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On Ethics in Role-Playing Games

Credit: JD Hancock

The most essential element of the fantasy story is the classic struggle between “good” and “evil,” yet we have relegated these terms to mere modalities.

So last week, I was watching the November 23 episode of House, “Teamwork,” (Season 6, Episode 7) where Cameron quits the hospital because of the ethical quagmire Chase has gotten himself into over killing African dictator Dibala (aka Darth Vader).

Naturally, ethical quagmires get me thinking about two things: Dr. Hall’s Philosophy 101 ethics class back in my undergraduate years at Stetson (he resembled the Colonel from KFC) and Dungeons & Dragons, which arguably has had as much an influence on my life as college.

So in a moment of nerdy insight, I asked myself: Is Chase “chaotic good” for having killed Dibala? I immediately turned to my homebrew rules to provide an assessment. To explain my answer to this question, however, I’ll have to take you into the world of fantasy ethics, a sorely overlooked game mechanic in the traditional tabletop RPG.

For those of you who didn’t see this episode (or don’t follow House), the subplot in House as of late (which led to Cameron’s quitting and leaving Chase [her husband]) revolves around Chase and Foreman having covered up Dibala’s death. The dictator landed in the hospital’s care, and after the team learned about the dictator’s connection to various mass murders in Africa, Chase decided to ensure Dibala didn’t survive his stay, and with Foreman’s (begrudging) help, he successfully covered up the “murder.”

Now, the way ethics has been handled in D&D hasn’t changed much since I started playing the game (which was in 1998, before the abomination that is Third Edition ruined role-playing forever), though the definition of “alignment” in the game has. Alignment is D&D’s way of classifying characters by their moral inclinations. The rather simplistic model involves pairing one of two dimensions of “Law” and “Chaos” with one of two dimensions of “Good” and “Evil” (plus “Neutrality”) to create a set of ten alignments:

  • Lawful Good, Chaotic Good, Neutral Good
  • Lawful Neutral, Neutral Evil, Chaotic Neutral (and True Neutral)
  • Neutral Evil, Lawful Evil, Chaotic Evil

These nine alignments (plus True Neutral) were set in stone when TSR published Advanced Dungeons and Dragons (AD&D or Second Edition), the first major overhaul of the system since First Edition came out in 1974. (Back then, grizzled wargamers of yesteryear had only “Law,” “Neutrality,” and “Chaos” to play with, and no official mechanic for “Good” or “Evil.”) It’s safe to say that Gygax’s goal in creating alignment, and that of subsequent gamer designers from edition to edition, wasn’t to add an exegesis on moral philosophy to the D&D framework, but to simply help players shape the motivations of their characters in the context of the game world. Second Edition defined alignment as “a factor in defining a player character that reflects his basic attitude toward society and the forces of the universe.” This basic conception of the nine alignments remained intact through Third Edition and 3.5, long after Wizards of the Coast bought TSR in the twilight of the publisher’s days.

But today we are far more sophisticated in our role-playing. I mean, these days we can tweet our achievements in World of Warcraft, we have things like multitasking, buffs, and DPS. Certainly the naïve underpinnings of alignment are due for another overhaul over at D&D’s modern-day publisher, Wizards of the Coast (WotC)?

In WotC’s never-ending quest to reduce tabletop role-playing to a pale imitation of the MMORPG, the latest edition of D&D, Fourth, decided to strip alignment of any meaning and reduce it to the following options (and I quote):

  • Lawful Good: Civilization and order.
  • Good: Freedom and kindness.
  • Unaligned: Having no alignment; not taking a stand.
  • Evil: Tyranny and hatred.
  • Chaotic Evil: Entropy and destruction.

Sad indeed. But there is hope, my AD&D-playing compatriots. With a deeper understanding of those original nine alignments, we can not only answer the questions about Chase’s alignment, but answer them with philosophical finesse.

Credit: Thierry Ehrmann

Consequentialism & Deontology in D&D

The key to making the original nine alignments of D&D work lies in reinterpreting them. The authors of Second Edition (as I will write some day at greater length) had it right, despite their propensity for tables and disdain for a unified game mechanic. The nine alignments are indeed all we need to create a working ethical model that accommodates all the nuance of modern day role-playing — we just need to excise “Good” and “Evil” from the equation (just as Gygax originally conceived), and apply some real ethical philosophy to the game material.

