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Ars Arcana Blog: Why No One Understands Alignment

Why No One Understands Alignment

Travis J. Rodgers

Alignment was introduced to Dungeons and Dragons as a character (NPC or PC) attribute. It wasn’t rolled for; it was typically selected, but sometimes a particular alignment was necessitated by the character’s race or class. But what is ostensibly a kind of “outlook” piece, cross-indexing a regard for law and chaos on one axis and good and evil on the other is at best a concept evolving across game versions. This fact would explain why long-time gamers, or at least gamers who have played multiple iterations of D&D, might view alignment differently from others. At worst, however, it’s essentially meaningless. There’s a middle path, which may be its original intent, one according to which alignment is both meaningful and quite objective – but then it’s extremely contentious. My considered view is that alignment is either meaningless or objective in a way that many players do not like (which is accurate is undertermined – the descriptions aren’t clear enough). Thus, I urge you to “commit it to the flames.”

In 1978, the AD&D Players (sic) Handbook was published. I presume Gary Gygax himself penned the following on alignment:
Lawful Evil: creatures of this alignment are great respecters of laws and strict order, but life, beauty, truth, freedom, and the like are held as valueless, or at least scorned. By adhering to stringent discipline, those of lawful evil alignments hope to impose their yoke upon the world.
The law aspect is clear: such characters see the value in strict order and laws. The evil aspect is also clear: beauty, truth, and freedom are at least scorned and are perhaps valued at nothing. Such characters literally seek to control the world, so far as they are able, through discipline, regardless of whether that tramples upon beauty, truth, and freedom.

Just over a decade later, (I presume) Zeb Cook wrote the following in AD&D 2nd Edition’s PHB:
Evil is the antithesis of good and appears in many ways, some overt and others quite subtle. Only a few people of evil nature actively seek to cause harm or destruction. Most simply do not recognize that what they do is destructive or disruptive. People and things that obstruct the evil character's plans are mere hindrances that must be overcome. If someone is harmed in the process . . . well, that's too bad.
To the evil character, harming others on the way to pursuing one’s goals is a viable path. It’s again not a question of the character’s explicit motives. As philosophers in the virtue ethics tradition have noted, the virtues are “salience projectors” (Howard Curzer, for instance, notes this; but he’s cribbing W.D. Ross). Being good requires being sensitive to things, and evil characters are either insensitive to the things, or they sense them and value them at nothing. What sorts of thing? Gygax said it well – beauty, truth, freedom.

Note: There’s a final sentence in Cook’s explanation that I’ll call the addendum. I’ll leave it out for now and return to it in a moment.

Tweet Et Al.
In 2003, Jonathan Tweet and others produced D&D Version 3.5. The language on evil follows:
“Evil” implies hurting, oppressing, and killing others. Some evil creatures simply have no compassion for others and kill without qualms if doing so is convenient. Others actively pursue evil, killing for sport or out of duty to some evil deity or master.

Evil characters do these things – either explicitly and intentionally or through ignorance. Either they know what they are doing and take it as their project or they insensitively hurt and oppress others. Of Lawful Evil characters, the 3.5th PHB says the following:
Lawful Evil, “Dominator”: A lawful evil villain methodically takes what he wants within the limits of his code of conduct without regard for whom it hurts. He cares about tradition, loyalty, and order but not about freedom, dignity, or life. He plays by the rules but without mercy or compassion. He is comfortable in a hierarchy and would like to rule, but is willing to serve. He condemns others not according to their actions but according to race, religion, homeland, or social rank. He is loath to break laws or promises. This reluctance comes partly from his nature and partly because he depends on order to protect himself from those who oppose him on moral grounds.

Lawfulness is now explicitly stated as a relative concept – the characters operate within THEIR (okay, “his”) code of conduct, without regard for harms to others. Tradition is a relativizer here – relative to what traditions? The evil aspect is clear, too: freedom, dignity, life are of no explicit value to such characters. This matches up reasonably well with Gygax’s and Cook’s formulations.

On one hand, the threat of evil is pretty clear – there are things that are unimportant to evil characters. This was true in Gygax’s formulation, and it rings true through Version 3.5. On the other hand, there is an increasing move toward relativizing both the Lawful and the Evil component. First, consider the development; then consider the criticism.

In Gygax’s explicit formulation, good and evil are quite clear. On the side of good there is truth, beauty, and freedom. On the side of evil there is at least falsehood, ugliness, and subjugation. Lawfulness is a respect for both law and for order (what law?). In Cook’s formulation, things are slightly more relativized: although harm and destruction are pretty clear indicators of evil, the character need not seek them out; they could simply arrive there. Harm (of what?) and destruction (for what purpose?) are fairly objective, but it’s the addendum that casts the relativistic die. Cook writes, “Remember that evil, like good, is interpreted differently in different societies.”

We can read Cook’s addendum in one of two ways. The first is the “wrongness of evil” way and the second is the “relativism of evil” way. On the “wrongness of evil” view, evil is wrong – and that’s a fact. People in different societies create codes of morality as they go through the process of exploring the world and discovering the facts of evil. At any given time, their code is almost certainly partially flawed; this is simply to say that the society’s code is not fully correct. They have not yet discovered the full truth of good and evil (and perhaps they cannot or will not), but they might think they have. This view makes the inquiry into evil analogous to inquiry into physics. Aristotelian physics was false but helpful and not totally without basis; Newtonian physics was better (closer to the truth and more useful for predictions). But more complete models of physics have continued to arise. In this way, alignment makes perfectly good sense (to me), and your evil character is a scumbag and should be doing pretty awful things.

On the “relativism of evil” approach, what IS evil (not what is recognized as, or believed to be, evil) varies from society to society. This sounds tremendously plausible to some, but I ask you to put aside the plausibility of this view as a philosophical view; consider just what this means for an RPG. If orcs like to harm and destroy, then, on the “relativism of evil” approach, isn’t that good “to them”? So, an evil orc is one who doesn’t harm and destroy. Slaving isn’t seen as evil to many slaving societies; so, such characters aren’t evil? Whatever your answer to these conundrums (probably not conundra), alignment doesn’t seem able to play the role it’s supposed to play in an RPG.

Consider if there were an attribute called “bigness” – which measured your bigness either against an objective standard or against a changing, societal or species-specific approach. On the first standard, bigness would be equivalent to something else – like height. On the second approach, a massively “big” kobold might be four feet tall, while a massively “unbig” human might be four feet tall. What is gained by having a relativized attribute like this? I suggest nothing is gained, but massive amounts of unclarity are interjected into the game.

In brief, lawful evil characters are either truly lawful evil – exploiting, harming, destroying, disrupting, and aptly called “diabolical” (as Tweet et al. noted, “because devils are the epitome of lawful evil”), or alignment doesn’t have a meaning.


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