Of Law and Chaos VI: Is Lawful Good Better Than Chaotic Good?

This is the sixth 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 the previous post, I argued that while his arguments are valid, Jon Cogburn is ultimately wrong to think that it is conceptually impossible to be Chaotic Good. In this post, I’m going to start looking at a corollary question from that topic, both milder and perhaps more slippery than the hard line Cogburn takes: even if we accept that Chaotic Good is a legitimate alignment, is it not possible that lawful beings (specifically Lawful Good beings) still might have a greater capacity for goodness than chaotic beings?

I should be clear here: this is not a question about whether LG beings are more common than CG beings, or whether lawful creatures are more likely to be good than chaotic ones. Those are, to my mind, empirical/psychological/statistical questions, generally outside the purview of responsible philosophical inquiry. What I’m interested in here is a different kind of question: is there a conceptual reason to think that the best possible CG creature might not be as good as the best possible LG creature? In other words: is the maximum amount of goodness possible for a LG creature higher than for a CG creature?

As you might expect, this question is going to hang largely on how we define “goodness”…and a complete answer to that 9th-level-spell of a question is not going to be forthcoming here. We should however, make one important distinction that can easily be lost when discussing this matter in English, largely because of a quirk of the English language that really increases the risk of equivocation on this topic – “good” can refer to two related but distinct moral concepts.

The first we might call “value goodness,” and this refers (without trying to define it too specifically here) to the amount of stuff that we value. The antonym of this type of good is “bad;” examples of this type of goodness might include good, brave acts like protecting the innocent and giving to charity, but would also include more general types of goodness like beautiful sunsets, hard-earned knowledge, peace, and compassion.

The second concept here we might call “moral goodness,” and it applies specifically to acts which are capable of moral evaluation. So heroic and charitable acts are also (presumably) morally good, in addition to being “value good,” while things like sunsets and knowledge are not morally good. It’s not that they’re morally bad; rather, they’re just not the kind of thing capable of moral evaluation, even if they might have normative value. The antonym of this type of goodness is not “bad” but “evil.”

So while that was a rather quick trip across a topic which has occupied some of the greatest metaethicists in history for tens of thousands of words, we’re hopefully a little bit clearer now on this question.

More explicitly, I think that we’re asking not whether LG creatures are capable of more value goodness but whether they’re capable of more moral goodness. Sure, value goodness is important, and there’s certainly no harm in asking about creatures’ relative capacity for producing value goodness…but 1) that’s probably more of an empirical question than we’re really interested in here (it usually is when we ask it about things in the real world, and I have no reason to think that it would be otherwise for Pathfinder), and 2) since LG and CG creatures are contrasted not with “lawful bad” and “chaotic bad” but with “lawful evil” and “chaotic evil,” assuming that we’re talking about anything other than moral goodness here strikes me as pretty equivocal.

Alright, so now we’re ready to look at a much more refined and focused version of our main question: “Are LG creatures conceptually capable of a higher maximum amount of moral goodness than CG creatures?”

Great! Now that we’ve properly refined the question, we can see how simple the answer is going to be!

Ah, almost gotcha! Made you flinch, anyway…

You almost certainly know the move I’m going to make at this point: in what does moral goodness even consist? How can we even begin to measure moral goodness? And that doesn’t even take into account Pathfinder’s byzantine and often rather frustrating (or at least confusing) disconnect between the moral and the metaphysical when it comes to alignment

As usual, I don’t have any simple or easy answers to this kind of major metaethical question. There are proposed answers out there, of course, but the arguments for them tend these days to be long and technical, with no one answer yet rising to dominance, so it’s simply not worth going into in this context. Suffice it to say that any time someone offers a promising answer, it tends not to be a simple one, and any time someone offers a simple/easy answer to that kind of question, it tends not to be a promising one (that goes for pretty much all important questions in ethics, as I mentioned when this whole project first got started).

That being said, perhaps we could use a placeholder for moral goodness that might at least let us talk about our more focused question here today. In that spirit, let M stand for that in which moral goodness consists: the more of M a creature produces, the more moral goodness results, and vice versa. And let there be no change in levels of moral goodness (again, whatever that means) without a corresponding change in M – we’re just supposing, for the sake of argument, that M is conceptually identical with moral goodness and/or any properties that implies.

With all of that finally set up, is there any conceptual reason to believe that, all other things being equal, a lawful character (one who marshalls her inner resources by focusing and disciplining herself), has a higher maximum capacity for M than a chaotic character (one who accomplishes tasks by unleashing or releasing any normally bridled inner resources)?

