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D&D General Some thoughts on Moral Philosophies in D&D

Steampunkette

Shaper of Worlds
AUTHOR'S NOTE: This topic is about the moral philosophies of heroic characters in a fantasy world. Not considerations and reflections on Fantastical Theology. It is meant to highlight the myriad ways that we, as players and storytellers, tap into moral philosophy to construct characters, situations, and stories, and help us to recognize these motivations in our characters and the characters of others to better understand the characters themselves.

If you wanna talk D&D Theology, feel free to make your own thread about it! I'll happily talk about it, there!

I feel like being a titanic nerd, so I wanna write about Philosophy in D&D. From moral philosophy to the power of naming things, to existentialism in the context of D&D. Bear with me, this is going to be wordy and likely unfocused due to the squirmy nature of philosophical discourse where thoughts often crash into each other and leave eddies of consideration.

Deontology
Deontology is very prominent in the moral considerations of D&D as a form of moral philosophy. It's not really something people consider when they make themselves into a heroic character in a work of fiction, however. They simply make a heroic character because they wish to be heroic. But what D&D considers to be "Good" is largely Altruistic, which fits flawlessly into the core of deontological consideration.

That is to say, Goodness because it is Good to be Good. That Virtue is it's own Reward. That we owe to each other, and to the society in which we live, service. And we should not do Bad things explicitly because they are bad and doing them would therefore be bad. It's a very simple black and white worldview, where shades of grey are dissected and made simply black or white. Killing is bad, except killing bad people to save good people, for example.

This sort of moral philosophy in D&D realms is generally backed up by Gods and Fundamental Forces of "Good" or "Evil". This concept is reinforced by "Holy" and "Unholy" effects, damage types, and similar ideals. Take 3e, for example, and it's "Positive" and "Negative" energy types and planes. Having a Positive Energy Plane absolutely grounded the idea that Goodness itself, whether culturally identified with, was a fully realized material investment of reality. And similarly, Negative Energy or "Badness" was the source which powered Evil. Or, more specifically, Undead. Which were directly classified as "Evil" as was their creation.

However.

Deontology, like most philosophies taken to absolutes, becomes clearly false when it runs into Rogues, Bards, and other heroic figures who do not follow Kant's moral imperative that under deontology an evil action is always an evil action. A Good Rogue will happily lie to a soldier's face in order to ensure the safety of a friend, or one whose cause the Rogue identifies with.

Therefore, it's most likely that we can discard Deontology as the absolute moral identity of Adventurers, more or less. Certainly there are some pretty Kantian Paladins out there in the various worlds we hold so dear! But I think we can all agree that deontological structure helps to shape and create our heroic characters in D&D as, if nothing else, a significant moral consideration. Unless they fit into another category presented below, it's generally best to assume your players are going to play deontological characters, within reason.


Consequentialism
Consequentialism refers to a moral philosophy wherein the outcome determines the moral value of an action. Killing, for example, is justified by the result of the person's death, exclusively. Killing a Baby is essentially unthinkable, but killing Baby Hitler is a truly noble act. Similarly, sacrificing a person to a Deity, Dragon, or Volcano might be considered morally "Good" so long as that person's death buys everyone else's survival/safety.

Very few D&D heroes are absolute Consequentialists. They tend to hold a few consequentialist ideals that they synthesize with their deontological bents to create their core moral philosophy. This is, more or less, normal human behavior. Consequentialism can be broken into two categories. Utilitarianism and Hedonism. Though most people refer to Hedonism as just an aspect of Utilitarianism it's mostly to avoid the social expectations and stigma tied to the word itself.


Utilitarianism
Another aspect of D&D characters is often their connection to Utilitarianism. The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few. While self-sacrifice could largely be attributed to a function of deontology, Utilitarian characters are willing to sacrifice others for what they personally consider to be the "Greater Good". Utilitarianism shines, in particular, when discussing the dreaded Trolley Problem, which we won't be discussing, here!

