Beyond Life and Death III: Are the Undead Evil Because They’re Unnatural?

This is the third post in our series on normative and metaethical issues surrounding the undead in Pathfinder. To start at the beginning, with the introductory post, click here.

So if it is the case that all undead in Pathfinder are necessarily evil, why might this be? It’s about time we start looking at some of the major reasons proposed for what it is about the undead that makes them not just evil, but necessarily so.

For today’s post, we’ll look at what might be the single most common reason offered in favour of this view…which also happens to be (spoilers!) perhaps among the worst possible reasons to think that the undead (or anything else, for that matter) might be evil. This type of argument can generally be captured under the umbrella we call “appeal to nature.” They are usually (including, I’d say, in this case as well) truly bad arguments indeed.

Applied to the undead, the basic structure of an appeal to nature argument usually goes as follows:

 

Premise 1: Anything unnatural is evil.

Premise 2: The undead are unnatural.

Conclusion: The undead are evil.

 

Now, there’s no question that this argument is technically valid (the conclusion follows from the premises). The problem is that it is spectacularly unsound, in that both premises are likely false (at the very least, their truth would be rather dubious and/or have to be narrowly construed). In order to demonstrate why, let’s take each premise in turn; show, in detail, why appeals to nature like this don’t really work; and therefore show why we don’t have to talk about this anymore (positive side effect: you hopefully won’t try or accept these kinds of arguments in your everyday lives either).

Premise 1: Anything unnatural is evil.

You’ve probably seen this kind of thing around from time to time, often with notions like “not good” or “unhealthy” in place of “evil;” in either case, it boils down to the same kind of assertion.

Some of the thrust of this view is, of course, going to depend on what we mean by “natural,” but we’ll look at that more in the next section, on the second premise. For our purposes here, we’ll assume that there is some agreed-upon standard of what counts as natural vs. unnatural, and focus on the following: what is it about something being “unnatural” that might make it evil (necessarily so, moreover)?

It just doesn’t seem like “natural” is the kind of characteristic or category marker that implies good or evil one way or another. At most, when the idea that “x is unnatural” is evoked under these kinds of circumstances, it usually ends up being equivalent to nothing more than “x makes me uncomfortable” or “I don’t much care for x at all.” That is to say, accusations of “unnaturalness” tend to actually be vague attempts to express our own preferences, our own likes and dislikes, as some kind of objective property in the interest of making them seem more universally justified.

But, of course, personal preference is simply not going to cut the mustard when it comes to genuinely moral categories like good and evil. Some people are grossed out by homosexuality or cola or dogs wearing clothes, but that discomfort doesn’t contribute one whit towards saying that any of those things is actually morally wrong (let alone evil)…no matter how much some of us might like cola to be declared an affront against decency and permanently banned.

This is the kind of thing you particularly need to watch out for when you see words like “abomination” thrown around – this usually tends to be another effective synonym for “thing I don’t like at all and therefore should not exist, no matter what other people think.” And yes, I’m looking at you on this one, Pharasmins: the mere fact that Pharasma “despises undead” does not make them evil (necessarily or otherwise), any more than the preferences of gods can, on their own, determine any other moral truths (for more on why that might be the case, click here).

So there doesn’t seem to be a good reason to believe that unnatural things are necessarily evil, undead or not. While we’re on the subject, though…what does it even mean for something to be “unnatural” in such a significant sense? For that, it’s time to have a hard look at that second premise…

Premise 2: The undead are unnatural.

So this premise really turns on what we mean by “natural” and “unnatural.” Some things are pretty obviously “natural,” even to those who say this kind of thing: trees, fresh water, unformed rocks, and so forth – things created by undirected, unguided, unintentional processes, largely unaffected by humanoid life. But what about, say, a shovel? Shovels don’t occur naturally, so they don’t at all fit this strict conception of “natural”…but do we really want to think of them as “unnatural” in this highly normative way?

What about beaver dams and ant colonies – artificial structures built by non-humanoid, arguably non-intelligent creatures?

Maybe it’s that the materials of construction have to be “natural” for something to not count as “unnatural” for this purpose – so the shovel is fine, but, I don’t know, plastics aren’t. Of course, the components of any “unnatural” material are themselves natural (i.e., plastics are made from things ultimately found in the natural world – they aren’t magically conjured out of nowhere), so this just pushes the question back further. This tack isn’t going to get us anywhere either.

That’s at least true in the real world; in Pathfinder, though, perhaps the distinction between natural and unnatural actually does rely on magic. That is, perhaps “natural” things are those not created/affected by magic, while “unnatural” things are those which are somehow caused by magic. Again, though, this would seem to throw the baby out with the bathwater: if you want to say that what makes the undead “unnatural” is that they are created by magic, full stop…then you’d have to say the same thing about healing magic, barkskin potions, and so on. Maybe all of these things (including the undead) are coherently unnatural in the same way,* be they potions or skeletons or summoned monsters…but why would this be important for moral purposes?

If your concept of “unnatural” lumps all of these things together, then it doesn’t imply any kind of moral value with regard to natural or unnatural status – some of these things are good, some are evil, most can go either way dependent on the context. “Natural” is just not a moral concept on this view, and so not useful for this kind of argument.

On the other hand, if you want to say that healing magic, for instance, is “natural” (and therefore good) magic, while the undead are “unnatural” (and therefore evil) magic…well you’re kind of back to square one. You can’t just declare this ad hoc distinction and go home; that would be begging the question pretty badly. You would need a substantive, non-question-begging notion of what makes one kind of magic “natural” and another unnatural before you could helpfully use such a distinction in this argument…and since we’ve already seen what kind of trouble that is, you’ve effectively gotten nowhere.

 

Hopefully this puts to bed the idea that the undead might be evil (necessarily or not) because they are “unnatural” (whatever that might mean)…and maybe makes you think twice before accepting appeal-to-nature arguments more generally. Of course, if you think that there’s a version or element of this argument that I’ve treated unfairly (seriously; I have no respect for this argument, to an extent that some might well deem disrespectful in a broader sense), then don’t hesitate to ask about it, and we’ll hopefully get it all sorted out. Aside from that, tune in next time, when we’ll look at another proposed explanation as to why we should think the undead are necessarily evil.

 

*Then again, maybe not: in a world where magic is known to exist, can be manipulated according to broadly understood rules and processes, and can certainly affect the natural world, it might just make more sense to say that magic (and that which is created by magic) is also natural. In fact, this strikes me as the right approach…but for argument’s sake, we’ll assume here that it makes sense to count magic and its products as unnatural in Pathfinder.

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3 Replies to “Beyond Life and Death III: Are the Undead Evil Because They’re Unnatural?”

  1. The most common argument I think I’ve heard is that the undead, since they deprive a Good person of a pleasant afterlife in Heaven, Nirvana, or Elysium; Good creatures do not tolerate the thought, lest the same thing happen to them.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Josiah, and thanks as always! I don’t want to say too much here, because this is definitely an approach that we’ll be looking at very soon, if not in the very next post. Suffice it to say that this is definitely an idea worth considering on this topic!

      Like

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