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.