First, let’s look at the original definitions of Good, Evil, Law, and Chaos according to Second Edition. This comes from the chapter on Alignment:

On Law: “Characters who believe in law maintain that order, organization, and society are important, indeed vital, forces of the universe […] Lawful philosophers maintain that this order is not created by man but is a natural law of the universe. Although man does not create orderly structures, it is his obligation to function within them, lest the fabric of everything crumble. For less philosophical types, lawfulness manifests itself in the belief that laws should be made and followed, if only to have understandable rules for society…”

The idea that “order … is not created by man but is a natural law of the universe” suggests Divine Command Theory, wherein statements about ethics are ultimately derived from an immanent power (e.g., God). But Law in AD&D also stresses an emphasis on duty (the “obligation to function within [orderly structures of society]”) and moral legislation — “that laws should be made and followed, if only to have understandable rules for society.” So we obey the Law out of an “obligation” or duty to society, and because we have a kind of Faith in the rules — not a religious kind of faith, but a Faith that ethical laws exist somewhere out there in the universe for moral agents to discover and apprehend.

On Chaos: “The believers in chaos […] see the universe as a collection of things and events, some related to each other and others completely independent. They tend to hold that individual actions account for the differences in things and that events in one area do not alter the fabric of the universe halfway across the galaxy. Chaotic philosophers believe in the power of the individual over his own destiny…”

In AD&D, the Chaotic character understands the universe as “a collection of things and events,” and must negotiate the meaning of her actions in the web of relationships that make up the universe as a whole. The emphasis on individualism in Chaos, and “the power of the individual over his own destiny,” suggest that the Chaotic character determines the rightness or wrongness of her actions by looking at the consequences of her actions, as opposed to the Lawful character who looks to ethical rules in order to take action. The chaotic character is pro-active — Brave in her stance toward ethical action, whereas the Lawful character is Faithful toward rules and appeals to a moral legislator in her ethical decisions.

It becomes clear, then, that the contention between Law and Chaos in AD&D is analogous to the contention between Deontology and Consequentialism in ethics; for the Deontologist, the moral status of the acts themselves (and/or the character of the moral agent) are what matters in the determining the moral status of the actor, whereas in Consequentialism, it’s all about the outcome of actions.

On Neutrality: “Neutrality… [holds] that for every force in the universe, there is an opposite force somewhere… What is important is that all these forces remain in balance with each other… If one factor becomes ascendant over its opposite, the universe becomes unbalanced. If enough of these polarities go out of balance, the fabric of reality could pull itself apart. For example, if death became ascendant over life, the universe would become a barren wasteland.”

Now, I admit, once we toss aside the metaphysical drivel espoused by this passage on Neutrality, there isn’t much to work with from an ethical perspective. The suggestion here is that the Neutrally minded character approaches either extreme — Law or Chaos — in a Balanced fashion, with enough open-mindedness to reject either position as problematic in the extreme. We may interpret the gray space between Law (the faithful adherence to moral absolutes in Deontology) and Chaos (the examination of outcomes in Consequentialism) to imply moral skepticism, in the sense that the Neutral character has determined that Law and Chaos are without absolute ground, and therefore it’s a matter of circumstance or perspective for the moral agent when she chooses between the two in her ethical decisions.

Credit: Liji Jinaraj

I think this gets us a step closer to creating a meaningful “first axis” against which we can measure our characters’ ethics in the role-playing game. We now can base “Law” and “Chaos” on Deontology and Consequentialism, respectively. And to make it easier for our players to grasp these concepts, we can rename “Law versus Chaos” to “Brave versus Faith,” with “Skepticism” (its basis in Moral Skepticism) in between. The best part is that none of these ethical positions are more or less desirable than the other, and so all the advice we are given in Second Edition about constructing societies based on this axis of alignment is still useful, if not worth re-examining in this new context.

Our new definitions might go something like this:

Faith

The Faithful character always acts on principle, rejecting emotion or end goals as factors that affect her ethical judgments. She determines the rightness or wrongness of an act not by assessing its consequences, but by asking whether society could continue to exist if everyone committed the act. Therefore, the Faithful character concludes that certain actions are always wrong, no matter what the consequences, and that her duty is to act as best as she can to defend the universal good.

The Faithful character declares: “You should not make evil in order that good may be made from it.”

