want to say that healing magic, for instance, is “natural” (and therefore good) magic, while the undead are “unnatural” (and therefore evil) magic…well you’re kind of back to square one. You can’t just declare this ad hoc distinction and go home; that would be begging the question pretty badly. You would need a substantive, non-question-begging notion of what makes one kind of magic “natural” and another unnatural before you could helpfully use such a distinction in this argument…and since we’ve already seen what kind of trouble that is, you’ve effectively gotten nowhere.


Hopefully this puts to bed the idea that the undead might be evil (necessarily or not) because they are “unnatural” (whatever that might mean)…and maybe makes you think twice before accepting appeal-to-nature arguments more generally. Of course, if you think that there’s a version or element of this argument that I’ve treated unfairly (seriously; I have no respect for this argument, to an extent that some might well deem disrespectful in a broader sense), then don’t hesitate to ask about it, and we’ll hopefully get it all sorted out. Aside from that, tune in next time, when we’ll look at another proposed explanation as to why we should think the undead are necessarily evil.


*Then again, maybe not: in a world where magic is known to exist, can be manipulated according to broadly understood rules and processes, and can certainly affect the natural world, it might just make more sense to say that magic (and that which is created by magic) is also natural. In fact, this strikes me as the right approach…but for argument’s sake, we’ll assume here that it makes sense to count magic and its products as unnatural in Pathfinder.

Beyond Life and Death II: Necessity, Possibility, Evil, & the Undead

This is the second post in our series on metaethical issues surrounding the undead in Pathfinder. To start at the beginning, with the introductory post, click here.

The single biggest question in this series is, “Are all undead necessarily evil?” Now, because it’s only five words long, that question seems like a simple one, at least philosophically. Unfortunately, as anyone with experience in analytic philosophy already knows, one of those words is a real humdinger*: that nasty little “necessarily.” The fact is that necessity (and its philosophical converse, “possibility,” or perhaps “contingency”) has been and remains one of the slipperiest and most difficult concepts in analytic philosophy, whether we’re talking metaethics, philosophy of language, or any number of other subdisciplines. Unfortunately, it’s also phenomenally important to this specific issue (we’ll talk more about why shortly), so if we’re going to treat this topic with the care and rigour it deserves, we’ll have to spend some time clearing up what we mean by “necessity,” and by extension what it would mean for undead creatures to be not just evil but necessarily evil. Be careful on this post, folks: it may get a little technical, but more than anything, there is a serious risk of learning something that’s not strictly about Pathfinder this time…

So, a little terminological background: the logic of necessity and possibility is known as “modal logic,” and talk about these concepts is often called talk about “modality”** – if someone is talking about modal logic or using that sort of language, they just mean “logic about what is possible and what is necessary.” This is in contrast to older, more established forms of logic, about what is and is not true (these usually fall under what are called “sentential” and “predicate” logics…but that’s neither here nor there).

Now, for centuries, philosophers had a surprising amount of trouble with modal logic, because no one was really sure exactly how to understand what necessity and possibility mean – in technical language, the semantics of modal logic was ambiguous. This ambiguity essentially occurred as a result of there only being one world: that is, we often don’t have trouble saying whether something is true, but we always have trouble saying whether it could have been false. When the skeleton strikes at your fighter with a rusty sword, did that happen merely because it was possible, and things could have been otherwise…or did it happen necessarily, such that it could not have been otherwise? The structure of our world, and the fact that we can’t just go back in time and see how it runs on a second try, apparently makes this question totally opaque. Even if your GM rerolls the skeleton’s attack because the first result was contested or something (probably the closest possible thing you’re going to get to actually going back in time and checking again), you’re not actually checking whether that first die result was necessary or simply possible; you’re just rolling the dice again and stipulating that it will serve in place of the previous result.

As you can probably tell, this question of distinguishing between events which are necessary or merely possible is sort of tied in with questions about the nature of free will, the truth of determinism, time and space, and so on and so forth – put another way, this seemingly simple question was just thought to be way too complex to be addressed head-on in any meaningful way.

Enter Saul Kripke, who comes onto the philosophical scene in the mid-20th century and is a leading contender for the title of “most important living philosopher” (he’s still alive as of my writing this, anyway – click the link above for updates on that). While he hardly does all this alone, Kripke’s work is sort of the impetus for our coming to understand how to interpret questions of necessity and possibility, and for the resulting development of useful, helpful modal logics.

It’s also a surprisingly accessible kind of solution (though hardly without its complexities), for such a seemingly technical and difficult problem. Essentially, Kripke introduces the notion of “possible worlds semantics:” the idea that we should understand what these confusing modal ideas mean in terms of “possible worlds.” A possible world is just a logically consistent world (i.e., one which doesn’t contain logical contradictions) that is more or less like our own. The actual world is, of course, one possible world…and then there are an infinite number of other possible worlds, more or less different from the actual world, where some things are the same and some things are not. Now, to be clear, Kripke doesn’t think that these worlds exist in a metaphysical sense (although some philosophers, like David Lewis, called “modal realists,” think that other possible worlds actually do exist); they’re just semantic constructs to help us understand modality.

In the context of possible worlds semantics, then, x is possible (or contingently true) if it happens that x is true in at least one possible world, while x is necessarily true if x is true in every possible world; if there is no possible world in which x is true, then x is necessarily false. To return to our skeleton attack example: if there is at least one possible world (i.e., a logically consistent world which we can imagine) in which the skeleton hits you and at least one possible world in which the skeleton misses (which strikes me as plausible), then it is contingent but not necessary that the skeleton hit you. This is the case even if, as a matter of fact, the skeleton did in fact hit you: because there is a possible world in which it did not hit you, the fact of its having hit you is contingent, not necessary. Note that this understanding doesn’t require that we solve any of those difficult issues of determinism, free will, etc.; possible worlds semantics gives us a way of understanding the meaning of contingency (i.e., possibility) and necessity without having to understand all the underlying metaphysical issues. It’s effectively a semantic workaround…and a damn good one!