Instead, I'd like to point to an allegorical "Trolley Problem" that I would hazard most players have had to deal with: The heartrending choice. Due to a time constraint, the players must choose between saving a companion, family member, flaming orphanage, cursed trio, or other group of relative innocents -or- capture the villain who is attempting to get away, or otherwise create a further horror nearby.

Most characters whose moral identity is shaped by Utilitarianism will choose the greater good, based on their current situation. For most deontologically directed characters that means saving the helpless or endangered, while a Utilitarian character will instead chase down the villain in an attempt to stop him from enacting even greater evils, sacrificing those who are in danger, now, to save a theoretically infinite amount of other people.

Identifying a Utilitarian Character at your table can save you a good deal of trouble by letting you control the flow of the story. Since if you don't wish for there to be intraparty fighting and/or a splitting of the party, you should never give the Utilitarian and the Deontologist players the heartrending choice.

Utilitarian Villains are interesting and engaging for most players for the same reasons. By giving your villain a moral philosophy wherein any action can be justified by the result of that action, Ends justify the Means, you can create a character who is sympathetic in their goals but not their methods. At least until they -say- that the ends justify the means or someone else points it out and everyone realizes that they're more likely a delusional villain than a conflicted heroic figure.


Hedonism
Tied up with Utilitarianism (Okay, I promise not to joke too much, here, folks), Hedonism is a form of consequentialism which is focused explicitly on the creation or maintenance of happiness and pleasure, and avoiding pain.

A Hedonistic Consequentialist faced with the same problem of the Villain and the Orphanage will put out the fire, 9 times out of 10, because the suffering of the children, and those who must deal with the consequences of the fire, is more immediately evident and relevant than the villain's next wickedness. They may choose to sacrifice someone they care about, however, by weighing their pain against the greater pain of the villain's future acts with a clearer head.

Hedonists typically wear their hearts on their sleeves. And contrary to the implications of their name, are just as likely to focus on being a pain sponge as a happiness pump. A great example of hedonists in a campaign setting are the followers of Ilmater in the Forgotten Realms. They try to minimize the suffering in the world and hope to take that suffering onto themselves so other people need not experience it.

If you have a player at your table who doesn't refer to their character as a priest, a cleric, a druid, a bard, or a paladin and instead calls them a "Healer"... you've likely got a Hedonist at your table, or at least in your game, and may now have a much stronger understanding of how to motivate their character going forward!


Role Morality
This one isn't super common, but I feel like it deserves a special shoutout.

Role Morality is the idea that when we take on certain roles we apply a different core morality in those roles than we would in our day to day lives. A given person might be caring, tender, and kind. But as a Claims Adjuster for an Insurance company, may seem to "Turn Off" their morality in order to intentionally minimize the cost of a given claim for their company even knowing that the person they're working on the claim of is going to be harmed, directly, by their actions. Oftentimes to a ridiculous degree.

Their empathy for the other person goes from being quite high to being negligible because their role at the company requires them to deal in dollars and cents rather than lost lives and debilitating injuries.

It can be fun to play with role morality at a game table, particularly when one character has a reason, or at least interest, to work at odds with other members of the party. For example a Thieves Guild member might be placed into the party as a spy. By having the role change in a given scene, you can create some truly heartwrenching moments. Particularly if redemption via incrementalism is a part of the story...


Incrementalism
Something I imagine is never discussed in explicit terms but often heard around a gaming table is Incrementalism. Essentially the "Slippery Slope" of small bad deeds leading to a character's inevitable and uncontrollable slide toward complete and unrepentant evil. In reality, Incrementalism refers to committing the same small indiscretion repeatedly and with growing disregard, rather than working toward a complete bankruptcy of ethical considerations. As an example:

Bank Fraud. Let's say you work for a bank. And you notice that if you fudge your numbers slightly every once in a while that no one seems to notice and you get away with it. A Person who finds themself with the willingness to do this and the opportunity may decide to fudge slightly more, or the same amount more often, so long as no negative repercussions are apparent. And, over time, the embezzlement grows in both volume and frequency. This is largely because the human mind has trouble recognizing small increases as a cascading effect of growth.to save themselves time and effort, or a tiny gain that they hardly consider to -be- a gain, and then cutting progressively larger corners as they go.


