Of Law and Chaos II: What are the Lawful and Chaotic Alignments, Really?

This is the second 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.

Many of the issues that come up when evaluating any aspect of the distinction between lawful and chaotic alignments have to do with misunderstandings and even contradictions in what we mean when we use these terms. Just think of all the incessant arguments over whether Batman is Lawful Good (because he follows a code so rigorously) or Chaotic Good (because he’s a vigilante who flouts the law at every turn)! So before we go on to examine some of the trickier issues of the metaethics of lawful versus chaotic alignments, we need to spend some time clarifying exactly what we mean when we talk about these things.

And let’s be clear: I don’t expect that this is going to clear up all of these discussions and debates – not by a long shot. People are going to continue to interpret the meaning of these alignments for their own games or to rationalize their own idiosyncratic characters regardless of what I say. Moreover, I don’t even want to say that my proposed interpretation of the law-chaos axis is somehow the correct one. Rather, all I’m looking for is a clear, consistent presentation of these concepts that we can use effectively in further discussions – I remain open, at least in principle, to the possibility of a plurality of useful concepts here.

That being said, I do want my proposal to fit a couple of fundamental presuppositions…so if you don’t share those presuppositions, you probably won’t share my conclusions. Consider yourself warned. Those presuppositions are:


  1. All alignments are conceptually consistent and possible.

There are those who have argued, for instance, that Chaotic Good is a conceptually incoherent alignment (and that perhaps the same is true of Lawful Evil). I’ll be addressing some of those arguments in a later post; for now, I just don’t want any alignments to be ruled out a priori by the meaning of these terms alone. It may turn out that upon further investigation, some of these alignments are not actually morally or metaethically possible…but that should not be for no other reason than their definition.

  1. There are moral gradations aside from full alignment steps.

Just because all alignments are at least conceptually possible, this does not mean that they are all morally equivalent. Two characters may both be Neutral Good, but one may well be more good than another. In the same way, one may be closer to a lawful alignment, the other closer to chaotic. Similarly, it may be the case that two different alignment steps which ostensibly share an axis may not have equivalent value along that axis: even if both Chaotic Good and Lawful Good are possible alignments, this does not mean that, all other things being equal, the chaotic creature is as good as the lawful creature (or vice versa). It may turn out that CG creatures are more good than LG creatures, or LE more evil than CE…or it may not. The point is to leave this as an open question for future investigation, and not close it off by way of our definitions of lawful and chaotic.


With that out of the way…how should we actually go about setting forth this definition? You could go a lot of ways on this, and I’m sure there are better ideas than mine out there…but the first thing that strikes me as a method would be to find two classes whose alignment descriptions break down more or less along the lawful-chaotic axis and see what we can learn from them.

That’s right: we’re going to base the difference between lawful and chaotic alignments on the difference between monks and barbarians (yes, I know: barbarians can’t be lawful, but they don’t have to be chaotic. Nevertheless, they are certainly the class most closely aligned with the chaotic side of the alignment chart, so they’re what I’m going to use).

This distinction allows us to very quickly dispense with the rather facile idea that lawful creatures are those that generally follow the law, while chaotic creatures are those that generally flout the law. After all, we have no trouble imagining a lawful monk (all monks are lawful, with the exception of some archetypes) who acts as an agent of revolution, a open rebel explicitly struggling against the existing laws of the land (they could even be legitimate laws, in the case of, say, evil monks), while a strictly law-abiding member of the king’s bodyguard could happen to be a chaotic barbarian, becoming a whirling berserker in battle.

Perhaps, then, we should look for a more internal source of the distinction – maybe the lawful monk is lawful because he effectively subjects himself to some internal code of behaviour, while the barbarian is chaotic because he does not. But again, I don’t see any conceptual issues with imagining characters of these classes who just don’t appear to adhere to this interpretation either: the barbarian could be unwaveringly loyal to his king just because that’s part of who he is…or he may not be loyal to any one person but to an ideal of honour and valour, and he would die before violating that personal code of ethics, no matter that he is a raging storm of fury when he fights. Meanwhile, the lawful monk may well be a skilled and focused fighter, but just might not feel any particularly strong or principled convictions at all – he wanders itinerantly, fighting for this village or that cause for a time, but never really committed to any particular principles or values in anything but a lukewarm way…and certainly not in comparison with our tremendously earnest barbarian!

Rather, I think that we can posit as the key alignment difference between the monk and the barbarian (and therefore between lawful and chaotic) a kind of methodological difference in how one marshals one’s internal resources, rather than an important difference in more overt moral or political values. It’s about how they conceive of and apply power, whatever form that may take.

That is to say, our monk is lawful not because of what he values in the world or where lie the source of the rules he chooses to follow (if any) – he is lawful because of the way that he uses internal discipline and focus to accomplish things. His self-control in marshaling his internal resources is what makes him lawful. Similarly, our barbarian bodyguard is chaotic not because he ignores laws or holds to no internal ethos – quite the opposite! Rather, when it comes time to use his abilities to accomplish his goals, he does through not through self-discipline (self-legislation, to borrow a bit of quasi-Kantian language) but through becoming less restrained, through the unleashing of his internal resources. For our purposes going forward, this is what I will be treating as the fundamental difference between alignments along the lawful-chaotic axis.