Brave

Brave characters, unlike the Faithful ones, always consider the consequences of their actions in making ethical judgments. The end goal of the Brave character is to maximize the good for herself and/or for others, in every ethical judgment she makes.

The Brave character declares: “The ends justify the means.”

Balance

These characters may take a middle ground between Faithfulness and Bravery, with respect to ethical dispositions. While they may consider consequences and/or situational context in making ethical judgments, they may also believe in a set of inalienable principles. This causes the Balanced character to weigh the importance of her principles against the consequences of her actions, depending on the situation.

The Balanced character declares, “What is asserted without reason may be denied without reason.”

Good & Evil in D&D

But what do we do about Good and Evil? Thankfully, the approach to redefining good and evil in the role-playing game is much easier to solve…

My philosophy professor Dr. Hall loved the Socratic method. He wielded it against us like some kind of unflappable master fencer, his wit sharper than all ours combined, and his true intentions impenetrable to discovery. Early in the semester, he began to ask us, one by one, whether we agreed with the “modern philosophers” that all our actions were determined by self-interest, or whether we sided with the “ancients” that it matters as much what we believe and intend as what we do when we try to live “the good life.” When it became my turn, it was still unclear to me what we meant by “good” in “the good life” — it seemed to me that we had taken this meaning for granted, and so I asked him how we define “good” in ethics, and he said: “The meaning of ‘good’ in morality is straightforward. When we say we are doing something morally ‘good,’ we are acting with a genuine concern for the welfare of others.”

And that definition of “good” has made all the difference in the world to me.

The most essential element of the fantasy story is the classic struggle between “good” and “evil,” yet we have relegated these terms to modalities, such as good means “freedom and kindness” and evil means “hatred and tyranny” (as we see in Fourth Edition). When we talk about good and evil in AD&D, our meaning for these terms must be flexible enough that when a moral agent who believes in an ethical philosophy opposite of ours says “This is evil,” what she says makes sense to us, even if her definition of evil is different than ours. We all like to think we understand the seemingly clear and fundamental difference between good and evil, but the reality is that we rarely reflect on what we mean exactly when we label the bad guy as “evil,” and our heroes as “good.”

In AD&D, good is feebly defined as follows:

Good characters […] try to be honest, charitable, and forthright. People are not perfect, however, so few are good all the time. There are always occasional failings and weaknesses. A good person, however, worries about his errors and normally tries to correct any damage done. Remember, however, that goodness has no absolute values. Although many things are commonly accepted as good (helping those in need, protecting the weak), different cultures impose their own interpretations on what is good and what is evil.

So “good” in AD&D is this vague notion of niceness (“honest, charitable, forthright”) mixed with guilt (“a good person worries about his errors”). Yet even this meek assertion is shrugged off by the authors in favor of moral relativism, which preaches that there are no moral absolutes — that ultimately culture defines “goodness” and so anything goes.

Those with a neutral moral stance often refrain from passing judgment on anything. They do not classify people, things, or events as good or evil; what is, is. In some cases, this is because the creature lacks the capacity to make a moral judgment (animals fall into this category). Few normal creatures do anything for good or evil reasons. They kill because they are hungry or threatened. They sleep where they find shelter. They do not worry about the moral consequences of their actions–their actions are instinctive.

“Neutrality” as defined here comes closer to moral relativism than good does in the former paragraph. Moral relativists empty ethical propositions of absolute meaning, relegating goodness and evilness to a matter of historical or cultural circumstances. If rape and human sacrifice are acceptable practices within a given culture, then the moral relativist is forced to concede that this very well may be “good” for that culture. But without an absolute ground to stand on, Good in AD&D is “as good” as Neutrality.

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. Remember that evil, like good, is interpreted differently in different societies.

Evil in AD&D, according to this definition, is reserved mostly for sociopaths and unwitting criminals. Evil simply means nastiness, and is open for interpretation. The only useful suggestion about the true meaning of “evil” we get from the passage is the hint that evil implies greediness, in that evil characters view “things that obstruct [their] plans” as mere “hindrances that must be overcome.”

The solution to this problem is twofold. First, we have to dispense with the labels entirely. Any 1:1 correlation between “good” or “evil” and a moral philosophy will lead to bias and disagreement among Dungeon Masters (DMs). Instead, we have to provide options within an axis of morality that enable the DM and her players to decide which option means “good” for their campaign, and which means “evil.”

