Dungeons and Dragons has long struggled with the definitions of its moral abstractions, "Law”, "Chaos”, Good”, and "Evil".

In older games, nine "alignments" were possible, describing a character's moral relationship to the world.

These alignments were formed along two orthogonal axes, "Law-Chaos" and "Good-Evil".

However, these axes were not well articulated, philosophically speaking.

Here is a discussion of the "rules" of the alignments, and here are reflections on how those alignments fail to be useful.

The most useful critique is:

Now that we're all on the same page (page 104), the reason why you've gotten into so many arguments with people as to whether their character was Lawful or Chaotic is because absolutely every action that any character ever takes could logically be argued to be both. A character who is honorable, adaptable, trustworthy, flexible, reliable, and loves freedom is a basically stand-up fellow, and meets the check-marks for being "ultimate Law" and "ultimate Chaos". There aren't any contradictory adjectives there.

Are there any extant moral philosophies that feature a similar philosophical mapping of these concepts onto the world, or which help to resolve some of the philosophical problems in these rules?

Is there a deterministic way to decide how to evaluate a character’s persona as “lawful” or “chaotic”, so it is not merely unlimitedly subjective?

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    Just to forestall debate, this question absolutely does not belong on rpg.se. While it is inspired by D&D, it is fundamentally a question about applying philosophy to a simulation. Jun 8, 2011 at 1:08
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    At first glance, adaptable, flexible, and freedom loving would seem to point in a direction opposite to the other adjectives. A character possessing all six qualities I'd describe as sometimes behaving lawfully, sometimes chaotically, which makes his character something in the middle...
    – Cerberus
    Jun 8, 2011 at 1:24
  • @Cerberus However it's quite possible to construct a character who is both extremely honorable and adaptable, as they offer proscriptive elements to non-connected events. And freedom loving is quite compatible with all of the listed attributes, especially if the character in question has Hobbsean tendencies, wherein he/she would consider that a structure of tradition/honor promotes freedom. Neither reference actually gets into real philosophers. Jun 8, 2011 at 1:28
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    @BrianBallsun-Stanton: All these terms depend on how you define them. If I say that an honourable man sticks to a rigid code of honour, he is not adaptable in that regard. He may be adaptable in things that do not concern honour; in that case, he is adaptable in some regards, but the opposite in others. Just as I may enjoy murdering strangers for their money (evil) but am the most loving, self-sacrificing person to those of my own clan (good). Am I good? Am I evil? I am both, and therefore my character could be said to be something in between.
    – Cerberus
    Jun 8, 2011 at 1:33
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    I see the crux of our disagreement. I would like to apply moral philosophy expertise (not my own personal domain, really, I do phil-tech and x-phi) to a game question. How can we use moral philosophy's articulated thoughts on the relationships of these two axes to provide a useful guide as to what actually constitutes, "Lawful Good." This doesn't belong on RPG.SE because I'm not seeking RPG expertise. It's a fair call to say it doesn't belong here, and I'll self-delete the question. But only if you add why to the off-topic thread on meta. :) Jun 8, 2011 at 6:30

2 Answers 2


I think the fact that the list of adjectives fails to determine if the character is lawful or chaotic speaks not to a problem with the system, but instead simply to the fact that ones alignment is not determined by their adjectives. I feel like those adjectives could just as well be applied to an evil person as to a good person, and that you could construct a character who fits all those adjectives and has any of the nine alignments you chose.

To your question about philosophical mappings, I think the very point of the alignment system is to map philosophies to easy to remember terms, and I suspect one could go through the Normative Ethics and associate each alignment with a more technical term.

One interesting note regarding the disconnect between the adjectives (effectively, values) and the alignment (effectively, philosophy) is this speaks to part of the problem in modern politics. A group of people can get together and agree freedom, personal happiness, low crime rates and good education are all important, and yet still bicker endlessly on how to actually attain those things.

  • Interesting... could you map some more common normative ethics terms to the nine alignments? Jun 9, 2011 at 10:47
  • I didn't say it's a trivial mapping - to be honest such a claim might make a good scholarly paper. But glancing briefly at the list on Wikipedia, it would seem Natural Rights corresponds with lawful good, hedonism to chaotic good, egoism to chaotic evil, etc. This is all up for debate, my point is simply that the alignments are effectively ethical philosophies.
    – dimo414
    Jun 9, 2011 at 19:23
  • I'm always interested in papers, Hop over to the "RPG.SE case study" chat room, because yeah, this would make a good paper. Jun 10, 2011 at 0:32

My definition was usually that those who were generally lawful prefered order. Decisions were generally rational and consistant reguardless of the circumstance. "A thief should lose his hand", "Ladies be treated with respect", "Its ok to steal just not from the guild", etc.

Neutral tends make decisions based on the situation. "A thief that steals for need is not as bad as one who steals for greed", "Ladies should be treated with respect unless they have shown themselves unworthy", "The theif stole from my enemy so its ok but not if he stole from my friend"

Chaotic characters were just as likely to have a valid reason for doing something as not. Often times i would spout a rule about a my personal code only to contridict entirely it with another rule later on. If the contridiction was pointed out I usually tried to squirm out of through the path of least resistance.

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