So that, broadly speaking, is how we’re going to understand what it means for the undead to be necessarily evil, thereby structuring the questions in the rest of this series. It may be that the undead in Golarion are all evil, but that is only one possible world. If there is a possible world in which there are non-evil undead, then the undead of Golarion (and untold other settings of Pathfinder games) are contingently but not necessarily evil…much like people, presumably.

On the other hand, if there is something (probably not something obvious, but something nonetheless) that builds evil into the very fabric of what it means to be undead, then there is no possible world in which there are non-evil undead (because something about the concept “undead” implies the concept “evil”), and the undead are necessarily evil. And that is the very detailed, clearly-laid-out version of our main question, which we’ll be addressing over the course of the rest of this series.

Alright, that got unpleasantly technical at points, I know…but hey, look where we are! Now we have a better understanding of what we’re actually talking about, and any future arguments about whether undead in Pathfinder are necessarily evil can be much more focused and much less subject to equivocation, intentional or otherwise. I hope you saw fit to power through that, and are willing to post any questions or concerns you might have; either way, we’re be onto much more substantive and direct questions on this issue in no time now!


*Actually, at least two are – there’s no question that the concept of “evil” is tremendously complex and difficult no matter what kind of moral philosophy we’re doing. But that’s the kind of topic that’s covered either elsewhere on this blog or nowhere at all – in any case, we don’t have time to go into it here.

**If we’re being super technical (and obviously we are), “necessity” and “possibility” are actually just alethic modalities. There are several other different types of modal logic: deontic modalities (the logic of “required” and “permissible”), temporal modalities (the logic of time: “eventually,” “always,” “until,” and the like), epistemic modalities (the logic of knowledge and the absence thereof), and so on. Confused? Good; that just means you’re still sane. We’ll ignore everything but alethic modal logic (by far the most common anyway) for our purposes here.

Beyond Life and Death: Introduction to Undead Ethics

Undead creatures, with all the flavour and mechanics surrounding undeath in general, are perennial favourites among Pathfinder players. Undead of some form or another show up in just about every campaign – between the slow-moving zombies from the local cemetery and the 20th-level lich wizard with mythic tiers in archmage serving as a campaign’s BBEG, the undead stand out among non-humanoid creatures in credibly appearing at virtually every stage of the game.

More importantly for our purposes, though, the undead have some particularly interesting moral and alignment features which are often the subject of debate among players at every level as well. The most significant of these features (again, for our purposes) comes up under the official Pathfinder heading of Five Things Almost Everyone Knows About Undead: “Undead are invariably evil, as are the means to create such beings.”

So that’s the end of the story, right? Paizo have ruled that all undead are evil, and any time someone creates the undead, that person has committed an evil act. Where are the interesting questions for Detect Alignment in that? Case closed!

Well…to rely on that eternal catchphrase of good analytic philosophers everywhere: “There’s more to it than that.”

For one thing, the way that even this official Pathfinder ruling has positioned this “knowledge” leaves some amount of ambiguity around the question. It is specifically listed in the context of what might be called “common knowledge” or “common sense.” But the face is that, even at its most reliable, “common knowledge” does not somehow imply “universal truth.” If you and everyone you know and everyone in your village and everyone in your country, every single time they’ve encountered undead creatures, have determined that those creatures were evil, then it makes perfect sense to say that “everyone knows” that “undead are invariably evil.” But that doesn’t logically imply that there couldn’t be one lonely good vampire out there (or even an isolated community of benevolent ghosts or something) who are not evil, as a matter of fact. Received wisdom often exists for good reason, and can be perfectly justified…but that doesn’t make it infallible or universal.

And, of course, all of the above totally ignores any influence of bias, prejudice, and visceral fear that might have been influencing those people’s encounters. Even the most charitable and saintly skeleton is, understandably, going to creep people out as a first impression, and that’s the kind of thing that will influence “common knowledge.”

For our purposes, though, there is a more significant question here: even if it is true that all undead are invariably evil, why would this be so? What is it about being undead that makes something evil? Is this a causal connection, or a conceptual one? Might there not be non-evil undead in the world; if there aren’t, is it possible that there could be? And following on from those questions: are any means taken to create undead inherently evil indeed? Even iff the undead are actually necessarily evil, could their creation still be justified under certain circumstances?

In the spirit of those questions and concerns, this new series will be looking at the conceptual issues surrounding undeath and how those issues can help us understand the moral standing of the undead, as well as the significance of those moral concepts more widely.

I should note that there’s a sense in which this is sort of an extension of a long philosophical history of using the undead in thought experiments, and for analyzing our reasoning – even the most cursory Google search for “philosophical zombie” will demonstrate that. So while this series will ostensibly be about Pathfinder, and I will certainly be making an effort to clear the conceptual air around the undead in-game in order to better understand and play undead creatures (and the necromancers who love them)…there are also important fundamentally moral questions (as well as other, broader philosophical questions) which can be addressed by looking closely at the undead and undead ethics.

The first substantial post in this series (who am I kidding? The first several posts…) will be looking at some of the positive arguments for the view that undead are, in fact, invariably evil, as are the means to create them. There are a few different ways of seeing this, so it might take a little while to get through that stuff, and onto the really nitty-gritty, detailed, deep questions at hand. But I suspect that the entire journey will actually be pretty fun…

I hope you’ll join me in this new philosophical/adventuring journey, and if you have specific undead-ethics-related topics that you’d like to see come up in this series, leave some comments and I’m sure we’ll find a way to get to it!

Of Law and Chaos IX: Are Societies Lawful/Chaotic in the Same Way as Creatures?

This is the ninth post in our series on the metaethics and moral standing of the lawful-chaotic alignment axis in Pathfinder. To start with the series’ introductory post, click here.

After eight pretty full posts, I think it’s safe to say that this series is starting to draw to a close. Before we end, though, there remains at least one glaring issue with the methodological interpretation of lawful and chaotic alignment that I’ve presented, defended, and expanded upon in this series. I would be remiss if I didn’t at least make an attempt to address it.