The real moral contention in AD&D is between altruism and egoism. And neither position is inherently “evil,” at least from the perspective of Alignment as a role-playing game mechanic. Whether the DM decides that egoism constitutes “evil” in her campaign is up to that particular DM, and vice versa.

Our renewed definitions of the moral axis in alignment:

Altruism

Altruists believe they have an obligation to care about the welfare of others, even at the sacrifice of their own self-interest. The Altruist maintains that what separates human beings from lower-order animals is her capacity for social empathy, and her ability to sacrifice her own interests in order to relieve the suffering of others, regardless of whether the consequences benefit her, and regardless of whether or not she derives personal satisfaction from her actions. The Altruist strives to create an ideal world where every human being possesses a selfless concern for the welfare of her fellows.

The Altruist says, “The common good is the good of the community.”

Egoism

Egoists believe that it is good to do what is in one’s own self-interest, and therefore rational beings do not possess an obligation to care about the welfare of others. The Egoist maintains, however, that in the pursuit of one’s self-interest, it is often the case that helping others will maximize positive consequences for the self, and that sometimes delaying personal gratification in the short term will more greatly benefit the Egoist in the long-term. Accordingly, the Egoist contends that altruism is not possible for rational beings, because to the Egoist, all motivations are driven by self-interest.

The Egoist says, “Let no man belong to another that can belong to himself.”

With Altruism and Egotism replacing the good/evil dichotomy, we can have intelligent conversations about what good and evil mean to people holding differing ethical philosophies. The Egotist can argue that selflessness is without justification and ultimately self-destructive, whereas the Altruist can argue that egotism is unfalsifiable and that selfishness is detrimental to society and social relations, yet both can maintain that they believe what they are doing is “good.”

What replaces “Neutrality” is even more interesting, and it is exactly what plagued AD&D’s original definitions of good and evil: Moral Relativism. The “Neutral” character becomes a Skeptic of universal notions of good and evil, who rejects both Altruism and Egotism as having an absolute ground.

Skepticism

Skeptics believe that both the Egoist and the Altruist are mistaken in their absolutist views. Instead, the Skeptic argues that one’s morality is socially constructed, and that because all morality is ultimately constructed in this way, rational beings must look to culture and society to determine the basis of morality, which may vary throughout the universe. Because the Skeptic does not believe that ethical values, such as good and evil, are universal, she believes imposing one’s morality on others is immoral, and that non-intervention is a virtue, and that by striving to understand and respect cultural norms or individual moralities, the Skeptic comes closer to creating the ideal world.

The Skeptic says, “I am a human being; nothing human is strange to me.”

So where does this leave us? We now have the ability to reconstruct the original nine alignments in AD&D with our new moral and ethical axes. As well as the explaining power to answer the question we posed about Chase at the outset…

The New 9 Alignments

Below are the redefined nine alignments, preceded by their original definitions AD&D. It’s interesting to note that Gygax perceived Neutral Good (now dubbed Balanced Altruism) as the alignment for the most heroic of characters, because he believed that characters who choose the extreme ends of the spectrum (which would be Lawful Good or Chaotic Evil) had it wrong due to their extremist viewpoints.

Lawful Good

In AD&D: “Characters of this alignment believe that an orderly, strong society with a well-organized government can work to make life better for the majority of the people. To ensure the quality of life, laws must be created and obeyed. When people respect the laws and try to help one another, society as a whole prospers. Therefore, lawful good characters strive for those things that will bring the greatest benefit to the most people and cause the least harm. An honest and hard-working serf, a kindly and wise king, or a stern but forthright minister of justice are all examples of lawful good people.”

Redefined as Faithful Altruism: “Guardians” are stalwart altruists who believe there are universal, immutable ethical laws that transcend culture, and selflessly strive to protect the innocent against oppression, regardless of the consequences. Evil transpires whenever these ethical laws are broken out of selfishness and greed. The common people respect Guardians for their great resolve and devotion to justice. They genuinely believe that it is possible to act selflessly, and argue against egoists that selfless acts are just that — selfless — committed without premeditation of personal gain. The integrity of their ethical system hinges upon the fact that they refuse to sacrifice innocent lives for any seemingly superior cause. A steadfast paladin who dedicates her life to obeying the dictates of her faith in order to protect her kingdom is a good example of the Guardian ethos.

