Understanding Alignment III: Are Alignments Just the Will of the Gods?

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.

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9 Replies to “Understanding Alignment III: Are Alignments Just the Will of the Gods?”

  1. I find myself wondering how things would play out when the followers of two good-aligned deities come into conflict. Obviously, such a development seems inevitable with evil deities, and neutral deities can likewise come into conflict, but what happens when the agendas of two gods of good run counter to each other? Their “goodness” would probably mean that they would try to influence their followers to work things out with each other, but what if the differences prove irreconcilable? What if a paladin of Iomedae felt compelled to quell a rebellion against the lawful (if often heavy-handed) justice of the Hellknights lead by radical followers of Milani? Which side is the “good” side in that scenario?

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    1. Thanks for the comment, Steve! Of course, this question applies far more widely than just to Pathfinder, and it actually touches on the subject matter of my doctoral dissertation…which is to say that it interests me rather deeply and more generally, and that I plan write some dedicated blog posts about this kind of thing some time down the line. It also means that I don’t want to spend too much time on it here, except to say that an integral part of good moral epistemology (in this context, how good-aligned characters come to reliable beliefs about morality) is the recognition that reasonable and good people can disagree, and that the appropriate attitude to take is one of pluralist humility. No one is right all the time, everyone makes mistakes about morality, and we are all better off if a range of different voices and values are considered respectfully, even (especially?) if those values are in some amount of tension.

      Maybe conflict between the Iomedaeans and Milanians (is that the demonymn?) is inevitable in this instance (or maybe not). In any case, we can say that insofar as any agents are dogmatic and filled with self-righteous certainty, rather than being open to considering the views and motivations of their opponents in a way that demonstrates the epistemic values of pluralist humility, that agent is wrong.

      I recognize that this answer is hardly complete, and that abundant details remain to be settled. But, as with virtually all questions in ethics, you should be far more suspicious of simple, quick, easy, seemingly complete answers than incomplete and complex ones that only scratch the surface of difficult questions like these. Better to have an incomplete answer but be one step closer to the truth than a misleading yet satisfying one!

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  2. Apologies, but I’m having trouble making sense out of the argument as presented here. You seem, so far as I can tell, to be arguing that because “Neutral Good means things that make Sarenrae happy” doesn’t tell us what it is ABOUT those actions pleases Sarenrae, it therefore follows that the label “Neutral Good” cannot mean that. Which… I don’t see how that conclusion follows from that premise.

    I mean, leave the words “Neutral Good” to the side here. Say we were talking about a word I completely made up because I very specifically WANTED a word to describe the concept of “things that make Sarenrae happy”. Say the word I made up is… “Sarenraehappymakingstuff”. But what would stop you from offering the same “proof” as with “Neutral Good”? That “Sarenraehappymakingstuff” can’t actually categorize things that make Sarenrae happy, because it doesn’t inherently tell you anything about WHY anything that falls under that category does make her happy, and is thus circular?

    Am I making any sense here?

    Why is a term inherently invalid, if the determination of whether something falls under its umbrella has to be made empirically, instead of philosophically? Okay, so the word “Sarenraehappymakingstuff” doesn’t inherently tell us enough to make a flat determination in and of itself, but that doesn’t mean we can’t do a given action, then cast the Commune spell or whatever, and say “hey, Sarenrae, just checking, were you happy with that?” Similarly, one of her Paladins could cast Detect Evil with the power she provides, and if it pings, we could get a pretty confident bead that the subject is likely NOT living in a way that makes her happy overall.

    And, I mean, there’s also nothing stopping people from over time noticing patterns, and being able to get a pretty good handle on what is likely to make her happy or not, even without asking, and correlating those likely factors to aspects of her character as we best understand it. So it’s not like we need to do that sort of thing every time. It’s pretty easy to get a general idea. But that general idea would still be only an approximation, if the fundamental identity of the concept lay in something as complex as an expression of what a sapient being such as Sarenrae values.

    Either way, I don’t see how any of this proves that either the term “Sarenraehappymakingstuff” or, alternatively, the term “Neutral Good” fundamentally can’t refer to actions as defined by what pleases her (or others) simply because such a definition wouldn’t (in and of itself) give us a comprehensive grasp of what actions would fall inside it without other, outside information. Is that a requirement of terms, that they need not be supplemented by outside experimental data to determine whether something is a member of that set or not?

    (Also, just for the record, I’m not even driving a stake into the ground that “what makes Sarenrae happy” is what Alignment DOES mean in Pathfinder, necessarily. I’m just trying to understand the specific argument posited in this post. Since even if that isn’t actually what “Neutral Good” means, I’m having a hard time understanding how the above argument demonstrates that.)

