Introduction to Alignments, Part One

Welcome to Part One of my series on the alignment system! In this installment, I will be reviewing the philosophical underpinnings of the alignment system. Once the theoretical framework is established, I will then move on to examining its limitations, and reviewing situations is which the alignment system is and is not a useful tool of analysis. Part Two will examine each specific alignment in detail, and delve into examples of each.

What is the alignment system, and what are alignments?

The alignment system is a tool for categorizing a fictional character’s moral and ethical behaviors and beliefs. Under this system, characters are assigned one of nine specific alignments according to both their moral behaviors and beliefs – that is, their tendencies towards good, evil, or neither – and their ethical dispositions, or their preferred framework for examining the problems they face and determining the best course of action. These are categorized as tendencies towards law, chaos, or neither. Since the alignment system rather obviously trades in some slippery, abstract stuff, the nine alignments are often placed on a 3×3 chart in order to help visualize how each specific alignment is constructed, and how each alignment relates to the other alignments. Take a look:

Lawful Good

Neutral Good

Chaotic Good

Lawful Neutral

Neutral (a.k.a. True Neutral)

Chaotic Neutral

Lawful Evil

Neutral Evil

Chaotic Evil

This is a standard alignment chart. In this chart, the moral categorizations are tracked along the columns, while the ethical categorizations are tracked in the rows. A single alignment, then, is formed by fusing the moral disposition and ethical disposition into a single alignment that describes both tendencies. For example, let’s imagine a fictional character that wants to make the world a better place, but believes that laws are an impediment to this goal, or is undisciplined, or otherwise chafes at rules and authority. What is this character’s alignment?

Well, we know that this character wants to make the world a better place. Actively seeking to make the world a better place is good, so this character slots in as Good on the moral axis. This disposition represents an active decision to make life better for everyone, and will only harm others in order to oppose those who seek to make life worse. By contrast, a Neutral character is a character that is primarily concerned with doing what seems best for himself/herself and his/her friends, family, or immediate community. A morally Neutral character will harm others, but typically only does so if he/she feels it is necessary for the survival of themselves and their loved ones, or for the preservation of social order, or some other similarly narrow justification. An Evil character is a character so focused on immediately selfish interests (such as money, power, hedonism, and the like) that he/she views any pain and suffering inflicted on others in pursuit of those interests as inconsequential, or considers inflicting pain and suffering to be an end in itself. This doesn’t describe our character at all, so we can confidently conclude this character is Good.

We’ve also stipulated that this character isn’t huge on rules or laws, to the point that the character is inclined to believe laws can and often do get in the way of bringing about this good, and will therefore entirely ignore laws and rules when considering how to act. This character, therefore, is considered Chaotic on the ethical axis, meaning the character’s alignment is Chaotic Good. The character believes that the best way to do what is good exists outside of established systems of order. A Neutral Good character is focused primarily on doing what is good above all else, and, unlike our stipulated character, a Neutral Good character views laws and rules as potentially useful towards advancing the cause of good, and worth considering in certain situations. An ethically Neutral character is one for whom laws and rules play a part in decision-making, but are not the primary consideration.

A Lawful Good character is a character that believes that laws and rules exist to advance the cause of good and are the best mechanism for this advancement. This is not to say that a Lawful Good character will never consider acting outside established laws and rules, however, he/she will always try to solve problems within that framework before considering other solutions, and he/she will typically continue to look for solutions that can be made to fit that framework. It is very important to note here that the framework of rules a Lawful character adheres to can come from a variety of sources. This framework can take the form of local laws, but it could also be a personal code, or the rules of a sect or order, and so on. What makes a Lawful character Lawful is the primacy given to the ethical framework, regardless of the source of that framework.

Regardless of the specific alignment, however, we now see how alignments are constructed. You determine whether a character is good, evil, or neutral based on what their stated, demonstrated, or implied moral commitments are, then you determine how that character approaches decisions of moral consequence. (You can, of course, do this in reverse order by determining the situational ethic first, followed by the moral commitments.) Put the two dispositions together and you have the character’s alignment.

At this point, you probably have all sorts of questions about the alignment system. After all, it simply doesn’t make much sense! Based on the above descriptions of the moral and ethical categorizations, you could come up with about a million questions that test the limits of each and don’t have easy answers. For example, if a character is considered Lawful if he/she has a personal code that adheres to whenever possible, and a character is considered Chaotic if he/she disregards laws and rules as a matter of principle, isn’t the Chaotic character here actually Lawful, since he/she is giving primacy to his/her code? Or for another example, if an Evil character routinely and remorselessly harms others, and takes pleasure in doing so, but also in order guarantee the safety and/or survival of his/her family and community, isn’t this character more Neutral?