Chaotic Good

In AD&D: “Chaotic good characters are strong individualists marked by a streak of kindness and benevolence. They believe in all the virtues of goodness and right, but they have little use for laws and regulations. They have no use for people who “try to push folk around and tell them what to do.” Their actions are guided by their own moral compass which, although good, may not always be in perfect agreement with the rest of society. A brave frontiersman forever moving on as settlers follow in his wake is an example of a chaotic good character.”

Refined as Brave Altruism: “Champions” oppose absolutism and have no qualms upsetting the status quo to free the innocent from oppression and exploitation. They have great respect for diversity, tolerate differing ethical viewpoints, and strive to generate the most good for the most people. Striving for any other goal is selfishness, which leads to evil. A daring diplomat who opposes a corrupt bourgeois to alleviate the suffering of impoverished masses is a good example of the Champion ethos.

Neutral Good

In AD&D: “These characters believe that a balance of forces is important, but that the concerns of law and chaos do not moderate the need for good. Since the universe is vast and contains many creatures striving for different goals, a determined pursuit of good will not upset the balance; it may even maintain it. If fostering good means supporting organized society, then that is what must be done. If good can only come about through the overthrow of existing social order, so be it. Social structure itself has no innate value to them. A baron who violates the orders of his king to destroy something he sees as evil is an example of a neutral good character.”

Redefined as Balanced Altruism: “Benefactors” are not committed to moral absolutism and don’t believe that the actions of individuals can be justified by cultural difference. Instead, they believe a balance of both viewpoints is necessary to maintain moral fitness in society. Evil arises when blind devotion to a cause or wanton selfishness overrules reason and temperance. These Heroes are not opposed committing lesser “crimes,” such as lying, cheating or stealing, in order to accomplish what they perceive as a greater good, but they may also uphold certain imperatives as inalienable. A kindly lord who helps prisoners escape an unfair execution in the gallows is an example of the Benefactor ethos.

Lawful Neutral

In AD&D: “Order and organization are of paramount importance to characters of this alignment. They believe in a strong, well-ordered government, whether that government is a tyranny or benevolent democracy. The benefits of organization and regimentation outweigh any moral questions raised by their actions. An inquisitor determined to ferret out traitors at any cost or a soldier who never questions his orders are good examples of lawful neutral behavior.”

Redefined as Faithful Skepticism: “Judicators” are neither selfless nor egoistical in their disposition. To the Judicator, what is ethical is what is lawful, and so ethical judgments are inseparable from culture and society. Judicators are committed to justice neither out of a concern for the welfare of others, nor out of a desire to gain by being lawful. The law itself, Judicators argue, forms the basis of morality because the law ensures order in society, and without order society ceases to exist. Judicators are loyal subjects of the kingdom, indifferent to the irrelevant ideologies of outsiders. A Judicator shaman, for example, abiding by the laws of a vengeful Mother Nature, would not hesitate to cleanse a countryside rife with corruption, even if doing so means killing a few innocent civilians in the process. In the same way, repressive governments can trust Judicator spies and inquisitors to root out heretics for their cause without their conscientious objection to the task.

True Neutral

In AD&D: “True neutral characters believe in the ultimate balance of forces, and they refuse to see actions as either good or evil. Since the majority of people in the world make judgments, true neutral characters are extremely rare. True neutrals do their best to avoid siding with the forces of either good or evil, law or chaos. It is their duty to see that all of these forces remain in balanced contention. True neutral characters sometimes find themselves forced into rather peculiar alliances. To a great extent, they are compelled to side with the underdog in any given situation, sometimes even changing sides as the previous loser becomes the winner. A true neutral druid might join the local barony to put down a tribe of evil gnolls, only to drop out or switch sides when the gnolls were brought to the brink of destruction. He would seek to prevent either side from becoming too powerful. Clearly, there are very few true neutral characters in the world.”

Redefined as Balanced Skepticism: “Arbitrators” believe that the concept of good and evil only has meaning within the boundaries of culture. Without cultural difference, they argue, ideological sameness will lead to stagnation and tyranny. The only fundamental ethical law they uphold is the law of noninterference with the practices of other cultures. Arbitrators believe that the only evil is ethnocentrism, because when one culture dominates another, precious knowledge, customs, and life is bound to be lost in the ensuing struggle. A reclusive, hermetic order of powerful druids who keep vigil over an unstable region may refrain from interfering in the affairs of nations, until, for example, one nation threatens to upset the balance, crusading against its enemies because of perceived ideological dominance.

