Beyond Life and Death: Introduction to Undead Ethics

Undead creatures, with all the flavour and mechanics surrounding undeath in general, are perennial favourites among Pathfinder players. Undead of some form or another show up in just about every campaign – between the slow-moving zombies from the local cemetery and the 20th-level lich wizard with mythic tiers in archmage serving as a campaign’s BBEG, the undead stand out among non-humanoid creatures in credibly appearing at virtually every stage of the game.

More importantly for our purposes, though, the undead have some particularly interesting moral and alignment features which are often the subject of debate among players at every level as well. The most significant of these features (again, for our purposes) comes up under the official Pathfinder heading of Five Things Almost Everyone Knows About Undead: “Undead are invariably evil, as are the means to create such beings.”

So that’s the end of the story, right? Paizo have ruled that all undead are evil, and any time someone creates the undead, that person has committed an evil act. Where are the interesting questions for Detect Alignment in that? Case closed!

Well…to rely on that eternal catchphrase of good analytic philosophers everywhere: “There’s more to it than that.”

For one thing, the way that even this official Pathfinder ruling has positioned this “knowledge” leaves some amount of ambiguity around the question. It is specifically listed in the context of what might be called “common knowledge” or “common sense.” But the face is that, even at its most reliable, “common knowledge” does not somehow imply “universal truth.” If you and everyone you know and everyone in your village and everyone in your country, every single time they’ve encountered undead creatures, have determined that those creatures were evil, then it makes perfect sense to say that “everyone knows” that “undead are invariably evil.” But that doesn’t logically imply that there couldn’t be one lonely good vampire out there (or even an isolated community of benevolent ghosts or something) who are not evil, as a matter of fact. Received wisdom often exists for good reason, and can be perfectly justified…but that doesn’t make it infallible or universal.

And, of course, all of the above totally ignores any influence of bias, prejudice, and visceral fear that might have been influencing those people’s encounters. Even the most charitable and saintly skeleton is, understandably, going to creep people out as a first impression, and that’s the kind of thing that will influence “common knowledge.”

For our purposes, though, there is a more significant question here: even if it is true that all undead are invariably evil, why would this be so? What is it about being undead that makes something evil? Is this a causal connection, or a conceptual one? Might there not be non-evil undead in the world; if there aren’t, is it possible that there could be? And following on from those questions: are any means taken to create undead inherently evil indeed? Even iff the undead are actually necessarily evil, could their creation still be justified under certain circumstances?

In the spirit of those questions and concerns, this new series will be looking at the conceptual issues surrounding undeath and how those issues can help us understand the moral standing of the undead, as well as the significance of those moral concepts more widely.

I should note that there’s a sense in which this is sort of an extension of a long philosophical history of using the undead in thought experiments, and for analyzing our reasoning – even the most cursory Google search for “philosophical zombie” will demonstrate that. So while this series will ostensibly be about Pathfinder, and I will certainly be making an effort to clear the conceptual air around the undead in-game in order to better understand and play undead creatures (and the necromancers who love them)…there are also important fundamentally moral questions (as well as other, broader philosophical questions) which can be addressed by looking closely at the undead and undead ethics.

The first substantial post in this series (who am I kidding? The first several posts…) will be looking at some of the positive arguments for the view that undead are, in fact, invariably evil, as are the means to create them. There are a few different ways of seeing this, so it might take a little while to get through that stuff, and onto the really nitty-gritty, detailed, deep questions at hand. But I suspect that the entire journey will actually be pretty fun…

I hope you’ll join me in this new philosophical/adventuring journey, and if you have specific undead-ethics-related topics that you’d like to see come up in this series, leave some comments and I’m sure we’ll find a way to get to it!

7 Replies to “Beyond Life and Death: Introduction to Undead Ethics”

  1. Ooh, that’s a really interesting topic.
    I must say, since most of the games I play in are in low levels (most of the undead we meet are non-sentent, and controlled by an evil cleric) I haven’t thought through this as well as I would like to.
    I’m also interested in Dhampirs, and if being mostly undead impacts their alignment at all.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi, and thanks again Josiah!
      Yes, you’re definitely right about dhampirs – these (and flesh golems, for that matter – they were suggested by another reader via Reddit) are going to be interesting test cases for whatever we propose about the undead in general…


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