This is the third installment of my introductory series on understanding the nature of alignment in Pathfinder. To start at the beginning of the series, see the introductory post here.
If indeed alignments are something more than just a type of shorthand label, what might that something be? There are quite a few possible and proposed answers there, so let’s just jump in and have a look at another rather common view.
The world of Pathfinder is filled with gods and other beings possessing divine power. They act, they have concerns and personalities, and they are capable of granting rather significant boons upon their followers and punishments upon their foes. They are also all affiliated very directly with a single alignment. Furthermore, the powers they grant to their followers is pretty clearly dependent upon those followers’ alignments – a chaotic neutral hopeful cleric simply has no hope of getting powers from the lawful neutral god Abadar.
So maybe alignments are just a way of talking about “the will of the gods.” On this view, when we say that a character is lawful good, we mean nothing more or less than “this character acts in ways approved of/recommended by one or more lawful good gods;” when a spell has the [evil] descriptor, that just means that evil gods are okay with that spell being cast, but other gods aren’t. And so on for all other uses of the language of alignment.
Interestingly, this kind of proposal for the meaning of moral language is the subject of one of the oldest and best-known philosophical arguments of all time: Plato’s Euthyphro. And since plenty of what Plato had to say there applies here (and since I’m not quite full enough of myself to take credit for work by Plato), it makes sense to apply Euthyphro here.
In this dialogue, Plato is trying to figure out what might be meant by “piety;” i.e., what does it mean to say that someone or something is “pious”? Now, if you’re thrown off by that rather archaic “piety” language, you can just replace the word “pious” with “good” in the rest of what I’ll say, and the argument should still hold – many scholars interpret Plato more or less this way in any case. For the bulk of the dialogue, the main answer he considers is that what is pious is just “what is loved by the gods.” Simple, right?
The problem (the main one, anyway) is that this doesn’t tell us anything particularly helpful about piety. What we really want to know, after all, is not just what makes the gods happy (if that’s what piety is) but what it is about pious actions that makes the gods giggle so. And we’re not helped by saying, effectively, that “what pleases the gods is what pleases the gods” – that definition is hopelessly circular and doesn’t at all help us understand what it really means for something to be pious, i.e. what it is about pious actions that the gods love.*
If we understand this in terms of alignment and Pathfinder (the analogy isn’t perfect, but it’s still remarkably close, and good enough to work, if you ask me), we then have to ask ourselves: if “neutral good” just means “that which pleases Shelyn, Sarenrae, and/or other neutral good deities,” how does that actually tells us what “neutral good” means? What is it about neutral good actions/spells/characters/breakfast pastries/whatever that makes Sarenrae smile?
Well, we hardly learn anything helpful (or meaningful, even) from answering that “they’re neutral good” here, since that’s just saying “what makes Sarenrae smile is what makes Sarenrae smile.” That’s hopelessly circular, and obviously so. Ditto for all the other alignments and deities: just plug in the right alignment and deity names and bingus (Latin for “bingo”), the Euthyphro problem takes this idea down.
So then, we now have good reason to think that the alignments are not simply 1) shorthand labels or 2) expressions of divine opinion. That’s two possibilities down – check out my next post to see what the chances are that the next idea is the correct one!
*I am drastically simplifying the breadth and depth of Plato’s arguments in Euthyphro, one of the best and most compelling of his dialogues (it’s actually my personal favourite), which has kept the attention of scholars and thoughtful layfolk for millennia. It’s also fewer than twenty pages long and public domain, so if you ever feel like treating your brain to an engaging but accessible workout, you could do worse than clicking here and reading Euthyphro.