Of Law and Chaos III: Open Questions About Alignment

This is the third 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.

In a move familiar to analytic philosophers everywhere, I want to do some more clarification of the goals and methods of this series before going on to really talk about the substantive moral issues surrounding questions of law and chaos. Yes, this style of philosophy is highly time-consuming, and yes, it can definitely come off as pedantic to those unfamiliar with it (and even those who are familiar with it, trust me). But real philosophical insight comes not in enormous, simple bursts of mystic epiphany – that way lies the path of charlatanry and obscurantist terror, not knowledge. Good philosophy is done in careful little bits, clearly bitten off and chewed through and digested, before the next bite is taken (that metaphor really evolved over the course of that sentence, didn’t it?).

In that spirit, I’m going to use this post to say more about why an interpretation of what we mean by “lawful” and “chaotic” in an alignment sense should be morally neutral, and how the interpretation that I’ve previously proposed fulfills this requirement. That way, when we do move on to discuss more substantive moral issues, we’ll be able to proceed with at least a bit more confidence that our project is not fundamentally undermined by sloppy, hasty thinking.

So why should we want a morally neutral interpretation of the law/chaos alignment axis? After all, the good/evil axis is hardly morally neutral (at least when we’re talking about moral alignment): if there is an act or a creature or a spell which we are right to call “evil,” then that thing is, by definition, evil – nothing morally neutral about that!

The reason that we’re holding the lawful/chaotic axis to a different (not to say higher) standard is that we’re going to be addressing issues about lawful and chaotic alignments that include questions of whether some action or attitude is good or evil because it is lawful or chaotic…and if we go in with some of the answers to these questions baked into our definitions of “lawful” and “chaotic,” we’ll really just be spinning our wheels on these investigations, since the answers will largely have been determined from the beginning.

This calls to mind the work of one of my very favourite historical philosophers, G. E. Moore. Moore is one of the founding figures of analytic philosophy more broadly, and is arguably the founding figure in analytic metaethics – while a case can be made for some earlier philosophers (primarily Henry Sidgwick via his The Methods of Ethics), the first major work to be squarely located within the tradition of metaethics is Moore’s Principia Ethica. And among all the arguments about metaethics from Principia Ethica and elsewhere, Moore is most famous for arguing against what he called the “naturalistic fallacy.”

While literally tens of thousands of pages have been written about it over the past century or so (it’s still at the heart of among the most contentious broad issues in metaethics), the details of the naturalistic fallacy, and how right Moore may have been about it, are largely beyond the scope of what we’re doing here. What is important to us, though, is the central argumentative engine that drives Moore’s work on the naturalistic fallacy: the open-question argument, and the epistemic values underlying it.

Essentially, Moore argues that questions about the nature of the moral concepts (he’s particularly concerned with how one defines “the good”) should always be open questions – that is, they should be settled by way of substantive arguments about values, about cause and effect, about further deductions and insights, about what sorts of things are important to us and why, rather than just by appealing purely to the meanings of these terms. Otherwise, we are not in a position to discover anything worthwhile about these concepts.

Again, the open-question argument is exceedingly controversial and subtle in metaethical circles; every metaethicist (myself included) seems to have developed his or her own particular interpretation, defense, and/or critique of it at some point. But for our purposes, let’s have a look at how we might adapt and apply the open-question argument to our subject here:

Say we define chaotic-aligned actions very overtly morally as “those actions which are against the law and which have bad results.” If I then ask, “Is there such a thing as a Chaotic Good action?”, you could easily respond with “Of course not – ‘chaotic’ just means ‘against the law and having bad results,’ and no such action could be good, so there cannot be Chaotic Good actions any more than there can be married bachelors. You just need to know what ‘chaotic’ means, dummy!” Seen this way, at no point was I asking an open question – my question was already decided by the meaning of “chaotic” we had adopted.

But I’m sure you’ll agree that this kind of answer is rather unsatisfying – rather than simply answering a rather naive question, it seems like my interlocutor has just sort of misunderstood the issues at hand. I’m asking something substantive and deep about the moral character of chaotic actions, not just “what ‘chaotic’ means.” We’ll need a better definition of “chaotic” than that if we want to actually get at the question in which I’m interested. We want a definition which will leave it as an open question.

But “lawful” and “chaotic” as concepts are alarmingly riddled with normativity – while most definitions offered are a little more graceful than my exemplary strawman of defining “chaotic” as “against the law and having bad results,” they still often build in values which could be quietly closing off further moral questions in ways which might not be obvious now but which could come back to bite us pretty hard down the road.

This has been a major value motivating my suggestion of a pared-down, minimal, thoroughly descriptive (I hope) interpretation of what the lawful/chaotic alignment axis means. My methodological interpretation (as I’ve called it) is about nothing more than the broad methods (see where that comes from?) one takes in the conception and exertion of power – it says nothing about who should or should not have that power, about for what purposes it should be used, or anything else explicitly about moral or social values. Even the term “power” here should be taken rather loosely – I intend it to mean something less like “force” or “might” or “violence” and more like “causal effectiveness” or “ability to effect change of some kind.”

As a result, I hope that we are indeed going into the substantive issues surrounding the lawful/chaotic alignment axis leaving those questions open, so that any answers we do come to (and I don’t want to promise anything yet) are actually satisfying, and not just facile evasions. We’ll start to see if this strategy pays off at all next time…

Of Law and Chaos II: What are the Lawful and Chaotic Alignments, Really?

This is the second 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.

Many of the issues that come up when evaluating any aspect of the distinction between lawful and chaotic alignments have to do with misunderstandings and even contradictions in what we mean when we use these terms. Just think of all the incessant arguments over whether Batman is Lawful Good (because he follows a code so rigorously) or Chaotic Good (because he’s a vigilante who flouts the law at every turn)! So before we go on to examine some of the trickier issues of the metaethics of lawful versus chaotic alignments, we need to spend some time clarifying exactly what we mean when we talk about these things.

And let’s be clear: I don’t expect that this is going to clear up all of these discussions and debates – not by a long shot. People are going to continue to interpret the meaning of these alignments for their own games or to rationalize their own idiosyncratic characters regardless of what I say. Moreover, I don’t even want to say that my proposed interpretation of the law-chaos axis is somehow the correct one. Rather, all I’m looking for is a clear, consistent presentation of these concepts that we can use effectively in further discussions – I remain open, at least in principle, to the possibility of a plurality of useful concepts here.

That being said, I do want my proposal to fit a couple of fundamental presuppositions…so if you don’t share those presuppositions, you probably won’t share my conclusions. Consider yourself warned. Those presuppositions are:


  1. All alignments are conceptually consistent and possible.

There are those who have argued, for instance, that Chaotic Good is a conceptually incoherent alignment (and that perhaps the same is true of Lawful Evil). I’ll be addressing some of those arguments in a later post; for now, I just don’t want any alignments to be ruled out a priori by the meaning of these terms alone. It may turn out that upon further investigation, some of these alignments are not actually morally or metaethically possible…but that should not be for no other reason than their definition.

