I wanted to ask you in my D&D game, we fought some goblins. They attacked us first. We killed most of them; my character gave the rest a chance to surrender and said he may let them go. He questioned the goblins. I rolled an insight check, and my character perceived as if they enjoy attacking people a little determining that the greenskins were immoral. He then decided that to kill them would be safer, however, my friend who was a warrior cleric (very moral character class in the game) disagreed; we fought. My dungeon master said my character did an evil act. Is this true? How does one go about determining this? What are some lines of argument by common theories of ethics? His reasoning was that they were compelled by a bigger goblin and were not acting wholly of their own free will. I am not a philosopher, but I wanted more insight on how to conduct such an argument.

  • To kill goblins ? May 9, 2020 at 10:58
  • Yes sorry if it's dumb. I mean let's say it was humans instead of goblins?
    – Patrick
    May 9, 2020 at 11:06
  • 2
    It makes a difference: we do not usually kill humans, but we kill everyday animals to eat them. Maybe the issue is: are goblins edibles ? May 9, 2020 at 11:13
  • Should this question go here: rpg.stackexchange.com given the specific morality of DnD might apply?
    – tkruse
    Jun 10, 2020 at 4:23
  • @tkruse, I think the distinction in a way is between whether we're asking "does the game say it's good" and "if we were in that world would it be good". The former question should absolutely be migrated, but the latter is potentially independently philosophically interesting.
    – Paul Ross
    Jun 12, 2020 at 13:08

4 Answers 4


So. Something important to understand about Dungeons and Dragons is that, unlike in our reality, Gods actually exist and have real and tangible consequences and agency in the world in which they live.

In our world, we have a problem for a theological model of morality which is called the Euthyphro dilemma. Identifying Goodness with the will of the Gods introduces a problem, which is to ask whether the Gods do what they do because it is good, or whether what they do is good by definition because it is what they do.

In the Dungeons and Dragons multiverse, it's easy. Alignment exists within a pantheon. Some Gods are Good, and doing what they like is doing a good thing. Some Gods are Evil, and doing what they like is an evil thing. Good and evil are perceived in certain ways by creatures and people in that world and as such they align themselves to certain domains which are overseen by those Gods, deciding everything within their domain.

So, if you want to plead your case as being a Good action, you have to ask yourself - which God are you pleading to?

  • Thanks for your answer. Sorry again
    – Patrick
    May 9, 2020 at 12:11
  • No need to apologise! It's an interesting question, though there are some specific aspects of DnD that maybe wouldn't be so relevant for us making a similar decision as humans.
    – Paul Ross
    May 9, 2020 at 12:12
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    Morality does not require a God. May 9, 2020 at 16:39
  • @GuyInchbald, of course it doesn't. However, the definitive, demonstrated and factive existence of one would inform morality. In DnD, this is the case, even though in the real world, it is not.
    – Paul Ross
    May 9, 2020 at 17:12
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    Considering the questioner's scenario as a thought experiment, both the question and this particular answer are well within the scope of philosophy.
    – Paul Ross
    May 9, 2020 at 23:44

Let's put the goblin aside and concentrate on humans. This raises genuine ethical issues.

What would an evil creature be? A being that is in some way intentionally extremely destructive of value. Behind this abstract formula I refer to a being that commits mass murders, that tortures children for amusement, that burns alive a lover who has jilted him, &c.

We need to add a condition such as that the being in question is not criminally insane but in a relevant sense knows the difference between right and wrong as evidenced by the fact that he acts on it in other contexts.

'Evil' is not a concept that has received close analysis in recent philosophy. The above is the best I can manage. My own view is that it is sufficient to prevent the evil being from continuing or repeating his extreme destruction of value. To go beyond this and to kill him is justifiable if and only if there is no practicable alternative in terminating his activities. We need only restrict his activities by compulsory confinement. The presumption is against killing him since it would be preferable to reform him, if this were possible, than to kill him. If we kill him we lose the (potential) value of a reformed life. If he does not reform, we are no worse off since we have prevented him from continuing or repeating his extreme destruction of value. We cause some harm to him in restricting his freedom but that is more than offset by the security gained for others from his extreme activities.

  • 1
    You do not seem to be distinguishing between evil beings and evil acts. We assume that "evil" acts are intentional and carried out by self-conscious beings with free will. We do not talk about "evil" tigers or "evil" flowers (Baudelaire aside). If there is free will then, there is usually some possibility of redemption (Dante aside). So I'm not sure that a resolutely, actively "evil being" is coherent. I believe Plato and Augustine had something like this in mind. An absolutely "evil being" is self-negating. But, as you note, it is not a well-defined idea in philosophy. Nov 8, 2020 at 20:17
  • This is a most valuable comment. I suppose I was thinking of evil beings as those whose actions are invariably or predominantly evil. I'd make the act/ agent connection in that way. But your comment should stand bringing the distinction into salience, and I thank you for it. Best - Geoffrey
    – Geoffrey Thomas
    Nov 9, 2020 at 9:01
  • @NelsonAlexander: I don't think it's accurate to say evil has not had close analysis & discussion in recent philosophy, or at least modern philosophy plato.stanford.edu/entries/concept-evil even if the problem of evil & theogenies make it of particular concern for Christian apologetics
    – CriglCragl
    Nov 19, 2021 at 16:37