The issue is that we frequently hear talk about the alignment of not only creatures but of cities and even whole nations – in Pathfinder’s Inner Sea region alone, for instance, we find that Absalom is listed as having a Neutral alignment, Andoran is Neutral Good, Cheliax is Lawful Evil, and so on. Unfortunately, it’s just difficult to see how the methodological interpretation of the law-chaos axis might apply to whole nations – this apparent oversight needs to be resolved if we are to endorse the methodological approach wholeheartedly.

Briefly, I have argued (and maintain) that a creature is lawful if it primarily uses internal focus and discipline to act in accordance with its will, and chaotic if it primarily loosens restrictions and unleashes itself in order to do so. While this idea faces challenges, I do think that it works well for individual creatures and, to its credit, leaves open a wider range of possible sets of beliefs and attitudes for all kinds of classes than might normally be possible under more orthodox interpretations of the law-chaos axis.

But what would the methodological interpretation even look like, applied on the social level? If we try to take it at face value, so that, e.g., a lawful alignment means the same thing for societies as it does for individual creatures…then we are talking about a metaphor of some kind at best. That’s because the methodological interpretation is fundamentally about how a creature exerts its will…and societies just don’t have a “will” to exert in the same way that a creature does. It might have something that we could call “political will,” but this doesn’t really amount to much more than a shorthand for popular opinion, or the will of an autocrat when applied to civil resources, or something like that – as I said, a metaphor. In any case, I don’t think this kind of direct approach is really going to get off the ground.

What if, instead, social alignment is thought of as some kind of aggregate of the various alignments of its constituent members? On this view, we might say “a society counts as lawful iff the majority of its members are lawful,” with parallel conditions for “neutral” and “chaotic.” This strikes me as more promising than the literal approach…but remains rather unsatisfying, and for rather simple reasons.

As far as I’m concerned, the reasons to reject the methodological approach to the lawful-chaotic alignment axis come down to two main differences between the way that alignment works for individual creatures versus societies.

First, while the “aggregate” approach described above might be perfectly coherent and usable…it’s also kind of superficial. If I say that a character is lawful, that tells you something important about what that character is like, on the methodological view. It’s far from everything important about that character, but it’s at least something. In contrast, knowing that more citizens of a city of fifty thousand humans are, on balance, lawful than any other alignment just doesn’t tell me very much about what it’s like to live in that city. It’s as if the alignment system for societies told you how many people in a city had siblings: sure, whether or not I have a sibling might be something important to know about me, but how would it affect your behaviour or thinking to know that, say, 60% of people in my hometown had siblings? What do you do with such information? It’s just rather trivial on the social scale.

Second, and perhaps more fundamentally, I proposed a very specific and important normative reason for adopting the methodological approach when it comes to individuals, based around the value of leaving the particular content of a character’s belief system as an “open question.” This was important because we wanted to be able to accommodate the broadest possible range of actual character belief sets within any particular alignment on the law-chaos axis, so that people can continue to play alignment as an interesting part of the mechanics and flavour of Pathfinder, rather than as an unpleasantly limiting element when it comes to player creativity.

When it comes to societies, though, it’s not at all clear that this same justification applies. Yes, we still want to allow as creative and wide a range of settings as possible, but it’s far less clear how this might be aided by trying to shoehorn the methodological interpretation of the law-chaos axis onto alignment for societies. Doing so might be coherent, but (as we saw regarding the first point above) coherence does not imply significance or even appropriate fit. Having alignment be a reflection of sociopolitical attitudes just isn’t limiting or inappropriate for societies in the same way that it is for individual creatures; rather, having alignment tell you something broad about what it’s like to live in a city/nation/demiplane/whatever is appropriate for societies, with the details filled in by other means.

What we’re left with, then, is a view which suggests that alignment terms along the law-chaos axis mean one thing when applied to creatures and another when applied to societies (as a side note, this is oddly parallel to the conclusion we reached about the dualist conceptual sense of alignment in general…though I think it makes for far less trouble in this instance today). This is not a problem in itself; it just means that we have to be careful in discussing alignment to avoid mixing them up and thereby equivocating about the law-chaos alignment axis. So long as we do recognize this distinction, though, I feel like this position stands fairly well.

This just about wraps up the planned posts I had about the lawful-chaotic alignment axis in Pathfinder, so the next planned post will be on some other topic entirely. That being said, if you were hoping to see some specific topic addressed in this series and it hasn’t come up yet, I’m more than open to a coda of some kind, so don’t hesitate to comment and let me know; you may well get the glory (or blame) for some interesting insight into this topic, which has already proven far more engrossing (for me, that is) than I thought it would be when I started!

Of Law and Chaos VIII: What Does “Neutral” Look Like on the Law-Chaos Axis?

This is the eighth post in our series on the metaethics and moral standing of the lawful-chaotic alignment axis in Pathfinder. To start with the series’ introductory post, click here. It should also be noted that significant parts of the discussion today were inspired and influenced by anarchist and redditor /u/ThinkMinty, via the /r/Pathfinder_RPG subreddit.

If you’ve been following this series so far, you’ve been reading and (hopefully) thinking quite a bit about what it means to be of either a lawful or chaotic alignment. What you haven’t been reading, but have probably starting wondering by now, is much at all about what it means to be neither lawful nor chaotic – to be neutral on the lawful-chaotic axis.*

To remedy that issue, I want to spend some time today talking about the moral psychology of such neutral creatures (in the rest of this post, for brevity’s sake, I’m going to use “neutral” to mean “neither lawful nor chaotic,” or “neutral on the law-chaos axis,” unless otherwise specified). On the methodological view of the law-chaos axis that we’ve adopted, how does a neutral creature generally go about applying its internal resources to exerting its will and accomplishing its goals?

There is, of course, one rather obvious way of interpreting this type of alignment: a creature would presumably be neutral if it sometimes behaves lawfully and sometimes behaves chaotically, with a certain amount of balance between the two. Of course, while this idea is rather simple on the face of it, the methodological view makes it a little bit more difficult to imagine how this might look in practice, as none of the examples of actually playing this view of alignment discussed in the previous post seem to provide a good example.

