Check for Traps
All About Alignment

Alexander Macris | 30 Nov 2010 21:00
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Despite the problems of alignment, throwing out alignment is the wrong move for most campaigns. The classic struggle of good versus evil appears repeatedly in myth, legend, and fiction. To ignore alignment is to ignore the most powerful themes that underlie gaming's popular genres. The Lord of the Rings is hardly a gripping story if the Reign of Sauron and Aragorn are morally equivalent. Even the most deconstructionist of epic fantasy works - George R. R. Martin's Game of Thrones - still offers us examples of true D&D-style Chaotic Evil.

With morality hardcoded into the genres they emulate, Dungeons & Dragon's alignment system is worthy of use in play. So can sense be made of it? The answer is yes! The past 3,000 years of moral theory may not have led us to world peace, but Aristotle, Bentham, Kant, and Nietzsche have at least provided us some answers to our D&D dilemmas.

Let's start with the basics: A moral code is a system of values that differentiates between good and bad, right and wrong. Over the past three thousand years, moral philosophers have developed a staggering amount of moral codes based on differing assessment of the objectivity, perspective, scope, and substance of moral codes. Of the vast range of possible moral questions one can ask, however, solving our alignment dilemma really only asks us to answer two questions: How do you judge the "goodness" of an action? And who are the proper beneficiaries of "good" behavior, i.e. whose "good" are we talking about? The answer to the first question will establish a person's place on the spectrum of Law and Chaos; the answer to the second question, their place on the spectrum of Good and Evil.

It's All Clear Once You Realize Lawful Just Means Deontological

So our first question is "how you judge the 'goodness' of an action?" Moral philosophy offers us three main answers: By the action itself (deontological); by the consequences of the action (consequentialist); and by the character of the action (aretological). These three map nicely to Lawful, Chaotic, and Neutral, as will be shown below.

Deontological, or rules-based, ethics judge the goodness of an action based on whether the action itself adhered to a set of principles developed in advance. Most religions include deontological ethical systems: When the Ten Commandments say "you shall not steal," it means that you shall not steal, period. It doesn't matter if your family is starving and you need the bread; stealing is wrong because the Commandment says so. Some secular systems are also deontological. During the Enlightenment, Immanuel Kant developed his incredibly influential deontological system based on Categorical Imperatives, or maxims for rightful action. Murray Rothbard's non-aggression principle is a famous libertarian deontological system. As a result of their philosophy, deontologists generally believe that rules should be obeyed; promises should be kept; processes should be followed; and that ends never justify means. They are, in short, Lawful!

In contrast to the strict principles of deontological ethics, Chaotic characters believe in consequentialist or act-based ethics: They judge the goodness of an action based on the consequences of the action. To a consequentialist, rightness or wrongness is judged by the result of the deed, not the deed itself. Jeremy Bentham's act-based utilitarianism, which instructs its adherents to act to produce the greatest good for the greatest number, is the most famous consequentialist moral system. Consequentialists are results-oriented. They believe that promises can be broken, rules ignored, and laws overridden, because the end always justify the means. They are the essence of Chaotic, prone to answering claims that they've broken a contract by saying "I am altering the deal - pray I don't alter it any further."

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