Sep 082011

As I taught a college level Ethics course for a local university I began to think about the interactions and relationships between the major ethical theories/viewpoints and the alignment systems of the role-playing games we all enjoy.  I like alignment systems, they help define a character.  However, these systems can be found to be lacking as is evidenced by the number of arguments generated between players and game masters concerning a character’s actions.  These debates can be great.  Anyone who knows me knows that I love a good argument.  But often such “alignment debates” degenerate into shouting matches without any resolution (other than the GM saying “do that and I’ll kill your character”).

Therefore I am sharing with you a very brief introduction to the major ethical theories.  Consider this a supplement to the alignment systems.  Once you understand the theories, I’d like you to try and see if and how they apply to your characters.  You could even reflect it on your character
sheet.  For example, in D&D it could read: “Alignment: Lawful Good (Utilitarian),” or “Alignment: Chaotic Neutral (Relativist).”

Each of the following ethical theories attempts to define that which is “good” by creating a philosophical/ethical system that can be applied to various situations.  To complicate matters further, one can mix all of this with any number of religious views.  In fact, many have grow out of, or in reaction to, a particular religious viewpoint.  Nonetheless, I hope that the following helps inform your character generation process, giving you a
deeper background, and informing your choices at the gaming table.

Natural Law

Originally formulated by the ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle, and later expanded by the Catholic monk and theologian Thomas Aquinas, Natural Law is the major ethical theory/viewpoint behind much Christian thought, though other faiths (and atheism) have found it useful.

Natural Law Theory’s central tenet states that the natural order of the universe can be understood by reason, and by understanding that natural order we humans can discern what is good.  That is God (or the gods, or random chance) created the universe and everything in it, and did so for a purpose, and by fulfilling its purpose something can be declared as “good.”  Conversely, denying something the ability to fulfill its purpose is “bad.”

Let’s look at a hypothetical situation to see how it works.  Pretend that you are a world-class surgeon on a backpacking trip through the mountains.  You come over a hill and see a plane crash.  There are ten victims on the ground.  Two are unconscious but uninjured; the other
eight are dying due to various injuries.  It just so happens that the two healthy-but-unconscious people have all the organs needed to save the other eight, but doing so will kill them.  As a surgeon, what should you do?  Should you use the organs of the two healthy-but-unconscious people to save the other eight, thus killing the first two in the process?  Although you might be tempted to transplant the organs, sacrificing the two to save the other eight, Natural Law Theory does not allow this.  For doing so would nullify the lives of the two healthy-but-unconscious persons.  Their lives matter.  Killing a person, no matter what noble end may be claimed, is in itself wrong.  People are ends in themselves and can never be treated as a means to another end.

A second tenet of Natural Law Theory is called the Law of Unintended Consequences.  It states that the eventual consequences of an event are not relevant to the issue at hand.  One must ask whether the action in and of itself is good or bad.

Natural Law Theory uses the following principles to determine whether a particular act is “good” or “bad.”

  1. The action itself must be morally good (or at least morally neutral).
  2. The bad effect must not be used to produce the good effect.
  3. The intention must always be to bring about the good effect.
  4. The good effect must be at least as important as the bad effect.

Looking back at our example of the plane crash we can see how these principles work.  First, killing the two healthy-but-unconscious people is a bad act in itself, for terminating the life of a person prevents that person from achieving his/her purpose.  Second, you cannot use the bad effect (here the intentional sacrifice of the two) to bring about the good effect (saving the other eight).  The third principle, “good intentions,” doesn’t help us much as saving lives (whether two persons or eight) is a good thing.  Finally, sacrificing the two could be seen as better than allowing the other eight to die.  Although criteria #4 could be met, 1 & 2 are not.  Therefore, intentionally sacrificing the lives of the two healthy-but-unconscious people to use their organs to save the other eight who need them would be “bad.”

