Wednesday, March 2, 2011

On Alignment & Bullshit

Found myself dreaming about alignment the other night; woke up with the following possible characterization:
  • Lawful = Truth-teller.
  • Neutral = Liar.
  • Chaotic = Bullshitter.
This is obviously inspired by Princeton/Yale philosopher Harry Frankfurt's essay "On Bullshit", which posits a difference between liars (who fundamentally know the truth, and are aware of when they lie) and bullshitters (who don't know, don't care, and are possibly incapable of either); Frankfurt argues that the latter is "a greater enemy of the truth" than the former. Of course, I would take my categorization as a pretty coarse description in a D&D context, primarily focused on civilized companies of men, etc.

More generally, I suppose you could set up a binary description of alignment, something like:
  • Lawful = Rules apply to everyone, including me.
  • Neutral = Rules apply to everyone, excluding me.
  • Chaotic = Rules apply to no one, including me.
Again, I'd be taking "rules" here as being synonymous with "the rules of men", much like Poul Anderson's sense of being Lawful. And then this could possibly point the way towards a fourth possibility, "Rules apply to no one, except me", which we might call being "Totally Insane" or "Messianic" or something like that.


  1. This is an intriguing line of thought.

  2. Thanks for this! I like the formulation of rules and who they apply to very much.

    Your fourth possibility, "rules apply to no one, except me" might just be a different way to be Chaotic; makes sense (at least to me) that there'd be multiple approaches to non-Lawful behavior. What do you think?

  3. That's a really interesting way of looking at it. Thanks for posting this... it's got me thinking about Alignment in D&D again.

  4. Yes, very simple yet very provocative.

  5. I think it's interesting that of the potential alignments based on this scheme, only one is what we would consider good for society. Which suggests that alignment in this case is about "doing it right" and then multiple shades of "doing it wrong".

    Since the ethics of a lion are different from the ethics of a human, I think it's appropriate to say that alignment is alignment from the perspective of humanity. An orc may not consider itself evil, but a human would. What is beneficial and proper to a Red Dragon is often not for a halfling.

    Humans, Dwarves, Elves, etc. can be non-Lawful of course. These are Anderson's "warlocks who sold out". I consider a Ranger to be Lawful but a Druid is Chaotic for this reason - the former wants to tame the wilderness for civilization or at least to interface with it. The latter wants to tamp down civilization so it doesn't interact with the wilderness.

  6. ... and I just realized that's a weird concept of a Druid. Must think.

  7. Very interesting!

    Actually, I’ve known people who I’d say exemplified a “Rules apply to no one, except me” attitude. They held themselves to very high standards but shrugged off almost anything from anyone else. (One guy would always pay you back to the cent if you got him a drink but steadfastly refused to be likewise compensated for a drink he bought you.)

    Perhaps when push comes to shove they do think at least some rules apply to others, but to describe their general attitude...I think it fits.

  8. Someone, maybe me one day, maybe already beeen done, needs to explore alignment from the perspective of Kantian, utilitarian and virtue ethics.
    I think there may actually be 'real virtue' in Aristotelean virtue ethics and D&D.

    You can get a taster at

    I like how the moral virtues are a mean between two vices. Great role playing opportunities.

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  10. Jovial: check out the personality traits in Dwarf Fortress. They're basically like the Aristotlian virtues, and you could easily handle them in-game like so:

    Roll % dice for Bravery.

    0-25 = Coward
    26-75 = (Normal)
    76-100 = Foolhardy

    There are about two dozen personality trait categories, but because you have a 50% chance to have no special effect you would not list those and so your character would only have a list of about 12. Such a list might look like this:


    If you tightened the upper and lower bounds, say to 15% on each end, you could get it down below 12 traits. But I think that makes for less-interesting characters.

    While this personality method is more complete than the nine alignment model, it is definitely too messy for dealing with groups of people. It may be worthwhile to say that a unit of swordmen is Lawful for example and that a tribe of Orcs is Chaotic. This usefulness is the same reason why a game with classes has value that a game based on miscellaneous skills or feats will have trouble offering.