Of Law and Chaos VI: Is Lawful Good Better Than Chaotic Good?

This is the sixth 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 the previous post, I argued that while his arguments are valid, Jon Cogburn is ultimately wrong to think that it is conceptually impossible to be Chaotic Good. In this post, I’m going to start looking at a corollary question from that topic, both milder and perhaps more slippery than the hard line Cogburn takes: even if we accept that Chaotic Good is a legitimate alignment, is it not possible that lawful beings (specifically Lawful Good beings) still might have a greater capacity for goodness than chaotic beings?

I should be clear here: this is not a question about whether LG beings are more common than CG beings, or whether lawful creatures are more likely to be good than chaotic ones. Those are, to my mind, empirical/psychological/statistical questions, generally outside the purview of responsible philosophical inquiry. What I’m interested in here is a different kind of question: is there a conceptual reason to think that the best possible CG creature might not be as good as the best possible LG creature? In other words: is the maximum amount of goodness possible for a LG creature higher than for a CG creature?

As you might expect, this question is going to hang largely on how we define “goodness”…and a complete answer to that 9th-level-spell of a question is not going to be forthcoming here. We should however, make one important distinction that can easily be lost when discussing this matter in English, largely because of a quirk of the English language that really increases the risk of equivocation on this topic – “good” can refer to two related but distinct moral concepts.

The first we might call “value goodness,” and this refers (without trying to define it too specifically here) to the amount of stuff that we value. The antonym of this type of good is “bad;” examples of this type of goodness might include good, brave acts like protecting the innocent and giving to charity, but would also include more general types of goodness like beautiful sunsets, hard-earned knowledge, peace, and compassion.

The second concept here we might call “moral goodness,” and it applies specifically to acts which are capable of moral evaluation. So heroic and charitable acts are also (presumably) morally good, in addition to being “value good,” while things like sunsets and knowledge are not morally good. It’s not that they’re morally bad; rather, they’re just not the kind of thing capable of moral evaluation, even if they might have normative value. The antonym of this type of goodness is not “bad” but “evil.”

So while that was a rather quick trip across a topic which has occupied some of the greatest metaethicists in history for tens of thousands of words, we’re hopefully a little bit clearer now on this question.

More explicitly, I think that we’re asking not whether LG creatures are capable of more value goodness but whether they’re capable of more moral goodness. Sure, value goodness is important, and there’s certainly no harm in asking about creatures’ relative capacity for producing value goodness…but 1) that’s probably more of an empirical question than we’re really interested in here (it usually is when we ask it about things in the real world, and I have no reason to think that it would be otherwise for Pathfinder), and 2) since LG and CG creatures are contrasted not with “lawful bad” and “chaotic bad” but with “lawful evil” and “chaotic evil,” assuming that we’re talking about anything other than moral goodness here strikes me as pretty equivocal.

Alright, so now we’re ready to look at a much more refined and focused version of our main question: “Are LG creatures conceptually capable of a higher maximum amount of moral goodness than CG creatures?”

Great! Now that we’ve properly refined the question, we can see how simple the answer is going to be!

Ah, almost gotcha! Made you flinch, anyway…

You almost certainly know the move I’m going to make at this point: in what does moral goodness even consist? How can we even begin to measure moral goodness? And that doesn’t even take into account Pathfinder’s byzantine and often rather frustrating (or at least confusing) disconnect between the moral and the metaphysical when it comes to alignment

As usual, I don’t have any simple or easy answers to this kind of major metaethical question. There are proposed answers out there, of course, but the arguments for them tend these days to be long and technical, with no one answer yet rising to dominance, so it’s simply not worth going into in this context. Suffice it to say that any time someone offers a promising answer, it tends not to be a simple one, and any time someone offers a simple/easy answer to that kind of question, it tends not to be a promising one (that goes for pretty much all important questions in ethics, as I mentioned when this whole project first got started).

That being said, perhaps we could use a placeholder for moral goodness that might at least let us talk about our more focused question here today. In that spirit, let M stand for that in which moral goodness consists: the more of M a creature produces, the more moral goodness results, and vice versa. And let there be no change in levels of moral goodness (again, whatever that means) without a corresponding change in M – we’re just supposing, for the sake of argument, that M is conceptually identical with moral goodness and/or any properties that implies.

With all of that finally set up, is there any conceptual reason to believe that, all other things being equal, a lawful character (one who marshalls her inner resources by focusing and disciplining herself), has a higher maximum capacity for M than a chaotic character (one who accomplishes tasks by unleashing or releasing any normally bridled inner resources)?