Nearly every example of accounting embezzlement starts out this way. An accountant rounds numbers down for a cleaner look in their spreadsheets and reports and the lost value, practically nothing compared to the large values being moved, slips through the cracks.

In D&D, and indeed heroic fiction in general, there is also a tendency to enact 'reverse incrementalism' as a form of Redemption. The wicked man is shown the righteous path and slowly takes to it by the hero's example.

Subjective Morality
This is a rough one. Subjective Morality seeks to undermine Deontology, Consequentialism, Virtue Ethics, and all other moral systems by creating a relativistic approach. Which is to say: A Deontological Society is only good in the context of their own ideals, and would be considered Evil by the standpoint of another social group with an inverse position on what is or isn't "Good" and "Evil".

Which is... true..? But also utterly bat-smackingly irrelevant at the gaming table.

Yes, if you had a society where Eating Babies was considered the height of "Goodness" a society which explicitly does not eat babies would be considered vile for refusing to consume the tender flesh of the innocent. But such a society almost -never- exists, so why are we even discussing it? We're discussing it because the Moral Relativist at your table (or any table) is trying to undermine the core moral philosophy of the party for their own amusement.

Players who dive into this particular end of the pool of moral relativism are almost always going to be iconoclastic disruptors. They'll tell you their character is Neutral Good, or even Lawful Good, and then roleplay the most chaotic neutral, or evil, piece of garbage you've ever seen while explaining that their particular culture or character is acting perfectly within their alignment based on what their background is.

This is the person who says "It's what my character would do!" right before burning down the orphanage and fleeing the scene while the other players try to put out the fire except the Utilitarian who is running after the Subjective Moralist.

That isn't to say that Moral Relativism as a sociological philosophical understanding is inherently wrong. Examining the colonialist assumption of automatic moral superiority to other cultures is a very important and powerful tool. But that's not likely how you're going to see it used at your table.


Virtue Ethics
Thank you to @Eric V for reminding me to come back and do Virtue Ethics. As noted at the start, it was an eddy of consideration I left aside without thinking. My apologies!

So. If Deontology can be thought of adherence to the Rules irrespective of the Results. And Consequentialism can be thought of the Results irrespective of the actions that brought them about, Virtue Ethics is about the Virtue of doing the thing in the first place.

For example, let's say that it is good to help people. A Utilitarian will reason that is good to help people because it improves the world in some way. The Deontologist will say that you would wish to be helped in the same situation and so have a moral imperative to help. While the Virtue Ethicist holds that it is Charitable and Kind to offer aid.

Rather than a strict structure of rules or a central tenet toward maximum happiness/good, the Virtue Ethicist holds a series of ideas as the core of their morality. Kindness, Empathy, Charitable Activities, Honesty, and Courage are all examples of Virtues that an Ethicist may hold close to their heart to guide their actions. And the counter to the virtues cruelty, disaffection, greed, deception, and cowardice are avoided. Both in themselves and in the people they associate with.

If Deontologists are Lawful Good and Consequentialists are Chaotic Good, then Virtue Ethicists would be the Neutral Good heroes of most settings... but it's a bit more complex. At your table a Virtue Ethicist is most likely to do the right thing for the right reasons, and condemn those who do not. A Utilitarian isn't likely to cast blame and aspersions toward someone who doesn't live up to their ideals. A Deontologist is liable to express annoyance or incredulity. But a Virtue Ethicist will look on those who act counter to virtue as people who have committed an affront.