Then again, once we set our imaginations to a task, it can sometimes start to look easy again. Imagine, if you will, an oracle, a living font of divine magic through whom spells flow by sheer force of character, rather than through the study and devotion shown by clerics. While I stand by the previous post’s argument that oracles will, like sorcerers, usually tend toward the chaotic, it’s easy to imagine an oracle who has to calm herself and enter a focused meditative state to access most of the powers over which she has control. That being said…sometimes (like, say, when she’s casting her highest-level spells), that divine energy will just surge through her, and she can’t resist unleashing that power in an awesome wave. This is one way to imagine a character who’s coherently neutral because she is sometimes lawful and sometimes chaotic, but there are countless other ways you could go with this sort of idea.

At the same time, there are also other ways of conceiving what it means to be neutral, aside from simply “sometimes lawful and sometimes chaotic” – indeed, if anything, I’d imagine that’s a less common type of neutral alignment…though, of course, any speculation about how common certain psychological makeups (moral or otherwise) might be comes down to a fundamentally empirical question that I’m not going to spend more time on here.

In any case, I’d suspect that there’s at least one other formal, common, and perhaps more interesting way of being neutral, stemming from the way that the conflicting wills, desires, aptitudes, beliefs, and rationality of complex sapient beings comes together in complex and difficult ways.

The fact is that we (and presumably all good Pathfinder characters) are tremendously complicated, and usually at least a little bit inconsistent – this is hardly a surprise. In practice, for our purposes here, this means that we do not always act in accordance with our “ultimate” desires, for all kinds of reasons: assuming that we can even tell what those desires might be (hardly a given), we might, say, feel strongly compelled by short-term desires and so ignore the demands of our ultimate desires. We might feel ashamed of our ultimate desires, and so deliberately act against them. We might be weak-willed or just lacking in confidence, and so not put the necessary energy toward those desires. We might even be plagued by strong cognitive dissonance, subconsciously wanting one thing and consciously convincing ourselves that we really want the opposite, causing us to act in unpredictable, even irrational ways out of repressed emotion or interests.

You get the point – there are a lot of ways in which what we want and how we act can come apart, for just about anyone. Now, since we’re often talking about some pretty extraordinary and heroic characters here, this kind of incoherence will in many cases be rather mild, keeping them firmly either lawful or chaotic. For many others, though, their wilful attempts to discipline themselves and focus on one goal or another might lead to opposite results: their inner demons could be unleashed, or their secret desires subconsciously sabotage their efforts, and so on.

Despite their overt efforts at self-legislation (to borrow a Kantian term), then, such creatures could not really be called “lawful,” according to our methodological interpretation: they are not accomplishing their goals or exercising their will by dint of focus and effort, as their actual actions seem to suggest the opposite goal, regardless of surface level intentions. At the same time, however, they don’t really fit into our conception of “chaotic” very well either: they are definitely not “unleashing” themselves in any kind of deliberate way – indeed, in many cases they are doing whatever they can to keep themselves restrained.

For these reasons, I think that we should think of such conflicted, incoherent, and/or cognitively dissonant creatures as neutral on the law-chaos axis. Of course, even neutral creatures who do fit this description are not going to be completely incoherent – that would be a sign of severe mental illness or insanity, and perhaps not alignment at all. But just as creatures of any alignment are simply those who show certain dominant tendencies or mostly fit some general description, creatures who are neutral in this way will effectively show more conflict and/or incoherence in their beliefs and behaviours than they will focused determination (lawful) or unfiltered release (chaotic).

So what are your thoughts on this? Have I captured an important sense of what it means to be neutral on the methodological view of the law-chaos axis? Of course, I don’t purport to have exhausted every possible way of playing this alignment – far from it! But I do think that the above are among the feasible ways of understanding, at least on a superficial level, what “neutral” means in this context. Either way, though, I’d love to hear what you think of this view, and how you think it might impact real PCs in actual gameplay.


*Of course, this leaves aside the question of what it means to be neither good nor evil, i.e. neutral on the good-evil axis. This choice is deliberate: for one thing, it would definitely be too much for one post to take that on here as well. For another thing, while questions of good and evil are certainly complex and multifaceted, I can’t help but think that the question of what it means to be neutral in terms of good and evil is somewhat less interesting – if and when we determine what it means to be good or evil, neutral creatures are almost certainly going to just be those who show some tendencies of both. At the very least, this is a topic for another post entirely. In any case, as this post goes on to discuss, I find the question of neutrality when it comes to the lawful-chaotic axis to be far more interesting, and not nearly so conceptually dependent on our understanding of the extremes of the axis.

Of Law and Chaos VII: Are There Restrictions on the Lawful-Chaotic Alignment Axis Other Than Rules-as-Written?

This is the seventh post in our series on the metaethics and moral standing of the lawful-chaotic alignment axis in Pathfinder. To start with the series’ introductory post, click here.

I’m beginning to feel like I have my methodological interpretation of the lawful-chaotic axis fairly well in hand, along with the justification for it. Yes, it certainly remains revisionist, and it’s certainly far from uncontroversial, going as it does against many of the calcified ideas built up over the years about lawful and chaotic characters. Nevertheless, it strikes me as eminently workable, while avoiding a good deal of the baggage people have about these alignments. Most importantly (for me anyway), I feel like it does a good job of keeping open questions about the moral standing of creatures regardless of their place on the lawful-chaotic spectrum.

The upshot of that, of course, is that even though there might be some substantive issues about a creature’s morality which take their lawful-chaotic standing into account, all alignments remain possible, and there’s nothing stopping any good creature from being lawful or chaotic, any evil creature from being chaotic or lawful, or anything else along those lines.

Nothing, that is, except for the alignment restrictions on classes – as per the rules of Pathfinder, monks must be lawful, barbarians must be either chaotic or neutral, druids must be neutral, paladins must be lawful, etc. And while these official rules-as-written restrictions played an important part in shaping my methodological interpretation of the lawful-chaotic axis…they just aren’t tremendously interesting in terms of applying it after the fact, since there remains so little conceptual wiggle room.

On the other hand, in hindsight, it seems to me that thinking of lawful and chaotic alignments in this way suggests that some alignments might be much more common or plausible for some classes than others, even when there is no formal alignment restriction.