Chaotic Neutral

In AD&D: “Chaotic neutral characters believe that there is no order to anything, including their own actions. With this as a guiding principle, they tend to follow whatever whim strikes them at the moment. Good and evil are irrelevant when making a decision. Chaotic neutral characters are extremely difficult to deal with. Such characters have been known to cheerfully and for no apparent purpose gamble away everything they have on the roll of a single die. They are almost totally unreliable. In fact, the only reliable thing about them is that they cannot be relied upon! This alignment is perhaps the most difficult to play. Lunatics and madmen tend toward chaotic neutral behavior.”

Redefined as Brave Skepticism: “Radicals” abhor the concept of morality. These nihilists are neither altruists nor egoists. What one believes is a good or evil action, the Radical argues, always depends on the circumstances of one’s culture, and the laws of one’s society. Ethical judgments, then, are entirely subjective, and therefore utterly meaningless. In the same way, morality as a whole is an irrational concept without a basis in reality. These characters tend to be wildly individualistic. Radicals don’t believe in a duty to help others, or derive pleasure from gaining power; instead, their motivations are often far more complex. A Radical wizard, for example, may have no interest in anything other learning for learning’s sake, shunning both prestige and the camaraderie of other wizards.

Neutral Evil

In AD&D: “Neutral evil characters are primarily concerned with themselves and their own advancement. They have no particular objection to working with others or, for that matter, going it on their own. Their only interest is in getting ahead. If there is a quick and easy way to gain a profit, whether it be legal, questionable, or obviously illegal, they take advantage of it. Although neutral evil characters do not have the every-man-for-himself attitude of chaotic characters, they have no qualms about betraying their friends and companions for personal gain. They typically base their allegiance on power and money, which makes them quite receptive to bribes. An unscrupulous mercenary, a common thief, and a double-crossing informer who betrays people to the authorities to protect and advance himself are typical examples of neutral evil characters.”

Redefined as Balanced Egoism: “Esurients” believe the highest good is the pursuit of personal happiness. Laws that stand in the way of this goal are evil. An Esurient does not necessarily consider herself to be an egoist; instead, she redefines altruism to mean cooperation between self-interested individuals with unique personal ambitions. The Esurient is respectful of cultural differences insofar as these differences do not interfere with her pursuit of happiness. For this reason, the Esurient shares the belief with the Arbitrator that nonintervention is a virtue. Moreover, the Esurient rejects the notion that human beings have a moral obligation to care for their fellows, though in those cases where helping others will help the Esurient in the long-term, she obliges. For this reason, the Esurient tends to maintain an alliance only as long as the alliance serves her interest. Esurient buccaneers, for example, might be amicable partners in their search for treasure, and even exceptional entrepreneurs because of their ambitions, but once they find the object of their desires, the pursuit of personal happiness may stand in the way of their friendship and lead to betrayal. This is because the Esurient’s personal ties are always tenuous at best.

Lawful Evil

In AD&D: “These characters believe in using society and its laws to benefit themselves. Structure and organization elevate those who deserve to rule as well as provide a clearly defined hierarchy between master and servant. To this end, lawful evil characters support laws and societies that protect their own concerns. If someone is hurt or suffers because of a law that benefits lawful evil characters, too bad. Lawful evil characters obey laws out of fear of punishment. Because they may be forced to honor an unfavorable contract or oath they have made, lawful evil characters are usually very careful about giving their word. Once given, they break their word only if they can find a way to do it legally, within the laws of the society. An iron-fisted tyrant and a devious, greedy merchant are examples of lawful evil beings.”

Redefined as Faithful Egoism: “Masterminds” are cunning Egoists who believe that altruism is groundless. According to the Mastermind, people always act out of self-interest, even when they are ostensibly helping others. The Mastermind, therefore, has no qualms about embracing Egoism to its fullest extent. Like the Guardian, the Mastermind is law-abiding and honorable, even though she motivated by self-interest inwardly. The Mastermind may feign selflessness to move herself into a position of power, but ultimately she believes that laws exist to improve the welfare of the most ambitious among citizens. Masterminds are unique in that their ideal world is not filled with Masterminds; instead, it would more greatly benefit them if everyone else were selfless in their actions. Evil, for the Mastermind, is nothing less than the burden of altruism, because she perceives self-sacrifice as a devaluing the human condition. A Mastermind blackguard, for example, does not care if the laws of her land cause great suffering to her people if the perceived benefit to her is greater than her people’s suffering.