Both. It depends on who, what,when, where, how and the perception of the characters and Game master. Now I'm just a country Kobold lawyer but it seems like it would be an issue with procedural process combined with player inexperience hashing these things out at the tavern where the adventures always begin. Did the cleric have to roll a perception check? Did the cleric check what the gods position on preventing future harm? It's "Batman syndrome". Batman has decided that killing is the line at which he becomes evil. I have thought about this sooooooo much!! Ok here we go. Batman has a hand in the creation of nearly all of his enemies so he shares responsibility for future harm. Sometimes the situations don't give Batman the knowledge that the vat of acid didn't kill Jack Napier but merely elevated him to joker status. I.e. Level up. But many situations afforded an opportunity to end a spree of violence permanently which Batman refuses based on his arbitrary decision that killing is the line that cannot, must not be crossed. But the joker keeps escaping from Arkham asylum, going on a new spree of violence and murder and all the nasty things that make him so "evil" according to Batman and the general societal consensus that killing is bad Mmkay? But Batman actually takes full responsibility for every harm committed after Batman chose not to end it permanently. So NOT killing Joker is more evil, especially when it happens over and over and Batman refuses to end it, that responsibility is compounded exponentially until Batman becomes the most evil of all when multiplied by all the villains he won't kill times all the second and third chances he had to do so. If your character perceives that this won't be the end of mayhem and that somewhere some poor thing is going to be dragged into the warrens to an unimaginable fate, stopping that is most good. But to the cleric whose interpretation of their gods rules is more like the wild west where if all parties had guns and were shooting it's a fair fight if it started by choices those parties made based on masculinity or whatever, it was "Killing" not "Murder" and was therefore legal. But if in the case one guy shoots the gun out of the others hand and that person no longer has equal ability to fight, to kill this "unarmed" outlaw is murder. If it was a fight for dominance then they can both walk away if they both aren't liable for disturbing the peace or some such local law. If the disarmed is a bad guy here to pillage then he must be handed over to the Marshall. Your character sought to avoid "Batman syndrome" while your cleric companion sought to hand them over to the Marshall. Basically your Game master failed his perception check to realize the differing principles of the party. Because "Batman syndrome" is as far as I know, a concept of my own intellect I can understand why and how this happened. P.S. I will relinquish claim if someone proves that the term was coined before 1996 when I came to the realization that Batman is a coward and narcissist of epic proportions,seeking only to play the game not win.


The situation of killing a goblin and deeming it evil is analogous to justifying killing predators such as lions, or other vicious predators (i.e. weasels) on the account of their 'evil' nature. It used to be the case in history that animals were trialled and executed just like humans. This is clearly wrongheaded.

As in, can they be rational enough to willingly be 'evil', understand the concept of 'Evil', or accountability of their actions? Or do they follow their instincts which they cannot reasonably control?

Daniel Dennett, for example, argues that control is a very important factor in assessing accountability:

A key word in understanding our differences is “control.”


“the way we are is ultimately the result of factors beyond our control” and that is true of only those unfortunates who have not been able to become autonomous agents during their childhood upbringing. There really are people, with mental disabilities, who are not able to control themselves, but normal people can manage under all but the most extreme circumstances, and this difference is both morally important and obvious, once you divorce the idea of control from the idea of causation.[1]

This relates to instincts, and their suppression, in the animal world. Morality, which is just that kind of suppression/control, is not a given by virtue of lifeform merely existing. Otherwise, you would see vegetarian crocodiles, or bonobos setting up charities.

It is preposterous to think that. Just imagine an example:

  • A hunter. A hunter can choose to either hunt the animal or go to the supermarket and buy yoghurt in order to survive. A hunter understands the alternative and has the power to act for specific moral considerations.
  • A lion. A lion has to hunt the animal in order to survive. A lion cannot know or comprehend the alternative, therefore, it is necessitated to do so; it cannot choose otherwise.

Therefore, the former acts morally, but not the latter. The latter cannot be consciously 'evil'.

Coming back to goblins being 'evil', you could also make the same argument against Pygmy people or other modern hunter-gatherer tribal people. Those would want to kill you for the same reasons as goblins would, since their level of social organisation is akin to goblin tribalism. Are then tribal people 'evil' because of what they currently are?

1. Dennett, Daniel; Caruso, Gregg. 'Just Deserts' (p. 19). Wiley.

  • Pygmy just means diminutive, & it comes with colonial baggage. It's most strongly associated with peoples of the Congo, but also peoples in Myanmar & Australo-Milenesia. Making specific associations is problematic at best. 'Tribal people' the same, with Wampanoag peoples having been critical to the first North American colony that survived winter , & a 1st people tribe to Alexander Mackenzie surviving the first crossing of Canada. So, as concrete example: the people of North Sentinel Island who have determined that all intruders should be killed (probably after numerous bad experiences).
    – CriglCragl
    Nov 19, 2021 at 17:43

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