For example, if we do think of lawful creatures as those who apply internal discipline and focus in order to exert power and chaotic creatures as those who exert power by “unleashing” themselves somehow…then it seems likely we’ll find wizards to be much more often lawful than chaotic (since wizards practice magic through careful study and knowledge) and sorcerers to be much more often chaotic than lawful (since sorcerers practice magic by tapping into and releasing latent arcane energy within themselves).

At first glance, this observation might look like a real problem for my view: in the spirit of my “open question” requirement and not wanting to limit the possible combination of original and interesting characters beyond what is strictly prohibited by the rules, I (and hopefully most others) would not want to endorse an interpretation of the alignment system which prohibited, say, lawful sorcerers and chaotic wizards.

That being said, I don’t think that my view actually does imply any such prohibition – at most, it suggests that certain non-restricted class/alignment combinations are more likely or more common than others, but not that any are actually prohibited. So there can still be chaotic wizards and lawful sorcerers, etc., so long as we can tell interesting and plausible stories about how their abilities accord with their methodological alignments.

Of course, many classes are not going to have any obvious favouring towards lawful or chaotic at all – for instance, fighters (to my mind) make just as much sense whether they’re focused and studied soldiers or intuitive, wild-eyed warriors who fight from the gut. It’s entirely possible that most classes might even fall into this kind of category: just as likely to be lawful or chaotic as to be good or evil (at least with regard to the general population of adventurers/creatures with class levels).

With that all out of the way, I thought I’d spend the rest of this post presenting a few ideas I’ve had about how to interpret both lawful and chaotic versions of various classes which do strike me as favouring either lawful or chaotic alignments. Hopefully, some of this might inspire a future character (of these classes or others), or might perhaps lend some new perspective to an existing character.

Sorcerers and Wizards

After all of the above, I feel like I’ve covered what chaotic sorcerers and lawful wizards would look like, i.e., exactly what you would imagine. But what about a lawful sorcerer? I see this as someone whose bloodline magic lies rather dormant, but who can, through intense focus and sheer force of will/strength of character (as demonstrated through that high Charisma score), access that latent magic and shape it as he pleases. A chaotic wizard, on the other hand, might be a highly intelligent mage who obsessively studies magic and just can’t help herself – when she gets to casting, she just geeks out like crazy (ever met someone who just can’t stop talking about, say, the American Civil War once someone absentmindedly mentions Robert E. Lee or maybe just pulls out a US $5 bill?), with no regard for how much the people around her might actually care about magic. It’s not quite out of control…but nor can she really help herself, either…

Oracles and Clerics

In many ways, it should come as no surprise that oracles’ and clerics’ alignment tendencies more or less reflect those of sorcerers and wizards (especially when it comes to oracles). The only real hiccup here comes with the alignment restriction of clerics, who must be within one alignment step of their deity’s alignment. This poses little problem for clerics of lawful and neutral gods – these are probably still going to tend more toward the lawful side of things, due to the dedication and commitment normally required to be a cleric. For clerics of chaotic deities, though, the story is not so simple. I imagine that these priests exalt in a kind of Dionysian delight in the worship of their gods (sometimes a violent delight, sometimes whimsical, and so on), in contrast with the rather more Apollonian worshipers of lawful gods. While devotion of this kind might be unfamiliar to many modern western players, it’s by no means incoherent…so there’s no real problem with chaotic clerics after all.


Rogues are often portrayed as the very image of chaotic characters, from CG freedom-fighting Robin Hood-types to CE sadistic assassins who love nothing more than the idea of plunging a whole nation into internecine warfare through ruthless murder. And yet, on a methodological account of the lawful-chaotic axis, it makes more sense (if anything) to see them as lawful – the acrobatics, lockpicking, stealth, spycraft, and precision sneak attacks that are the very bread and butter of rogues everywhere seem like exactly the sort of thing that come from long hours of practice and careful focus, making them lawful on my view. This might actually be the most obvious of this type of objection to the methodological approach – I freely admit that if a view of alignment doesn’t allow for chaotic rogues, then it is obviously false, by reductio. Luckily, I don’t think that I am committed to saying anything like this, or really anything stronger than that rogues can be and often are lawful (which actually speaks well of the methodological view). In the case of chaotic rogues, we need only appeal to Pathfinder’s own (albeit little-known and rather hidden away) list of random starting ages for different races and classes. This listing breaks classes up into “Intuitive,” “Self-Taught,” and “Trained,” and then places rogues in the “Intuitive” category, right alongside such straightforwardly chaotic (on my view) classes as barbarians, oracles, and sorcerers. This suggests that, at least as far as Paizo are concerned, rogues are not necessarily highly disciplined or forged by careful training; rather, their abilities are often the result of some combination of natural talent, affinity, and intuition, coupled with the easy athleticism of youth. In this way, it makes as much sense to think of rogues as methodologically chaotic as methodologically lawful.

Now, we could go on doing this for every class and archetype, but 1) for many classes, the interpretation should be fairly obvious based on what we’ve already gone through, and 2) that would get pretty boring and tedious. That said, I’m very excited to see how the rest of you view this application of the lawful-chaotic axis, and whether you think there are some important possible cases or objections I’ve overlooked, especially as it pertains to other classes. And, of course, it’s always fun to think about what kind of unanticipated in-game consequences revisionist interpretations like this might have on PCs, NPCs, and other game elements.

Of Law and Chaos VI: Is Lawful Good Better Than Chaotic Good?

This is the sixth post in our series on the metaethics and moral standing of the lawful-chaotic alignment axis in Pathfinder. To start with the series’ introductory post, click here.

In the previous post, I argued that while his arguments are valid, Jon Cogburn is ultimately wrong to think that it is conceptually impossible to be Chaotic Good. In this post, I’m going to start looking at a corollary question from that topic, both milder and perhaps more slippery than the hard line Cogburn takes: even if we accept that Chaotic Good is a legitimate alignment, is it not possible that lawful beings (specifically Lawful Good beings) still might have a greater capacity for goodness than chaotic beings?