Surprisingly (to myself as much as to anyone), I find that after going through all the clarificatory exercises above, I find myself tending towards answering “yes” to this question, though in an admittedly mild and lukewarm way. Don’t get me wrong: CG creatures are certainly capable of tremendous M, and a truly good chaotic character is going to produce more M than a largely indifferent lawful character practically every time.

Nevertheless, there is a sense in which focus and discipline can convey a sense of consistency which is much harder to square with the “unleashing” characteristic of chaotic creatures. Demonstrate that kind of consistency effectively enough, and a character who is appropriately lawful can start to embody a principle of some kind, to stand for something by virtue of that effort and consistency. That, in itself, can be a rather inspiring source of moral goodness.

But that, I think, remains a largely empirical point. More conceptually (and relevantly for us), discipline and effort in working for M can embody a type of moral goodness in and of itself, which is hard to access for chaotic characters as I’ve described them. There is something to be said for those who have to work to be heroes, who produce M not because it’s easy for them but in spite of how difficult it is. We tend to give people more esteem, to see them as morally better, when they’ve done the difficult but right thing, rather than the easy but right thing. This is the reason why most people think that morality requires free will: if we can’t do anything other than what we do, then what’s the point of moral praise or blame? More softly: if doing the right thing is easy for you, then are you truly as morally good as the person who does the same thing, but for whom it was difficult?*

It is because of this characteristic of M (whatever other characteristics it may have) that I think it is, in fact, possible for lawful characters to have a higher maximum capacity for moral goodness than chaotic characters. At the same time, though, I don’t want to overplay my hand: while I’ve emphasized this source of M in order to make my point, I don’t want to suggest that moral goodness is only possible in adverse conditions. Chaotic characters are certainly capable of tremendous moral goodness in all kinds of ways; they are just (to my mind) less capable of this very specific source of M than lawful characters, and I can’t quite think of any equivalent way in which chaotic characters are capable of M but lawful characters aren’t.

That being said, this strikes me as the precise kind of scenario where creative thinking might well reveal some stuff that just hasn’t occurred to me at all, so I’m interested to hear what you have to say! Have I overstepped significantly here? Or have I perhaps overlooked some important conceptual element of what it means to be chaotic? I look forward to your comments, while gearing up for the next post, which will (most likely) be about how we ought to think of the lawful-chaotic alignment axis with regard to certain kinds of classes that don’t actually have relevant formal alignment restrictions.


*There is certainly a school of thinkers here who are likely to disagree with me. They are known as “virtue ethicists,” and they might argue that the person whose character has been shaped such that doing right is easier for her is actually the better person. Virtue ethics has a lot going for it, and if this kind of view coheres with you, I’m happy to consider arguments; my own metaethical intuitions, however, make it hard for me to accept that a person who has to put very little effort into M is worthy of more respect than someone who has to put in a great deal.


Of Law and Chaos V: Is There Such a Thing as Chaotic Good?

This is the fifth 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.

By this point, I think we’re starting to get a handle on how to think about the law-chaos axis in Pathfinder in a helpful and consistent way. It may be rather revisionist, but I think that the revisionism is thoroughly justified in this case, given that the accepted interpretations of lawful and chaotic alignments just don’t seem to stand up to sustained conceptual analysis – they’re either unacceptably inconsistent, or they’re incompatible with some of the values of openness and pluralism we should want with regard to the kinds of characters which are available to Pathfinder players.

That’s all just to say, essentially, that I’m happy with my revisionist interpretation of the lawful-chaotic axis so far, and willing to keep running with it. The question before us today is whether my interpretation can do something really useful: save Chaotic Good.

At this point, your natural question is probably “Why should we need to save CG?” And, as usual, this is actually two (at least) entirely different questions.

The first might be more clearly phrased as “Why should we want to save CG?” – that is, what is it that we value about the CG alignment that should make us want to save it? This question is rather easy to answer: people like both the idea and the practice of playing CG characters, as well as playing characters in a world which contains CG characters. Even if you’re not attracted to, say, the archetype of the Robin Hood-like rogue who lives in the moment, well outside the law, helping the common folk wherever she encounters them according to the whims of her freewheeling yet inevitably strong conscience, you probably have fun playing an LG paladin who exasperatedly accompanies this character on her adventures, trying to set right any unexpectedly innocent havok which inevitably shows up in her wake…or something else like that. The point is that, like any alignment, CG can bring more fun flavour to the world of the game, and that alone is reason enough to want to preserve it.

But if we’re being frank, the more relevant question on your mind is probably something more like “Why should we think that CG needs saving? Why should we think that it’s under any kind of threat in the first place?”