  1. There are moral gradations aside from full alignment steps.

Just because all alignments are at least conceptually possible, this does not mean that they are all morally equivalent. Two characters may both be Neutral Good, but one may well be more good than another. In the same way, one may be closer to a lawful alignment, the other closer to chaotic. Similarly, it may be the case that two different alignment steps which ostensibly share an axis may not have equivalent value along that axis: even if both Chaotic Good and Lawful Good are possible alignments, this does not mean that, all other things being equal, the chaotic creature is as good as the lawful creature (or vice versa). It may turn out that CG creatures are more good than LG creatures, or LE more evil than CE…or it may not. The point is to leave this as an open question for future investigation, and not close it off by way of our definitions of lawful and chaotic.


With that out of the way…how should we actually go about setting forth this definition? You could go a lot of ways on this, and I’m sure there are better ideas than mine out there…but the first thing that strikes me as a method would be to find two classes whose alignment descriptions break down more or less along the lawful-chaotic axis and see what we can learn from them.

That’s right: we’re going to base the difference between lawful and chaotic alignments on the difference between monks and barbarians (yes, I know: barbarians can’t be lawful, but they don’t have to be chaotic. Nevertheless, they are certainly the class most closely aligned with the chaotic side of the alignment chart, so they’re what I’m going to use).

This distinction allows us to very quickly dispense with the rather facile idea that lawful creatures are those that generally follow the law, while chaotic creatures are those that generally flout the law. After all, we have no trouble imagining a lawful monk (all monks are lawful, with the exception of some archetypes) who acts as an agent of revolution, a open rebel explicitly struggling against the existing laws of the land (they could even be legitimate laws, in the case of, say, evil monks), while a strictly law-abiding member of the king’s bodyguard could happen to be a chaotic barbarian, becoming a whirling berserker in battle.

Perhaps, then, we should look for a more internal source of the distinction – maybe the lawful monk is lawful because he effectively subjects himself to some internal code of behaviour, while the barbarian is chaotic because he does not. But again, I don’t see any conceptual issues with imagining characters of these classes who just don’t appear to adhere to this interpretation either: the barbarian could be unwaveringly loyal to his king just because that’s part of who he is…or he may not be loyal to any one person but to an ideal of honour and valour, and he would die before violating that personal code of ethics, no matter that he is a raging storm of fury when he fights. Meanwhile, the lawful monk may well be a skilled and focused fighter, but just might not feel any particularly strong or principled convictions at all – he wanders itinerantly, fighting for this village or that cause for a time, but never really committed to any particular principles or values in anything but a lukewarm way…and certainly not in comparison with our tremendously earnest barbarian!

Rather, I think that we can posit as the key alignment difference between the monk and the barbarian (and therefore between lawful and chaotic) a kind of methodological difference in how one marshals one’s internal resources, rather than an important difference in more overt moral or political values. It’s about how they conceive of and apply power, whatever form that may take.

That is to say, our monk is lawful not because of what he values in the world or where lie the source of the rules he chooses to follow (if any) – he is lawful because of the way that he uses internal discipline and focus to accomplish things. His self-control in marshaling his internal resources is what makes him lawful. Similarly, our barbarian bodyguard is chaotic not because he ignores laws or holds to no internal ethos – quite the opposite! Rather, when it comes time to use his abilities to accomplish his goals, he does through not through self-discipline (self-legislation, to borrow a bit of quasi-Kantian language) but through becoming less restrained, through the unleashing of his internal resources. For our purposes going forward, this is what I will be treating as the fundamental difference between alignments along the lawful-chaotic axis.

Of course, it’s easy to imagine many objections to this view – after all, while I think I’ve presented some pretty compelling counterexamples, it’s probably actually easier to imagine monks who are law-abiding and/or follow an internal code and barbarians who are scofflaw free spirits and/or totally governed by their passions than the against-type examples I’ve been discussing. There’s also the fact of alignment-limited outsiders: devils are LE and demons are CE, for instance, and the first represent the evil of enslavement and oppression while the latter instantiate the evil of wrath and destruction. Do these differences really all come down to nothing more than different views about how to conceive of power?

While there is certainly plenty more to say about this point, my general response is that while these kinds of examples can serve as excellent signs of underlying lawful or chaotic alignment, they do so not because they are instances of what is meant by these concepts but because they are the common (but not necessary) psychological/social/moral result of what I’ll call the “methodological” distinction between lawful and chaotic alignments. The fundamental difference, though, the sine qua non of the lawful-chaotic alignment axis, is this difference in methodological views on how to think about, marshal, and exercise power. Any external political, psychological, behavioural, moral, or other instantiations of this alignment may serve as helpful indicators, but are fundamentally epiphenomenal. A character may even understand herself as chaotic due to, say, a disregard for laws…but this is not what it means for someone to be chaotic in an alignment sense.

So that’s the view that I’ll be bringing forward into our upcoming examination(s) of the metaethics and moral philosophy surrounding questions about the lawful-chaotic alignment in Pathfinder. That being said, I am not so lacking in humility as to believe that everybody will be on board with my view here, so I welcome your comments and criticisms – if I’ve made a grave error here, then perhaps the next post will have to actually be a rescinding/revamping of this one, rather than a discussion of the next topic in line. After all, if there’s one thing analytic philosophers (and arguably Pathfinder players) love, it’s the meticulous, rigorous, near-obsessive refinement of concepts and definitions!

Of Law and Chaos: Introduction

It should come as no surprise that a blog focused on the ethics of Pathfinder should deal first and foremost with matters of good and evil, both in an in-game alignment sense and in a wider, more conceptual normative sense. And yet, this would also seem to do a disservice to a full half of the game’s alignment spectrum: I have written literally tens of thousands of words so far about good and evil, with barely a few dozen casually thrown off about law and chaos. Well, that pattern stops today: welcome to the introductory post in what I hope will be a medium-length series on how to think about the law/chaos alignment axis in Pathfinder!

After all, while there certainly is a perspective which suggests that good and evil are the primary moral concepts to examine when it comes to alignment, there is another sense in which the metaethics of law and chaos are far more interesting and fruitful concepts.

Consider the following: the normative value of good and evil are obvious on their face, perhaps even tautological. What I mean is that, whatever else we might mean by “good” and “evil,” we mean that those things which are “good” are deserving of valuing or admiration, are the kinds of things/actions/results/whatever towards which we should strive, while those things which are “evil” are deserving of scorn/avoidance/what have you. This kind of normative evaluation is built into the very meaning of these terms*, and that actually takes away one possible interesting path of ethical inquiry into these concepts: we know, by virtue of the meaning of these terms, that evil is bad and good is (for lack of a better term) good. As a result, this is simply not an interesting conclusion.

When it comes to law and chaos, on the other hand, this normativity isn’t really built in…or, if it is, it’s buried quite a bit deeper. Whatever we might think about how those who identify as chaotic behave morally, compared with those who identify as lawful, it just doesn’t seem baked into the meaning of these terms that one is morally better or worse than the other. And that opens up the possibility of a more interesting, diverse, wide-ranging philosophical exploration of the subject.

