Lawful Good

Paladin II

Paladin II (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

As I have written in other posts on alignments, it is often useful to look at the actual world in terms of the D&D alignment system. In this essay, I will look at the alignment that many players find the most annoying: lawful good (or, as some call it, “awful good”).

Pathfinder, which is a version of the D20 D&D system, presents the alignment as follows:

 A lawful good character believes in honor. A code or faith that she has unshakable belief in likely guides her. She would rather die than betray that faith, and the most extreme followers of this alignment are willing (sometimes even happy) to become martyrs.

A lawful good character at the extreme end of the lawful-chaotic spectrum can seem pitiless. She may become obsessive about delivering justice, thinking nothing of dedicating herself to chasing a wicked dragon across the world or pursuing a devil into Hell. She can come across as a taskmaster, bent upon her aims without swerving, and may see others who are less committed as weak. Though she may seem austere, even harsh, she is always consistent, working from her doctrine or faith. Hers is a world of order, and she obeys superiors and finds it almost impossible to believe there’s any bad in them. She may be more easily duped by such impostors, but in the end she will see justice is done—by her own hand if necessary.

In the fantasy worlds of role-playing games, the exemplar of the lawful good alignment is the paladin. Played properly, a paladin character is a paragon of virtue, a word of righteousness, a defender of the innocent and a pain in the party’s collective ass. This is because the paladin and, to a somewhat lesser extent, all lawful good characters are very strict about being good. They are usually quite willing to impose their goodness on the party, even when doing so means that the party must take more risks, do things the hard way, or give up some gain. For example, lawful good characters always insist on destroying unholy magical items, even when they could be cashed in for stacks of gold.

In terms of actual world moral theories, lawful good tends to closely match virtue theory: the objective is to be a paragon of virtue and all that entails. In actual game play, players tend to (knowingly or unknowingly) embrace the sort of deontology (rules based ethics) made famous by our good dead friend Immanuel Kant. On this sort of view, morality is about duty and obligations, the innate worth of people, and the need to take action because it is right (rather than expedient or prudent). Like Kant, lawful good types tend to be absolutists—there is one and only one correct solution to any moral problem and there are no exceptions. The lawful good types also tend to reject consequentialism—while the consequences of actions are not ignored (except by the most fanatical of the lawful good), what ultimately matters is whether the act is good in and of itself or not.

In the actual world, a significant number of people purport to be lawful good—that is, they claim to be devoted to honor, goodness, and order. Politicians, not surprisingly, often try to cast themselves, their causes and their countries in these terms. As might be suspected, most of those who purport to be good are endeavoring to deceive others or themselves—they mistake their prejudices for goodness and their love of power for a devotion to a just order. While those skilled at deceiving others are dangerous, those who have convinced themselves of their own goodness can be far more dangerous: they are willing to destroy all who oppose them for they believe that those people must be evil.

Fortunately, there are actually some lawful good types in the world. These are the people who sincerely work for just, fair and honorable systems of order, be they nations, legal systems, faiths or organizations. While they can seem a bit fanatical at times, they do not cross over into the evil that serves as a key component of true fanaticism.

Neutral good types tend to see the lawful good types as being too worried about order and obedience. The chaotic good types respect the goodness of the lawful good types, but find their obsession with hierarchy, order and rules oppressive. However, good creatures never willingly and knowingly seriously harm other good creatures. So, while a chaotic good person might be critical of a lawful good organization, she would not try to destroy it.

Chaotic evil types are the antithesis of the lawful good types and they are devoted enemies. The chaotic evil folks hate the order and goodness of the lawful good, although they certainly delight in destroying them.

Neutral evil types are opposed to the goodness of the lawful good, but can be adept at exploiting both the lawful and good aspects of the lawful good. Of course, the selfishly evil need to avoid exposure, since the good will not willingly suffer their presence.

Lawful evil types can often get along with the lawful good types in regards to the cause of order. Both types respect tradition, authority and order—although they do so for very different reasons. Lawful evil types often have compunctions that can make them seem to have some goodness and the lawful good are sometimes willing to see such compunctions as signs of the possibility of redemption. In general, the lawful good and lawful evil are most likely to be willing to work together at the societal level. For example, they might form an alliance against a chaotic evil threat to their nation. Inevitably, though, the lawful good and lawful evil must end up in conflict. Which is as it should be.


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  1. Hmm. These pious idiots generally end up generating huge amounts of chaotic evil in real life.

    The road to hell in general being paved with good intentions

  2. Relativity plays a role. The tell the truth is good, yet if a stalker asks where someone is the relative thing to do is to say we do not know, even though we do, or to give misinformation about the person’s location. Only fanatics adhere to absolutes. We are more likely to be judged by what was relative to a situation than by any absolute.

  3. Those who think they are lawful and good, but have it wrong, can be among the most damaging. Part of this is that people can be won over more easily by a person who is convinced of his goodness. Also, such a person does not have to waste effort in concealing his evil, for he thinks it is good.

  4. Mike LaBossiere,

    “As I have written in other posts on alignments, it is often useful to look at the actual world in terms of the D&D alignment system. ”

    Yes, as you have said…..But, although neat and tidy, is reducing people and their motivations to two dimensional D&D character sheets productive, or could it be counter productive in the sense that the world isn’t neat and tidy, and any depiction of the world that is, is not the world.

