Monday, 5 December 2011

On Lawfulness

Among my many sins, I lecture on the law of contract and public law, and am finishing off a PhD on sovereignty. So, naturally, I think about the law a lot, in particular the philosophy of law, and one of the things I find interesting about older D&D is the "lawful" alignment - even though I know that what the designers were getting at and why they gave it that moniker is basically just all about aping Michael Moorcock.

Jurisprudence 101: almost all the philosophies of law there have ever been can essentially be broken down into two schools: positivism and natural law. (It's a little bit more complicated than that, though not much.)

Positivists, of whom the English philosopher of law HLA Hart is probably the most famous, approach law as something that is only 'posited' (hence the name) - i.e., that a society's legal system is not based on anything fundamental or moral about the universe or human nature, but merely on the rules that the society has agreed to operate on - and really those rules could be anything. Broadly, legal validity, for a classical positivist, depends not on the content of the rules or their merits, but on their sources: law is "normatively inert". (This does not mean that positivists ignore issues of morality and justice - simply that they do not see law as being connected with morality or justice except by coincidence.)

Natural law takes the opposite approach, assuming that law is inextricably linked to morality and justice, and natural law theorists assume that legal validity rests on that connection - a law is not valid unless it is based on some moral principle or other. This might be religious in nature, as Aquinas would have argued, or it might be based on a concept of fundamental 'human goods' a la John Finnis; either way, a law is not a law unless it has normative content. (Ronald Dworkin, perhaps the only legal philosopher non-lawyers might have a cat's chance in hell of knowing about, was basically a believer in natural law despite his protestations: his view that judges interpret the law based on "principles", and that every case has a "right answer", is classic natural law.)

To caricature things somewhat, to the positivist, the problems with natural law are twofold: it assumes that law is subjective and hence arbitrary (what are "morals", "human goods", and "principles", and who gets to decide? - one of the key criticism's of Dworkin's work is that, by amazing coincidence, it turns out that "principles" are basically liberal/social democratic in nature, which is Dworkin's personal political persuasion), and it suggests that there is no such thing as value pluralism (because ultimately there are "right answers"). To the natural lawyer, the problems with positivism are also twofold: it does not really reflect reality to assume that there is no necessary connection between law and morality/justice, because in practice everybody behaves as if the two are linked; and without moral content law becomes oppressive (a decree to kill all Jews is still a law unless you assume that "law" implies a certain moral foundation).


This is all well and good, of course, but how does it relate to D&D?

It is my contention (not that I've ever contended it in public) that there are two corresponding approaches to the 'lawful' alignment in Classic D&D. On the one hand, it is possible to take the natural law perspective, which ultimately suggests that 'lawful' is synonymous with 'good'. A lawful character is moral (in whatever sense), and believes in some concept of truth, justice and righteousness which is the foundation on which society's rules rest, and behaves accordingly.

On the other hand, however, it is perfectly feasible to construe a lawful character as being a positivist, i.e., a believer in a certain set of laws which do not necessarily have a moral or ethical foundation (although which might do, of course), but which are simply set by the society in which he or she grew up. This opens the door to a wide variety of different, and weird, notions of what 'laws' and 'rules' are. Maybe your lawful character holds that to hold property is unlawful? That there is no such thing as 'theft'? That working on a Sunday is against the rules? That a lie is not a lie if you are standing on one leg while saying it?


  1. There's a third -- or perhaps a second-and-a-halfth -- option in games that we don't have in the real world, that laws reflect actual truths about the universe. This is how the d6 Star Wars rpg did it; there's a section on Force use which states that even if the Dark Side is used for good, it is still an evil act, because that's how that particular universe works.

    It is not too much of a stretch to apply this to Law too. After all, you're dealing with settings where one can meet one's gods and where there are planes based on alignment; heck there are even alignment languages, which only make sense if approached in this abstract-but-not manner.

  2. Nice post. I also enjoyed your earlier post on story logic vs. logistics.

    I realize you were simplifying for purposes of a blog post (and nobody can expect you to re-argue Dworkin/Hart), but I might describe the positivist lawful character a bit differently . Unlike the "natural law" lawful character whose basic position is something like "if it's not moral, it's not law," my positivist lawful character views assertions about law to be wholly descriptive. So he does not (like your positivist character) "believe in a certain set of laws"--at least not in the sense that he thinks they are better or more worthy or more "lawful" than others. Rather, he believes one can only describe what the law *is* for any particular locale.

    Maybe that means that a positivist character is as likely to be lawful as chaotic ("I learn what the laws are so I can break them!").

    Maybe it means that a positivist character *has* to be chaotic (or at least neutral), because a lawful character who "believes" in certain laws rather than others must be making some kind of normative claim.

    Anyway, thought provoking post. And, my quibbles notwithstanding, I think it is very useful to link the Positivism/NL debate to the commonly drawn battle lines w/r/t what a "lawful" character does.