Synergy of Ideals
Most people do not hold themselves to be Consequentialists, even if they hold hedonistic or utilitarian ideals for some specific aspects of life. Nor do most people consider themselves to be Deontologists, even if they feel bound to the structure of the society they are in. And while many people idolize Virtues in themselves and others, they don't consider themselves bound to the pedestal they place those ideals upon.

In truth, most heroes take small portions of each of these moral philosophies to build themselves an identity.

They adventure out of a need to fulfill their virtues, to serve society, and to affect the greatest good in their world. And they generally do so to different degrees. While the impetus to adventure is likely in their background, a dead parent or perhaps a missing mentor, those sort of notes get the character out of the door and onto the Hero's Journey.

But it is their philosophy that keeps them moving forward.
 
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Steampunkette

Shaper of Worlds
Nietzsche
God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him. Probably because Ward and Kuntz should've given God more hit points in Deities and Demigods.
It's okay! I've got a campaign arc about resurrecting him all written up. We'll fix it in no time!

More seriously: Nietzsche's moral philosophy could best be described as a form of "Perfect Consequentialism" tied to personal advancement to a higher state of self-sufficiency and control.
 


Deontology, like most philosophies taken to absolutes, becomes clearly false when it runs into Rogues, Bards, and other heroic figures who do not follow Kant's moral imperative that under deontology an evil action is always an evil action. A Good Rogue will happily lie to a soldier's face in order to ensure the safety of a friend, or one whose cause the Rogue identifies with.
I think the issue here is complicated because you're assuming that lying is regarded as an inherently an Evil act. I would suggest that, even before we get to consequentialism and so on, that is not something most people in Western societies would agree with. Philosophers with some really silly attitudes may well have felt that it was (don't even get me started on Kant) but that's not like, how people think of it.

I would generally agree that there's a mix of Deontology and Consequentialism powering most D&D morality but I think if the only claim you can make to dismiss absolute Deontology is "lying is Evil therefore..." then I think we have to go back and say "Maybe the only problem here is the idea that lying is inherently evil...".
 


Steampunkette

Shaper of Worlds
I think the issue here is complicated because you're assuming that lying is regarded as an inherently an Evil act. I would suggest that, even before we get to consequentialism and so on, that is not something most people in Western societies would agree with. Philosophers with some really silly attitudes may well have felt that it was (don't even get me started on Kant) but that's not like, how people think of it.

I would generally agree that there's a mix of Deontology and Consequentialism powering most D&D morality but I think if the only claim you can make to dismiss absolute Deontology is "lying is Evil therefore..." then I think we have to go back and say "Maybe the only problem here is the idea that lying is inherently evil...".
Oh, certainly so. It's why I made a specific comment about absolutism in deontology and a reference to Kantian Paladins!

But it's also why I made an explicit mention of killing being bad, but killing a bad person to save people being good.

Deontology works just fine so long as a given society creates enough loopholes or structures for loopholes in moral absolutes or maxims like "Lying is always wrong". But if you have an absolutist deontologist at your table (The Kantian Paladin) you're in for a rough ride.

You could certainly make an interesting D&D campaign from the core concept of "The Good Place".

The PCs have died and gone to their afterlife. However, not all is as it seems...
You're absolutely right!

There's also plenty of other philosophical concepts flying around the D&D table that I didn't touch on. Like Nihilistic player characters, or Existentialists and Existential Challenges which are -fairly- common! Just wanted to hit the highlights for the first pass.
 


Steampunkette

Shaper of Worlds
Most D&D parties are a combination of Murderologists and Hobotarians.
Honestly, outside a couple of Adventurer's League tables, I haven't found that to be the case.

I think that maybe the Murderhobo is more of a Flanderization of specific traits common across a fairly large number of players being inflated to the exclusion of all other traits.

Specifically the tendency to loot first and ask questions later, and to kill potential allied NPCs thinking they're actually enemies.
 

