Of Law and Chaos III: Open Questions About Alignment

This is the third 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.

In a move familiar to analytic philosophers everywhere, I want to do some more clarification of the goals and methods of this series before going on to really talk about the substantive moral issues surrounding questions of law and chaos. Yes, this style of philosophy is highly time-consuming, and yes, it can definitely come off as pedantic to those unfamiliar with it (and even those who are familiar with it, trust me). But real philosophical insight comes not in enormous, simple bursts of mystic epiphany – that way lies the path of charlatanry and obscurantist terror, not knowledge. Good philosophy is done in careful little bits, clearly bitten off and chewed through and digested, before the next bite is taken (that metaphor really evolved over the course of that sentence, didn’t it?).

In that spirit, I’m going to use this post to say more about why an interpretation of what we mean by “lawful” and “chaotic” in an alignment sense should be morally neutral, and how the interpretation that I’ve previously proposed fulfills this requirement. That way, when we do move on to discuss more substantive moral issues, we’ll be able to proceed with at least a bit more confidence that our project is not fundamentally undermined by sloppy, hasty thinking.

So why should we want a morally neutral interpretation of the law/chaos alignment axis? After all, the good/evil axis is hardly morally neutral (at least when we’re talking about moral alignment): if there is an act or a creature or a spell which we are right to call “evil,” then that thing is, by definition, evil – nothing morally neutral about that!

The reason that we’re holding the lawful/chaotic axis to a different (not to say higher) standard is that we’re going to be addressing issues about lawful and chaotic alignments that include questions of whether some action or attitude is good or evil because it is lawful or chaotic…and if we go in with some of the answers to these questions baked into our definitions of “lawful” and “chaotic,” we’ll really just be spinning our wheels on these investigations, since the answers will largely have been determined from the beginning.

This calls to mind the work of one of my very favourite historical philosophers, G. E. Moore. Moore is one of the founding figures of analytic philosophy more broadly, and is arguably the founding figure in analytic metaethics – while a case can be made for some earlier philosophers (primarily Henry Sidgwick via his The Methods of Ethics), the first major work to be squarely located within the tradition of metaethics is Moore’s Principia Ethica. And among all the arguments about metaethics from Principia Ethica and elsewhere, Moore is most famous for arguing against what he called the “naturalistic fallacy.”

While literally tens of thousands of pages have been written about it over the past century or so (it’s still at the heart of among the most contentious broad issues in metaethics), the details of the naturalistic fallacy, and how right Moore may have been about it, are largely beyond the scope of what we’re doing here. What is important to us, though, is the central argumentative engine that drives Moore’s work on the naturalistic fallacy: the open-question argument, and the epistemic values underlying it.

Essentially, Moore argues that questions about the nature of the moral concepts (he’s particularly concerned with how one defines “the good”) should always be open questions – that is, they should be settled by way of substantive arguments about values, about cause and effect, about further deductions and insights, about what sorts of things are important to us and why, rather than just by appealing purely to the meanings of these terms. Otherwise, we are not in a position to discover anything worthwhile about these concepts.

Again, the open-question argument is exceedingly controversial and subtle in metaethical circles; every metaethicist (myself included) seems to have developed his or her own particular interpretation, defense, and/or critique of it at some point. But for our purposes, let’s have a look at how we might adapt and apply the open-question argument to our subject here:

Say we define chaotic-aligned actions very overtly morally as “those actions which are against the law and which have bad results.” If I then ask, “Is there such a thing as a Chaotic Good action?”, you could easily respond with “Of course not – ‘chaotic’ just means ‘against the law and having bad results,’ and no such action could be good, so there cannot be Chaotic Good actions any more than there can be married bachelors. You just need to know what ‘chaotic’ means, dummy!” Seen this way, at no point was I asking an open question – my question was already decided by the meaning of “chaotic” we had adopted.

But I’m sure you’ll agree that this kind of answer is rather unsatisfying – rather than simply answering a rather naive question, it seems like my interlocutor has just sort of misunderstood the issues at hand. I’m asking something substantive and deep about the moral character of chaotic actions, not just “what ‘chaotic’ means.” We’ll need a better definition of “chaotic” than that if we want to actually get at the question in which I’m interested. We want a definition which will leave it as an open question.

But “lawful” and “chaotic” as concepts are alarmingly riddled with normativity – while most definitions offered are a little more graceful than my exemplary strawman of defining “chaotic” as “against the law and having bad results,” they still often build in values which could be quietly closing off further moral questions in ways which might not be obvious now but which could come back to bite us pretty hard down the road.

This has been a major value motivating my suggestion of a pared-down, minimal, thoroughly descriptive (I hope) interpretation of what the lawful/chaotic alignment axis means. My methodological interpretation (as I’ve called it) is about nothing more than the broad methods (see where that comes from?) one takes in the conception and exertion of power – it says nothing about who should or should not have that power, about for what purposes it should be used, or anything else explicitly about moral or social values. Even the term “power” here should be taken rather loosely – I intend it to mean something less like “force” or “might” or “violence” and more like “causal effectiveness” or “ability to effect change of some kind.”

As a result, I hope that we are indeed going into the substantive issues surrounding the lawful/chaotic alignment axis leaving those questions open, so that any answers we do come to (and I don’t want to promise anything yet) are actually satisfying, and not just facile evasions. We’ll start to see if this strategy pays off at all next time…

3 Replies to “Of Law and Chaos III: Open Questions About Alignment”

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