Posted by: Blue Lou Logan | September 29, 2012

Ethics and Morality According to Gary Gygax

Mmm, succubi

Many, many lunar cycles ago, back in the days when Cherry Coke was “new,” The Police were still together, and video arcades echoed with “Elf is about to die,” I was, yes, a Dungeons and Dragons geek.  I had the dice, I had the Manuals, I had the Terry Brooks novels.  It was not at all the only thing I did, nor by any means was it my only kind of geekiness, but it filled a gap.  Star Wars was over (we thought), Star Trek: The Next Generation had not yet aired, and Dr. Jones was stuck in India with the annoying Willie Scott.  OK, people, you’ve got the years narrowed down, right?  In that time between Wookiees and Klingons, orcs and dragons served nicely for an early teen for whom modern reality just couldn’t compare to the wonders of imagined realms.  Times have changed.  I’m still a geek.  Now I carry a “real” cutlass instead of a “pretend” +3 short sword.  What I didn’t know until recently is that D&D also contains a philosophical treatise that gives a very interesting map of human behavior and a sort of chart that could be applied, well, to at least fictional piracy.  A few months ago, I found this, which I urge you all to entertain–dare I say enlighten–yourselves with:

The one like Gygax

In the simplest possible terms, alignment is one of the variables in creating and using a roleplaying character.  A character may, for example, have a “race” of dwarf or human and “class” of fighter or cleric.  These variables in turn set parameters for abilities such as strength and constitution whose numeric values (this is where the famous 20-sided die comes in) are used in game play.  This is a very nutshell version of game mechanics that will be intimately familiar to anyone who has actually played.  Yet if strength, for instance, is quantified, alignment introduces something far more qualitative:  perspective and behavior.  In 1974, Gary Gygax, the inventor of D&D, gave only three possibilities: Law, Neutrality, and Chaos.  Law was essentially synonymous with good, and Chaos was the same as evil.  In fantasy, those two poles would be fairly obvious–Sauron bad, Aragorn good.  It got more interesting a few years later when Gygax developed Advanced Dungeons & Dragons (AD&D, which is what I played).  Ethics and morality were separated into two crossing axes.  Good and Evil were now the poles of morality, Law and Chaos were the poles of ethics, and true “Neutral” was where the axes crossed.  Thus, a character could of one of nine alignments (chart and links borrowed from Wikipedia):

Lawful Good Neutral Good Chaotic Good
Lawful Neutral Neutral Chaotic Neutral
Lawful Evil Neutral Evil Chaotic Evil

Considering and distinguishing morals and ethics is one of the long-standing debates in philosophy.  I considered much the same in my blog “Ethics of a Sinking Lifeboat,” in which I discussed the debate between “natural law,” essentially the conflation of ethics and morality by thinkers like Aristotle and Socrates, and “positive law,” the laws of man as defined by Thomas Hobbes.  From the perspective of AD&D alignment, morality could be defined as the value an individual places on his fellow beings.  A Good character strives to be constructive and helpful to others, while an Evil character would be destructive and harmful; Good is heroic, Evil is villainous.  Ethics, on the other hand, is the value an individual places on the structure/system created by his fellow beings, i.e. “law.”  A Lawful character not only follows the rules but will fight to protect them.  A Chaotic character discards the rulebook and disregards the standards, acting instead on the basis of their own personal code and believing that it is the right of everyone else to do the same.  Neutrality, in the case of either ethics or morality, implies that these judgments don’t come as a rule into play (literally or figuratively); he, she, or it will decide simply as specific circumstances require for survival.  Defining ethics and morality in this way is more or less in line with modern understanding.  In a succinct article at, Mark Nichol writes, “One lives according to one’s morals but adheres to one’s ethics while doing so.  Morals are the tools by which one lives, and ethics constitute the manual that codifies them.”  Fact is, for me, the idea that ethics and morality are different, that good and lawful are not to be confused, is axiomatic.  So I was thus pleased with the results of my test.  As far as I can tell, this description comes directly from AD&D canon…