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    1. Thanks very much, claymade! Apologies for the late response; it’s been a busy few days.
      So, to some extent you’ll have to forgive the format: an untold number of volumes have been written over the millenia about the Euthyphro argument, which is complex and multifaceted even on its own. So in the interest of keeping this post reasonably digestible (i.e., less than ten thousand words or so) I have definitely glossed over some of the finer and more subtle points of the argument (see the footnote to the initial post). Further disclaimer: I will still be doing so in this reply…but hopefully it’ll go a little further toward answering this specific concern of yours.
      First of all, let’s be clear that the issue here (as presented) is not that we need non-empirical definitions; we need non-circular definitions. Empirical terms can have tonnes of useful semantics that tell us all kinds of nice things about the world, but viciously circular definitions don’t do that (I’m not going to even go into the complexities of virtuously circular definitions; that’s a whole other can of worms).
      So then why can’t we just say that NG (for example) in Pathfinder is an empirical term, defined in terms of the experienced will of Sarenrae and Shelyn, tested by way of commune spells and paladin pinging and other instantiations of these gods’ wills, and call it a day?
      The short answer is that…well, we absolutely could…but then we would lose something about both the semantics of alignment language and the moral worth of the gods of Pathfinder that seems rather important. The idea is that we would accept a simple, full-stop definition at the expense of something far greater: an accurate definition, not to mention the normativity of alignment language.
      Let me say a little more. If we’re to continue applying the Euthyphro argument (and I’m not saying that’s a total knockdown; there are other interpretations of how the gods work with alignment that just aren’t susceptible to this argument, as you can see in some of the later posts and more yet to come), then we are operating on the idea that there is actually something good about the Good alignments, something evil about the Evil alignments, etc. As a result, there is something about the good deities that makes them worthy of worship, and something about the evil deities that makes them less worthy (in a moral sense here: put another way, there is something that, ceteris paribus, makes a Desna worshiper a better person than a Rovagug worshiper). The language of alignment should be tapping into this distinction; maybe not mapping on 100% perfectly, but not totally unrelated either.
      Alas, if we then say that what it means that something is NG is that Sarenrae likes it, then that tells us nothing about why Sarenrae liking this thing, as a morally worthy being, makes it better than something Norgorber likes. They both have wills, right? They both like and dislike things? When one likes something, we call it “NG;” when the other likes something, we call it “NE;” aside from that, these terms have no meaning!
      But that’s exactly the problem: we came in here already knowing that these terms have more meaning than that, based on the way we use them, the way actions affect them, the way a creature’s moral behaviour maps onto its alignment, and for all kinds of other reasons.
      In conclusion, then (and, again, I have radically glossed over things here): there actually is no problem with using a term like “Sarenraehappymakingstuff” in the empirical, totally non-normative way that you propose. It’s a rather helpful term, actually (and there already exists a more general one that can easily be applied to Pathfinder: “pious” and “piety”). The problem is that this definition won’t work for the alignment language we already have, because that language is not created de novo ex nihil but rather is already in use, with complex semantics that we are looking to parse, discover, and critique, but not wholeheartedly change without regard for how these terms are actually used.

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  3. “When one likes something, we call it ‘NG;’ when the other likes something, we call it ‘NE;’ aside from that, these terms have no meaning!”

    Well… sure. If Alignment *did* in fact mean “the will of the gods”, then aside from that meaning, it would have no other meaning. That’s pretty tautological. You’re not going to convince many people *away* from believing that Alignment just means X by pointing out that if it *did* mean X, it wouldn’t mean something else *other* than X. If the contention they’re making is that it does mean just X, that shouldn’t come as a particularly huge shock to them.

    “But that’s exactly the problem: we came in here already knowing that these terms have more meaning than that, based on the way we use them, the way actions affect them, the way a creature’s moral behaviour maps onto its alignment, and for all kinds of other reasons.”

    Did we? If we “came in here already knowing that these terms have more meaning than that” then what is the point of blog post? I mean, yes, it’s very easy to prove that Alignment doesn’t just mean “the will of the gods” if our starting axioms are that “these terms have more meaning than” the will of the gods, but it feels a little disingenuous to assume the conclusion that way.

    Similarly, while for some people “the way we use” the terms might indicate a belief that it means more, the fact that a multi-post blog series was even necessary to debate about the terms’ definitions indicates that “the way we use” them is not particularly constant and open to different interpretations.

    (For someone who actually does believe Divine Command theory, “the way we use” those terms would likely be very different than someone who didn’t.)

    “…we are operating on the idea that there is actually something good about the Good alignments, something evil about the Evil alignments, etc. As a result, there is something about the good deities that makes them worthy of worship, and something about the evil deities that makes them less worthy (in a moral sense here: put another way, there is something that, ceteris paribus, makes a Desna worshiper a better person than a Rovagug worshiper).”