Democratus

Adventurer
Morality in D&D will depend heavily on the nature of the world in which the game is set.

Are good/evil absolute? Are they elemental forces? Does everyone know for sure that there are gods and an afterlife?

A great deal of real-world philosophy and religion stem from the lack of certainty regarding these issues. When the nature of the universe is absolutely known - the impact on culture, belief, and morality would be incalculable. Maybe to the point that trying to use our philosophical patterns is entirely useless.
 


Marc_C

Solitary Role Playing
You could certainly make an interesting D&D campaign from the core concept of "The Good Place".

The PCs have died and gone to their afterlife. However, not all is as it seems...
It exists. D&D Ghostwalk:
Sean Reynolds explained where the idea came from, to make it possible to play a dead PC as a ghost: "I think it was just a matter of Monte and me understanding that one of the least fun parts of the game is when a character dies. Not only is there a feeling of loss regarding the character, but also the player doesn't have anything to do until a new character can be brought in. We thought a campaign where a character's death wouldn't be the end of play for that character or player would be a neat twist on standard D&D."[1]
 

Steampunkette

Shaper of Worlds
Morality in D&D will depend heavily on the nature of the world in which the game is set.

Are good/evil absolute? Are they elemental forces? Does everyone know for sure that there are gods and an afterlife?

A great deal of real-world philosophy and religion stem from the lack of certainty regarding these issues. When the nature of the universe is absolutely known - the impact on culture, belief, and morality would be incalculable. Maybe to the point that trying to use our philosophical patterns is entirely useless.
I'm not so certain... For the sake of argument let's create a game world with Absolute Certainty.

It is known that there is a Creator Deity named Phaedra. She is Queen of the concept of Civilization.

She hands down a specific set of laws that are the basis of all morality, with every possible person's various actions and their moral values weighted.

If you follow her rules for a perfect society you are a good person and will attain a perfect reward. If you trespass on her rules you will be eternally punished.

Knowing, with absolute certainty, the laws of moral society and the punishments for transgression, most people would still be Deontologists. They would do what is right because it is right and it is good to do them. They'd have a slightly different philosophical foundation (There is -absolutely- a Creator Deity who will drop you into eternal torment or bliss depending on whether you follow her word) but the resulting moral philosophy is the same.

Kant, for example, grew up in a fairly strict religious society. And while his secular reasoning and philosophical identity was important, his ideals largely flowed from a place informed by that theological structure.

No mention of Virtue Ethics?
I did -intend- to do a bit on Virtue Ethics, yes. But somehow my brain didn't quite flow there. I'll quickly fix that. Give me a few minutes, then do a refresh and we'll talk about the synthesization of Deontology and Consequentialism that I obliquely mentioned.
 

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Nietzsche said the Übermensch or superior man had got his own ethical code, and all those moral values about solidarity and mercy was the ethical of the slaves. In my opinion those fine words are describing a perfect psycopath. I would bet most of villains from the speculative fiction would agree with Nietzsche. One of the best examples could be prince Joffrey Baratheon (from Game of Thrones) with a crossbow, or Ramsay Bolton and his "wives".

If morality was relative, and we couldn't report slavery in the ancient times, or the honor-muders against members of the own family to hide a scandal. Batman could torture terrorist to get information. If we accept the good guys can't go beyond certain limits, then we are accepting an eternal and immutable universal ethic, the Natural Law, and one of its moral principles is the respect for the human dignity, the core of our rights as citizens, as people.
 

Snarf Zagyg

Notorious Liquefactionist
Most D&D parties are a combination of Murderologists and Hobotarians.

It does make the trolley problem much easier!

...or does it?

There is a runaway trolley barreling down the railway tracks. Ahead, on the tracks, there are five people tied up and unable to move. The trolley is headed straight for them. You are standing some distance off in the train yard, next to a lever. If you pull this lever, the trolley will switch to a different set of tracks. However, you notice that there is one person on the side track. You have two options:

  1. Do nothing and allow the trolley to kill the five people on the main track.
  2. Pull the lever, diverting the trolley onto the side track where it will kill one person.
Which is the more ethical option? Or, more simply: What is the right thing to do?

