Monday, February 9, 2015

Why Alignment is So Hard

Inspired by St. Augulus, I meditated once again on alignment, something I do quite often here in my corner of the internet. In fact, I would argue that it is the most difficult aspect of D&D. In response to my post, Roger of Roles, Rules & Rolls asked my thoughts on this observation:
I've observed that a trouble with alignment is that people get confused between its cosmic, political, and character facets.

Thus without contradiction a single figure can serve cosmic Law while espousing political Freedom and walking a Neutral path between personal predictability and whimsy.

And when the agent of political Law persecutes the agent of cosmic Law there is likewise no contradiction.

I feel this deserves an entire post, because I fundamentally disagree that there is no contradiction when a single figure serves the cosmic Law, preaches political freedom and embodies Neutrality personally.

Whether we like it or not, Western Culture has Judeo-Christianity as its foundation (despite repeated attempts to abandon it). At its core, Judaism sets forth an ideal that the cosmic, the political and the personal can and should all be united. This ideal is codified in the Mosaic Law. In Christianity, this unity is made manifest in the person of Christ. In both cases, it is the individual’s calling to strive for that unity, either through participation in the Law or in Christ.

Thus, what Roger identifies as confusion really isn’t; however, it is an ideal. From the Christian point of view the Mosaic Law has no salvific value. Rather, its purpose is revelation. One of the things it makes perfectly clear is that humanity, on its own, is completely incapable of fulfilling the Law and therefore uniting the cosmic, the political and the personal. In religious lingo, we call this sin.

Therefore, one of the realities of the fallen world is that, especially when one talks about politics, contradiction is inevitable. Let me give you an example that has been bandied about recently in U.S. politics — vaccinations.

The state government where I live requires by law that all children receive a schedule of vaccinations in order to participate in government funded public education. At odds here are two concepts that most Westerners would find good: Freedom and Security.

As a parent I am not free to choose and therefore control the healthcare of my children, even if I have religious, personal or individual health concerns about my kids and vaccinations.

On the other hand, I live with relative security that serious contagious diseases in my community are kept to a minimum.

The two are diametrically opposed. Not only that, but each choice brings with it an extra cost:

  • If we were free to choose vaccination or no, diseases we thought long ago defeated would have a serious chance of returning to our communities. Even if I choose vaccination, my kids may very well contract these diseases through the children of parents who opt out of vaccinating their children. 
  • In the state where I live, some of the mandated vaccinations use fetal matter from abortions.

Regardless of which side you are on, your choice leads to suffering and death.

The crux of ethics, therefore, is what sacrifice are we personally and/or societally willing to make — who is going to suffer and die for our security and freedom?

This question is at the core of Firefly and Serentity. Both the Operative and Mel are right; however, each answer requires a different sacrifice.

For those curious, Christ’s answer to that question is Himself. Therefore, it becomes possible for us to overcome the pain and death necessitated by the fallen world and enter into His Kingdom where that unity is made manifest.

The alignment system is born of the idealized unity of the cosmic, political and personal in Judeo-Christianity. We run into so many problems with it because what PCs are doing is almost entirely political. Therefore, player action will inevitably create dissonance with their alignments.

I would argue that this isn’t a bad thing. Firstly, it duplicates what the Mosaic Law reveals. Secondly, it is fodder for good adventures. It is always interesting to see how people react to situations where two “goods” come into direct conflict.

In the end, I am back to my preferred alignment system: Law-Neutral-Chaos. It gives me the freedom to explore this facet of our fallen nature without getting caught up in the minutia of a nine-point axis.


Flambeaux said...

Good to see you posting again and with such a provocative piece. Thank you.
May your Great Fast be fruitful and your Pascha joyful.

Geoffrey McKinney said...

Yeah, I also prefer law-neutrality-chaos. Law is basically conformity to the Logos. Chaos is basically the insanity of demons. Neutrality is basically animals.

1975's Empire of the Petal Throne has only two alignments: Good and Evil. I like that, too.

Unknown said...

And here we have one of the reasons I like this blog so much: the entries are almost always thought-provoking.

"It is always interesting to see how people react to situations where two “goods” come into direct conflict."

I read somewhere that tragedy isn't necessarily in the struggle of Right vs. Wrong, but when Right comes into conflict with Right. My group explored this in a portion of GW's "Something Rotten in Kislev," and it was a great experience.

Unknown said...

Addressing the issue of vaccinations, although admittedly a straw-man for this piece, I thought this was really interesting:

JB said...

A good post, and a good example of how alignment can be game relevant.

Clovis Cithog said...

I maintain that good and evil are necessary
the difference between good and evil is not their behavior ,
but the TIMING of that behavior

Ecc 3

There is a time for everything,
and a season for every activity under the heavens:

a time to be born and a time to die,
a time to plant and a time to uproot,

a time to kill and a time to heal,
a time to tear down and a time to build,

. . . .

Dyvers said...

This post is really good! I added a link to it in my Best Reads of the Week Series for February 8-14, 2015.

FrDave said...

Thank you!

FrDave said...

@Flambeaux, @Anthony, @JB Thanks for the compliments guys.

howandwhy99 said...

I think contemporary philosophy about convergence and divergence, on what you may be calling the cosmological scale, is more appropriate to understanding Order-Neutrality-Chaos -- as a game mechanic.

The Judeo-Christian viewpoint has many beneficial aspects to it, but I think it's a far shot from what's at the core of D&D alignment. (Even with demons, devils, and angels in the Monster Manual. D&D takes from every tradition)

FrDave said...

My point isn't that Judeo-Christianity is the source of the Alignment system, but rather the reason why Alignment tries to represent the cosmic, the political and the personal. That ideal originates from Judeo-Christianity.

In terms of what to do with Alignments at your table is entirely up to you. Myself, I am not only satisfied with the 3-point Alignment system, but have also successfully used Judeo-Christianty as a foundational principle and theme to run very successful (and fun!) campaigns.