    Take Mohamed Atta, the leader of the 911 attack. Was he evil. Was his mind corrupted by a twisted ideology that led him to believe he was good while committing evil; or is it far more complicated. Any in depth discussion of character was a forbidden subject for years, and you’re not going to see one any time in the near future on Fox News.

    What inspired Atta. He did leave a note, and in the note he said Qana. April 18th, 1996, the Israel Defence Forces, shelled a UN compound in Southern Lebanon, where 800 hundred unarmed, women, children, and old men, were sheltering from the fighting. Israel claimed it had been an accident; but no, they’re liars, who commit very conscious acts of evil, and they do so not out of an natural disposition towards evil, but they believe without these acts, they face an ultimate annihilation, not just of the state of Israel; but its’ people too; a second Holocaust. The lie is for the American public, who like to support the good guys. But the truth, in the message the Israelis are delivering to the Lebanese, and the UN, is that they will commit evil atrocities to defend Israel. In general the American public are naïve enough to believe that Hezbollah, or Hamas, are using children in UN compounds as human shields. The American government is not that naïve and knows it just not true. They may not be happy with it, but they still support Israel.

    When you see a US drone strike, on the news, you see buildings disappear in puffs of smoke. The US news crews never go into the aftermath to film, because the explosives literally make mincemeat of the people caught in the explosion. The scene is like what appears to have been a psychotic butcher madly chopping people up and scattering their remains. The scene at Qana was videoed by the Lebanese media, and by the UN soldiers. I heard accounts from the UN soldiers who were there. All they could do was to run around trying to find the bits and pieces of children, so their families would have something to bury. This is the unvarnished Qana, Atta witnessed.

    What good person would react to the sight of such evil without despair and anger. Atta resolves to commit an act of conscious evil to deliver a message to the United States.

    You could argue that Atta was unequivocally evil, and his mind was twisted, but you’d have to apply the same judgement to Israel. And if you start from the other perspective; that Israel are fundamentally good, again this must be applied to Atta.

    The we begin to open up cans of other kinds of evil. If the Palestinians and Israelis are trapped by history, if that is what forces their hand, if they are force to commit evil by the constraints they are under. If others do have the freedom to intervene and avert these evils, if they do not do so, are they ultimately the guilty parties. The American public are poorly informed, there is an element of manipulation, but to a great degree they chose to be ignorant. They want their military to protect them, but they don’t want all the details. The belief here being that if they are ignorant of atrocities committed in their defence, then they are not responsible. Ignorance of the law doesn’t stand up in court. And deliberate ignorance is often considered legally to be an act of commission; a criminal act of conscious evil.

    And there is a logic, that someone can only be guilty of evil if they are aware their actions or inactions are evil. The person is good until informed. This “good” person can then believe that the informer is the evil doer, by transforming them for an ignorant goodness to and enlightened evil. These are transformative conditions that do not exist on D&D character sheets.

  5. As you note, the world is complex. Interestingly, AD&D had an alignment graph system (with a good-evil and law-chaos axis): the DM was supposed to track the player’s actions in game and adjust the PC’s alignment accordingly. So, a PC could be lawful good sliding towards lawful neutral or chaotic neutral sliding towards law and evil, etc. The overall alignment was thus a sum of what the PC had done. This would allow for such complexity of the real world-mapping out a person’s actions and summing up the overall result. As you also note, this would involve potentially controversial judgments about what is good and what is evil. That said, murdering people as a response to murder would appear to be wrong. After all, if slaughtering the innocent is wrong, then…it is wrong.

  6. Mike LaBossiere,

    “The overall alignment was thus a sum of what the PC had done. This would allow for such complexity of the real world-mapping out a person’s actions and summing up the overall result.”

    This assumes there is a global Dungeon Master, who is the ultimate arbiter of all good and evil, the law and the outlaw, the halal and haram, as they say in the Islamic Caliphate.

    The guys who’ve done the beheadings within the Islamic State, have not broken any law, of the Islamic state. From their point of view they have done good. A drone pilot who presses the button that blows a village in Pakistan to pieces, on information that a legitimate terrorist target may be among the collateral, is not committing a crime as far as the laws of the united states of America are concerned, neither are they considered to be evil; in America they are considered to be the good doing the good or at least the good doing some necessary evil.

    ” That said, murdering people as a response to murder would appear to be wrong. After all, if slaughtering the innocent is wrong, then…it is wrong.”

    I’ve always found it fascinating that armies have Chaplins. What is it, that they do?

  7. Virtue Ethicists smuggle into the conversation what is ‘ethical’ or ‘virtuous’ as if it’s a given. I call shenanigans.

  8. JMRC,

    If God exists, then He would be the GM.

    But, the mapping is just handled by the GM since she is the one that “makes stuff happen” in the game. As another example, the GM decides on the weather, encounters, and so on. As such, the mapping is just a model of what could/would occur in the actual world as handled by the moral mechanics of reality.

    From speaking to the one Army chaplain I know, they do the usual stuff-hold services, provide counseling, etc.

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