  3. A Hobbesian-Burkean view of what lawful means might be that rebellion against the established authorities is bad in and of itself, social entropy leading to chaos worse than the good that might come from making exceptions.

    In Greyhawk, Pholtus is the lawful good god of law, order and inflexibility. Whereas Trithereon is the chaotic good god of individuality, liberty, retribution and a foe of oppression. The retribution angle suggests vigilantism.

    The declaration of independence has a bit of both perspectives: "Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes;" on the one hand, and everything else on the other.

    I might be mistaken, but didn't Aquinas talk about natural law, because it wasn't religious in nature? My, perhaps incorrect, understanding is that he talked about natural law because the bible wasn't very helpful in every day situations e.g. "Give to every man that asketh of thee; and of him that taketh away thy goods ask them not again."

  4. Kelvingreen: I think that's very "natural law-y". A belief that there are actual truths of the universe on which the law is based could be lifted straight from something by Hugo Grotius, who talked about how not even God could abrogate the principles on which the law was based.

    Ivan: That's a nice way of looking at it, actually - I like it. Sort of reconceptualising law and chaos as Fuller versus Hart.

    Alex: I'm not an expert on Aquinas at all, but I think his idea was that there was natural law and human law, with natural law coming from the divine and human law being, obviously, "profane". As I understand it he believed natural law to be supreme: a human law might be something like "all Jews shall be killed", which could be rebelled against on the basis that it contravened natural law.

    Or something.

  5. Though I have never thought of it in these terms, the different approaches to law that you describe map directly to how Lawful alignments work in my campaigns:

    LG = natural
    LN = positivist
    LE = predatory positivist

  6. Hobbes has been my guide on what Lawful means up to now - thanks for opening up some other possibilities.

    I still don't have a convincing voice for chaos: I just can't take Bill Burroughs or Lemmy seriously as a philosophical spokesman, and all the people I can take seriously (Chuang Tsu, for instance) really turn out to be some flavour of either natural law or neutrality.

    a PhD on sovereignty
    what are you writing about sovereignty? I can think of a few things touching on it that might be very, very interesting discussions to have around here. Like to what extent does it involve the right to wield the exception (to universal law)? And how can such an exception fit inside the law?

  7. My PhD is about interpretation of treaties and the principle of non-intervention, looking specifically at the major international human rights treaties. The idea is to see just how much interpretive bodies allow States a "margin of appreciation" in how far they give treaty norms force in their domestic law. In particular I'm looking at the cultural defence of sovereignty, where for instance the government of Singapore or China might argue that their unique national culture should be taken into account in how they incorporate human rights norms (or do not do so).

  8. that's a very topical topic in Europe right now... You've reminded me of a discussion about kayfabe and international politics. Expectations about what treaties mean, how they apply and how to enforce them... Germany seems to value regulation, Britain resists it, because it intends to enforce whatever it signs, but in France, Italy and Greece it seems like the signature is just a maneuver in an ongoing negotiation, not the end of it. Very interesting area...

  9. That's what I love about this blog. It answers that nagging question "What if someone were to apply Brisker Methodology to DnD?"

  10. Interesting, presumably you could have an alternative natural law position too, where someone has some code that they believe is natural and inherent to the universe, but is aweful.

    I'm thinking some kind of stoic/fatalist approach. "We don't like the law, but we must obey it, it is the way of the universe"

    I tend to play because half the time when I play a positivist lawful character, focusing on the source of decrees, the GM can do an emperor of japan and have the NPC my character is relying on say "I am not reliable". Thanks man. The down side of playing with lots of GMs with anti-authoritarian streaks!

  11. Even once you break down the Lawful Alignment into Good, Neutral and Evil, there's still degrees to be found. Take Lawful Neutral, for instance. You can look at Lawful Neutral as a faceless beurocrat who sees a catch 22 in the rules he enforces, but enforces it nonetheless. Javert from Les Miserables could be considered Lawful Neutral - enforcing the law without pity. The Qunari in the Bioware game Dragon Age, or hell, even the Borg could also be considered Lawful Neutral - they have a way of life that is orderly and crisp, free of moral and emotional messiness and they impose that extreme law upon the rest of the world, whether they like it or not. Last time I had this conversation, it was suggested that it be broken down to Lawful/Neutral/Chaos, Good/Neutral/Evil, then Active/Passive. The Beurocrat is passive, merely preserving the existing Lawful structures, while the Borg is Active, attempting to expand those structures.

  12. @purestrainhuman: yeah, alignment is a blunt instrument and has no coherent theory or philosophy. I take it to be a heuristic for building sets of conflicting philosophies. Or, to put it another way, several alignments make no sense for anyone to actually espouse, but they do define the positions of characters in stories: the good guys and bad guys and sometimes good guys.

