Sunday, June 26, 2016

Character Alignment From A Catholic Viewpoint

Yes, I'm Catholic and I play AD&D. Do come back once you recover from the shock. I'll wait.

One aspect of the game that I've struggled to understand is the alignment system. And I'm not the only one if the shear volume of articles on the subject is anything to go by. Not only are there questions over what counts as 'Good' and what counts as 'Evil,' but where the line is between 'Lawful' and 'Chaotic.' This can lead to some heated, and confusing, debates among people who aren't particularly inclined toward philosophy.

As a Catholic, I recognize the complexity of these questions and the need for further understanding.

As a gamer, I really just want something simple so I can get back to having fun.

Good Is Not Nice

Catholics are supposed to respect the beliefs of others. Still, I get extremely annoyed whenever I run into a discussion of alignment systems that mainly consists of 'get rid of alignment, Good and Evil don't exist.'

Ri~ght. So it won't matter any if I hit you in the face with a frying pan.

First of all, we have to define a few terms. "Good," in the AD&D alignment sense, seems to refer to general morality. For Catholics, morality boils down to two fundamental commandments:
  • Love God
  • Love your neighbor
    • Everyone is your neighbor
This fits fairly well with AD&D and its various homebrew derivatives, which all include 'respect/protect life' in their definitions of Good. Obviously, 'love God' isn't included because not all campaigns are going to include a religious aspect, the ones that do might include Evil-aligned deities, and even in real life someone can be Good and not be Christian. Where it falls apart is when the games start describing Good behavior.

Ideally, everyone of Good alignment would act like Mother Teresa or Mr. Rogers: kind to all, generous, and motivated by a deep longing to better the lives of all people regardless of faith.


In reality, you also have a lot of people like Saint Jerome: passionate, mule-headed, and with a tendency to say things about the habits of women that could easily be taken as misogynistic. (He was actually friends with several women but also strongly preferred the single, ascetic lifestyle and had no qualms about telling everyone exactly what he thought about people, including women, who didn't.)

Yes, he's a saint, but he's also the sort of person who, if friends with, you probably wouldn't introduce to your other friends.

Then there are the people who don't get considered for sainthood but are still Good. If you go to church, or temple, or whatever, take a look around next time and note who you see. Maybe the guy who stole your lunch in grade school is in the pew behind you. The old woman who donated a piano to the congregation but bemoans the influx of 'dirty foreigners' to the community might be front and center. Over there's the guy who just can't get along with anyone who roots for a different football team than him.

Yes, even the old woman is Good.

I've known people like that, one even admitted that she was being racist and that she shouldn't be, she just couldn't stand the newcomers. They talked strange, they acted strange, they even smelled strange. Her whole life, the community had been one particular way. Now it was changing and she didn't like it.

That brings us to a very important aspect of alignment, and one that AD&D is pretty vague on. How do you determine if a character is Good, Neutral, or Evil? Is it by what they do? What they think?

Hoo boy. Those last two questions open a whole new can of worms that I'll be getting to in the Lawful vs. Chaotic section. For now, let's talk a bit about Good's opposite.

Detect What?

From a Catholic standpoint, Evil is the absence of Good, specifically, the absence of GOD. It's pretty much the same as how cold is the absence of heat.

It's also a state of being and the losing side of the great war for creation. Yeah, we're at war with a void. This is one of those headache-inducing parts where Christianity's 'Eastern mystery cult' roots show. For the sake of simplicity, let's go with a boiled-down version of AD&D's definition of Evil: a disdain for, or debasement of, life.

Evil is also a choice. This is extremely important. No one is born Evil. In Catholic teaching, all people are born basically Good but tainted by the effects of Original Sin (the relationship between Original Sin, Jesus's sacrifice, and baptism is a topic for a different article in probably a different blog).

Obviously, this contradicts every game and story that features Evil species.

Note that demons are exempt, as (at least in Catholic reality) they made their choice outside the bounds of time and are thus eternally locked into that state.

Tolkien, a committed Catholic whose stories continue to influence the fantasy genre, never felt quite right making trolls and orcs strictly and without exception Evil. He also never managed to come up with a justification that pleased him.

Looking through his various works, I think he came close. Maybe not for him, but at least for me. Trolls and orcs were ents and elves, respectively, that Melkor twisted into abominations. There's also evidence that Melkor continued to influence their societies, either directly or indirectly, up to the time of the Ring Trilogy. Thus, these species aren't so much Evil as insane and enslaved.

That's an important distinction. A mortal sin is one "whose object is grave matter and which is also committed with full knowledge and deliberate consent." (Catechism 1857, emphasis mine) It's unquestionably Evil.

