Beyond Life and Death IV: Are the Undead Evil Because Their Souls Do Not Proceed Properly to the Afterlife?

This is the fourth 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.

On an administrative/personal note: no, this blog has not been abandoned. Various issues, both personal and professional, have kept me from writing for a while now…but I’m hoping that we’re starting to get back on track now!

On a separate note: the elephant in the room these days is how Pathfinder’s Second Edition (or at least the version of it presented in the current playtest) is going to affect interpretations and applications of rules surrounding alignment and morality more generally. Short answer: somewhat, but not enough to invalidate thoughtful discussion thereof. Long answer: that will probably be the focus of our next series, so just hold your horses a little bit longer.

We’ve now seen why just hating on the undead because they’re “unnatural” doesn’t justify the view that they are necessarily evil. Might there be a better, more nuanced account of undead ethics that does justify this conclusion?

For instance, one often sees (not as often as the appeal-to-nature argument, but often enough) the idea that the undead are evil because being/becoming undead interferes with the normal, healthy progress of souls through from life to the afterlife*. And because such interference necessarily harms the person whose soul this is (or perhaps harms the soul directly; the metaphysical relationship/distinction between a person and her soul is a question best left for another time), any instance of the undead necessarily constitutes a harm, and is therefore evil.

I’m happy to say that this argument is better than appealing to nature (hardly a high bar)…but I still don’t think that it’s going to justify the view that the undead are necessarily evil. Nevertheless, it’s important to look into why that might be, as I suspect that this view is still going to lay some important groundwork for future, even more sophisticated arguments on the topic.

So while there is certainly some debate over whether and how undead status specifically prevents a soul’s passage to the afterlife, I think it’s safe to assume for our discussion here that at the very least, being undead interferes with a soul’s “proper” passage through to the afterlife (reading between the lines, this explains Pharasma’s abhorrence of the undead).

Why, though, should we conclude that this does indeed cause harm to the soul in question? Granted, it’s no great leap to suggest that for good beings, whose souls are bound for an eternity of pleasure in Heaven or Elysium or the like, anything which holds them back from the afterlife is going to constitute a harm; therefore, it makes sense to say that making goodly creatures into undead is evil because it harms them.

But what about evil creatures, whose souls are bound for damnation and eternal torment in the wastelands of the Abyss or the twisted servitude of Hell? I don’t know that anyone has ever argued that being undead is a total picnic, but I’d be surprised if it wasn’t quite a sight better than being repeatedly eaten alive by demons or whatever (even if the soul is completely unconscious and unaware while trapped in an undead vessel, this is probably still true). And if that’s the case, then evil creatures which are also at least minimally rationally self-interested would probably prefer to be undead, rather than proceeding on to the afterlife in a horrifyingly orderly fashion. If this is so, it’s hard to argue that those souls are somehow harmed by being undead – indeed, in the absence of better ways of keeping people out of the afterlife, truly evil creatures are probably harmed by not being turned undead upon their demise.

If we accept all of the above, we might also adopt a plausible (if hardly uncontroversial) type of “cosmic utilitarianism,” whereby some action is evil insofar as it produces more harm/reduces pleasure (generally speaking) and good insofar as it produces more pleasure/reduces harm (again, generally speaking). On this view, then, the undead and their creation can’t simply be inherently evil because of the way they interfere with a soul’s passage to the afterlife, because that interference is sometimes good and sometimes bad, depending on the details.

Perhaps, though, the problem has less to do with that interference in a soul’s passage and more to do with this “cosmic utilitarianism” we’ve presupposed. More specifically: perhaps it’s not harming a soul that is necessarily evil, but preventing that soul’s passage through to the afterlife, regardless of whether that would constitute a help or a harm in any particular case.

Consider again my old friend G. E. Moore, a central figure in the history of both utilitarianism specifically and analytic ethics more broadly. In Principia Ethica, his key work in ethics, he attempts (among many other great things) to find a way of reconciling the rather obscure notion of “justice” with the (purportedly) more clear-cut, comprehensive, and applicable structure of utilitarianism. That’s a long story in itself, but the key element for us here is a single thought experiment (which I will, of course, paraphrase):

Suppose there are two parallel worlds, completely identical in all ways…except one. There is precisely the same amount of crime in each world, committed by the same criminals and with the same harm resulting, but in World A, those crimes (and criminals) invariably go unpunished, while in World B, those crimes invariably are punished (the details of how they’re punished don’t matter too much, but feel free to insert whatever you think of as fair, firm, consistent, humane punishment).