    This feels, to me, like basically another form of assuming the conclusion before the debate even starts. Because sure! If we assume there actually is an “objective” standard of good and evil such that Desna’s standards and Rovagug’s standards could be “objectively” judged by the (non-god’s-will) standard as better or worse than each other, then it’s pretty obvious that Good and Evil are more than just the Will of the Gods since they can be judged *by* it, and the conclusion of the post is basically just right there in the starting assumptions.

    But again: I don’t think you’re going to convince many people who think that “Alignment is just the will of the gods” by the argument that “assuming that alignment is something *bigger* than just the will of the gods, I can prove that alignment is not just the will of the gods”.

    Nor do I find the existence of such an “objective” means of judging them both particularly plausible in the first place. In the end, when we’re talking about moral determinations of any kind, those moral determinations are going to be value judgements made by value-judging-entities capable of doing so. The “is-ought problem” pretty much prevents any other route of reaching such determinations.

    Even if we assumed, for the sake of argument, that the calculation behind a Paladin’s Detect Evil spell wasn’t Iomedae’s personal value judgements–even if we assumed it was something more impersonal, like “the will of the universe”–that doesn’t actually change the fundamental problem one whit. It just means you’re presuming a somewhat different choice to put a somewhat less humanized kind of “judging entity” in the “god” spot to replace the ones we were previously talking about.

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    1. Hi again claymade! Thanks for this!

      So, first thing: at this point, if you’re still not on board, then you might want to consider going directly to Plato’s dialogue on this, plus the reams of secondary literature. After all, this is not the appropriate venue for deep and detailed scholarship (how am I supposed to do that without footnotes and more complex formatting?!?). I also can’t recommend highly enough the /r/askphilosophy subreddit for further detailed questions on this: those folks are patient, knowledgeable, clear, and rather pluralistic, so I think you could get all the answers you’re hoping for and more there! But I’ll at least see if I can get at a few of your concerns here before I have to move on…

      For one, remember that our goal here is metaethical, not lexical. To paraphrase Kant, we all actually have a pretty good understanding of alignment, as we use and apply these concepts all the time – this is about getting a better conceptual grasp on these notions, not about defining them. We are looking primarily for characterizations which are both intensionally and extensionally satisfying – which means that we already have at least some pretty good ideas of both the intension and the extension of alignment concepts, even if there’s fuzzy stuff at the edges. So what we’re doing when we say that a given definition doesn’t work is not tautological – it’s just that we came in with ideas of what it should be able to do, and it’s not doing that stuff in one way or another. Perhaps we’re expecting too much of these concepts…but that’s a whole other argument entirely. I don’t want to say much more about this here (it really gets at the core, the driving values, the very engine of analytic philosophy, so it’s way beyond the scope of this post)…but if you want to look into the technical elements of this approach more, then deeper reading about “intensionality” and “extensionality” (as logical/semantic concepts) are the way to go.

      As for the separate-but-related topic of whether any of this would convince genuine Divine Command Theorists (DCT)…well, no easy answer there, and the fact that most supporters of DCT are monotheists who believe in a unitary perfect deity, and we’re interested here in limited polytheistic divinities, means we may just be talking apples and oranges. But there this one big problem with DCT that comes from interpretations of the Euthyphro problem, in that most people who want to say that what is good JUST IS what is in accordance with God’s will (i.e., DCT) also want to say that God’s will is laudable, that God’s being omnibenevolent is somehow impressive and makes him worthy of reverence, worship, etc., rather than neglect or even disdain. But on a straightforward reading of DCT, God being omnibenevolent is just another way of saying “God wills things”…and that is hardly obviously laudable. Why should I worship something that just wills things? What’s impressive about that? Is there no reason to praise God (on this view) other than that God might get angry if we don’t? Must we do no more than curry favour with God, like courtiers around a fickle king? Or rather, is there something actually impressive and worthy about the will of God…in which case, a straightforward reading of DCT doesn’t seem to apply (not to say that clever folks haven’t attempted workarounds…but personally I’m not convinced, and in any case that’s way beyond the scope of what we’re doing here).

      As for your anti-naturalism and invocation of Hume’s Guillotine (the far more fun name for the “is-ought gap,” and the one that provides appropriate attribution)…I just don’t really see it applying in Pathfinder, even though it’s one of my favourite subjects in metaethics more generally (I’ve spoken widely, at several different conferences, about how I think the is-ought gap should be interpreted). I’ll be going into detail on this in an upcoming post, but alignment does actually appear to have a causal, metaphysical role in the world of Pathfinder. Arcane spells, for instance, with no obvious divine involvement, can have alignment descriptors and affect the world due solely to their alignment. Put another way, in the world of Pathfinder, it looks like the “ought” side of Hume’s Guillotine already has at least one foot in the door of the “is” side, if not a whole head! And in an upcoming post, we’ll have a look in detail at just how wise it is might be to stick one’s head over the threshold of a guillotine, Humean or otherwise…

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