Also, "feigned ignorance and hardness of heart do not diminish, but rather increase, the voluntary character of a sin." (Catechism 1859)

Here's a somewhat more recent but still fictional example. James Buchanan Barnes, having been captured and brainwashed by Hydra, commits multiple acts of treason and murder. Through all of this, he is aware of his actions and their consequences.

So we've got grave matter and full knowledge. However, and here's the important part, Barnes had close to zero control at the time. There is no deliberate consent. Quite the opposite, as Barnes fights his programming on more than one occasion. This reduces the crime from mortal to venial sin. It still hurts the soul, but it's more of a bruise than a gaping abscess.

Before anyone jumps on me for calling what Bucky did a sin even though he wasn't responsible, what I just said is reflected in the comics and the movies (especially the movies). Bucky remembers what he did. It hurts him. He feels unworthy of Steve's friendship, or any friendship for that matter. That's what sin is, it's anything that hurts the soul. Bucky's sin was thrust upon him by a third party, but his soul still needs healing.

So someone who's Evil knows he or she is Evil, right?

More or less. The Saturday morning cartoon villain whose letterhead reads 'Emperor Quiznic: Evil Overlord,' or what have you, is fiction. The vast majority of people who choose Evil also delude themselves into believing that they somehow aren't responsible or that what they're doing is right. Most of us can agree that the Nazi leaders were Evil. They almost certainly didn't see themselves that way. After all, what they were doing was for the good of Germany and the glory of the Third Reich. This falls under "feigned ignorance and hardness of heart."

That's fine and all, you may respond, but it's still kinda vague. Yes it is. And people have been pointing that out for about as long as we've had fingers to point with. Guess why the Catholic Church has the oldest and longest running legal system in the West.

Law and Chaos

Morality, as discussed above, is the general understanding of what is good and true. Ethics is the practical application of that understanding.

Stretching the definitions a little, ethics also includes cultural norms, those fairly arbitrary rules and customs that have no direct connection to morality, but do help keep society running smoothly. After all, there's no 'good' or 'evil' in what you wear to a party, but if you wear a grass skirt to an inaugural
ball... well, chances are you wouldn't be let anywhere near it.

That's where the 'Lawful vs. Chaotic' axis of the alignment chart comes in. Ethics, by definition, involve rules. At its simplest, Lawful characters follow the rules, Chaotic characters don't (or do more by accident than design), and Neutral characters do or don't depending on how it works for them at the moment.

I wish it was that simple.

Unless you're running a campaign, or writing a story, covering a very small geographical area with characters who all come from roughly the same background, you're going to have multiple sets of rules and cultural expectations.

As an example, look at how the the Romans viewed the Celtic and Germanic tribes. These barbarians went into battle naked, screaming like lunatics with no sense of organization or formal rank. It sounds like a textbook case of 'law' vs. 'chaos' until you look at it from the barbarian side.

My ancestors had rituals for dang near everything, including battle. Nudity served the practical function of reducing the number of hand-holds available to the enemy. Before the fight, they'd stand at their end of the battlefield screaming insults and boasts to get themselves psyched up. If they had shields, they'd bang their weapons against them for the same effect. To them, the most honorable form of combat was between individuals, so they had no use for things like ranks or flanking maneuvers.

In short, both societies had a Lawful approach to combat, they just followed very different laws. I honestly can't think of a single society that could be considered Chaotic. Even hippy communes were closer to Neutral since they had certain standards of behavior but were generally laid-back about how those standards were enforced.

The Escapist defines Lawful as deontological ethics while Chaotic is consequentialist ethics.

For those who aren't philosophy majors, deontological refers to judging the morality of an action based on its adherence to a set of rules. Consequentialism judges the morality of an action based on its effects. "The ends justify the means," in other words. Neutral is thus aretological ethics, the idea that adhering to certain rules and habits is a good idea but that ultimately the morality of an action is based on its intent.

So, Lawful focuses on means, Neutral on intent, Chaotic on ends.

Here's where that division shatters on contact with reality, the Catholic Church recognizes the importance of all three. In some ways, intent is the most important. Jesus gave plenty of examples of folks who followed all the rules for selfish gain and were judged on the content of their hearts.

Does that mean the Catholic Church is Neutral or even Chaotic Good? Have you seen the number of rules we have?

Lawful Stupid Personified
I tried thinking of it along 'communal, individual' lines, but that'd just turn all Lawful Good characters into the anal-retentive killjoys the alignment is already stereotyped for.

The true root of the problem revealed itself when I found an alignment chart matched up to the enneagram. AD&D's alignment system tries to combine morality with personality!

So we just drop the Lawful-Chaotic axis and call it a day, right? Not exactly. The folks at TSR (now Wizards of the Coast) had a valid point in that how people approach morality and what aspects they struggle with are partially determined by personality. It's just nowhere near as simple as Order vs. Chaos.