Finally, the Natural Law Theory believes that there is one ultimate truth and that truth can be discovered through reason and logic.  The trick, as seen by the example above, is determining what the God-given purpose is of an object or event.


Kant’s Categorical Imperative

This theory is similar to Natural Law in that it looks at the action itself, rather than the consequences, to determine if the action is good or bad.  Emmanuel Kant was a German philosopher who wanted a universal rule to determine good/bad without religious influence.  Kant had one simple rule to determine this.  Kant said, “Act only on that maxim through which you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law.”  That is, if you can say the act is something everyone ought to do in the same situation, then it is good; if not, then it is bad.

For example, let’s say you’re running late for “a very important date.”  To make up time you have the desire to exceed the speed limit.  So try and make it a maxim: “Everyone who is running late for something important should speed.”  If you can say that should be true for everyone, then it is good.  However, if you don’t want everyone to exceed the speed limit just because they’re running late, then it is “bad” for you to do so as well.  According to Kant, you can’t make exceptions, especially for yourself.



In direct opposition to Kant are the ethical theories of Egoism.  These look not at the act itself, but at the consequences of the act.  Egoism begins with the presupposition that all people are basically selfish – and rather than fight against this impulse, we should embrace it.  This is an individualistic ethical theory which essentially states, “To thine own self be true.”  That is, if it’s good for you, then do it.  Good here is defined by “happiness.”  Do whatever makes you happy.



Utilitarianism shares much with Egoism.  It defines good by “happiness.”  And therefore is more concerned with the consequences of an action rather than the act itself.  The difference here is that Utilitarianism is less individualistic and more about the group.  The central tenet of Utilitarianism is, “The right thing to do is that which is most likely to produce the greatest good for the greatest number of people.”  Or stated another way, “The right action is the one that directly produces the best balance of happiness over unhappiness for all concerned.”

Let’s look back at our plane crash scenario to see this ethical theory at work.  Utilitarianism says, “the greatest good for the greatest number.”  Therefore, if you are a world-class surgeon who happens upon a plane crash, it would be “good” for you to sacrifice the two healthy-but-unconscious people to save the other eight.  It is good because the value of eight people’s lives outweighs the value of two.

In each ethical situation, Utilitarianism sets up a sort of set of “cosmic scales of justice” and weighs the debated actions.  Whichever one carries the most weight (i.e. produces the most good/happiness for the greatest number of people) is determined the “good” (or at least the preferred) action.


Relativism is a buzz-word in our culture today.  As an ethical theory however it can be defined as two sub-types.

First is Cultural Relativism, best expressed in the saying, “When in Rome, do as the Romans do.”  That is, one culture cannot judge the actions of another culture as right or wrong, “good” or “bad.”  Actions must be looked at from within that particular culture.  If one culture condemns polygamy, then polygamy is “bad” in that culture.  If another culture promotes polygamy, then polygamy is “good” within that culture.  Here too there is not ultimate, universal truth, just those defined by one’s culture.

The second sub-type is Individual Relativism which says, “To each his own.”  Here, there is no ultimate truth either; instead truth is defined by and for each individual.  Some see this viewpoint leading to complete anarchy in society.

Applying this to our plane crash scenario, all that can be said is that if you are a Cultural Relativist, then you should follow the dictates of your culture.  If your culture says the eight are more valuable than the two, then you should sacrifice the two to save the eight.  If your culture says that intentional killing is wrong, then you should not sacrifice the two to save the eight.  As an Individual Relativist, then do whatever you want – sacrifice the two to save the eight, just help the two, walk away and ignore it all, cut out your own organs, etc. – as you have created your own ethical code by which to live.



I hope that you find this useful and informative in fleshing out your characters and their alignment, giving you better direction in determining not only the actions they take, but also the reasons why they would take them.  In my next articles I will attempt to apply the theories to the particular alignment systems of games with which I am familiar – particularly Palladium and D&D/Pathfinder.

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