Of course, aside from any philosophical issues, the fact is that the lawful-chaotic axis of alignment in Pathfinder is at least as controversial and misunderstood in the gaming context as in any metaethical context. So the first order of business in this series will be to do some conceptual cleaning up of what it means, exactly, for one’s alignment to be lawful or chaotic within the rules and lore of Pathfinder. Once we’ve (hopefully) cleared that up a bit, we’ll be proceeding to look at a few different arguments and considerations about the moral status of lawful versus chaotic alignments, to see what kind of normative issues actually do come into play with these concepts, even if they might not constitute part of the meaning of what it is to be lawful or chaotic.

So that’s where we’ll leave it off for now: since I expect that actually getting even a basic handle on the conceptual character of lawful and chaotic alignment will require the spilling of a fair amount of ink, we’ll start in with those substantial questions next time. Until then, though, I’d love to hear what kinds of considerations and/or arguments you think ought to come into play on this topic, as well as how these concepts are conceptualized at your tables.
*While I hold that this is true of “good” and “evil” in the moral sense, there is arguably a non-normative in-game metaphysical sense of these terms, tied to alignment, which does not have this tautologically normative character. See this post from an earlier series on understanding alignment for more on what I call “alignment dualism” and why what is true of good and evil in a moral sense may not be true of good and evil in a metaphysical sense…at least in Pathfinder.

Fallen Clergy – Interpreting Moral Codes as Class Features VII: All Fear the Fury of a Warpriest of a Gentle God

This is the seventh post in our series on moral codes as class features in Pathfinder. Click here to start with the introductory post.

As I suggested rather quickly in the previous post on inquisitors, warpriests are, for the most part, a fairly conceptually simple class (though, as many know, playing one can actually be pretty complex). Initially appearing in the Advanced Class Guide, they are explicitly a combination of fighter and cleric in terms of class design, leaving very little mystery about what they do: they are essentially clerics who cast divine spells granted by a deity, but whose additional focus on martial training has made them both better soldiers and lesser casters in comparison with straight-up clerics.

So in most cases, any conceptual issues tied in with their reliance on a moral code is going to have the same answer as clerics’, and for the same reasons (depending on the alignment of the deity in question, as these answers differ for good and evil clerics). That being said, the more specific role of warpriests mean that there are still a few issues unique to them.

Primary among these, as far as I’m concerned, is how exactly we are to justify warpriests in the priesthood of some gods. That is, it’s easy to see how warpriests fit in the clergy of rather martial gods like Iomedae and Gorum (it’s no coincidence, I imagine, that the iconic warpriest is dedicated to Gorum, the CN god of battle and strength). For some of the major gods, though, it’s a bit more difficult to understand what role a warpriest plays in the priesthood – Shelyn, the god of love, art, and beauty, is among the more problematic of these.

At this point, I should make explicit a second-order guiding principle that I’m adopting here: because the rules don’t suggest otherwise, and because players should be encouraged to make whatever kind of characters they want within the restrictions of the rules (be they as written or as decided at the table), it should be possible to play a warpriest of any god at all, even Shelyn. Our task here is just to figure out where a warpriest of Shelyn (rare as they may be) might fit within the larger priesthood.

Now, conceptually speaking, we can’t just wave this problem away by saying that there’s nothing prohibiting priests of Shelyn from fighting per se, so there’s no problem with there being warpriests of Shelyn. The fact is that run-of-the-mill clerics of any god make rather impressive combatants, to say nothing of the glaive-armed fighting clerics of Shelyn. So warpriests can’t just be dismissed as “clerics who can fight;” the standard clerics can fight perfectly well, so if this was all there was to it, there wouldn’t be any need for warpriests.

Rather than being just clerics who can fight, warpriests are more like clerics who do fight, who specifically train for it, who seek out battle in the name of their faith…so how does this square with the rather pacifist, diplomatic leanings of the church of Shelyn?

Of course, Pathfinder players are nothing if not inventive, and I’m sure that untold numbers of players have come up with some perfectly reasonable individual backstory for their particular warpriest of Shelyn. But this still leaves open the wider question: what, if anything, is the broad role of warpriests as a class in her church?

We might just try to more or less shelve this problem by just assuming that every major deity has a sort church-militant arm composed of priestly soldiers dedicated to protecting the faithful, forwarding the deity’s agenda, et cetera. But this, again, feels like a pretty cheap way out that doesn’t do justice to the lore and doesn’t challenge us to come up with a genuine, unique, internally consistent story about how one could be a warpriest of a peaceful god of art, beauty, and love, and not lose one’s divine powers.

So instead, I’m going to take a different approach, and suggest that Shelyn does have warpriests, and that they don’t just look like different coloured pawns cloned from the warpriests of Sarenrae.

Rather, they are committed to the artistic, performative element of combat, martial artists in the most literal sense. They see combat as the best way to express their artistic sensibilities, and train their bodies to express a kind of deadly beauty in movement – just imagine world champion wushu competitor Jade Xu here with a blade at the end of that staff (i.e., a glaive), and you’ve got a pretty good idea of what an experienced warpriest of Shelyn would look like.

These people do not seek out battle or hunt down enemies with any kind of fervour – that would not all be in keeping with the peaceful, aesthetic teachings of Shelyn. Nor do they necessarily band together in anything like military units or hierarchies. Instead, their dedication to the beauty of martial performance in itself (and to the attendant glorification of Shelyn) gives them access to her divine favour. And, should such a warpriest find herself adventuring for her own reasons, or facing violent threats of some kind which cannot reasonably be avoided through peaceful means…well, then her opponents will learn very quickly for themselves just what it means to be a warpriest of Shelyn.

Now, that’s only one example for one god, but I feel like it serves my purpose: if we can come up with a reasonable, internally consistent story about the role played by warpriests of Shelyn, then I’m confident we can do the same for any other god.

Of course, I’d love to hear how you might have justified warpriests of Shelyn and/or other less martial deities…and whether you think my justification actually works! Or perhaps you don’t see this as quite so significant a problem as I do, and feel like this is worrying about nothing (more so than the usual conceptual theorizing about playing make-believe, that is). In any case, I’d love to hear what you have to say about it!

And with that, I’ll be wrapping up this series on the moral codes of priestly classes. I’m hoping to do a standalone post or two in the coming weeks before starting on the next major series…but, as always, I’m definitely interested in questions and topics you might want to see addressed in Detect Alignment, so fire away!

Fallen Clergy – Interpreting Moral Codes as Class Features VI: Nobody Expects the Paizo Inquisition!

This is the sixth post in our series on moral codes as class features in Pathfinder. Click here to start with the introductory post.

There is something very slippery about inquisitors, both morally and conceptually. Now, don’t get me wrong – I love the inquisitor as a class. It has a tonne of versatility, a great number of mechanics that are both interesting and very useful, phenomenal fit for just about any party role, and its priestly association means that it can be anywhere on the moral spectrum from the purest of heroes to the most dastardly of foes, with practically any flavour you might have in mind. Anyone who gets bored playing an inquisitor in Pathfinder just isn’t doing it right (probably true of anyone who gets bored playing Pathfinder in general, but you take my point).