Virtues and Vice

I started out looking at the classic seven deadly sins and their contrasting virtues. Didn't take long to toss those out, mainly because there's so much overlap between them. Lust and Gluttony, for example, are really just subtypes of Greed as far as I can tell. Besides, there's a shorter list available.

The cardinal virtues are mostly associated with the Catholic Church today, but they originated with Plato in Republic (Book IV, 426-435). In Protagoras he also includes piety, which is similar to the Catholic theological virtue of faith.

Prudence discerns true good in every circumstance and chooses the right means of achieving it. "Right reason in action," as St. Thomas Aquinas says (somewhere in Summa Theologica, it's a huge text and doesn't include handy reference points). It's the guide to all other virtues and requires knowledge of what is right and what is wrong.

At its most basic, this is thinking before we act, including taking council with others. Dismissing the advice of those who do not completely agree with us goes against prudence as they may know something we don't. Prudence would thus be opposed by recklessness.

Justice "promotes equity with regard to persons and to the common good." (Catechism 1807) Unlike charity, justice focuses on the exact distribution of what each person is owed.

This includes not only debts to be paid, but the observation of natural and legal rights. Natural rights outweigh legal rights in cases where the two come into conflict. Justice would thus be opposed by bias or bigotry.

Fortitude acts even in the face of fear, a strong resolve to resist temptation and stand up for what's right. This isn't recklessly throwing oneself into danger at the slightest provocation. All life is precious, after all, including our own.

On the other hand, this virtue provides the strength needed to "sacrifice his life in defense of a just cause." (Catechism 1808) Fortitude would thus be opposed by cowardice or indecisiveness.

Temperance "ensures the will's mastery over instincts and keeps desires within the limits of what is honorable." (Catechism 1809) It can include the avoidance of certain pleasures all together, such as a priest's vow of chastity, but that isn't the primary focus. Remember, it's self-control, not self-denial.

While temperance is mostly associated with the material, it also applies to mental and spiritual habits. Someone who constantly wallows in self-pity is not following this virtue. Temperance would thus be opposed by indulgence.

That sounds like a fairly universal set of virtues.

Just on the European side we have the mottos of the Fianna, Ireland's legendary warrior bands, which included things like 'action to match our speech.'

Prussian virtues include courage, religious tolerance ("Jeder soll nach seiner Façon selig werden," literally "Everyone shall be saved in his own way"), and restraint. It's really too bad these virtues got associated with the Nazis to the point that post-war Germany abandoned the code entirely. It's a great set of virtues that the Nazis didn't even come close to following. If they had, we probably wouldn't have had WWII.

For us Westerners, the most well-known set of Asian virtues is bushido, which includes courage, righteousness, and self-control.

Yeah, haven't really found a tidy parallel to prudence. The 'think before you act' virtue seems to get divided up into many virtues connected to specific forms of action.

This is also starting to look a bit like the Myers Briggs system, specifically the four dichotomies. There are worse ways of building a game character's personality. Just don't expect everyone to spend much time looking up the various types. And then there's the complication of trying to play within type without feeling constrained.

Now, I could just make these pairs simple binaries that the players select when building their characters. That might be a little too simple. What if a character carefully considers his options before acting but has difficulty taking the word of others into consideration? He wouldn't be entirely prudent, but he wouldn't be all that reckless, either.

No. Instead, I'll probably put the virtues and vices at opposite ends of four continuums that can be randomly rolled if the players wish. I'd also like to add modifiers based on the character's ability scores. For instance, a high Wisdom score would give a bonus to the character's base Temperance score. The virtue/vice scores could have their own modifiers to things like saving throws and reaction rolls.

Obviously, this needs a lot more refining, but it's a good start. If anyone decides to use this idea in their own homebrew game, I'd love to hear how it works out.


  1. *Good* start.

    About the four cardinal virtues, it's hardly surprising (my viewpoint) that they're "a fairly universal set of virtues." After all, it's the "καθολικός, universal" church. ;)

    I've mentioned the overwhelming multitude of regulations we've got, but recognize that they all boil down to two - with a sort of appendix: love God, love my neighbor (everyone's my neighbor). Remembering that "everyone" means *everyone,* no exceptions, is tricky, and that's another topic.

    Where was I? Virtue, love, getting a grip. Right. About Summa Theologica, you'll find prudence and "right reason applied to action" discussed in Summa, Second Part of the Second Part, Question 47, Article 1. (translated by Fathers of the English Dominican Province (Benziger Bros. edition, 1947)) ( )

    I *like* Thomas Aquinas: he *thought* about this stuff, and that's yet another topic.

    1. Thanks!

      St. Aquinas thought *at length* about this stuff.