The Hows and Whys of Choice
Choice is an extremely important element of morality and ethics. How the Lawful Good character approaches the quandaries of each dilemma, then, becomes an important part of how such a character conducts himself. A strict interpretation of the alignment holds that by being Lawful, a character will never willingly violate a law. But are such people able to choose whose laws to follow? Why are they allowed such leeway, if at all? It’s an important question with no clear-cut answer, as this section will illustrate.
Here’s the premise: a Lawful Good character is born and raised in a culture where the enslavement and torture of nonhumans is not only the accepted practice, but also failing to do so when such creatures get out of hand is construed as treasonous. A lot of questions beg to be answered, not least of which is how would a Lawful Good individual know any different.
So, how can a person of this alignment exist in such a society? It seems a position that’s tenuous at best. If he was holding to the alignment as it is usually interpreted, it doesn’t seem as if this is possible without some sort of deception on the character’s part. The two likely options that spring to mind are either keeping a low profile or hiding one’s beliefs. Keeping a low profile would include the need to remain quiet, which means the character must turn a blind eye to the acts of others, which is essentially being complicit with the acts. Lawful Good people would have to hide their views to avoid persecution. This would also include deception in the form of denial. As a dishonest practice, something seems off with a strict interpretation of the alignment in such a culture.
Now, it is easy for us to view such a place as being anything but good. Perhaps it is difficult because the only sentient species on Earth capable of propagating any evil against humanity is ourselves. If any human can be the victim of torture, then the possibility (no matter how remote) exists that it could happen to you. Consciously or otherwise, it’s a thought that terrifies us. Science fiction and fantasy can reframe the debate by adding other species to the equation. One can see a level of cruelty in Robert Heinlein’s The Puppet Masters. Humanity has to take a drastic step of eschewing clothing and accessories of all types to prevent the insidious aliens from taking over the planet via symbiotic enslavement. The only way to save the human race is to shed any notions of decency that informed the past. In Alien, Ripley jettisons her inhuman opponent out of an airlock. The orcs in Tolkein’s Lord of the Rings are also treated without mercy.
Before condemning this theoretically society, we should consider what could possibly lead to such draconian rules against nonhuman entities. The history of the society is important in making the determination for whether the situation in question is what it seems to be on the surface. Consider the possibility that a war for survival was waged some time in the past where the only solution that preserved the species on all sides of the war was complete domination of one group over another. Those who lost were hell bent on annihilating the humans. Given their general tenets, the powers that be decided to enact harsh measures near the war’s end when it became clear that no other solution would suffice. The Americans’ decision to drop atomic weapons on Japan was rationalized in a similar manner, minus any enslavement as in the society under examination. What sounds less distasteful, having to drive an opponent into extinction, or saving their progeny even if it means harsh treatment?
The above scenario presents a damning position for anyone forced to take it. For someone born after the fact and taught about the terrible price paid to make the decision and the two choices presented, this doesn’t sound as heinous as it could be. Knowing the choices and seeing the resultant peace doesn’t strike one as being necessarily evil. If the churches of the Lawful Good persuasion also support the government’s position, then it is even harder for a character to deny the oppression of another species. Either the gods agree with the treatment, or something ghastly is going on. Or, perhaps the individual of the Lawful Good alignment in the society is ignorant. In either case, there is a history that backs up a morally and ethically justified position that looks gruesome to anyone looking in from the outside.
Let’s change the scenario a bit. Say there is a state religion where the truth of the teachings is hidden behind a code that appeals to a Lawful Good sense of propriety. All other faiths would likely be outlawed in order to bolster state power. As such, the conditions within the nation’s borders would be reinforced and glorified by the churches granted official status. A Lawful Evil deity could fill the role by masquerading as a militant figure. The harshness of his teachings and promotion of obedience to his teachings as the pathways to the greatest good would make an excellent cover for the continued treatment of nonhumans as necessary so that they, too, can achieve paradise.
What happens if the Lawful Good person discovers he has been lied to and that everything he’s been taught is a violation of his ethos? The character would be in a bind. Obviously, the Lawful Evil deity would no longer be suitable for worship. Issues on how to survive without openly breaking the laws and violating his beliefs have to be resolved. Would the character pay lip service to the official deity will illegally worshipping someone more appropriate? Does church law supersede state law? Would such a person risk such a threat to personal safety treasonous actions impose when it is easier to just follow social dictates? Is there justification for a national good rather than a universal one? The answers may be as unappealing as the questions.
Let’s return to the Lilliputian leaders called upon in the previous section. Again, the two sides were concerned with the preservation of their cultures. From our vantage point, the reasons appear quite childish. But how does one suppose they felt? The cultural aspect stems as much from the geographical as it does preference. As such, we see it as national pride that fuels the argument. To accept the claim of the other nation as legitimate would be an admittance to its right to exist, and due to its own nationalistic feelings, belittles the embittered acceptor. This is true even if it is a subconscious affair for the view engaged in such a long-term rivalry.
In a government with multiple political parties, each can work for similar ends by approaching issues from different philosophies. Things get murkier, however. The charter that delineates the governmental power may be the basis of authority, but it doesn’t necessarily describe how to perform and execute the duties of office. The lack of guidance on how to govern beyond the procedures and limits on power create obstacles in the form of philosophical roadblocks where rhetorical detritus litters the road to a nation’s future. The choices may strike a political opponent as nationalistically destructive, but it’s a strategy evolved to enact what is believed to be the best way to achieve national goals. Like previous examples, it is the choice and reasoning behind it that colors one’s view of the other.
Religions are no stranger to sectarianism. Monotheistic faiths are not monolithic. Judaism, Christianity, and Islam all have sects; so too Buddhism. If the real world works this way, wouldn’t various chapters of a deity also have discrete doctrinal differences? Add to this the heroes of a church or sect. What if the hero was also a patriot? Who selects which figures are enshrined as heroes? If the faith is the state religion, chances are pretty good that national heroes will be portrayed as icons embodying the faith’s (and nation’s) highest tenets, such as Romulus as the founder of Rome. If our own real-world religions have saints and martyrs who struggled with the question of choice, why shouldn’t the faiths in your own campaign have the same?
You should think about how the people of your campaign world come to their decisions and why they act the way they do. After all, it is the basis for their Lawful Good tenets. Somewhere, a choice and its justification were made, and they continue to be made with each successive situation and/or generation.