Of Law and Chaos VIII: What Does “Neutral” Look Like on the Law-Chaos Axis?

This is the eighth 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. It should also be noted that significant parts of the discussion today were inspired and influenced by anarchist and redditor /u/ThinkMinty, via the /r/Pathfinder_RPG subreddit.

If you’ve been following this series so far, you’ve been reading and (hopefully) thinking quite a bit about what it means to be of either a lawful or chaotic alignment. What you haven’t been reading, but have probably starting wondering by now, is much at all about what it means to be neither lawful nor chaotic – to be neutral on the lawful-chaotic axis.*

To remedy that issue, I want to spend some time today talking about the moral psychology of such neutral creatures (in the rest of this post, for brevity’s sake, I’m going to use “neutral” to mean “neither lawful nor chaotic,” or “neutral on the law-chaos axis,” unless otherwise specified). On the methodological view of the law-chaos axis that we’ve adopted, how does a neutral creature generally go about applying its internal resources to exerting its will and accomplishing its goals?

There is, of course, one rather obvious way of interpreting this type of alignment: a creature would presumably be neutral if it sometimes behaves lawfully and sometimes behaves chaotically, with a certain amount of balance between the two. Of course, while this idea is rather simple on the face of it, the methodological view makes it a little bit more difficult to imagine how this might look in practice, as none of the examples of actually playing this view of alignment discussed in the previous post seem to provide a good example.

Then again, once we set our imaginations to a task, it can sometimes start to look easy again. Imagine, if you will, an oracle, a living font of divine magic through whom spells flow by sheer force of character, rather than through the study and devotion shown by clerics. While I stand by the previous post’s argument that oracles will, like sorcerers, usually tend toward the chaotic, it’s easy to imagine an oracle who has to calm herself and enter a focused meditative state to access most of the powers over which she has control. That being said…sometimes (like, say, when she’s casting her highest-level spells), that divine energy will just surge through her, and she can’t resist unleashing that power in an awesome wave. This is one way to imagine a character who’s coherently neutral because she is sometimes lawful and sometimes chaotic, but there are countless other ways you could go with this sort of idea.

At the same time, there are also other ways of conceiving what it means to be neutral, aside from simply “sometimes lawful and sometimes chaotic” – indeed, if anything, I’d imagine that’s a less common type of neutral alignment…though, of course, any speculation about how common certain psychological makeups (moral or otherwise) might be comes down to a fundamentally empirical question that I’m not going to spend more time on here.

In any case, I’d suspect that there’s at least one other formal, common, and perhaps more interesting way of being neutral, stemming from the way that the conflicting wills, desires, aptitudes, beliefs, and rationality of complex sapient beings comes together in complex and difficult ways.

The fact is that we (and presumably all good Pathfinder characters) are tremendously complicated, and usually at least a little bit inconsistent – this is hardly a surprise. In practice, for our purposes here, this means that we do not always act in accordance with our “ultimate” desires, for all kinds of reasons: assuming that we can even tell what those desires might be (hardly a given), we might, say, feel strongly compelled by short-term desires and so ignore the demands of our ultimate desires. We might feel ashamed of our ultimate desires, and so deliberately act against them. We might be weak-willed or just lacking in confidence, and so not put the necessary energy toward those desires. We might even be plagued by strong cognitive dissonance, subconsciously wanting one thing and consciously convincing ourselves that we really want the opposite, causing us to act in unpredictable, even irrational ways out of repressed emotion or interests.

You get the point – there are a lot of ways in which what we want and how we act can come apart, for just about anyone. Now, since we’re often talking about some pretty extraordinary and heroic characters here, this kind of incoherence will in many cases be rather mild, keeping them firmly either lawful or chaotic. For many others, though, their wilful attempts to discipline themselves and focus on one goal or another might lead to opposite results: their inner demons could be unleashed, or their secret desires subconsciously sabotage their efforts, and so on.

Despite their overt efforts at self-legislation (to borrow a Kantian term), then, such creatures could not really be called “lawful,” according to our methodological interpretation: they are not accomplishing their goals or exercising their will by dint of focus and effort, as their actual actions seem to suggest the opposite goal, regardless of surface level intentions. At the same time, however, they don’t really fit into our conception of “chaotic” very well either: they are definitely not “unleashing” themselves in any kind of deliberate way – indeed, in many cases they are doing whatever they can to keep themselves restrained.

For these reasons, I think that we should think of such conflicted, incoherent, and/or cognitively dissonant creatures as neutral on the law-chaos axis. Of course, even neutral creatures who do fit this description are not going to be completely incoherent – that would be a sign of severe mental illness or insanity, and perhaps not alignment at all. But just as creatures of any alignment are simply those who show certain dominant tendencies or mostly fit some general description, creatures who are neutral in this way will effectively show more conflict and/or incoherence in their beliefs and behaviours than they will focused determination (lawful) or unfiltered release (chaotic).

So what are your thoughts on this? Have I captured an important sense of what it means to be neutral on the methodological view of the law-chaos axis? Of course, I don’t purport to have exhausted every possible way of playing this alignment – far from it! But I do think that the above are among the feasible ways of understanding, at least on a superficial level, what “neutral” means in this context. Either way, though, I’d love to hear what you think of this view, and how you think it might impact real PCs in actual gameplay.

 

*Of course, this leaves aside the question of what it means to be neither good nor evil, i.e. neutral on the good-evil axis. This choice is deliberate: for one thing, it would definitely be too much for one post to take that on here as well. For another thing, while questions of good and evil are certainly complex and multifaceted, I can’t help but think that the question of what it means to be neutral in terms of good and evil is somewhat less interesting – if and when we determine what it means to be good or evil, neutral creatures are almost certainly going to just be those who show some tendencies of both. At the very least, this is a topic for another post entirely. In any case, as this post goes on to discuss, I find the question of neutrality when it comes to the lawful-chaotic axis to be far more interesting, and not nearly so conceptually dependent on our understanding of the extremes of the axis.

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