Chaotic Evil

In AD&D: “These characters are the bane of all that is good and organized. Chaotic evil characters are motivated by the desire for personal gain and pleasure. They see absolutely nothing wrong with taking whatever they want by whatever means possible. Laws and governments are the tools of weaklings unable to fend for themselves. The strong have the right to take what they want, and the weak are there to be exploited. When chaotic evil characters band together, they are not motivated by a desire to cooperate, but rather to oppose powerful enemies. Such a group can be held together only by a strong leader capable of bullying his underlings into obedience. Since leadership is based on raw power, a leader is likely to be replaced at the first sign of weakness by anyone who can take his position away from him by any method. Bloodthirsty buccaneers and monsters of low Intelligence are fine examples of chaotic evil personalities.”

Redefined as Brave Egoism: “Megalomaniacs” are ruthless hedonists who reject altruism as amoral and have no tolerance for duty of any kind except the limitless glorification of the self. The Megalomaniac will do whatever is necessary to benefit herself, disregarding the welfare of others while meticulously assessing the consequences of her actions in cost-benefit analysis to maximize her personal gain. Criminal action is no barrier to ambition; if breaking a law is more beneficial than obeying it, then let the law be broken, especially if the negative consequences are negligible. The Mastermind cares about friends and family only insofar as her relationship with them helps her get ahead, become more powerful, or overcome one more obstacle in her endless struggle to conquer her own need.

Did Chase Do the Right Thing?

There you have it. And so now we can return to the original question: is Chase chaotic good?

Well, we can now understand “Chaotic Good” to mean “Brave Altruism.” As an altruist, this type of person believes that to do good, one has to have a “genuine concern for the welfare of others” — moral actions are selfless ones. And as a “Brave” altruist, this type of person is willing to weigh the consequences when acting morally, in order “to generate the most good for the most people.” That often means breaking rules. Without a doubt, we know Dr. House is a Brave Altruist: he has no respect whatsoever for the “rules,” and always tries to maximize the good for his patients. When Cameron chides Dr. House for taking risks with his patients in their final exchange at the end of the episode, Dr. House reminds her that what matters is that the patient is alive at the outcome of the procedure: the ends justify the means.

Credit: Erich Ferdinand

In killing Dibala, it can be argued that Chase was striving to generate the most good for the most people, because he believed that if the dictator died under their care, he would be preventing genocide. At the same time, however, we know Chase’s motivations were conflicted at the outset: on the one hand, Chase feared Dibala and didn’t understand the full complexity of the situation in the dictator’s country; on the other hand, he hated Dibala for his callousness, his calling Chase a coward, and his criticizing Cameron. So it can also be argued that Chase’s actions were not entirely altruistic.

Whether Chase’s actions qualify as “chaotic good” — or bravely altruistic — do not hinge on whether saving someone’s life counts as morally good. The difference between what Dr. House does on a regular basis — flouting the rules and endangering people’s lives in order to save them — and what Chase has done in murdering Dibala, is a matter of ontological distance. Both doctors are consequentialists. Both determine the rightness or wrongness of their actions based on the end result. But for Dr. House, the intended outcome is always only a few steps away: create risk to save an individual whose fate is immediately tenable. Chase made the mistake of extrapolating the consequences of his actions so far into the future as to make his justification for maximizing the good untenable. Chase can’t know if there will be a 1:1 correlation between his murdering Dibala and lives saved in Africa. He can’t know if by killing Dibala he has saved lives or allowed an even worse dictator to assume his job. Therefore Chase’s actions are neither brave nor altruistic.

I hope this has been an interesting exercise in rethinking some of the basics in role-playing. Since I’m no philosophy major, I can’t say my integration of some of the real ethics involved in this recasting of alignment is entirely accurate; like any academic discipline, there are bound to be semantic disagreements and misinterpretation, and I’m sure I’ve made my fair share. The goal, I think, is to create depth where there wasn’t before, so the floodgates are open.


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