Olaf the Stout: I will do nothing, as killing five is five times the XP!

Fizzbin the Magnificent: Wait, Olaf! Perhaps we only get that sweet, sweet XP from intentional acts?

Olaf the Stout: That is true! I pull the lever, for that sweet, sweet XP!
 


Ixal

Adventurer
It does make the trolley problem much easier!

...or does it?

There is a runaway trolley barreling down the railway tracks. Ahead, on the tracks, there are five people tied up and unable to move. The trolley is headed straight for them. You are standing some distance off in the train yard, next to a lever. If you pull this lever, the trolley will switch to a different set of tracks. However, you notice that there is one person on the side track. You have two options:

  1. Do nothing and allow the trolley to kill the five people on the main track.
  2. Pull the lever, diverting the trolley onto the side track where it will kill one person.
Which is the more ethical option? Or, more simply: What is the right thing to do?

Olaf the Stout: I will do nothing, as killing five is five times the XP!

Fizzbin the Magnificent: Wait, Olaf! Perhaps we only get that sweet, sweet XP from intentional acts?

Olaf the Stout: That is true! I pull the lever, for that sweet, sweet XP!
Noobs.
I pull the lever twice.


While such thought experiments are interesting, especially when you throw in absolut alignments from D&D and similar games most players do not want to have hard ethical discussions when gaming. So they are in the end not all that useful.
 

It exists. D&D Ghostwalk:
Sean Reynolds explained where the idea came from, to make it possible to play a dead PC as a ghost: "I think it was just a matter of Monte and me understanding that one of the least fun parts of the game is when a character dies. Not only is there a feeling of loss regarding the character, but also the player doesn't have anything to do until a new character can be brought in. We thought a campaign where a character's death wouldn't be the end of play for that character or player would be a neat twist on standard D&D."[1]
Ghostwalk is pretty awesome.
 

TheSword

Legend
What about the Thorians who believe that the will of the Emperor can manifest in the hearts of pure individuals and in times of great need? His avatar will appear to vanquish the foes of humanity.

They take their name from the great prophet and reforming religious leader of the 36th Millennium, Sebastian Thor who during that dark time led the movement against corruption within the imperial cult and was ultimately responsible for its cleansing and the restoration of the Imperium that followed.

This is the most "Radical" of the Puritan ideologies due to the possible galactic upheaval that could result should the Thorians actually be able to summon the Emperor into a new physical form, as believers and unbelievers in the reborn Emperor's divinity and identity might then turn upon each other.
 

Specifically the tendency to loot first and ask questions later, and to kill potential allied NPCs thinking they're actually enemies.
Doesn't matter how long you play D&D, how much you DM, or how much you complain about PCs doing this, if you switch to being a player this suddenly becomes really surprisingly likely to happen.

We had a situation a few months back, where we'd been fighting a bunch of satyr-ish beings, and then there was this room with a lot of evil satyr-ish beings who we had to fight, and then there was a bigger satyr-ish being like waaaay up the end of it (and who hadn't heard us somehow), and we were like "Take him out! We'll get a surprise round and drop the hammer on him!" and the DM is like "Guys..." and we're like "Okay Warlock, you go first, then I'll follow up with this..." and so on, and the DM is like "GUYS..." and we're like "Whaaaaat?" "Maybe consider if he's hostile..." And we're like "But he's a satyr-type being in a dungeon full of evil satyr-type beings..." Anyway, we asked and yeah he very narrowly escaped getting a brutal and murderous beatdown on the grounds of having hooves and horns and being in the wrong place at the wrong time. That felt a bit like we were murderhobos I have to admit. Karma nearly got us danced to death later in adventure so there was that.
 

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