I should be clear here: this is not a question about whether LG beings are more common than CG beings, or whether lawful creatures are more likely to be good than chaotic ones. Those are, to my mind, empirical/psychological/statistical questions, generally outside the purview of responsible philosophical inquiry. What I’m interested in here is a different kind of question: is there a conceptual reason to think that the best possible CG creature might not be as good as the best possible LG creature? In other words: is the maximum amount of goodness possible for a LG creature higher than for a CG creature?

As you might expect, this question is going to hang largely on how we define “goodness”…and a complete answer to that 9th-level-spell of a question is not going to be forthcoming here. We should however, make one important distinction that can easily be lost when discussing this matter in English, largely because of a quirk of the English language that really increases the risk of equivocation on this topic – “good” can refer to two related but distinct moral concepts.

The first we might call “value goodness,” and this refers (without trying to define it too specifically here) to the amount of stuff that we value. The antonym of this type of good is “bad;” examples of this type of goodness might include good, brave acts like protecting the innocent and giving to charity, but would also include more general types of goodness like beautiful sunsets, hard-earned knowledge, peace, and compassion.

The second concept here we might call “moral goodness,” and it applies specifically to acts which are capable of moral evaluation. So heroic and charitable acts are also (presumably) morally good, in addition to being “value good,” while things like sunsets and knowledge are not morally good. It’s not that they’re morally bad; rather, they’re just not the kind of thing capable of moral evaluation, even if they might have normative value. The antonym of this type of goodness is not “bad” but “evil.”

So while that was a rather quick trip across a topic which has occupied some of the greatest metaethicists in history for tens of thousands of words, we’re hopefully a little bit clearer now on this question.

More explicitly, I think that we’re asking not whether LG creatures are capable of more value goodness but whether they’re capable of more moral goodness. Sure, value goodness is important, and there’s certainly no harm in asking about creatures’ relative capacity for producing value goodness…but 1) that’s probably more of an empirical question than we’re really interested in here (it usually is when we ask it about things in the real world, and I have no reason to think that it would be otherwise for Pathfinder), and 2) since LG and CG creatures are contrasted not with “lawful bad” and “chaotic bad” but with “lawful evil” and “chaotic evil,” assuming that we’re talking about anything other than moral goodness here strikes me as pretty equivocal.

Alright, so now we’re ready to look at a much more refined and focused version of our main question: “Are LG creatures conceptually capable of a higher maximum amount of moral goodness than CG creatures?”

Great! Now that we’ve properly refined the question, we can see how simple the answer is going to be!

Ah, almost gotcha! Made you flinch, anyway…

You almost certainly know the move I’m going to make at this point: in what does moral goodness even consist? How can we even begin to measure moral goodness? And that doesn’t even take into account Pathfinder’s byzantine and often rather frustrating (or at least confusing) disconnect between the moral and the metaphysical when it comes to alignment

As usual, I don’t have any simple or easy answers to this kind of major metaethical question. There are proposed answers out there, of course, but the arguments for them tend these days to be long and technical, with no one answer yet rising to dominance, so it’s simply not worth going into in this context. Suffice it to say that any time someone offers a promising answer, it tends not to be a simple one, and any time someone offers a simple/easy answer to that kind of question, it tends not to be a promising one (that goes for pretty much all important questions in ethics, as I mentioned when this whole project first got started).

That being said, perhaps we could use a placeholder for moral goodness that might at least let us talk about our more focused question here today. In that spirit, let M stand for that in which moral goodness consists: the more of M a creature produces, the more moral goodness results, and vice versa. And let there be no change in levels of moral goodness (again, whatever that means) without a corresponding change in M – we’re just supposing, for the sake of argument, that M is conceptually identical with moral goodness and/or any properties that implies.

With all of that finally set up, is there any conceptual reason to believe that, all other things being equal, a lawful character (one who marshalls her inner resources by focusing and disciplining herself), has a higher maximum capacity for M than a chaotic character (one who accomplishes tasks by unleashing or releasing any normally bridled inner resources)?

Surprisingly (to myself as much as to anyone), I find that after going through all the clarificatory exercises above, I find myself tending towards answering “yes” to this question, though in an admittedly mild and lukewarm way. Don’t get me wrong: CG creatures are certainly capable of tremendous M, and a truly good chaotic character is going to produce more M than a largely indifferent lawful character practically every time.

Nevertheless, there is a sense in which focus and discipline can convey a sense of consistency which is much harder to square with the “unleashing” characteristic of chaotic creatures. Demonstrate that kind of consistency effectively enough, and a character who is appropriately lawful can start to embody a principle of some kind, to stand for something by virtue of that effort and consistency. That, in itself, can be a rather inspiring source of moral goodness.

But that, I think, remains a largely empirical point. More conceptually (and relevantly for us), discipline and effort in working for M can embody a type of moral goodness in and of itself, which is hard to access for chaotic characters as I’ve described them. There is something to be said for those who have to work to be heroes, who produce M not because it’s easy for them but in spite of how difficult it is. We tend to give people more esteem, to see them as morally better, when they’ve done the difficult but right thing, rather than the easy but right thing. This is the reason why most people think that morality requires free will: if we can’t do anything other than what we do, then what’s the point of moral praise or blame? More softly: if doing the right thing is easy for you, then are you truly as morally good as the person who does the same thing, but for whom it was difficult?*

It is because of this characteristic of M (whatever other characteristics it may have) that I think it is, in fact, possible for lawful characters to have a higher maximum capacity for moral goodness than chaotic characters. At the same time, though, I don’t want to overplay my hand: while I’ve emphasized this source of M in order to make my point, I don’t want to suggest that moral goodness is only possible in adverse conditions. Chaotic characters are certainly capable of tremendous moral goodness in all kinds of ways; they are just (to my mind) less capable of this very specific source of M than lawful characters, and I can’t quite think of any equivalent way in which chaotic characters are capable of M but lawful characters aren’t.

