Of Law and Chaos IX: Are Societies Lawful/Chaotic in the Same Way as Creatures?

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!

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8 Replies to “Of Law and Chaos IX: Are Societies Lawful/Chaotic in the Same Way as Creatures?”

  1. In your posts about Lawful vs. Chaotic Good, you mentioned that Lawful Good might have a higher capacity for being Good because marshalling your inner resources lets you dedicate yourself to an ideal easier.
    In other words, Chaotic Good characters can be very good, but Lawful Good might be slightly more Good because they are slightly more disciplined.
    I was wondering if the same general concepts apply when talking about Evil characters, and if there are any noticable differences or caveats that I should be aware of.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Josiah, and thanks again for your comments!
      So, let’s be very clear: I think that the “maximum possible goodness” may well be higher for LG creatures than for CG creatures, because a conscious and difficult dedication to goodness is its own kind of virtue, and lawful creatures are more capable of this (by virtue of what it means to be lawful) than chaotic creatures. That being said…the different I’m talking about would be a relatively small one – the very best CG creatures are still going to be “more good” than 99% of other creatures; they just might not be quite as good as the very best LG creatures.
      That out of the way…yes, I think the same types of argument apply, in a parallel fashion, to LE and CE creatures, in terms of “maximum possible evil.” If a LE creature is one who has committed itself to some particular type of evil, with focus and dedication, then that sort of single-minded evil is probably somewhat worse than the unrestricted, irresponsible, reckless evil of a CE being. So while the worst CE creature is going to be truly terrible indeed…I don’t think it’s implausible to say that the very worst LE being might be that much worse.

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      1. I think I agree with you. At least on Earth, we see that the people who cause the most damage often posess immense dedication and focus, which implies a Lawful alignment.
        However, the most evil character I know is Rovagug, the Rough Beast.
        He’s the god of Destruction, Wrath and Devestation; and was such an important threat that all of the other gods banded together to stop him.
        I’m not sure what this implies, but it does seem a fairly important thing to consider.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. This is precisely the kind of situation where it’s important to remember that the point I’m trying to make here is by no means an empirical one but a conceptual one: Rovagug may be, as a matter of fact, the most evil creature (though I don’t know if that’s necessarily a fact that we should just accept), but that doesn’t mean that he’s the most evil possible creature. Imagine a creature which is identical to Rovagug in virtually every way…but instead of being a primeval force of chaotic destruction, lashing out against whatever is good and right wherever it may be, this Rovagug-LE is evil in a dedicated, deliberate, focused, thoughtful, purposeful way. That creature strikes me as plausibly more evil even than Rovagug…even though, as far as we know, there actually is no such creature, as a matter of fact.

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    1. Thanks very much, Josiah! I appreciate your readership, and your comments/questions for sure! And, of course, if you have specific topics in which you’re interested, don’t hesitate to let me know, and I’m sure we’ll be able to have a look!

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  2. What about if you created a PC using this better understood alignment? I know I’d appreciate advice on how to practically implement these concepts. It all seems a little abstract right now.

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  3. Hi again Josiah! I don’t think that there’s anything particularly different about the mechanics of creating characters as a result of this different interpretation; it really just comes down to how we interpret the metaethics (that is, the underlying meaning, in the conceptual sense) of what it means to be “lawful” or “chaotic.” It sort of eliminates the need to debate what sorts of moral and political beliefs are held by characters based on these alignments – those details are all either captured by the good-evil axis, or they’re details to be filled in and not summarized based on alignment. Instead, we can just treat the lawful-chaotic axis for characters as a summary of their main ways of getting things done, rather than what it is they’d like to see done. That way, the two axes no longer overlap in confusing and inconsistent ways…does that make any sense?

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