A Deontological Alignment System

There have been a lot of blogs lately about different forms of alignment. Jack Phillips over at Philosophy of Games has had a good little discussion going on about various forms of morality in gaming. A Hero Twice a Month breaks down WotC’s 4E alignment system and offers a few thoughts. Even Mike Mearls at his Keep on the Gaming Lands has submitted a new homebrew alignment system for the big Homebrew Blog Carnival currently going on around the RPG Blogging community. I figure I would throw in my two cents as well, let’s see where we go with this.

To premise my new alignment system (which, honestly, is not so much a real “system,” as it is a collection of thoughts on how to possibly start a new alignment system), it would probably be worth nothing that I am an avid studier of deontological ethics, both in the form of Monistic deontology, as well as Pluralistic deontology. That doesn’t mean I follow both forms in my day-to-day life, but that I love to rationally debate the merits of both forms.

Now to get started, for this system, we take a moment to clarify a few assumptions for the basis of this alignment system. The first is that there are universal principles. I’m not talking about principles that are accepted as “good” or “bad” because a deity, supernatural, or noumenal force decrees it so, but rather about principles that are “good” or “bad,” and whatever deities that (may) exist fall in line with these principles. The second assumption that I will clarify is that most reasoning, rational beings fall into the bell curve of normal distribution when it comes to actions and thoughts based on morality. This basically means that a vast majority of thinking people and creatures fall into the same, large category. The third and final assumption I would like to clarify today is that “Rules” and “Principles” are not inherently the same thing. Now, very often, principles will be found at the root of many rules, but that is certainly not always the case. For instance, one “rule” or “law” in the USA is “Do Not Go Above the Speed Limit.” This rule has roots in several different principles, but in-and-of-itself, is not a principle. Those who disregard this rule or law are typically not considered to be morally inferior to those who do follow the rule. However, we can make an assumption that the rule has roots and a basis in principles, such as “Do Not Cause Unnecessary Harm,” “Do Not Kill,” etcetera.

Hopefully I’ve explained my preliminary thoughts enough to continue with this new alignment system.

The first portion of this system, then, relies on setting the outer boundaries. What are Absolute Good, and Absolute Evil, and what falls in between?

I have placed at the outer boundaries these two statements:

An uttermost force of Good exists only when those who act are acting on the principles of Freedom and Duty. They are the epitomes of moral autonomy, and follow a version of the Categorical Imperitave.

An uttermost force of Evil exists only when those who act are acting on the principles of eliminating moral autonomy through subtle manipulation and seduction. This state of morality is represented by moral enslavement and tyrrany.

These two statements represent the thoughts and reasoning behind those who act at the furthest extremes of good and evil.

In the center, or “neutral” (N-position), what we have is essentially a state of moral apathy, moral indifference, and a state of innocence. Beings in this state act and react almost solely on an instinctive level, with an indifference as to what principles they may or may not be following. This represents the very large “norm,” in which I believe most people probably fall.

How we have to divide things up a little further, because obviously, there are pretty big differences between the neutral position I’ve laid out, and the two outer extremes. Here’s how I think things would progress.

In the center, we have the “neutral position.” Then, in the position I’m calling (arbitrarily) G1, we have “Those who follow the rules and laws because of Reward or Fear.” These are the people who don’t speed because they don’t want a ticket, or they turn in a wallet because they may get a $20 tip for their troubles.

The next position in line will be G2, which will encompass those beings who follow conventional principles because of honesty and utilitarianism. These are the people who will tell the truth in court not because they don’t want to be purjerous, but because they actually believe that the truth must be told. They are also the people who will turn in even their own friends and family to the law if they know those people have broken a conventional principle of some sort.

The next position is G3, which includes people and beings who follow universal principles for the purpose of integrity and completeness. This is the range that typical “heroes” will fall into, and it is a small percentage of the population. These people know that certain principles must be upheld, and will fight to uphold those principles, but have limits. This person will not actively break laws, even if it means he must for awhile, not act according to his principles. In typical fantasy games, this would be represented often by Lawful Good people (paladins).

The final position on the “Good” scale is the G4 position, which is represented, once again, by those who act solely on the principles of freedom, duty, and moral autonomy. These people will break, and have broken, laws that they either see as unjust, or when a greater duty is in jeopardy. These people act on the absolute form of moral autonomy. In typical D&D terms, this would be somewhat of a combination of Chaotic Good and Neutral Good.

Down the other branch, the evil branch, we start in a similar position as G1. The first position down the “Evil” branch, called E1, represents those people who do not follow typical laws and rules, either due to despair or resignation. These people may have broken laws of burglary (for example) because they are poor and hungry, and not out of any maleficence.

The next position, E2, is represented by those who have a disregard for conventional principles, either due to anger or hatred. These are the people that will kill in cold blood, either for vengeance, or something else, and will intentionally cause harm to those whom they know do not deserve it, either for pleasure, reward, or some other base emotion.

The third position, called E3, is where we get into very heinous crimes and acts. The people could be classified as E3 use physical force and terror to attempt to suppress universal principles. These people will kill hundreds or thousands of innocents so that they may gain power, and will actively encourage others to do so.

Finally, in the furthest boundaries of evil, E4, we have those people who were mentioned up top. These are the truest of villains, those who will subvert others to the “Dark Side,” and those who have no intentions of gaining “power” from their evil actions, but rather gain some sort of satisfaction for “seeing the world burn.”

Here is a diagram of the positions, crudely hand-drawn by yours truly.

Let me know what you think. I’ll probably submit this to the Homebrew Carnival once I work out a couple kinks, such as defining very clear lines between “Conventional Principles” and “Universal Principles.” I could do that right now, but would have to use “real-world” instances to do so, and would rather stay out of politics and real-world morality in this article.

6 thoughts on “A Deontological Alignment System

  1. An interesting take on the alignment system. While I personally don’t use alignment I like how you went about this one. However, I would put the person who steals out of a need to survive such as the person looting food after a major disaster in the neutral category, not the evil one. They may be looking out for themselves but they are probably not going to dominate another person in the process. Its that instinctual drive to survive working. Of course you can ignore this if you just meant both G1s to be neutrality (though in that case I would put them in another section to show that they are neutral).

  2. The core concept of deontology is called the “Categorical Imperative,” which states:

    “Act only according to that maxim whereby you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law.”

    This, condensed down into less complicated language, basically says, “The only actions you should EVER take are those that would be universally acceptable for EVERYONE ELSE to take as well.”

    Meaning, in deontology, there is no such thing as making exceptions for thieves who are simply stealing due to “hunger” or “desperation,” because if one person is allowed to do it, then it becomes a universal law that everyone is allowed to do it, thus making stealing an acceptable act. Thus, for this particular system, being based on deontological ethics, any sort of stealing falls onto the evil side of the spectrum. 🙂

    It’s a tough concept to wrap one’s head around if you’ve never studied deontology before, and it’s very tough to translate into D&D-speak when we have concepts like “good” and “evil” that have already been defined in very different ways.

    Thanks for commenting!

  3. The problem of course then is that there is no such thing as a verifiable universal law. Different cultures (and different species) are going to see things differently. As an American you would think nothing of eating a burger, but I can think of several people who would be aghast seeing you do so. So then are you evil for eating beef or are you fine and they are just wrong because their universal truths don’t match yours? Something to think about.

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