Now, there’s no doubt that World B contains more harm – it has all the same harm caused by crimes and the like as World A, but it also has the harm caused by punishment. Nevertheless, according to Moore, World B remains a better world in that it is a more just world, because evil going unpunished is, ceteris paribus, worse than that same evil being punished, never mind that the latter scenario explicitly involves more harm.

While it’s certainly open to objections, this argument of Moore’s seems right to me. More importantly for our purposes, this argument shows why even though evil souls are not necessarily harmed when something interferes with their progression to a painful afterlife, that interference might nevertheless be morally worse than allowing those souls to move on to that terrible hereafter.

That’s a lot of moral and metaphysical baggage to carry along…but it still strikes me as plausible. Moreover, it gives us a strong argument for the position that the means used to create undead are invariably evil, at least to some degree: whatever else might be involved, creating undead is always unjust because it prevents good souls from being rewarded and evil souls from being punished accordingly.

Unfortunately, that’s not enough to say that the undead themselves are always evil – after all, the end result of an evil process is not necessarily evil itself in any way. Sexual assault, for instance, is an invariably evil act, but children conceived of rape are not evil. In this same way, there is nothing inconsistent in saying that the means used to create undead are invariably evil, while the undead themselves are not necessarily so. Therefore, while this “argument-from-interference-in-the-afterlife” is certainly a powerful, compelling, and important one when considering the ethics of undeath in Pathfinder in general…I simply don’t think that it’s enough to answer (or even really address) the question of whether/why the undead are themselves invariably evil.

Does this conclusion resonate for you, or have I missed some important step here that should give this afterlife question more weight? Conversely, do you think Moore’s thought experiment about justice making the world “better” is somehow wrongheaded or insufficient? I’d love to hear it all, either way!


*My focus on this type of argument is owed to a view presented by “Josiah,” commenting on the previous Detect Alignment post. This specific characterization of it, however, I have shaped largely myself; any errors or misidentifications in this post are therefore strictly my own doing.


5 Replies to “Beyond Life and Death IV: Are the Undead Evil Because Their Souls Do Not Proceed Properly to the Afterlife?”

  1. Thanks for answering this!
    If I remember right, eidolons and summoned creatures might have some aspect related to this. And since they count as their summoner’s alignment (or at least the eidolon does. I don’t remember what’s up with summoned/conjured monsters), there’s the possibility that undead are the alignment of their casters. In which case, the “undead are evil” stigma would probably have ties to a particularly famous evil necromancer.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi again Josiah!
      While this is an interesting possibility, I don’t know just how apt this analogy is in this case. For one thing, many undead creation spells actually have the Evil descriptor. More significantly, while created undead are usually brought into being by necromancy spells, summoned/called creatures are usually the result of conjuration spells. For these reasons, I just think that the processes of creating undead vs. summoning creatures just seem too different to be particularly morally comparable.
      That being said, the next post will indeed be comparing undead with non-undead creatures (a particularly notorious kind of construct in this case), so that’s not to say that there isn’t (hopefully) something interesting to learn still from this sort of comparison!


      1. Following that tangent a little, Paizo has changed the Cure spells from the Transmutation school to the Necromancy school, further establishing Necromancy as the power over life and death instead of its former role as the “evil magic.”


  2. Constructs are an interesting comparison. Flesh Golems (which might be the creature you were wanting to cover) are created using the Animate Dead spell, at least six bodies, and powerful magic to bind an elemental spirit to the golem’s body. The strange part is that even though Animate Dead is tagged with the Evil descriptor, the creation of a Flesh Golem is not seen as an evil act on it’s own, and even though the Flesh Golem is made of reanimated body parts; it is viewed as a Neutral Construct.
    Not sure what to make of the whole mess, though. Plus, Flesh Golems are sometimes sentient, sometimes not. They’re kind of strange rules-wise, now that I think about it.

    Liked by 1 person

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