That being said, this strikes me as the precise kind of scenario where creative thinking might well reveal some stuff that just hasn’t occurred to me at all, so I’m interested to hear what you have to say! Have I overstepped significantly here? Or have I perhaps overlooked some important conceptual element of what it means to be chaotic? I look forward to your comments, while gearing up for the next post, which will (most likely) be about how we ought to think of the lawful-chaotic alignment axis with regard to certain kinds of classes that don’t actually have relevant formal alignment restrictions.


*There is certainly a school of thinkers here who are likely to disagree with me. They are known as “virtue ethicists,” and they might argue that the person whose character has been shaped such that doing right is easier for her is actually the better person. Virtue ethics has a lot going for it, and if this kind of view coheres with you, I’m happy to consider arguments; my own metaethical intuitions, however, make it hard for me to accept that a person who has to put very little effort into M is worthy of more respect than someone who has to put in a great deal.

Of Law and Chaos V: Is There Such a Thing as Chaotic Good?

This is the fifth post in our series on the metaethics and moral standing of the lawful-chaotic alignment axis in Pathfinder. To start with the series’ introductory post, click here.

By this point, I think we’re starting to get a handle on how to think about the law-chaos axis in Pathfinder in a helpful and consistent way. It may be rather revisionist, but I think that the revisionism is thoroughly justified in this case, given that the accepted interpretations of lawful and chaotic alignments just don’t seem to stand up to sustained conceptual analysis – they’re either unacceptably inconsistent, or they’re incompatible with some of the values of openness and pluralism we should want with regard to the kinds of characters which are available to Pathfinder players.

That’s all just to say, essentially, that I’m happy with my revisionist interpretation of the lawful-chaotic axis so far, and willing to keep running with it. The question before us today is whether my interpretation can do something really useful: save Chaotic Good.

At this point, your natural question is probably “Why should we need to save CG?” And, as usual, this is actually two (at least) entirely different questions.

The first might be more clearly phrased as “Why should we want to save CG?” – that is, what is it that we value about the CG alignment that should make us want to save it? This question is rather easy to answer: people like both the idea and the practice of playing CG characters, as well as playing characters in a world which contains CG characters. Even if you’re not attracted to, say, the archetype of the Robin Hood-like rogue who lives in the moment, well outside the law, helping the common folk wherever she encounters them according to the whims of her freewheeling yet inevitably strong conscience, you probably have fun playing an LG paladin who exasperatedly accompanies this character on her adventures, trying to set right any unexpectedly innocent havok which inevitably shows up in her wake…or something else like that. The point is that, like any alignment, CG can bring more fun flavour to the world of the game, and that alone is reason enough to want to preserve it.

But if we’re being frank, the more relevant question on your mind is probably something more like “Why should we think that CG needs saving? Why should we think that it’s under any kind of threat in the first place?”

The answer to that question is more complicated, and actually lies in the realm of previous scholarship on the nature of alignment in roleplaying games.* In his article “Beyond Chaotic Good and Lawful Evil?” Jon Cogburn argues that “there are no Chaotic Good entities” (40)** because a “creature who sincerely willed the end of lawfulness as such cannot consistently will the lessening of pain and increase of pleasure, because chaos is intrinsically painful.” (40) What’s more, while I won’t go into the details here (they’re rather beside the point for our discussion), Cogburn’s argument strikes me as a good one, and I have no important critique of the structure of his argument per se.

That being said, I disagree with him about CG – I think that CG creatures very much can and do exist. As such, our disagreements comes about because we start from radically different places with regard to our interpretation of the alignment axes. So while I have no problem with the structure of his argument, and think it follows from his premises, I reject those premises in favour of my own interpretation of the law-chaos axis, for reasons laid out in a previous post.

Cogburn’s interpretation is certainly an interesting one: to put it briefly, he sees the law-chaos axis as being a reflection of underlying intentions and values understood deontologically, via a Kantian approach to a character’s expression of will (36-37), while the good-evil axis is a reflection of a character’s moral actions understood through a utilitarian approach focused on the production and maximization of good and bad (37-38). It’s a novel and theoretically fascinating interpretation, and as I said, I do think that his dismissal of CG follows from these premises.

The issue I have is the same one I expressed in that previous post linked above, in keeping with metaethical values which have guided my approach to the law-chaos axis more widely: all other things being equal, a creature’s position on the law-chaos axis should not in itself influence its position on the good-evil axis, and vice versa.

So while taking a Kantian approach to understanding what it means to be lawful or chaotic might be theoretically elegant and interesting, there’s just no denying that Kant himself intended for his work to be about morality, and not just law and chaos. As such, the results of this kind of analysis can’t help but bleed over into questions of good and evil, thus muddying the waters in a conceptually unacceptable way…if, that is, you accept my metaethical position about keeping these two alignment axes separate.

If you do, then you’re likely to have adopted my revisionist interpretation of the lawful-chaotic axis, and CG isn’t a problem for you, because Cogburn’s argument doesn’t get off the ground without those premises you haven’t accepted. If you don’t accept my interpretation, though, you may well be attracted to an argument like Cogburn’s (it strikes me as highly plausible, if you’re less revisionist than I am)…in which case, you may have to accept the sacrifice of CG as a legitimate alignment.

Now, I realize that this post is likely to inspire (aside from boredom) a lot of controversy between the two horns of this dilemma: either you accept a more old-school, traditional interpretation of the law-chaos axis, but probably lose CG as a coherent alignment possibility…or you get on board with my revisionist interpretation of what it means to be lawful or chaotic, keep CG no problem, but reconceptualize an important part of the alignment system as I’ve suggested.

I’ve made very clear which horn of the dilemma I’m willing to support; what about you? Or have I (and probably Cogburn as well) got this whole thing backwards, and there actually is no dilemma at all? I’m excited to hear you chime in!


*The article primarily referenced in this post is actually about alignment in Dungeons & Dragons, not Pathfinder specifically. However, since Pathfinder’s alignment system is inherited more or less directly from Dungeons & Dragons, all the arguments in this instance should apply to both systems, so I will continue to refer to the article with reference to Pathfinder.

