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Tuesday, March 14, 2017

The Paladin's Problem (Law and Chaos)...

Alignment is a thorny issue for some, who prefer to avoid it as unnecessary baggage, while others take it on its own terms in those systems that use it (and we're talking to you, D&D).  But when alignment is fully embraced, there's still some debate about the nature of Law vs. Lawful Good (or Evil), etc.  

After all, doesn't it seem strange that Law should (or could ever possibly) stand in for Good?  Chaos, sure.  The very name is synonymous with evil and unwholesome (or at least suspicious) stuff to be feared and avoided.  But some question Law as GOOD...

After all, not every law is good or remotely just!

Enter the Paladin's Problem.  This guy is supposed to uphold both the law AND the good.  But what if something as clearly evil as slavery is legal and enshrined by the same institutions the paladin has sworn themselves to serve and protect?  What happens when law collides with the good?  It's a tough question, and one whose answer points to how a traditional system of Law/Chaos might actually be superior compared to (later) D&D's axis...    

Now, many scoff at the idea of Law and Chaos as sufficient to represent the full range of choices or to serve as anything remotely close to enough.  But there's something to it:     

So first off, some basics.  Most everyone (or a large enough percentage to effectively count as such) is concerned with their own life and well-being.  They seek out food, clothing, shelter, and meaningful things and/or activities - and no one thinks them selfish for doing so!  Because we've all gotta eat, right?

This is the default setting for most.  But what does it take to consider the life and well-being of OTHERS?  I mean, when a starving person steals a loaf of bread from a wealthy shop owner, only the most hard-hearted see them as anything but desperate and wanting to survive.  But take an old lady's Social Security check to finance your heroin habit, and you're a monster, am I right?

Because one is a wealthy person who can afford to part with that single bit of bread to feed someone who might DIE without it and has no other way of getting it, and the other is a helpless widow with little more but a pittance to live on, meaning she suffers more from the loss, and all for a totally SELFISH habit!

Whose life and well-being is being served?  And at what cost to the life and well-being of another?  It's a matter of proportion.

But what really divides the GOOD from the EVIL is the ability to consider the well-being of OTHERS as co-equal to our own, and limiting our actions accordingly.  Rape and murder are off the table once we decide that others have a right NOT to suffer so we can satisfy our own desires.  This is the LAW we impose upon ourselves that limits us in DEFERENCE TO OTHERS.  Thus, Law is GOOD...

And what is a personal CODE, after all, if not a self-imposed LAW that demands respect for the life of others?

Evil stops at the self.  Sure, play nice when it's convenient, or whenever there's something to be gained.  But draw the line if inconvenient or when profitable to do otherwise.  It's a failure to move beyond the default setting.  And this should worry all of us, because the whole of evil is INSIDE ALL OF US, tempered only by our capacity to extend our consideration to those around us.

Thus, we have Law (Good) following the Golden Rule (or Law) and behaving predictably in deference to others, and Chaos (Evil) acting selfishly and unpredictably because you can't count on them NOT thrusting a dagger in your back when they stand to gain from doing so, making it the best description for sure!

Now, back to the Paladin's Problem.  They can freely invoke their internal CODE (Law) in support of Good and oppose an obviously evil practice, like slavery, and the temporal laws that allow it.

Note here that a distinction is made between Law as an abstract philosophy and (lower-case) laws created by governments to stabilize society.  Failure to recognize this leads to the Paladin's Problem in situations of conflict.  But our system doesn't.

Furthermore, a simple axis of Law/Neutrality/Chaos provides an objective basis for clerics and magic items tied to, and requiring, specific behaviors while simultaneously remaining open enough to pacify the nay-sayers.  Whether or not you agree with our position is one thing, but it DOES form the basis for our Pits & Perils system, and not just because it's simplified!  And the "good" men do becomes a self-imposed "law" that respects the lives of others...


  1. Well, I kind of doubt this perception of Evil as always being selfish. Most of the Evil done at the societal level (think Nazism, Rwanda, Yugoslavia...) is not motivated by selfish reasons of a select few. It works though the antagonism of us vs. them: it draws a boundary between people who have rights (the "us") and people who will lose some or all of them ("them"). This is usually to the benefit of "us". A society with slavery can build pyramids, develop philosophy and provide a comfortable life for the non-slaves (at the expense of the slaves, of course). This is typically supported by laws and thus perfectly legal (note that slaves do not have any say as to what laws are passed, since rights to political participation are among the first lost by "them"). It is the act of making a distinction between "us" and "them" that is the essence of Evil - nevertheless in some manner we all do this. We consider our community as concentric circles (family, circle of friends, subculture/value group, city, nation/ethnicity, etc.) - the farther away they find themselves, the smaller our obligations to them. (The key question would be what rights do we ascribe to those farthest off - do we consider them less than human and not possessing rights?)

    Note that acknowledging some kind of universal rights was not all that common in the Middle Ages. Also, I would not consider it Lawful (even though the very term "rights" is legal and we are thus speaking of some kind of small-L law, even though we find it universally applicable).

    Evil as selfish (criminals, villains, maniacal dictators) would be the mentioned us vs. them mentality accompanied by sociopathy - that is very little concern for anybody else. That means they have very few people in those "close" circles (i.e. people who they would actively care for), while not acknowledging rights of anybody else.

    Btw. I find the Law - Chaos axis attractive and interesting in play precisely because it does not mean Good - Evil (as you are trying to do here).

    1. True enough, but a fantasy RPG that focuses on individual characters is necessarily concerned with these questions on a personal, as opposed to societal, level. We don't define evil as selfish, per se, because everyone is selfish to some degree out of sheer necessity. But those who would intentionally harm others in the pursuit of their own enrichment qualify. The distinction here is self vs. other. How does the character treat others within their party, peasants in the village they're staying in, and even the monsters they encounter? And when you think about it, isn't us vs. them really just the same thing on a larger scale? Finally, might I add that neutrality absorbs much of the potential variation, making Law and Chaos extreme outliers. But you make some excellent points. We'll discuss neutrality in a future post, perhaps next week. Thanks for your insights, and see you around the web...

  2. I think, originally Law (capitalized; in the Law-Chaos axis) might have been the Law of God, as we may have known western Christianity: The basic concepts of caring for others and for the Creation, mixed with the idea to spread this Law and to convert others (by violence, if necessary).
    In a fantasy setting with several deities, Law would be harder to define, but probably boil down to the same ideals of the Golden Rule, as you put it.

    Paladins are holy warriors, adhering to a universal Law, not the brittle laws of men. They fight to defend the Creation of the god(s), fending of the forces who seek destruction (Chaos), either actively or by living by moral code which ultimately leads to destruction (including worship of a chaotic deity with its own, twisted laws).

    Note that in OD&D's Men & Magic, only men appear in all 3 alignment columns and that Evil High Priests are of Chaos. Here's an explicit link between Chaos and Evil.
    The fact that demihumans aren't even capable of being chaotic seems to me like they embody Creation: elves tending to living nature (plants and animals), dwarves and gnomes to inanimate nature (rock, gems...) - "tending" meaning respecting and preserving this part of Creation. Halflings "tend to" the people with their hospitality (they can't even be neutral!).

    Therefore, to follow Law means to preserve Creation and fight destruction represented by Chaos.
    It doesn't mean you have to be kind to the enemy, though. My interpretation would be that those who follow Chaos are agents of destruction and therefore may be destroyed themselves, as they are doomed anyway.

    The later alignments which include good and evil change the role of law and chaos to our more modern understanding of the laws of men.

  3. I appreciate your take, but I take a slightly different view, since Paladins don't actually "work" like that and so they are "different" in my game.