And yet, while the inquisitor as a playable class is just plain wonderful, it’s kind of hard to tell exactly what it means to be an inquisitor. This problem just doesn’t occur for paladins or clerics or even warpriests: a paladin is a heroic divine champion of righteousness, a cleric gets her power from worshipping a god and receiving divine favour, a warpriest is a basically a cleric who incorporates a lot of fighting into his worship. Even clerics of opposing gods share a certain conceptual clarity: while a cleric of Sarenrae might be very different from a cleric of Rovagug, we can still point to what it is about them that makes them both clerics and understand that shared conceptual element.

But what is shared between, say, an inquisitor of Iomedae and an inquisitor of Norgorber? It’s not just that they get powers from their god – if that were it, they’d more or less be clerics. There’s something more to them, something they both have, that makes them both inquisitors and not some other class. It’s just hard to pinpoint exactly what that thing might be.

Part of this, I suspect, comes from the rather morally loaded concept of “inquisitor” which we have inherited from our actual, real-life history. For the average non-Pathfinder player, the word “inquisitor” conjures not a female half-orc warrior of Pharasma but a rather sinister, cruel, possibly even sadistic cardinal rooting out heresy by ruthless means, a walking symbol of religious intolerance, corruption, and violence. And certainly, this historical trope forms an important part of the basis for Pathfinder’s inquisitors – the core class features of Judgment and Stern Gaze are enough evidence of that. But this isn’t the whole story – there just isn’t enough variety in the historical image of the inquisitor to support the whole range of different possible inquisitors we see in Pathfinder.

We get a little more guidance on what precisely constitutes a Pathfinder inquisitor from the initial description of the class itself, but this extra clarity comes with new and different questions. We are told that “[a]lthough inquisitors are dedicated to a deity, they are above many of the normal rules and conventions of the church. They answer to their deity and their own sense of justice alone, and are willing to take extreme measures to meet their goals.” If we combine this with the original etymology of “inquisitor” (it comes from the Latin inquirere, which is derived from the classical Latin quaerere, “to seek”) we can start to put together a notion of a seeker, a hunter, a quester of sorts in the name of a deity.

This, I think, helps clarify our initial conceptual confusion about what is a) shared among inquisitors of all gods, and b) unique about inquisitors, in contrast with other priestly classes. That is, inquisitors are those who serve their deity by pursuing specific quests and goals, often (but not exclusively) relating to hunting down enemies of or threats to the faith. They do not serve congregations or dedicate themselves to study and worship (like clerics), nor are they specifically soldiers of the church militant (like warpriests). They are more like special agents for whatever deity they serve, focused on a particular task or set of tasks – no wonder they make such great adventurers! Viewed this way, and doing our best to shed the conceptual restrictions of the historical Catholic inquisitor, we can see that what an inquisitor of Iomedae shares with an inquisitor of Norgorber but does not share with a cleric of Iomedae is a particular approach to how best to serve her deity.

This, however, raises different questions, more directly related to the overall purpose of this series: what kind of moral codes restrict inquisitors, and what kinds of circumstances would cause an inquisitor to lose her status? We are told that “[a]n inquisitor who slips into corruption or changes to a prohibited alignment loses all spells and the judgment ability,” but very little else about the moral restrictions to which inquisitors are subject. Furthermore, this language in itself is rather ambiguous and unhelpful – while the stuff about “prohibited alignment” is fairly clear, as far as anything about alignment can be (an inquisitor’s alignment must be within one step of her deity’s), it’s hard to understand exactly what “corruption” means here. After all, many if not all of the evil gods have inquisitors: Norgorber, for instance, is the god of murder, thievery, poison, blackmail, and secrets, so I’d imagine that “corruption” as commonly understood is not just widespread but actively encouraged by his priesthood, including inquisitors. What would it mean, then, for an inquisitor of Norgorber to “slip into corruption” and thus lose his powers?

To answer this, I think we have to turn to a different conception of corruption, and face some hard truths about the moral code of inquisitors as a result. The key to understanding this is that passage I quoted above about inquisitors having to “answer to their deity and their own sense of justice alone.” Essentially, an inquisitor’s code of conduct is entirely internal, reliant upon her own rather strict, usually results-focused personal view of justice and righteousness. While presumably formed around the precepts of a particular deity, this personal code of conduct doesn’t have much in the way of a relationship with norms or justifications outside the inquisitor’s own commitments. On this view, then, “corruption” refers to a type of internal rot, a move away from one’s own personal commitments, a loss of commitment as it were, rather than to corruption by any kind of outside or social standard.

This doesn’t mean, of course, that inquisitors can just do whatever they feel like all the time. Internal motivations like these can be among the most potent forces in moral psychology, often far more powerful than external factors like legal sanction, social norms, or even religious doctrine. The kind of person who becomes an inquisitor in the first place, who gets this rather impressive kind of blanket sanction from a deity, likely holds herself to a pretty high internal standard. Think less “trust fund kid who gets a free pass on everything due to not having any outside responsibilities,” more “self-flagellating crusader who punishes himself gruesomely for saying fifty rosaries too quickly.”

It almost goes without saying, at this point, that this makes inquisitors extremely dangerous in terms of moral epistemology. When one’s moral code is completely dependent upon one’s own deeply-held commitments and interpretations of justice and corruption, one becomes rather resistant to other ideas, or moderation of any kind. This is the kind of outlook we see in fanatics of every stripe, and it’s easy to see how it breeds extremism. People who think this way about ethics and codes of behaviour easily come to see themselves as the only mortal authority on morality, and any who oppose them (even on reasonable, pluralist grounds) as enemies worthy of contempt at best, destruction at worst. This is exactly the kind of thinking that lets inquisitors justify to themselves even the most “extreme measures to meet their goals,” to quote again from the official description of inquisitors.

So while inquisitors might display many virtues that make them very attractive as adventurers, even inquisitors of the most goodly gods are unlikely to exhibit much in the way of tolerance or patience. Maybe they’re not so different from Torquemada after all…

How, then, are they to be played at the table? While there are as many answers to that as there are Pathfinder players, I think that it’s always going to be some variation of “with great delicacy.” Sure, we can imagine an inquisitor of, say, Shelyn, whose personal code of conduct demands that she be friendly and inviting and pleasant with everyone, but even this approach has a dark edge to it when taken to the extremes to which inquisitors will tend…and hyper-friendly inquisitors, even of the good gods, are likely to be more exception than rule.

Has this been your experience with playing inquisitors at your table? Do you perhaps have a different interpretation of what inquisitors might be like? Do you think that, perhaps, because of these considerations, some of the gods might not really have inquisitors? I’m interested to hear your take on this deeply fascinating, perhaps slightly troubling, divine class!

Fallen Clergy – Interpreting Moral Codes as Class Features V: Evil Gods and Their Clerics

This is the fifth post in our series on moral codes as class features in Pathfinder. Click here to start with the introductory post.

Picking up where we left off last time, I now want to look at how the codes of conduct for evil clerics (or, more specifically, clerics of evil gods) should be applied, specifically in cases where those clerics might be in disagreement with their patron deity. While I’ll be applying some of what I discussed in the previous post about goodly clerics, there’s rather more nuance involved when we talk about evil gods and their clerics. Keep reading to see why!