**Cogburn, Jon. “Beyond Chaotic Good and Lawful Evil?” In Dungeons & Dragons and Philosophy: Raiding the Temple of Wisdom. Edited by Jon Cogburn and Mark Silcox. Open Court: Chicago, 2012; all further references to this work will be in parentheses by page number.

Of Law and Chaos IV: Can a Chaotic Alignment Justify Evil Actions?

This is the fourth post in our series on the metaethics and moral standing of the lawful/chaotic alignment axis in Pathfinder. To start with the series’ introductory post, click here.

We’ve all seen it, probably many times over. For my part, I saw it first in the very first campaign in which I played, and it’s been a fixture of more or less eyebrow-raising characters ever since. More than just silly actions taken because “Hey! That’s what my character would do!” – I’m talking about Chaotic Neutral characters who have little-to-no compunction about going on what amount to criminal rampages in the name of being justified in doing so by what seem like the rather lax restrictions of their alignment. So today, in honour of happy-go-lucky CN rogues and gleefully lootful murderhobos everywhere, we are addressing the question of whether/to what extent a chaotic alignment might allow and/or justify evil actions.*

To some extent, we should also note that answering this question (or at least working towards doing so) will help us get a handle on just what it means to be CN, that trickiest and most slippery of alignments. After all, while we are ostensibly just talking about whether chaotic alignment can justify evil actions, this just isn’t a question for CG- and CE-aligned characters. To whatever extent alignment can have any kind of explanatory or justificatory role regarding character morality (recall that there are good reasons to think that the entire notion of alignment is rather incoherent on this question, and that alignment is, in a moral sense, little more than a shorthand label at best), CG characters need not worry about this question, since their aversion to evil comes from their being good, having nothing to do with being chaotic. Similarly, CE characters by definition have little or no compunction about evil actions, but this is because they are evil, not because they are chaotic.

So this question is really about CN characters, first and foremost. Let me reiterate, though, that key point that every good roleplayer and GM knows, and which very much holds true here: alignment is not character, and a character is not just her alignment. Whatever we might be able to say about alignment, it should leave rather a lot open to interpretation, such that many different kinds of characters with many different kinds of motivations could all consistently fall under the rubric of CN. A specific alignment might well imply some restrictions about what a character would not do or believe, but it would very rarely (if ever) specify what a character would do or believe.

Now, with that out of the way, we can address this question more or less head-on: is the chaotic element of a CN character’s alignment somehow sufficient for justifying evil behaviour from that character?

To answer this, let’s take a moment to recall how we’re interpreting what it means to be chaotic. For our purposes, a chaotic alignment implies a methodological approach to exercising power and accomplishing tasks which includes the unleashing or unbridling of abilities and/or resources. Being chaotic has less to do with one’s moral or political beliefs and behaviour and more to do with how one goes about acting in accordance with one’s beliefs and motivations.

So can a CN character indeed do evil by virtue of being chaotic, on this interpretation of the concept? In a rather important sense, the answer has to be “Of course!” Whatever a character’s motivations might be, she is almost certainly going to commit evil actions at least occasionally, unless she is specifically committed to doing good (and even sometimes then, albeit by accident). It probably won’t be done very consistently or very severely (otherwise you’re probably talking about a drift into CE territory), but it will almost certainly happen at least occasionally. This is a consequence of having a neutral alignment on the good/evil axis, rather than being chaotic; frankly, it’s probably true of most living humans, and hardly limited to CN Pathfinder creatures.

Of course, the exact same thing could be said of LN characters as well, so it seems that this sense of the question isn’t really speaking to the real issue. The real question we want to look at is: does having a chaotic alignment justify/explain evil actions better or more often, relative to a lawful alignment?

This is also a more difficult question, and I suspect that reliable answers to it will come down to some more detailed questions about psychology and sociology, rather than philosophical questions. That being said, I’m still willing to hazard an educated guess, which should at least provide the shadow of an answer.

We’ve already established that we are primarily contrasting LN and CN alignments. By definition, these alignments are neither tremendously concerned with doing good (that would, presumably, make them good-aligned) nor thoroughly evil (again, that would presumably make then evil-aligned), such that they probably would do evil occasionally, under certain circumstances, but not very often and not without qualification – saying more than just these vague hand-wavings is difficult without limiting the diverse range of motivations and personalities that such characters might have.
That being said, if evil done by neutral characters is usually not deliberate, then it strikes me as rather plausible to say that CN characters would likely do evil more often than their LN counterparts, given that chaotic characters tend to act by unleashing themselves and forsaking internal control, while lawful characters exercise power by focusing themselves and seizing internal control. As a matter of empirical psychology, I feel like the latter method is just less likely to result in things going wrong accidentally…though, of course, if the facts of empirical psychology don’t actually end up supporting this conclusion, it will not be saved by philosophy.

So we’ve now come to some kind of an answer to this question, lukewarm and largely empirical though it may be: having a chaotic alignment does indeed suggest that a character would probably do more evil than a similar character with a lawful alignment. But this would only be because she might be more prone to unintended consequences, and not because of anything inherently evil about being chaotic. As for those players who appeal to their characters’ CN alignments as a way of justifying amoral romps across the countryside, doing as they please and taking what they will without concern for anyone or anything else…no, a chaotic alignment does not justify any such thing. A character who behaves this way may or may not be chaotic, but she is most definitely evil, and that is the element of alignment at work in these instances.

My final answer, then, to the question of whether a chaotic alignment can justify evil actions has to be a paraphrase from Reverend Lovejoy: “Short answer: ‘no,’ with an ‘if.’ Long answer: ‘yes,’ with a ‘but.’”

So we now have a much better handle on what it means to be CN (and perhaps even LN). In the next post, we’ll have a close look at CG, and consider whether that alignment is even coherent or possible at all…and we’ll finally engage with some previous scholarship in the intersection of RPGs and moral philosophy while doing so! Stay tuned!


*Incidentally, acknowledgement for this topic is owed to “Josh,” who jumped on the introductory post for this series to ask “Have you considered discussing the phenomenon of players that use ‘chaotic’ alignment to justify evil actions?” Well Josh, your question is the reason we’re looking at this today (and not some other day, in any case).