A Look at Alignments

I have a book called Dungeons and Dragons and Philosophy lying around somewhere. Haven’t read it, but I’ll probably try in the near future. In the meantime, I thought I’d share my thoughts on alignments based on what I know about ethics from back in the day in my gymnasium (roughly high school for those who live in the large part of the world with no idea what the word actually means) philosophy course.

(And yes, I’m finally writing something RPG-related again.)

Our philosophy course was a bit strange. It wasn’t mandatory yet, as it is now, and it was just a bunch of us with interest coming together to learn about philosophy. We chose the textbook democratically (which was probably a mistake, as we chose a “fun” book by Esa Saarinen, which tried too hard to break the mold of the normal textbook) and we even managed to vote ourselves another course. Those were the days, when schools had actual extra money for stuff like that.

Of course, the textbook had a chapter on ethics. Its a good subject to discuss, since you can easily make examples that we all understand, but might be controversial at the same time. Discussions ensued, although there were people too immature to understand that if a person is given an idea to defend, that doesn’t make that person necessarily the embodiment of evil. (Although, I did come across very much the same fallacy during a course on teaching with actual teachers, most of whom had their doctorate, at the university.)

However, as a longtime player of D&D even at that point (although I haven’t played much since), I couldn’t help but try to find common ground with alignments and the real world classification. And here’s what I came up with:

Good is the same as altruism. Everyone is important and valuable, but you are mainly interested in helping people here and now.

Neutral is utilitarism. The individual is not as important as the society as a whole. If someone needs to be sacrificed for the “greater good”, then so be it.

Evil is egoism, or actually more like egotism (there’s a distinction). The person sees himself as the most important part of the world and everything is for him to use and abuse, as he wishes. This evil is actually pretty close to sociopathy.

On the other axis, law is deontological, meaning the intention of an action is what determines whether its good.

Chaos is teleological, meaning the intention is not important, but rather the outcome.

Apparently, neutrals don’t actually care or think about such things, since there really isn’t a grey version of this.

The thing is, actual people don’t fit here. We are egoists. Even if we value society, we value society because it affords us with certain comforts. We are mostly not evil (or egotistical). We see that in order for the greater whole to function (even in our limited scope within it), we must play by the rules and understand that even if everyone is an egoist, we can get a better outcome for ourselves if we collaborate. I mean, its for my benefit that the local grocery brings food into my vicinity, so I don’t steal from them. Its for my benefit that we have an LGS (or actually two within a few blocks), so I try to buy from them rather than buying online.

And the difference is fine. D&D is fantasy, so the paradigm is different.

The problem I do have is this: If we are supposed to know how good people act (in order to play one, although I’ve met my share of people who don’t get that there’s supposed to be a connection between the alignment and the actual acts of the character, and I have forcefully changed a character’s alignment in games I’ve ran based on the characters actions), why don’t we act like that? Since the ‘good’ in D&D is at least close to an ideal we are fed through religion and arts and whatnot, why can’t we just act like that?

(Yes, its the egoism.)

2 thoughts on “A Look at Alignments

  1. Whoa. I find this highly interesting! Problem is, there’s so much to grab on to. Just in case I can’t summon the mental energy or the time to answer in full, I’d like to say how I prefer my alignments: as the three cosmic forces of law (order), neutral (or balance), and chaos (entropy). That gives the players plenty of room to move and interpret their characters. Of course, that loads the world with heavy metaphysics, but one I vastly prefer to the simplistic moral schematic. I like my D&D with a strong dose of Moorcock anyway. The cosmic struggle makes for a fantastic powerplay, and leaves plenty of room for moral ambiguities.

  2. I actually started reading the book and second or third chapter makes the case for Moorcock’s views. Probably the most compelling viewpoints thusfar in the book (first third of the book is about ethics), with the exception of a feminist chapter, which isn’t even talking about alignments.

    I’ll probably review the book when I’m finished.

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