First of all, though, I want to make clear that disagreement between a god and his priesthood is no more conceptually problematic for followers of evil gods than for followers of good gods, for the same reasons we established in the previous post – briefly put, both the deities of Pathfinder and their mortal clerics have a limited epistemology and less than perfect communication channels, which means that disagreements are to some extent inevitable. The question is not whether disagreement will occur, but how it is addressed when it does.

Now, for the good gods, we could say a few broadly accurate, general things about how this disagreement might play out, because the good gods (by virtue of being morally good) share a commitment to a certain kind of moral epistemology characterized by pluralism and humility, in the very widest sense. To be clear, it’s not that the good gods are bound by this requirement in the sense that they could not choose to be otherwise (assuming that there is such a thing as divine freedom in Golarion) – it’s just that part of what it means to be good is to endorse and act in accordance with pluralist humility.

The evil gods, however, are not bound by any such conceptual requirement. This makes it much harder to point out anything significant that might be common to how all of them approach their followers. Nevertheless, there remain interesting observations to be made, and they largely lie in the differences between the demesnes and personalities of the various evil deities.

Asmodeus, for instance, as the LE god of deception and contracts, is probably a real stickler for the rules, and may well delight in getting his followers tripped up in technicalities. I imagine that Asmodeus likes nothing more than penalizing some upstart cleric of his with radical new ideas because he forgot to sign with the right colour ink on some written agreement. A good god, of course, wouldn’t dream of such pettiness, as it’s totally contrary to the pluralism and humility that characterize the moral epistemology of goodness…but Asmodeus is evil, and doesn’t lose sleep over that.

On the other hand, I get the sense that Asmodeus also rather appreciates consistency and hierarchy, so I imagine that despite the corruption of his priesthood, he wouldn’t allow one cleric to get away with something for which he punishes another cleric of the same rank (or, at least, he’d have a good reason for any such discrepancy). That being said, Asmodeus (and any thoughtful follower of his) knows the difference between consistency and fairness, and he doesn’t care one whit about the latter  – I think high-ranking priests of Asmodeus probably get away will all sorts of corrupt nonsense, for all kinds of esoteric and unjustified reasons, just as a way of emphasizing their superiority.

We can contrast Asmodeus with, say, Rovagug, the apocalyptic CE god of destruction, war, and disaster. I have trouble picturing Rovagug, the Rough Beast, enjoying the same kinds of delicately sinful yet cerebral delights as the Prince of Lies, so I imagine his followers being, shall we say, far less supervised than Asmodeus’. They can pillage, destroy, burn, kill, rape, and ravage more or less as they please, and Rovagug probably just doesn’t take much notice either way – he couldn’t care less about mortal goings on, as long as somebody’s getting hurt.

That being said, I think that his vengeance is rather swift and decisive when some priest of his starts behaving repentantly, or maybe even less than zealously. He probably doesn’t care what his clerics themselves think or care about…but if they stop being the destructive agents of chaos that Rovagug exemplifies, I think that losing their powers would be the least of their concerns…

I could go on like this about all the other gods ad nauseam, but at the end of the day it’s not up to me to totally determine every detail of how characters in your games interact with their gods. My main point here is that while the priests of goodly gods would be right to expect a certain amount of rule-following fairness from their patrons, clerics of evil gods should expect no such generosity, which leaves the door open for all kinds of storytelling opportunities and crises.

Hopefully you’ve enjoyed this, and have perhaps been inspired to think a little more deeply about the moral relationship between evil clerics and their gods in your games, even when those clerics might just be NPCs you encounter only once. Don’t hesitate to reach out if you have comments, questions, or further thoughts about these relationships. Meanwhile, in the next post, I’ll do my best to tackle what might be the morally slipperiest of the priestly classes (along with one of my personal favourite classes, mechanically speaking) – the inquisitor!

Fallen Clergy – Interpreting Moral Codes as Class Features IV: Of Gods and Goodly Clerics

This is the fourth post in our series on moral codes as class features in Pathfinder. Click here to start with the introductory post.

There is a sense in which codes of conduct for clerics are reasonably straightforward. Since there are clerics of every alignment (within one step of their deity’s alignment), it really comes down to following the strictures of their particular religion, i.e. obeying their gods, following those gods’ commands and guidelines, forwarding their agendas, etc. Beyond this, there is no single straightforward code of conduct for clerics – even gods of the same alignment have different concerns, and what might be a gross violation of one CG god’s code of conduct might go right under the radar of another CG god. So the particular details of cleric codes of conduct are really questions of theology and in-game lore regarding the will of the gods more than they are questions of ethics, and are best left up to individuals GMs and tables.

That being said, part of what it is to be morally good (whether god, outsider, or mortal) is to embrace a certain view (or limited range of views) about moral epistemology, so I think that there are things that we can say that apply to the codes of conduct for clerics of all the goodly gods, regardless of their differences. The same is also true for clerics of the evil gods, but since they will have a very different kind of moral epistemology, I’ll discuss them in another post.

Regardless of alignment, though, all the interesting questions about Pathfinder clerics and their codes of conduct come about not when clerics obviously act in accordance with the dictates of their gods but when they disagree. So my discussions about clerics and their moral codes will specifically address how clerics might possibly disagree with their gods (or at least not act strictly in accordance with them), and how their gods might react.

At first, it might seem strange to talk about disagreement between clerics and their gods – after all, wouldn’t any cleric worthy of the name always agree with her god and just do as he says? Why bother being a cleric of Torag if you’re not going to go along with Torag?

The issue, of course, is that neither Torag himself nor his mortal priesthood have perfect moral knowledge (i.e., they don’t necessarily know exactly what’s right or wrong in every circumstance…and since the gods of Pathfinder are neither omniscient nor the source of morality themselves, this does indeed apply to Torag as well). Furthermore, his clerics lack not only perfect moral knowledge but also perfect knowledge of Torag’s specific wishes. Even tremendously devout clerics don’t have much in the way of a clear dialogue with their gods, let alone some kind of direct telepathic link making them constantly aware of every divine whim and desire. Instead, they have the same resources and problems priests everywhere have always had: a finite set of scriptures and sacred texts, a doctrinal tradition upon which to draw, the occasional vague and indeterminate sign of divine favour/disfavour (if you’re very lucky, that is), and a whole lot of interpreting to do.

Given all of the above, and the imperfect epistemology of mortals both real and fantastic, inadvertent disagreements between Torag and his clerics are bound to occur. The real question, then, is not whether they will happen but how the fact of priestly disagreement is to be addressed both by Torag and by his clerics.

To answer this question, we should remind ourselves again that Torag and the other goodly gods, as a part of what it means to be good, should have a shared principle of moral epistemology: pluralist humility.* Briefly put, and among other things, pluralist humility amounts to consciously and honestly accepting both 1) the possibility that we may be wrong and 2) the possibility that others with whom we disagree may be right. It is through approaching our beliefs and behaviours in the spirit of pluralist humility that we mortals (be we humans on Earth or dwarven clerics of Torag on Golarion) can be more right (in the moral sense) more often. And since we can safely assume that, whatever else they might be, the good gods of Golarion are morally good, they recognize the value of pluralist humility and judge their followers accordingly.