Of course, it’s easy to imagine many objections to this view – after all, while I think I’ve presented some pretty compelling counterexamples, it’s probably actually easier to imagine monks who are law-abiding and/or follow an internal code and barbarians who are scofflaw free spirits and/or totally governed by their passions than the against-type examples I’ve been discussing. There’s also the fact of alignment-limited outsiders: devils are LE and demons are CE, for instance, and the first represent the evil of enslavement and oppression while the latter instantiate the evil of wrath and destruction. Do these differences really all come down to nothing more than different views about how to conceive of power?

While there is certainly plenty more to say about this point, my general response is that while these kinds of examples can serve as excellent signs of underlying lawful or chaotic alignment, they do so not because they are instances of what is meant by these concepts but because they are the common (but not necessary) psychological/social/moral result of what I’ll call the “methodological” distinction between lawful and chaotic alignments. The fundamental difference, though, the sine qua non of the lawful-chaotic alignment axis, is this difference in methodological views on how to think about, marshal, and exercise power. Any external political, psychological, behavioural, moral, or other instantiations of this alignment may serve as helpful indicators, but are fundamentally epiphenomenal. A character may even understand herself as chaotic due to, say, a disregard for laws…but this is not what it means for someone to be chaotic in an alignment sense.

So that’s the view that I’ll be bringing forward into our upcoming examination(s) of the metaethics and moral philosophy surrounding questions about the lawful-chaotic alignment in Pathfinder. That being said, I am not so lacking in humility as to believe that everybody will be on board with my view here, so I welcome your comments and criticisms – if I’ve made a grave error here, then perhaps the next post will have to actually be a rescinding/revamping of this one, rather than a discussion of the next topic in line. After all, if there’s one thing analytic philosophers (and arguably Pathfinder players) love, it’s the meticulous, rigorous, near-obsessive refinement of concepts and definitions!

10 Replies to “Of Law and Chaos II: What are the Lawful and Chaotic Alignments, Really?”

    1. Hi Ward,

      While that’s a rather popular interpretation, I’m somewhat hesitant to rely on psychological concepts here for what I take to be something more like moral or conceptual outlooks. Part of what I’m getting at is that I’d like it to be possible for people to have, say, lawful monks who are nonetheless rather id-centred, as well as chaotic barbarians who have a strong, even overpowering superego. So I wanted to apply a concept of lawful/chaotic which didn’t actually presuppose any particular psychological, social, or political outlooks, in order to keep the field wide open on that. Instead, I’d like to see the distinction tied more closely to the mechanics of restricted classes, in these methodological terms, and the concepts expanded out beyond that, to be mostly about how characters approach the marshaling and use of power.

      Does that make any sense? Is my motivation here valuable, as far as you’re concerned?


      1. That clarified many points I missed in my eagerness to jump to conclusions.

        Yes I think that motivation is valuable. As much as I want to short-cut to intuitive answers, I’m unlikely to gain new understanding that way.

        If we are using the mechanics of the restricted classes as a starting point, I have a few follow-up questions: pulling from an earlier post and and this one, capitalizing the parts i’m interested;

        “…fall if and when she has stopped BEING THE KIND of person who becomes a paladin…”
        “…lawful because of the WAY THAT HE USES internal discipline and focus to accomplish things…”
        “…chaotic…through BECOMING less restrained, through the unleashing of his internal resources…”

        The paladin example is a property that the character does or does not have, where the monk/barbarian examples are behaviors/actions of the character. Is this intentional, or is the ability to use internal discipline / unleash a property of the character?

        Liked by 1 person

        1. Thanks again, Ward!

          So, what I’m relying on here is a distinction between the good/evil axis and the lawful/chaotic axis. Paladins are, after all, good first and foremost, and lawful second. Good/evil are intrinsically moral terms – there’s no getting around that. Lawful/chaotic, on the other hand, are not intrinsically moral – they are “normatively thin,” to borrow a phrase from Bernard Williams.
          Now, previous series of this blog have been primarily focused on good/evil, and I’ve thrown around the lawful/chaotic alignment notions around perhaps a bit loosely in the past as a result – that’s part of why I wanted to do this series. but the main takeaway at this point is that I think the good/evil axis is distinctly about something different than the lawful/chaotic axis, whatever else we may say about them, so a point made about one axis may well not apply at all to the other axis. It’s sort of as if we were classifying people by both hair colour and height, such that the ways you determined that person’s place in one category just has nothing to do with how you categorize them in the other (“What do you mean, you don’t need my ruler to check hair colour? We needed it for height checks; we should need it for this as well!”).
          Now, I fully admit that it’s more complicated with the two alignment axes, and there may well actually be some connection there – this matter goes very deep indeed. But I don’t want to assume from the beginning, at least, that what is true of the good/evil axis is also true of the lawful/chaotic axis.
          Hopefully that further clarifies the matter for you! I also hope that, in the end, my characterizations of these various dimensions of alignment will actually end up consistent with one another…but I think it’s too early to say that for certain!


          1. Understood, that clarified things. That the good/evil and law/chaos axis may not share dimensions/types/properties is not something I considered. I’m excited to see where this goes.

            Liked by 1 person

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