Chaotic Good A chaotic good character acts as his conscience directs him with little regard for what others expect of him. He makes his own way, but he’s kind and benevolent. He believes in goodness and right but has little use for laws and regulations. He hates it when people try to intimidate others and tell them what to do. He follows his own moral compass, which, although good, may not agree with that of society. Chaotic good is the best alignment you can be because it combines a good heart with a free spirit. However, chaotic good can be a dangerous alignment when it disrupts the order of society and punishes those who do well for themselves.

Robin Hood:  not just a hero, a philosophy

Yep, that’s me, or at least I like to think so. is a thorough, well-made site on AD&D alignments that also contains a long but rewarding What D&D Character Am I? test.  The site quotes Gygax:  “To the chaotic good individual, freedom and independence are as important to life and happiness. The ethos views this freedom as the only means by which each creature can achieve true satisfaction and happiness.”  This philosophy was hardly invented by Gygax.  He has credited the inspiration for the alignment system to, among others, fantasy/SF author Michael Moorcock, a self-described anarchist.  I have often said to friends that I live be one rule–Do whatever you want, as long as it doesn’t prevent anyone else from doing whatever they want.  This standpoint was codified by a favorite philosopher of mine, John Stuart Mill, one of the original “liberals,” or what would more likely now be called libertarianism.  In his 1859 essay “On Liberty,” Mill famously wrote:

The object of this Essay is to assert one very simple principle, as entitled to govern absolutely the dealings of society with the individual in the way of compulsion and control, whether the means used be physical force in the form of legal penalties, or the moral coercion of public opinion. That principle is, that the sole end for which mankind are warranted, individually or collectively, in interfering with the liberty of action of any of their number, is self-protection. That the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others.

The last, italicized bit has come to be known as the Harm Principle.  To those of a certain bent (myself included), it’s also the Wiccan Rede:  “An it harm none, do what ye will.

I usually do.

I usually do.

An easy and common means to explain alignment is to exemplify the types with well-known fictional characters.  Indeed, it has become an Internet meme to create alignment charts for popular universes, from Star Wars to The Walking DeadRobin Hood, Batman, and Han Solo are often used as examples of Chaotic Good, all of which suit me just fine.  The single character, however, that hits the nail on the head for me is Captain Mal Reynolds on Firefly, truly a man with his own code, a man that fought against the “meddling” Alliance and maintains a very, very strong anti-authoritarian stance, a man that will fight for his crew and his boat, a man that may push a stranger off the Mule but will put a bullet in the man’s head before he suffers at the hands of the Reavers.  This brings to mind other captains.  Captain Jack Aubrey is nothing if not Lawful Good, not only upholding Navy and country but also jumping into the sea to rescue officer and deckhand alike.  Captain Jack Sparrow would be Chaotic Neutral:  The Pirate Code itself is, with due irony, an embodiment of lawlessness as law, while wicked Jack’s most singular skill is to look after (seemingly) no one but himself.  Captain Barbossa, however, points out the subjective nature of the alignment system and, indeed, of morality and ethics themselves.  As a pirate, Barbossa would be against law or at least a criminal, and thus Chaotic, yet within the pirate community he often cites the Code, which could make him Lawful.  Whether he is Good or Evil is even more vague; he is certainly the destructive villain in Curse of the Black Pearl, but is he a good guy or a bad guy after his resurrection?  Perhaps Barbossa put the whole topic of alignment best:  “The Code is more what you’d call ‘guidelines‘ than actual rules.”

All of this is, of course, an exercise in geekiness.  But isn’t that the point?  Can’t geekiness be not only an identity but also a means to exploring identity and big questions?  Suit yourself, go, be free, it’s the Chaotic Good way.  But, in true geeky fashion, do post a comment if you take the test!

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