This is the ninth 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.
After eight pretty full posts, I think it’s safe to say that this series is starting to draw to a close. Before we end, though, there remains at least one glaring issue with the methodological interpretation of lawful and chaotic alignment that I’ve presented, defended, and expanded upon in this series. I would be remiss if I didn’t at least make an attempt to address it.
The issue is that we frequently hear talk about the alignment of not only creatures but of cities and even whole nations – in Pathfinder’s Inner Sea region alone, for instance, we find that Absalom is listed as having a Neutral alignment, Andoran is Neutral Good, Cheliax is Lawful Evil, and so on. Unfortunately, it’s just difficult to see how the methodological interpretation of the law-chaos axis might apply to whole nations – this apparent oversight needs to be resolved if we are to endorse the methodological approach wholeheartedly.
Briefly, I have argued (and maintain) that a creature is lawful if it primarily uses internal focus and discipline to act in accordance with its will, and chaotic if it primarily loosens restrictions and unleashes itself in order to do so. While this idea faces challenges, I do think that it works well for individual creatures and, to its credit, leaves open a wider range of possible sets of beliefs and attitudes for all kinds of classes than might normally be possible under more orthodox interpretations of the law-chaos axis.
But what would the methodological interpretation even look like, applied on the social level? If we try to take it at face value, so that, e.g., a lawful alignment means the same thing for societies as it does for individual creatures…then we are talking about a metaphor of some kind at best. That’s because the methodological interpretation is fundamentally about how a creature exerts its will…and societies just don’t have a “will” to exert in the same way that a creature does. It might have something that we could call “political will,” but this doesn’t really amount to much more than a shorthand for popular opinion, or the will of an autocrat when applied to civil resources, or something like that – as I said, a metaphor. In any case, I don’t think this kind of direct approach is really going to get off the ground.
What if, instead, social alignment is thought of as some kind of aggregate of the various alignments of its constituent members? On this view, we might say “a society counts as lawful iff the majority of its members are lawful,” with parallel conditions for “neutral” and “chaotic.” This strikes me as more promising than the literal approach…but remains rather unsatisfying, and for rather simple reasons.
As far as I’m concerned, the reasons to reject the methodological approach to the lawful-chaotic alignment axis come down to two main differences between the way that alignment works for individual creatures versus societies.
First, while the “aggregate” approach described above might be perfectly coherent and usable…it’s also kind of superficial. If I say that a character is lawful, that tells you something important about what that character is like, on the methodological view. It’s far from everything important about that character, but it’s at least something. In contrast, knowing that more citizens of a city of fifty thousand humans are, on balance, lawful than any other alignment just doesn’t tell me very much about what it’s like to live in that city. It’s as if the alignment system for societies told you how many people in a city had siblings: sure, whether or not I have a sibling might be something important to know about me, but how would it affect your behaviour or thinking to know that, say, 60% of people in my hometown had siblings? What do you do with such information? It’s just rather trivial on the social scale.
Second, and perhaps more fundamentally, I proposed a very specific and important normative reason for adopting the methodological approach when it comes to individuals, based around the value of leaving the particular content of a character’s belief system as an “open question.” This was important because we wanted to be able to accommodate the broadest possible range of actual character belief sets within any particular alignment on the law-chaos axis, so that people can continue to play alignment as an interesting part of the mechanics and flavour of Pathfinder, rather than as an unpleasantly limiting element when it comes to player creativity.
When it comes to societies, though, it’s not at all clear that this same justification applies. Yes, we still want to allow as creative and wide a range of settings as possible, but it’s far less clear how this might be aided by trying to shoehorn the methodological interpretation of the law-chaos axis onto alignment for societies. Doing so might be coherent, but (as we saw regarding the first point above) coherence does not imply significance or even appropriate fit. Having alignment be a reflection of sociopolitical attitudes just isn’t limiting or inappropriate for societies in the same way that it is for individual creatures; rather, having alignment tell you something broad about what it’s like to live in a city/nation/demiplane/whatever is appropriate for societies, with the details filled in by other means.
What we’re left with, then, is a view which suggests that alignment terms along the law-chaos axis mean one thing when applied to creatures and another when applied to societies (as a side note, this is oddly parallel to the conclusion we reached about the dualist conceptual sense of alignment in general…though I think it makes for far less trouble in this instance today). This is not a problem in itself; it just means that we have to be careful in discussing alignment to avoid mixing them up and thereby equivocating about the law-chaos alignment axis. So long as we do recognize this distinction, though, I feel like this position stands fairly well.
This just about wraps up the planned posts I had about the lawful-chaotic alignment axis in Pathfinder, so the next planned post will be on some other topic entirely. That being said, if you were hoping to see some specific topic addressed in this series and it hasn’t come up yet, I’m more than open to a coda of some kind, so don’t hesitate to comment and let me know; you may well get the glory (or blame) for some interesting insight into this topic, which has already proven far more engrossing (for me, that is) than I thought it would be when I started!