So maybe Torag actually wouldn’t have preferred that you lie to the townsfolk in order to save the life of an orc child orphaned in a recent raid. Before he goes ahead and punishes you for it, though, removing your clericly class features and embarrassing you before the congregation, he will first look to your motives and methods. If he finds that you behaved rashly and self-righteously, confident in your understanding of Torag’s will and derisive of any who would dare to disagree with you, the wise local priest of Torag…well, he might well see the value in taking you down a peg. But if you acted in the spirit of pluralist humility, considering the perspectives of others and opinions other than your own, doing your best to come to the correct Toragite decision while accepting the possibility that you are mistaken…well, LG Torag is rather likely to show some leniency. He might still send some kind of sign of his disagreement, but it would almost certainly be rather mild, the kind of divine sign better taken as a honest communication than as chastisement.

There’s another interesting dimension here, in that pluralist humility is such a core epistemic value of those who are genuinely morally righteous that it presumably applies in non-moral religious contexts as well.

For instance, say your cleric of Torag is trying out some new magical smithing method for making armour. As it turns out, Torag disapproves, because it’s actually just a cheap shortcut for making armour of a lower quality, and thus goes against his values. But since he endorses pluralist humility, he again takes into consideration the spirit of your actions: if you are actually just looking for a shortcut around the Toragite priest’s arduous yet sacred work of crafting armour, and aren’t really concerned with the wider impact of your actions or other perspectives, then this will likely displease Torag greatly, and I imagine that he would manifest that displeasure rather clearly. On the other hand, if you’re genuinely interested in better ways to make armour and are trying this out in the spirit of pluralist humility (i.e., “new and different ideas have value in themselves, but I could be wrong about how this new method goes”), then you wouldn’t pursue this method beyond the point when it becomes clear that it’s a dead end, and Torag would never fault you for making an honest effort in the first place.

Of course, as I said above, all the real details of the codes of conduct for clerics are going to come down to the specific doctrines and demesnes of the particular gods in question. But since good gods should at least have a broadly shared interest in being good and acting accordingly (basically by definition), then we should be able to discuss a few equally broad values they presumably share, as I’ve done above.

This inevitably leads to the question of whether the same can be said of the evil gods and their clerics…and as you’ll see in my next post, the answer to that question might be rather more complicated.

*I’ve spent years building up a theoretical structure for and defense of pluralist humility as the core of good moral epistemology – it was the upshot of my dissertation. As such, it involves far too broad a set of arguments and ideas to go into here in any detail. That being said, if you want a quick idea of how pluralist humility should shape our moral intuitions and epistemology, you can check out my TEDx talk about it.

Fallen Clergy – Interpreting Moral Codes as Class Features III: Grey Paladins

This is the third post in our series on moral codes as class features in Pathfinder. Click here to start with the introductory post.

Now that we have a basic framework for understanding how the iconic “holy crusader”-type paladin should relate to her moral code, it’s time to take a detour and consider how this approach should differ for that most morally interesting of archetypes, the grey paladin!

Mechanically, grey paladins are allowed a wider alignment range: instead of being restricted to LG, they can also be LN or NG. In exchange, many of their core class features get…watered down, shall we say? The trademark Smite Evil paladin ability comes online later (leaving them as little more than an alignment detector with good equipment proficiencies at 1st level), and they never get Aura of Good or Divine Grace; several other peripheral paladin abilities are rather nerfed as well. The presumptive message, I take it, is that since the core of a paladin’s might comes from her moral righteousness, a grey paladin’s being less straightforwardly righteous makes her less mighty as well.

The story is a bit more nuanced and complex than that, though. Leaving aside the Enhanced Health and Aura of Subtlety class features (which I interpret as just throwing grey paladins a bone in order to make them not obviously and straightforwardly inferior to core paladin mechanics, and tied to the grey paladin first appearing in Ultimate Intrigue), the key mechanical advantage that grey paladins have is Smite Foe, which allows a grey paladin to expend two Smite Evil uses in order to gain the advantages of Smite Evil against a neutral (i.e., relevantly non-evil) foe, so long as the grey paladin “truly believe[s] that the creature she smites is an opponent to the cause of good.”

There is also another bit of wording about how grey paladins differ from their more clean-handed kin. In the description of the grey paladin code of conduct, we are told that a grey paladin “should strive to act with honour and uphold the tenets of her faith, but failing to do so is not a violation of her code, and other than evil actions, she can do whatever else she feels is necessary to uphold the causes of law and good.” [emphasis added]

These two key changes (the Smite Foe ability and the more flexible paladin code) together form a rather interesting picture of how we should interpret the code of ethics for grey paladins, and how it differs from core paladins.

The first thing that strikes me about this is that grey paladins are significantly more consequentialist than other paladins. While I argued in the preceding post that the best paladins should be far more concerned with the intentions of their actions and striving toward virtuous conduct than just the consequences of their actions and judgements (thus the evaporation of the “paladin trap”), a grey paladin has a good deal more leeway in how she conducts herself in terms of duty at the cost of what looks like a good deal less leeway in terms of results.

This is not to say, of course, that grey paladins are necessarily more susceptible to paladin traps than core paladins; those key differences above still come down to what a grey paladin “truly believes” and “feels is necessary,” rather than pure moral luck.

But a grey paladin remains a paladin nonetheless, and should be a force for good in the world, even if she can’t be quite the same kind of beacon as a core paladin. So we shouldn’t think of the changes in the grey paladin’s code and abilities as some kind of loophole mechanism, a get-out-of-jail-free card for sort of good folks who can’t quite cute the paladin mustard.

Rather, the grey paladin is forced to walk a very narrow line indeed, where she can do things and go places other paladins never could, but also has to be much more careful about why she does those things and goes to those places, both in terms of the reasons behind her own motivations and the good results she (hopefully) achieves.

To my mind, these murkier moral waters and the greater focus on results are what really present the greatest risk of falling for a grey paladin, relative to core paladins, because this kind of code is far more susceptible to slippery slopes.

Now, let’s be clear: “slippery slope” is jargon for a type of argument which is generally (and correctly) considered invalid. A quick example: the argument that legalizing same-sex marriage will inevitably lead to legalizing interspecies marriage (and so should not be allowed) because there is a “slippery slope” from the former to the latter is invalid (short answer why: it’s missing premises, and supplying those premises makes the argument unsound because they are rather implausible, to say nothing of how circuitous they make the argument).

But while slippery slope arguments don’t work, that doesn’t mean that an analogous phenomenon isn’t very much a part of humanoid moral psychology, including that of grey paladins. Consider:

Presumably, being paladins, even grey paladins start off as pretty virtuous, and don’t go around pushing every moral envelope their first day on the job (this kind of person is not likely to become a paladin in the first place, even a grey one). But assuming that this person lives the life of a grey paladin, and couldn’t just as easily be a core paladin, the day will soon come when she has to tell a small lie, or offer a small bribe, or even smite a dangerous but non-evil creature in order to advance the cause of good and law. She searches her conscience, scours her soul for any hint of motivations other than “The Cause,” finds the act to be both justified as far as she can tell and necessary if one wants to avoid worse consequences…and she does it.