Neither of those two example questions have a clean and easy answer. The alignment system is simplistic by design, and this simplicity cannot accommodate the entirety of behaviors, either in real life or in all forms of fiction. Clearly, there are limits to its applications.

In order to explore these limits, it is important to understand why the alignment system exists in the first place. The alignment system originated in Dungeons & Dragons as a mechanism for legislating the morality of the player characters, non-player characters, and monsters in the game. In its original form, the alignment system only contained the ethical axis, meaning there were only three alignments: Lawful, Neutral, and Chaotic. There was no moral axis – the driving assumption of the original system was that being Lawful entailed being good, and being Chaotic entailed being evil. Obviously, the limitations of this version of the system are even more obvious, and when the original, basic rules of Dungeons & Dragons were expanded into the 1st Edition of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons in the late 70s, the moral axis was added.

The alignment system, therefore, was created as a specific means to a specific end. It gave players a way to think about how their character would act in situations of consequence, it gave dungeon masters a way to flesh out the behaviors of friendly non-player characters and villains, and it had other consequences for the rules system that exist outside the scope of this article.

The alignment system, like all of the other rules of Dungeons & Dragons, across all editions of the game, are metaphysically rooted in the ideas of forms. The idea of philosophical forms is the idea that in order to understand what a thing really is, you must look past the physical, observable characteristics of the thing and determine its essence. That essence, or form, is the quality of the thing that is most real, as it does not change when the physical properties of the thing change.

It’s fascinating stuff, and a full discussion of the idea of forms would take forever, but suffice to say that if we view the rules of D&D as a closed metaphysical system, we see that there are many individual things that, while distinct in their own ways, can all be classified and described according to the specific parameters of those classifications. In other words, they have metaphysical forms. The alignment system, then, is the descriptor of the various forms morality takes in the game system. It is simple because it is not meant to capture the full scope of morality and behaviors, but rather to facilitate relatively easy gameplay in fictional, morally unambiguous universes.

But, since this sort of thing is fun to think about for nerds such as myself, some people have taken a liking to assigning and debating the alignments of characters from other universes and works of fiction. They may only offer minimal insight into the actual nature of morality, but alignments can be a useful way to think about characterization in certain fictional settings. Viewing the alignment system as a tool of characterization can also smooth over its inherent inconsistencies.

Take the example above, where a character’s seemingly Chaotic resistance to authority is so principled that it resembles Lawfulness. Which alignment is the character? It depends on how this trait is presented, and what aspects of it are emphasized. Such a character is potentially Lawful if he/she is shown to be highly disciplined and principled in other ways, and potentially Chaotic if he/she is presented as free-spirited or highly individualistic.

Another thing to note is that while a character’s alignment can point towards a full picture of his/her personality, it is not the sole determining factor of personality, nor does it even necessarily determine how the character will approach non-moral decisions. There are Lawful characters in the world of fiction whose lives are a mess and Chaotic characters who more or less have their shit together. In addition, characters alignments can change with time and character development. Even though a character typically has a specific alignment at any given point in the story, the alignment itself is not an immutable state.

One final thing to note about the alignments: the question of a character’s alignment is technically separate from the question of whether he/she is a protagonist or an antagonist. Yes, in a lot (the vast majority, really) of works that feature characters with describable alignments, the Good-aligned characters are the protagonists, and the Evil-aligned characters are the antagonists, but that isn’t always the case. To name but one example, consider any story in which the established good guys team up with the established bad guys to fight the even-worse guys. Morally neutral characters can be either protagonists or antagonists, and there are plenty of examples of both. We will go much more in depth about the specific characteristics of each of the nine alignments, along with sample characters representing each, in Part Two.

Now that we’ve established what the alignment system is (and is not), let’s take some time to go over what fictional universes it can and cannot be reasonably applied to. Since the origins of the alignment system are based in worlds of cut-and-dried, black-and-white morality, it is best applied only to other worlds/works of fiction that can be similarly described. Any fictional universe or work of fiction that presents its moral problems as inherently ambiguous is unsuited for character analysis via the alignment system. Any fictional universe or work of fiction in which the characters are complex and fleshed-out enough to exhibit seemingly contradictory behaviors and/or attitudes is similarly unsuited for analysis via the alignment system. It is not enough for the story (or universe) to have clearly-defined protagonists and antagonists. The natures of the conflicts themselves must be based in conflicts of unambiguous good vs. unambiguous evil. If you can’t tell whether or not it is appropriate to ascribe alignments a work’s characters, it’s probably not, even if certain alignments seem to accurately describe some individual characters.