Surprisingly (to myself as much as to anyone), I find that after going through all the clarificatory exercises above, I find myself tending towards answering “yes” to this question, though in an admittedly mild and lukewarm way. Don’t get me wrong: CG creatures are certainly capable of tremendous M, and a truly good chaotic character is going to produce more M than a largely indifferent lawful character practically every time.

Nevertheless, there is a sense in which focus and discipline can convey a sense of consistency which is much harder to square with the “unleashing” characteristic of chaotic creatures. Demonstrate that kind of consistency effectively enough, and a character who is appropriately lawful can start to embody a principle of some kind, to stand for something by virtue of that effort and consistency. That, in itself, can be a rather inspiring source of moral goodness.

But that, I think, remains a largely empirical point. More conceptually (and relevantly for us), discipline and effort in working for M can embody a type of moral goodness in and of itself, which is hard to access for chaotic characters as I’ve described them. There is something to be said for those who have to work to be heroes, who produce M not because it’s easy for them but in spite of how difficult it is. We tend to give people more esteem, to see them as morally better, when they’ve done the difficult but right thing, rather than the easy but right thing. This is the reason why most people think that morality requires free will: if we can’t do anything other than what we do, then what’s the point of moral praise or blame? More softly: if doing the right thing is easy for you, then are you truly as morally good as the person who does the same thing, but for whom it was difficult?*

It is because of this characteristic of M (whatever other characteristics it may have) that I think it is, in fact, possible for lawful characters to have a higher maximum capacity for moral goodness than chaotic characters. At the same time, though, I don’t want to overplay my hand: while I’ve emphasized this source of M in order to make my point, I don’t want to suggest that moral goodness is only possible in adverse conditions. Chaotic characters are certainly capable of tremendous moral goodness in all kinds of ways; they are just (to my mind) less capable of this very specific source of M than lawful characters, and I can’t quite think of any equivalent way in which chaotic characters are capable of M but lawful characters aren’t.

That being said, this strikes me as the precise kind of scenario where creative thinking might well reveal some stuff that just hasn’t occurred to me at all, so I’m interested to hear what you have to say! Have I overstepped significantly here? Or have I perhaps overlooked some important conceptual element of what it means to be chaotic? I look forward to your comments, while gearing up for the next post, which will (most likely) be about how we ought to think of the lawful-chaotic alignment axis with regard to certain kinds of classes that don’t actually have relevant formal alignment restrictions.


*There is certainly a school of thinkers here who are likely to disagree with me. They are known as “virtue ethicists,” and they might argue that the person whose character has been shaped such that doing right is easier for her is actually the better person. Virtue ethics has a lot going for it, and if this kind of view coheres with you, I’m happy to consider arguments; my own metaethical intuitions, however, make it hard for me to accept that a person who has to put very little effort into M is worthy of more respect than someone who has to put in a great deal.

3 Replies to “Of Law and Chaos VI: Is Lawful Good Better Than Chaotic Good?”

  1. Is it easier to be chaotic than lawful? While consistency takes effort to maintain, once a path leading to M has been started isn’t the task of the lawful creature more about maintaing the effort to achieve M rather than making conscious choices to produce M? Conversely, isn’t the effort required by a choatic character to bring about M greater? If making the hard choice, when it is hard to choose, defines M, then shouldn’t the amount of effort required to make that choice define what it is to be a hard choice? In this sense, a chaotic creature that produces M by virtue of making harder choices produces more M than a lawful creature producing the same amount of M. Which is paradoxical and makes me want to question M more. If how M is created is important to defining M then M as a quantity has less to do with the result and more to do with how the result was achieved. Which says to me that a chaotic creature by virtue of having to make harder choices is theoretically capable of producing more M than a lawful creature.


    1. Hi again Liam, and thanks for this!
      I think I should be very clear here: acting rightly under difficult conditions does not define goodness (that would be rather circular, in this case). Rather, I suggest that it is a possible source of M, among others, to which lawful characters have more access than chaotic characters. All things considered, I’d imagine it’s a fairly small part of the whole story of moral goodness, but a part nonetheless (some would argue even that point, though).
      Aside from that, I think you’ve presented a psychologically plausible account of how different creatures might think about their moral choices, and I’m not sure how one might go about evaluating it. At the very least, though, it presents an interesting view of moral psychology worthy of further consideration…


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