The answer to that question is more complicated, and actually lies in the realm of previous scholarship on the nature of alignment in roleplaying games.* In his article “Beyond Chaotic Good and Lawful Evil?” Jon Cogburn argues that “there are no Chaotic Good entities” (40)** because a “creature who sincerely willed the end of lawfulness as such cannot consistently will the lessening of pain and increase of pleasure, because chaos is intrinsically painful.” (40) What’s more, while I won’t go into the details here (they’re rather beside the point for our discussion), Cogburn’s argument strikes me as a good one, and I have no important critique of the structure of his argument per se.

That being said, I disagree with him about CG – I think that CG creatures very much can and do exist. As such, our disagreements comes about because we start from radically different places with regard to our interpretation of the alignment axes. So while I have no problem with the structure of his argument, and think it follows from his premises, I reject those premises in favour of my own interpretation of the law-chaos axis, for reasons laid out in a previous post.

Cogburn’s interpretation is certainly an interesting one: to put it briefly, he sees the law-chaos axis as being a reflection of underlying intentions and values understood deontologically, via a Kantian approach to a character’s expression of will (36-37), while the good-evil axis is a reflection of a character’s moral actions understood through a utilitarian approach focused on the production and maximization of good and bad (37-38). It’s a novel and theoretically fascinating interpretation, and as I said, I do think that his dismissal of CG follows from these premises.

The issue I have is the same one I expressed in that previous post linked above, in keeping with metaethical values which have guided my approach to the law-chaos axis more widely: all other things being equal, a creature’s position on the law-chaos axis should not in itself influence its position on the good-evil axis, and vice versa.

So while taking a Kantian approach to understanding what it means to be lawful or chaotic might be theoretically elegant and interesting, there’s just no denying that Kant himself intended for his work to be about morality, and not just law and chaos. As such, the results of this kind of analysis can’t help but bleed over into questions of good and evil, thus muddying the waters in a conceptually unacceptable way…if, that is, you accept my metaethical position about keeping these two alignment axes separate.

If you do, then you’re likely to have adopted my revisionist interpretation of the lawful-chaotic axis, and CG isn’t a problem for you, because Cogburn’s argument doesn’t get off the ground without those premises you haven’t accepted. If you don’t accept my interpretation, though, you may well be attracted to an argument like Cogburn’s (it strikes me as highly plausible, if you’re less revisionist than I am)…in which case, you may have to accept the sacrifice of CG as a legitimate alignment.

Now, I realize that this post is likely to inspire (aside from boredom) a lot of controversy between the two horns of this dilemma: either you accept a more old-school, traditional interpretation of the law-chaos axis, but probably lose CG as a coherent alignment possibility…or you get on board with my revisionist interpretation of what it means to be lawful or chaotic, keep CG no problem, but reconceptualize an important part of the alignment system as I’ve suggested.

I’ve made very clear which horn of the dilemma I’m willing to support; what about you? Or have I (and probably Cogburn as well) got this whole thing backwards, and there actually is no dilemma at all? I’m excited to hear you chime in!


*The article primarily referenced in this post is actually about alignment in Dungeons & Dragons, not Pathfinder specifically. However, since Pathfinder’s alignment system is inherited more or less directly from Dungeons & Dragons, all the arguments in this instance should apply to both systems, so I will continue to refer to the article with reference to Pathfinder.

**Cogburn, Jon. “Beyond Chaotic Good and Lawful Evil?” In Dungeons & Dragons and Philosophy: Raiding the Temple of Wisdom. Edited by Jon Cogburn and Mark Silcox. Open Court: Chicago, 2012; all further references to this work will be in parentheses by page number.

Of Law and Chaos IV: Can a Chaotic Alignment Justify Evil Actions?

This is the fourth 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.

We’ve all seen it, probably many times over. For my part, I saw it first in the very first campaign in which I played, and it’s been a fixture of more or less eyebrow-raising characters ever since. More than just silly actions taken because “Hey! That’s what my character would do!” – I’m talking about Chaotic Neutral characters who have little-to-no compunction about going on what amount to criminal rampages in the name of being justified in doing so by what seem like the rather lax restrictions of their alignment. So today, in honour of happy-go-lucky CN rogues and gleefully lootful murderhobos everywhere, we are addressing the question of whether/to what extent a chaotic alignment might allow and/or justify evil actions.*

To some extent, we should also note that answering this question (or at least working towards doing so) will help us get a handle on just what it means to be CN, that trickiest and most slippery of alignments. After all, while we are ostensibly just talking about whether chaotic alignment can justify evil actions, this just isn’t a question for CG- and CE-aligned characters. To whatever extent alignment can have any kind of explanatory or justificatory role regarding character morality (recall that there are good reasons to think that the entire notion of alignment is rather incoherent on this question, and that alignment is, in a moral sense, little more than a shorthand label at best), CG characters need not worry about this question, since their aversion to evil comes from their being good, having nothing to do with being chaotic. Similarly, CE characters by definition have little or no compunction about evil actions, but this is because they are evil, not because they are chaotic.

