Understanding Alignment VII: A Dualist Theory of Alignment in Pathfinder

This is the seventh (and final!) part in our ongoing series about trying to get a handle on just what we’re talking about when we talk about alignment. Click here to start at the beginning of the series and read each of the relevant posts so far.

So, there’s something to alignment in Pathfinder which bears resemblance to some kind of physical force. And yet, the intrinsic connection between players and characters, along with Hume’s Falchion, suggest that trying to rely on this interpretation alone leads to a kind of incoherence in alignment as the game is played. Does this mean that we should basically abandon alignment in our games? Or is there some other possibility here, some interpretation, that will allow us to salvage the alignment system in a way that is both conceptually sound and capable of generating more interesting Pathfinder campaigns and characters?

Well, I’m both ever the optimist and pretty pot committed on this one, so my answer to the latter question is definitely “yes!” To see how, let’s start with a couple of premises that I think are safe to assume, given what we’ve been through so far and what we know about alignment and morality in Pathfinder:

Premise One: Alignment is not synonymous with morality.

I think this is actually fairly obvious once you look closely…but I also think that the divergence between these two concepts goes even deeper than first glances would suggest.

The first thing we should notice is that alignment is simply too narrow and simplistic to encompass all that morality entails. There are only nine different alignments, after all, but untold different highly nuanced moral perspectives, and the behaviours that go with them. There are myriad ways to play a Lawful Good paladin, in terms of morality…to say nothing of Chaotic Neutral rogues. The point is that there is more to morality in Pathfinder than alignment.

But the converse is also true! If we take the “physical force” view of alignment seriously (as I think we should), it’s possible to commit acts and enact causal chains which both affect and are affected by alignment, but which do not have an obvious moral dimension (or, at the very least, have some moral dimension which doesn’t seem to line up with the alignment apparently at work, like saving innocent lives with Evil magic). So there is also more to alignment in Pathfinder than morality.

We can safely assume that, whatever their relationship might be, alignment and morality are not synonymous.

Premise Two: Hume’s Falchion remains sharp as ever.

Unfortunately, this second premise is much harder to outright prove than the first one – this is a rather controversial position in contemporary metaethics more broadly, and hardly something I can just take credit for based on the past few blog posts.

Nevertheless, I think it’s safe to say that common wisdom among professional ethicists accepts that either the is-ought gap is unbridgeable, or a satisfactory demonstration that it can be bridged has not yet been provided.

Just to be clear, though, this premise is a purely conceptual one: normative concepts (“ought”-statements) affect only other normative concepts, while descriptive concepts (“is”-statements) affect only affect only other descriptive concepts.

The Solution: Dualism!

With those two premises in our pockets, my solution to this whole problem of alignment is essentially this: “alignment” in Pathfinder actually refers to two different (though admittedly related) concepts.

For future clarity, I’m going to call these two concepts “metaphysical alignment” and “moral alignment.” Metaphysical alignment refers to those alignment effects/attributes which bear a strong resemblance to other physical forces like gravity/mass, or electromagnetism/charge. Moral alignment, meanwhile, actually is a kind of shorthand label (betcha didn’t think that was coming back!) for the entire scope of a character’s moral beliefs, actions, and attitudes; while it doesn’t fully capture all the moral nuance of any creature, it is a quick and simple way of roughly categorizing a creature within a shared conceptual scheme.

With this in mind, it looks like a good deal of the apparent incoherence of alignment in Pathfinder is just caused by equivocating* between metaphysical alignment and moral alignment. And so long as we make sure to distinguish between these two concepts, that incoherence largely just sort of evaporates.

That being said, this doesn’t solve everything, since these two types of alignment seem to be able to affect one another. But metaphysical alignment is (ostensibly) a descriptive concept, while moral alignment is a normative one…so their being able to affect one another appears to dodge Hume’s Falchion, in stark violation of Premise Two!

I’ll admit to not being able to see a way around this problem, other than to suggest that alignment in Pathfinder works sort of like how dualism in the philosophy of mind is supposed to work. That hardly solves anything, because no one really knows how dualism is supposed to work: the idea is that “the mind” is a purely non-physical thing while “the brain,” as part of the body, is a purely physical thing, and while physical and non-physical things don’t normally interact, these two are special and can somehow affect one another, in some mysterious (but real!) way.