This is fine, of course; it’s what grey paladins are for, and she will hardly lose her powers over it. But it will also make it easier the next time she has to walk that line, to go to that place where other paladins won’t follow. It’s only natural that in time, she stops questioning herself quite so thoroughly about every little minor violation, condident that she always does her due diligence.

Eventually, of course, those necessary lies become deeper, the bribes become bigger, the smitten foe less dangerous (perhaps even less far away from good). This was bound to happen; The Cause is what really matters after all, and as long as she is acting in service to it, those infractions remain justified. And, of course, every time she has to cross some new line, she searches her soul that much more carefully. She’s still a paladin, after all.

Until one day she’s not. One day, she’s gotten so used to acting in these ways that she crosses a line without realizing it. She smites someone who was not a real danger, and whom she could have easily discovered was not a real risk to The Cause…but whom she failed to investigate properly because of her growing complacency. And now, she’s in so deep, and has spent so many years doing more and more questionable things, that genuine atonement seems that much further away, a radical change she has trouble imagining after all this time. Indeed, the easier way might be to just stay the course, continue trying to do what’s right and lawful in the dark places, behind the scenes, like she has been, but without her grey paladin powers and class features. After all, the alternative would probably require severing all of her underworld connections and what have you, throwing away years of work, changing her whole lifestyle in order to atone…and for what? A watered down Smite Evil at twice the cost? Hardly seems worth it…

Not long after this, she is truly lost. She may only realize it when she finds herself facing down a group of paladins she would have once called brothers, defenseless as their Smite Evil works on her and there’s nothing she can do. More likely, she never realizes it at all, and goes to her grave still thinking she was a fighter for The Cause the entire time.

The above scenario is not a major problem for core paladins: they don’t have that initial moral leeway, and always have to be striving to do their very best in every moment, so psychological slippery slopes are just not going to present themselves very often. But it’s the stuff of nightmares for grey paladins, and should motivate them to scrutinize themselves ever more closely, to ensure that they do not stare into the Abyss long enough to find it staring back at them. While grey paladins aren’t more susceptible to paladin traps in the traditional sense than core paladins, they are far more likely to trap themselves.

These difficult, complex circumstances are what make the grey paladin so interesting and tricky to play. So while it undoubtedly takes virtue, moral courage, and humility to be any kind of paladin, a grey paladin requires all of that plus tremendous wisdom and self-awareness if she is to remain a paladin in more than name.

That’s about the extent of my superficial thinking on this. But I’m really interested to hear what kinds of experiences you might have had with the grey paladin archetype, and how your experiences might align with or differ from what I imagine here.

Beyond that, feel free to start getting excited for the next post in the series, where I’ll discuss moral codes for clerics of goodly gods.

Fallen Clergy – Interpreting Moral Codes as Class Features II: Paladins

This is the second post in our series on moral codes as class features in Pathfinder; click here to start with the introductory post. For this post in particular, my thanks to Reddit’s /u/mramisuzuki and the entire /r/Pathfinder_RPG community for support and feedback as this project of mine goes on.

No class is as beholden to or defined by a moral code as the paladin. Restricted to LG alignment (the grey paladin is an exception that I’ll be addressing in an upcoming post) and required to uphold a code of conduct in order to keep the bulk of their impressive class features, no good player can play a paladin in even a short Pathfinder campaign without keeping the paladin’s moral code at the front of her mind, and no good GM can avoid those same questions while running a game with a paladin character.

There’s nothing wrong with that: paladins are fundamentally defined by their morality, and you probably shouldn’t play a paladin if you don’t care about ethics. But the centrality of morality to the mechanics of paladins as a class can often lead to two main problems that are serious enough to turn many players off of them altogether, to the extent that some players/GMs won’t play/run games with paladin PCs.

The first problem is that paladin players become so focused on the letter of their paladin code and not losing Diving Grace and Smite Evil and all the rest that they totally forget the spirit of both the class in particular and the game as a whole. They become downer fun police, always interfering with what other players at the table want to do and even stopping themselves from having an otherwise fun time because of worries about becoming fallen paladins and having to go through the hassle of atonement to get their class features back.

The second, and possibly worse, problem comes from GMs who want to push paladin PCs on their morality (not in itself a problematic approach; done properly, this can lead to really interesting stories and characters), and so create “paladin traps”: moral landmines where a paladin will be faced with two equally terrible horns of some ethical dilemma, either choice (by a certain strict reading of the rules) causing the paladin to fall. For instance, a paladin has to either lie about some innocent person’s identity or allow an evil king’s soldiers to summarily execute that person without a trial…and when the paladin makes the clearly right move of lying to this evil mob, the GM says “Uh oh! You lied, and the paladin code forbids lying, so you’ve lost all your class features until you atone!”

I argue that both these types of problems come from a misunderstanding of what it means to be a paladin in Pathfinder specifically, and what it means to be a virtuous person more generally.

As a priestly class, paladins receive their powers, and the ensuing alignment restriction, from their devotion to a deity and that deity’s code of conduct (to be fair, this devotion can be to an abstract concept and not necessarily to a deity…but for simplicity’s sake, let’s just talk about it with regard to deities; everything I’m going to say should apply in either case anyway). Furthermore, only the most dedicated, devout, and strong-willed people ever become even 1st-level paladins. These are people who are exceptional enough to have been more or less hand-picked by their deities for paladinhood, primarily due to their uprightness and dedication. And it’s not like these folks, once they become paladins, just put their feet up and rest on their laurels. By their nature, and motivated by the favour shown by their god, paladins will, for the most part, continue to strive to do good, to better themselves and the world around them. This is neither a coincidence nor a contingent fact; this is part of what it means to be a paladin.

Now, this doesn’t mean that paladins are infallible. Some lose their faith, or are genuinely corrupted over time, or just can’t continue to muster the energy to maintain their commitment, or somehow fall in one of myriad other ways. Paladins remain mortal and fallible, even though they may have been selected initially precisely because they are less fallible than most. And whatever the reason might be, fallen paladins no longer show the dedication, discipline, and strength of character that allowed them to become paladins in the first place. We can only imagine the disappointment felt by their gods in such cases, having put such trust in these mortals, only to be ultimately let down.

But we’re not talking about those paladins here (not to say you couldn’t tell interesting moral stories involving such characters; they’re just outside the normal scope of paladin PCs). We’re talking about paladins who continue to serve as beacons of the righteousness of their gods (remember that we’re talking about good gods, by definition).

The idea of “paladin traps” makes no sense for such characters, if we take morality seriously (and we should, if we’re playing paladins). Why should we believe that a god would strip a paladin of her powers over some kind of “gotcha” technicality, some out-of-context immoral act committed as the result of an impossible dilemma? A good god, one who is neither stupid nor ignorant nor petty, understands that paladins are human (or at least humanoid) and cannot be expected to control the whole world; even the gods themselves can’t control the whole world in Pathfinder. Therefore, it would be unreasonable to expect that a paladin would never get herself into a morally difficult situation; indeed, if anything, a god should expect paladins to deliberately put themselves into such situations, since these are the situations that most call for a paladin, not because paladins are powerful but because simply by being paladins they have already demonstrated the virtue and strength of character most valuable in such situations. When things then don’t turn out quite as clean and neat as we would like (gods, paladins, and reasonable people alike all understand this simple truth: that’s life), forcing a paladin into a difficult choice with no perfect answer…why on Golarion would a god punish a paladin for making an honest attempt?

