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Rethinking Good and Evil in Dungeons & Dragons

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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.

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…


Rethinking Good & Evil

On Ethics in Role-Playing Games


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