Here are some examples of universes and fictional works in which the characters can be sensibly described using the alignment system:

Middle Earth/The Lord of the Rings: Makes sense, right? The tropes of Middle Earth were very much in mind during the initial development of Dungeons & Dragons, and they remain very keenly felt in the game to this day. In The Lord of the Rings, the forces and allies of Mordor are all evil without exception, and the Fellowship and its allies are all good without exception, even though some have more character flaws than others. The bad guys fight to gain power, dominion, and riches for themselves, and the good guys fight to stop the bad guys, and anyone who is indifferent to this larger struggle doesn’t factor into the story very much.

Star Wars: The eternal, unambiguous, and relatively simple conflict of the Light Side of the Force vs. The Dark Side of the Force frames just about every aspect of the Star Wars universe; the Rebel Alliance/Resistance vs. Galactic Empire/First Order conflict is very nakedly a mundane proxy war for this metaphysical conflict within the Force. As such, every consequential character in that universe can be described relative to that conflict. Whole entire character arcs can be described as journeys through the alignments, as each character’s engagement (willing or not) with the struggle of Light Side vs. Dark Side shapes the essence of who they are. We’ll discuss this in much more detail in Part Two, as Star Wars is a goldmine of alignment analysis.

-Professional Wrestling: If anything, you could argue that the nine-point alignment system is too complex to describe professional wrestling. After all, pro wrestling has its own, long-established two-point alignment system that predates any version of the D&D alignment system by several decades. There are faces and there are heels, so any further division of those groups would seem to be an act of hair-splitting. But it’s fun hair-splitting, and furthermore, the nuances each performer puts into their character and his/her motivations make up a lot of what makes good wrestling tick. Most angles in which the faces work together because they’re faces and the heels work together because they’re heels tend to suck, for this very reason. Granted, there aren’t a lot of morally Neutral characters in wrestling these days, although I would argue that the “Shades of Grey” of the Attitude Era usually just meant the faces were Neutral instead of Good.

Here are some examples of universes and fictional works in which the characters cannot be sensibly described using the alignment system:

Game of Thrones/A Song of Ice and Fire: It may be hard to remember this after experiencing the dispiritingly dumbed-down final two seasons of the show, but creating moral ambiguity and getting the reader/viewer to sympathize with characters that are in direct opposition to each other was and is one of the main goals of both Game of Thrones the TV show and A Song of Ice and Fire the book series. This is especially true in the books, where every chapter is written from the perspective of a different character. From the very beginning, we are immersed in the inner lives and thoughts of a bunch of people who just can’t seem to get along. The further you get in the book series, the more apparent this becomes, as even characters who had acted like obvious villains start to get their own chapters, bringing you closer to understanding. (The first time I saw a chapter heading of “Jaime”, I nearly spit out my drink.) Characters who are mostly presented sympathetically get up to some pretty questionable shit at times. Yeah, the Night King and White Walkers are pretty much straight-up evil, but so what? It takes more than a complete monster here and there for alignments to make sense for everybody, and this series defies alignment analysis by design.

Star Trek: Even though the conflicts of Star Trek almost all conflicts of protagonists vs. antagonists, characters on Star Trek simply cannot be described effectively in terms of good and evil. Almost everyone in the Star Trek universe is acting according to their orders, or behaving within their cultural mores, or otherwise acting in a way that is clearly presented as the character doing what he/she feels is best, or at very least the way that character is accustomed to. Even when races that seem evil without exception are introduced, exceptions are introduced shortly thereafter, if not in the very same episode. The conflicts themselves, even conflicts of protagonist vs. antagonist, are rarely framed as conflicts of good and evil. Star Trek in all of its incarnations upholds understanding others, and finding peace and compromise when understanding is impossible or impractical, as its ideal. This means that you get a whole lot of noble, sympathetic villains and a ton of complete pieces of shit with good intentions. Hell, the Star Trek universe even accommodated an entire seven-season series devoted to subverting its previously established parameters of morality, and it did a bang-up job. (No, seriously, The Problem Is Earth.) All of this is to say even when you can describe the characters of Star Trek using alignments, you’re missing the point in doing so.

Real Life: I’ve been making it as clear as I possibly can that alignments are only ever intended to be used to describe fictional characters, but alas, every so often I’ll see some asshole on the internet try and describe real people with alignments. Look, I get it. You have a fun new toy of analysis that you want to play with, and what could be so wrong about applying it in the service of being as judgmental as possible? Listen, man. Real life is about a hell of a lot more than a story of good vs. evil. You think you’re the protagonist of your own story? So does everyone else. It doesn’t mean a damn thing. The alignment system is a tool for describing certain fiction characters. It is not a series of cubby holes for you to stuff other human beings, each with their own rich and complex lives and psychologies, into. Don’t do it.

That’s all for Part One of my series on alignments! Join me on Friday for Part Two, as we examine each of the nine alignments in detail. We’ll go over what each alignment looks like in practice both by describing the behavioral particulars, and also reviewing multiple examples of each one. It’ll be great fun! See you then!

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