So this question is really about CN characters, first and foremost. Let me reiterate, though, that key point that every good roleplayer and GM knows, and which very much holds true here: alignment is not character, and a character is not just her alignment. Whatever we might be able to say about alignment, it should leave rather a lot open to interpretation, such that many different kinds of characters with many different kinds of motivations could all consistently fall under the rubric of CN. A specific alignment might well imply some restrictions about what a character would not do or believe, but it would very rarely (if ever) specify what a character would do or believe.

Now, with that out of the way, we can address this question more or less head-on: is the chaotic element of a CN character’s alignment somehow sufficient for justifying evil behaviour from that character?

To answer this, let’s take a moment to recall how we’re interpreting what it means to be chaotic. For our purposes, a chaotic alignment implies a methodological approach to exercising power and accomplishing tasks which includes the unleashing or unbridling of abilities and/or resources. Being chaotic has less to do with one’s moral or political beliefs and behaviour and more to do with how one goes about acting in accordance with one’s beliefs and motivations.

So can a CN character indeed do evil by virtue of being chaotic, on this interpretation of the concept? In a rather important sense, the answer has to be “Of course!” Whatever a character’s motivations might be, she is almost certainly going to commit evil actions at least occasionally, unless she is specifically committed to doing good (and even sometimes then, albeit by accident). It probably won’t be done very consistently or very severely (otherwise you’re probably talking about a drift into CE territory), but it will almost certainly happen at least occasionally. This is a consequence of having a neutral alignment on the good/evil axis, rather than being chaotic; frankly, it’s probably true of most living humans, and hardly limited to CN Pathfinder creatures.

Of course, the exact same thing could be said of LN characters as well, so it seems that this sense of the question isn’t really speaking to the real issue. The real question we want to look at is: does having a chaotic alignment justify/explain evil actions better or more often, relative to a lawful alignment?

This is also a more difficult question, and I suspect that reliable answers to it will come down to some more detailed questions about psychology and sociology, rather than philosophical questions. That being said, I’m still willing to hazard an educated guess, which should at least provide the shadow of an answer.

We’ve already established that we are primarily contrasting LN and CN alignments. By definition, these alignments are neither tremendously concerned with doing good (that would, presumably, make them good-aligned) nor thoroughly evil (again, that would presumably make then evil-aligned), such that they probably would do evil occasionally, under certain circumstances, but not very often and not without qualification – saying more than just these vague hand-wavings is difficult without limiting the diverse range of motivations and personalities that such characters might have.
That being said, if evil done by neutral characters is usually not deliberate, then it strikes me as rather plausible to say that CN characters would likely do evil more often than their LN counterparts, given that chaotic characters tend to act by unleashing themselves and forsaking internal control, while lawful characters exercise power by focusing themselves and seizing internal control. As a matter of empirical psychology, I feel like the latter method is just less likely to result in things going wrong accidentally…though, of course, if the facts of empirical psychology don’t actually end up supporting this conclusion, it will not be saved by philosophy.

So we’ve now come to some kind of an answer to this question, lukewarm and largely empirical though it may be: having a chaotic alignment does indeed suggest that a character would probably do more evil than a similar character with a lawful alignment. But this would only be because she might be more prone to unintended consequences, and not because of anything inherently evil about being chaotic. As for those players who appeal to their characters’ CN alignments as a way of justifying amoral romps across the countryside, doing as they please and taking what they will without concern for anyone or anything else…no, a chaotic alignment does not justify any such thing. A character who behaves this way may or may not be chaotic, but she is most definitely evil, and that is the element of alignment at work in these instances.

My final answer, then, to the question of whether a chaotic alignment can justify evil actions has to be a paraphrase from Reverend Lovejoy: “Short answer: ‘no,’ with an ‘if.’ Long answer: ‘yes,’ with a ‘but.’”

So we now have a much better handle on what it means to be CN (and perhaps even LN). In the next post, we’ll have a close look at CG, and consider whether that alignment is even coherent or possible at all…and we’ll finally engage with some previous scholarship in the intersection of RPGs and moral philosophy while doing so! Stay tuned!


*Incidentally, acknowledgement for this topic is owed to “Josh,” who jumped on the introductory post for this series to ask “Have you considered discussing the phenomenon of players that use ‘chaotic’ alignment to justify evil actions?” Well Josh, your question is the reason we’re looking at this today (and not some other day, in any case).

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!