Extending the analogy to alignment, the idea is that metaphysical and moral alignment have a special relationship and can mysteriously, uniquely affect one another, in a sort of one-time exception to Hume’s Falchion. And that’s how alignment works in Pathfinder. Ta da!

Now, I understand if this seems a bit ad hoc and incomplete – it’s not a full explanatory story by any means, and raises just as many questions as it answers. But here’s my challenge: we can embrace alignment dualism, and treat the remaining questions (i.e., how in the Abyss can normative and non-normative concepts like these affect one another?!?) not as failings or explanatory gaps (which they absolutely would be in the real world) but as plot hooks for Pathfinder games focused on questions of alignment and morality!

In that spirit, for my next post I’ll be presenting a few character and campaign ideas inspired by this dualist approach to alignment, for fun, interesting, and (best of all!) philosophically sophisticated games. But for the most part, this concludes Detect Alignment’s introductory series on the nature of alignment in Pathfinder.

Thanks very much for bearing with me – I realize this post went a little longer than usual, but I really wanted to wrap it up this time! I promise, the next post will be just hella fun to make up for it!


*Equivocation: A common and highly insidious type of logical fallacy/conceptual mistake, usually caused by mixing up different meanings for the same word. Example: if I say both “Snakes have no legs” and “Gerald the Used Car Salesman is a real snake,” I cannot from this derive “Gerald the Used Car Salesman has no legs,” as this would be equivocating on the term “snake.”

10 Replies to “Understanding Alignment VII: A Dualist Theory of Alignment in Pathfinder”

  1. A theory as to why metaphysical and moral alignment can affect each-other.
    Things we Know:

    – Divination, as a magical practice, exists, and there are spells that allow prediction of the future. Augury, specifically, can tell you “Good results”, “Bad Results” or “Not especially good or bad Results.” Even accepting the branching timelines/many possible futures ideas, this suggests that some events/futures are more likely.
    – When a person dies, the True Neutral Phrasma judges their soul and sends it on to an afterlife. While there are many, I’m going to simplify it to Heaven and Hell for the purposes of examples (with the hope that anyone reading this can extrapolate it outwards from there).
    – Heaven and Hell are places, beings can go there (through Dimensional Teleportation or the like) meaning that they are made of some kind of matter.
    — With the idea of metaphysics of alignment, this suggests that “Good” and “Evil” are properties of matter that operate on a relative axis (like Hot and Cold are opposites of the temperature axis).
    — Presumably, therefore, the Matter in Heaven is overwhelmingly Good.
    – Objects made of matter can have effects on each other. Magnets affect metal, hot objects warm things around them, etc.

    Since Phrasma judges based on a person’s life and actions, this suggests a decision about the grand sum of the morality of their actions. Further, Heaven generally sounds like a reward, bliss and joy and all, whereas Hell sounds like a punishment. Heaven is a “Good (here meaning ‘desirable’) result” whereas Hell is a “Bad (here meaning ‘unwanted’) result” meaning that it could be calculated with Augury (or similar) magics.

    Someone who Pings Good may be affected by the Overwhelming “Good” matter in their likely future, conducted back through their personal timeline and affecting them. If their fate is more unclear they may not Ping Good, because the energy from their timelines is not as clearly one direction or another. Every action they take will be evaluated by Phrasma and will affect the likelihood that their fate conducts “Good” back towards them.

    This still raises the question of “Why do low-level creatures not Ping either way” but I have another answer for that. We know that in Daemon Markets, the Souls of Kings and Heroes are worth more than the Souls of Peasants, suggesting that there is a measurable difference. If we treat this difference as comparable to Size for metaphor’s sake, it is possible that the soul of a High-Level being is “larger” than a common soul.

    A large object that is hot gives off heat that can be easily felt, but a smaller object giving off heat is harder to feel. Apparently, a “larger” soul gives off more “metaphysical radiation” than a “smaller” soul. As a Level 1 spell, Detect Alignment is apparently only able to pick up on a certain amount of “metaphysical radiation”, as a hand is only able to pick up a certain amount of heat when it is six inches away from a hot coffee-pot.

