Rules Tinkerer and Freelance Writer
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 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.
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 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.
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.
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!
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...
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.
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.
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.