That’s what counts, after all: making the attempt. What a righteous god can and should expect from paladins is that they struggle with morality and strive to be better, constantly examining their consciences and codes of conduct to do their very best to live by those tenets, while also standing up for goodness in a world which can be very messy indeed. People like that, the very kinds of people who get to become paladins in the first place, don’t walk around never feeling any guilt and never doing anything difficult, morally or otherwise. Quite the opposite: the best paladins will always be wondering how they could have done more, been better, and shone brighter through the world’s darkness.

So whenever a good paladin, who truly exemplifies what it means to be a paladin, finds herself in a moral quandary (what some might see as a paladin trap), she will do her absolute best to make the right decision, and then, whatever she decides, likely wrack her soul for days (maybe forever, if it was a truly serious situation), wondering whether she did the right thing, and how she might do better next time. Witnessing this, privy to her internal struggle, why in the world would her righteous patron god then turn around and say, “Sorry! Turns out that the right thing to do was to keep that unfairly-tried killer in prison, because utilitarianism is the right normative theory and what you did might have been consistent with deontology but not utilitarianism! No more Smite Evil for you!” The struggle and commitment to virtue are what define the paladin, not her specific moral luck.

An appropriate understanding of all of the above comes out of a reasonable understanding of morality itself, whereby we recognize that the correct answers to important moral questions are inevitably rather complex, and simple answers to important moral questions are inevitably wrong. A genuinely moral and committed person (paladin or otherwise) is going to adopt a stance of pluralist humility towards these difficult moral questions: none of us is always right, others (even those with whom we disagree) will often have an important perspective, and only by careful consideration of all of this can we actually have any confidence at all in our moral knowledge.

So I think we can easily avoid the two main problems I mentioned above if we remember the main takeaway here: a paladin should only fall if and when she has stopped being the kind of person who becomes a paladin in the first place, and never because of silly loopholes. The paladin who kills an innocent farmer in the heat of battle because he was possessed by a demon, but then feels guilt for her actions, attempting to atone and carefully reflecting upon her actions, every bit deserves the mantle of “paladin.” She has not fallen into any “trap,” and should not be punished for lacking omniscience while being virtuous. At the same time, though, if a paladin is self-righteous and dogmatic, and actively avoids morally challenging situations because he’s more concerned with the possibility of losing his paladin powers than making the world a more just place…well, that character lacks moral courage, humility, and virtue, and might be someone who deserves to go without paladin class features for a bit, until he learns some humility and remembers what it’s supposed to mean to be a paladin. Keep this in mind, and the worries about “paladin traps” from the GM and atonement-fearing superficial paladins I mentioned above kind of evaporate.

Paladins are people, mortals, who do their best to fight evil and promote justice…so as long as that’s clearly what they’re doing, they deserve to be paladins. But the moment they stop being those kinds of people (and not a moment earlier), their paladinhood should come into question.

Ah, but what about grey paladins, you ask? Whole different story there…but it doesn’t make sense until we’ve properly spelled out what it means to be a classic paladin, so we’ll talk about them next time!

In the meantime, I’d love to hear your thoughts about how/whether any fundamental problems still remain with the paladin code of conduct, or even just horror stories about paladin traps and other issues that could easily have been avoided by even a light application of ethics like this one!

Fallen Clergy – Interpreting Moral Codes as Class Features: Introduction

This is the first post in our series on the details of moral codes as class features in Pathfinder. It both revisits and gives an in-depth treatment of many of the issues addressed in this Reddit thread, where response to a comment of mine was so positive and enthusiastic that it inspired me to finally put the work in and actually start this blog. My thanks to Reddit’s /r/mramisuzuki in particular and the entire community over at /r/Pathfinder_RPG in general for past and continued support and feedback as this project of mine goes on.

Many of the most common and iconic classes in Pathfinder are fundamentally and inescapably normative, if not downright moral. By this, I don’t mean that they are all do-gooders and hall monitors and teachers’ pets – after all, pound for pound, few creatures could be more destructive or evil than a high-level antipaladin or cleric of Rovagug. Rather, I mean that questions of value and standards of behaviour lie at the very heart of what it means to play many popular classes.

The most obvious examples are the straight-up god-worshiping divine classes, what I will call the “priestly classes” – clerics, paladins, inquisitors, and warpriests. But a case can be made (more or less) for druids, oracles, hunters, rangers, shamans, and even witches (among possible others) sharing this normativity, though many in that latter group are not so obviously moral.

For the priestly classes, though, this moral focus is so central that it tends to be at the heart of not only characters’ (not to mention players’) motivations, but also the thinking of GMs running games with those classes in them. And quite a bit of that thought comes down to official wording like the “Code of Conduct” (for paladins) and the language on “Ex-Clerics.” That is, classes like these have to follow codes of behaviour, explicitly moral codes of behaviour (i.e., codes of behaviour which relate to moral actions, not necessarily “morally good” codes of behaviour) or they lose almost all of their class features. So players who play priestly classes will often exhibit a tendency to tiptoe through the tulips, making sure they don’t inadvertently step on any moral landmines that might cause them to lose all their powers…while GMs running campaigns for such characters will often go out of their way to plant such landmines.

The problem is that morality is rarely, if ever, so simple as this approach would suggest, for all kinds of reasons that vary depending on the class we’re talking about and the role those characters are supposed to play in a given god’s priesthood. Ignoring this complexity often leads to morally unsatisfying stories and encounters which have, in many cases, sadly turned some players off of the fascinating and engrossing elements of the priestly classes entirely.

For this reason, and because talking about these moral complexities will help shed light on wider, more interesting, and more important moral issues in both Pathfinder and the real world, this series of posts will be concerned with how we should think about codes of behaviour for the priestly classes, specifically what it should (and shouldn’t) take for these characters to lose their powers due to moral violations and how this should make us think differently about both Pathfinder and our own moral lives.

Now, without giving too much away, I plan to have entirely separate posts about separate classes, because (and I’d get used to hearing this kind of thing from me if I were you) the answers to these kinds of questions are not one-size-fits-all, and looking for simple answers to complex moral issues is a sure path to falsehood and error. In fact, not only will separate priestly classes be getting their own posts, but I actually think that in order for this project to be useful, the distinctions will have to be more fine-grained than that. Clerics of good deities will have to think about these things differently than clerics of evil deities, for instance, so they’ll be getting separate treatment. Indeed, at least one archetype will even addressed individually; that’s right, gear yourselves up for a whole post on my favourite archetype of all time (here’s where my metaethicist’s bias comes through), the grey paladin! And yes, being Canadian, that is how I’m going to spell it.

For the first substantial post in this series, though, we’re going to jump right into what might be the most straightforward and (ironically) controversial moral class of all: the paladin. If you’re as tired as I am of the idea of “paladin traps,” or have ideas of your own about how both players and GMs should deal with paladins and a world containing them, keep your eyes peeled for the next installment of Detect Alignment!