Of Law and Chaos: Introduction

It should come as no surprise that a blog focused on the ethics of Pathfinder should deal first and foremost with matters of good and evil, both in an in-game alignment sense and in a wider, more conceptual normative sense. And yet, this would also seem to do a disservice to a full half of the game’s alignment spectrum: I have written literally tens of thousands of words so far about good and evil, with barely a few dozen casually thrown off about law and chaos. Well, that pattern stops today: welcome to the introductory post in what I hope will be a medium-length series on how to think about the law/chaos alignment axis in Pathfinder!

After all, while there certainly is a perspective which suggests that good and evil are the primary moral concepts to examine when it comes to alignment, there is another sense in which the metaethics of law and chaos are far more interesting and fruitful concepts.

Consider the following: the normative value of good and evil are obvious on their face, perhaps even tautological. What I mean is that, whatever else we might mean by “good” and “evil,” we mean that those things which are “good” are deserving of valuing or admiration, are the kinds of things/actions/results/whatever towards which we should strive, while those things which are “evil” are deserving of scorn/avoidance/what have you. This kind of normative evaluation is built into the very meaning of these terms*, and that actually takes away one possible interesting path of ethical inquiry into these concepts: we know, by virtue of the meaning of these terms, that evil is bad and good is (for lack of a better term) good. As a result, this is simply not an interesting conclusion.

When it comes to law and chaos, on the other hand, this normativity isn’t really built in…or, if it is, it’s buried quite a bit deeper. Whatever we might think about how those who identify as chaotic behave morally, compared with those who identify as lawful, it just doesn’t seem baked into the meaning of these terms that one is morally better or worse than the other. And that opens up the possibility of a more interesting, diverse, wide-ranging philosophical exploration of the subject.

Of course, aside from any philosophical issues, the fact is that the lawful-chaotic axis of alignment in Pathfinder is at least as controversial and misunderstood in the gaming context as in any metaethical context. So the first order of business in this series will be to do some conceptual cleaning up of what it means, exactly, for one’s alignment to be lawful or chaotic within the rules and lore of Pathfinder. Once we’ve (hopefully) cleared that up a bit, we’ll be proceeding to look at a few different arguments and considerations about the moral status of lawful versus chaotic alignments, to see what kind of normative issues actually do come into play with these concepts, even if they might not constitute part of the meaning of what it is to be lawful or chaotic.

So that’s where we’ll leave it off for now: since I expect that actually getting even a basic handle on the conceptual character of lawful and chaotic alignment will require the spilling of a fair amount of ink, we’ll start in with those substantial questions next time. Until then, though, I’d love to hear what kinds of considerations and/or arguments you think ought to come into play on this topic, as well as how these concepts are conceptualized at your tables.
*While I hold that this is true of “good” and “evil” in the moral sense, there is arguably a non-normative in-game metaphysical sense of these terms, tied to alignment, which does not have this tautologically normative character. See this post from an earlier series on understanding alignment for more on what I call “alignment dualism” and why what is true of good and evil in a moral sense may not be true of good and evil in a metaphysical sense…at least in Pathfinder.

11 Replies to “Of Law and Chaos: Introduction”

  1. I’ve been interested in where the different types of justice (retribution, deterrence, rehabilitation, and so on) fit in the alignment grid. Often I sit down and say to myself “I have a LN character, now what does that mean?”.

    To be able to say – “This Paladin of Torag strongly believes in justice as incapacitation; so when he executes bandits it is not out of any hate or moral high ground, it is just the best way to ensure they never harm an innocent again.” makes a more detailed experience than saying he is Lawful and bandits are evil.

    Liked by 1 person

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