    This was long and complicated and makes a lot of assumptions and plays fast and loose with my understanding of atomic physics and I apologize if it was incoherent, but I hope it works as a handle for Hume’s Falchion.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks very much for this, Jackson! There’s some very interesting and thoughtful stuff here, much of which actually does get around some of the key issues in the is-ought gap…or, at least, it would in real world metaethics.

      There are a number of possible little objections I see coming up here and there with your proposal, but most of them (as far as I can tell now) are not particularly interesting. There is one problem, however, that I think is a bit tough to get around if we’re to adopt this view of the ontology of the link between metaphysical and moral alignment.

      Before I get to that, though, I want to make sure I understand a part of your proposal properly. Let’s assume that Jane pings Good. On your view, this metaphysical affect is the result of some sort of reverberation, back through time from Jane’s future afterlife, which is spent in Heaven among all the Good stuff there, and that ping is sort of picking up on the reverse-time-shadow of all that Good stuff. Jane gets to go to Heaven because Pharasma has judged her life to have been a (morally) Good one, and so assigns her to Heaven upon her death. So moral alignment (Jane’s morally Good conduct) leads to a judgment from Pharasma that Jane is morally Good, which causes Pharasma to send her to Heaven, which is full of all kinds of metaphysically Good stuff, which reverberates back through time to make Jane ping metaphysically Good during her life. So the bridging of the is-ought gap is just straightforwardly enacted by the judgment of Pharasma. Is that about right?

      As I said, if I’ve got this right, there are a few different possible concerns with this solution, but only one really important that I see at the moment: how is it possible that a person’s metaphysical alignment can change over the course of her life? If metaphysical alignment is a reverberation from that person’s future, it has to be a reverberation from some specific future which distinctly exists or is otherwise immutable – it presumes that Pharasma will make some specific judgment resulting in some specific afterlife, which reverberates back with a specific metaphysical alignment. If this is the case, though, then why might Jane have pinged Evil for a while during her teenage Urgathoan phase, only to spend the latter sixty years of her life fully redeemed and living a morally exemplary life, so that she ends up pinging Good and going to Heaven? What were those Evil pings when she was a teenager, if Hell is not in her actual, specific future at any point?


      1. Sorry about the thread necromancy, but I think the answer there might lay in “that many possible futures thing.” Pehaps Divination spells like “Detect Alignment,” only detect the subject’s future planar destination at the moment they are cast. If I ping “Lawful Good” on someone’s “Detect Good” or “Detect Alignment” spells, that means that as of this moment, I’m going to Heaven. If I then do a whole bunch of terrible things, my future may not be as iron clad as it was before.

        Spells like “Magic Circle Against Evil” or “Chaos Hammer”, or supernatural abilities like the Paladin’s Smite must have some form of Divination magic built into them that acts as a sort of “targeting system” to limit collateral damage.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. Thanks for this, Josiah! Certainly an intriguing possibility; I just can’t help but think that it suffers from a few real issues that lack an obvious solution, from my perspective. Here are the two that jump out at me:
          First, between the rather detailed metaphysics of time required (among other things, it actually presumes an answer to a historical philosophy problem that goes all the way back to Aristotle, usually called “the problem of future contingents”), the additional divination element that needs to be built into non-divination spells, the apparent reverse causality required to connect future locations to present creatures, and so on…this view strikes me as unpleasantly complex. And while complexity alone is hardly lethal to any view, it doesn’t really serve as a virtue of a view the way that parsimony does. To paraphrase Quine: an “overpopulated universe is in many ways unlovely. It offends the aesthetic sense of us who have a taste for desert landscapes.”
          Second, and I think more importantly, even if this interpretation works for creatures (and I don’t think it always would: consider, for instance, the break between the alignment of mindless undead and their ceasing to exist after being destroyed on the Material Plane), I don’t really see how it could apply to non-creature effects with an alignment. What would it mean for infernal healing or animate dead to be “Evil” spells on this view? Would this mean that we would have to add, at the very least, one more sense of alignment, semantically distinct from any other senses, which is reserved specifically for non-creatures with alignment descriptors?


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