    @noisms: this is far from the point pf your post, but it's reminding me of an old idea that pro wrestling is the lens through which mediated politics makes sense (including the Roman Senate in that category). Each side has its faces and heels, its uses for reasonable and unreasonable positions, its appeals to nature and theory. How much, I wonder, should we think of alignment as a "nature" and how much as a tactic?

  13. I think that's very "natural law-y". A belief that there are actual truths of the universe on which the law is based could be lifted straight from something by Hugo Grotius

    Indeed, but is there not a difference between belief in natural law (what we have in our world) and the actual existence of Law, a luxury only afforded by a fictional setting?

    Perhaps I haven't understood what you're saying. I did a bit of moral and social philosophy, but Dworkin was the only name I recognised from your post!

  14. Kelvin, many people believe in the actual existence of Law in our world (i.e., God). Of the natural law philosophers mentioned by noisms, I believe both Aquinas and Finnis fit into that category. Not sure about Dworkin.

  15. Richard: You're getting into political science there, which I do think is interesting, though not my area. It's something I'm increasingly interested in, though - looking at the motives of the actual actors involved. And by actors I don't mean States and institutions - I mean the actual leaders of States, judges, UN officials, etc. I think that's a vast untapped area of study, although McDougal wrote about it indirectly.

    Kelvin: What Ivan said. Some people do actually believe in the existence of Law, and believe that it is based on immutable truths about reality.

    I think Dworkin can be included in this group, because even though he believed people often have "wrong" moral principles and opinions, that implies that there are "right" principles. The fact that he believed that there is always a "right answer" even in hard cases suggests this too. The difference is that his religion is not Christianity, but a particular brand of liberal social democracy.

  16. I've always taken a perspective on lawfulness derived from the only two classes in 1e AD&D that had to be lawful: paladins and monks (monks are a particularly interesting case because they could even be evil, so long as they were lawful).

    Both classes lead a heavily regimented life, full of rules, restrictions, and obligations. They are bound by tradition, discipline, and hierarchy. They do not keep money. Lawful characters of all stripes will tend to put obedience to rules or institutions ahead of their own interests, whereas merely good characters might break laws to help someone. Socrates' decision not to escape and to comply with the execution order is an example (in my mind) of lawful behavior.

    I suppose it's possible to extend that, as you propose, to very extreme ends. However, it's important to say that the character must honestly believe those things, rather than use them as loopholes. If a character is an anarchistic paladin who holds, like Proudhon, that property is theft, he also can't own any property himself and must give everything he has away to anyone who asks for it. (I posit that double standards are non-negotiably a violation of lawfulness, but feel free to quarrel with this).

  17. @anonymous: it's interesting then that the paladin's most valuable treasure - xp - is inalienable, and that his Order is highly likely to decree that he must keep his second most valuable treasure - magic items - in order to be effective at his job. A very practical sort of poverty.

  18. Kelvin, many people believe in the actual existence of Law in our world (i.e., God)

    Yes, I understand that, but that's not my point.

    I may be derailing the conversation a bit, but we're dealing with fictional settings here, where gods do exist; you can meet your god, beat him up and get experience points for it.

    As such, is there not an important difference between belief in the existence of Law and the actual, provable, existence of Law?

    I know it would only be so much navel-gazing to bring this up in a philosophy seminar, but we are talking about games here.

  19. Richard: I still don't have a convincing voice for chaos: I just can't take Bill Burroughs or Lemmy seriously as a philosophical spokesman, and all the people I can take seriously (Chuang Tsu, for instance) really turn out to be some flavour of either natural law or neutrality.

    The Existentialists? Stirner? Diogenes? Darwin?

  20. Anon: hmmm, I'm far outside my area of expertise here, but Kierkegaard (and Nietzsche) look to me like they're searching for a novel (or primordial) basis for natural law - that is, they're lawful but they regard current law to be inadequate and unnatural. Diogenes is an interesting thought... if only we knew more about him. Darwin definitely believed in a natural law, with the proviso that it might not be very useful to humans. Stirner... looks like possibly a good candidate, although that might be just because I don't know anything about him.

  21. @kelvingreen: I think I get what you're saying. If you see an albino actually summon a terrible chaos creature it's pretty impossible to entertain the positivist view any longer.

    Yes, in our world some people view other people as chaos creatures, but there are enough of the rest of us that see them as people like us to make that just a position.

    But I'm not knowledgeable on this, so as a question to noisms: What does the Positivist judge in D&D think of someone attempting to summon Cthulhu?

  22. Kelvin asks: "is there not an important difference between belief in the existence of Law and the actual, provable, existence of Law"?

    No. A religious person would say that God does actually and provably exist in this world.

    You seem to be coming at this from the perspective that God does not actually exist, but that some faithful/deluded people harbor a more or less fanciful belief that He does.

    For Thomas Aquinas, the existence of God was as real and demonstrable as the existence of Pelor is to an Oerth resident.

  23. The difference is that there are competing beliefs in our world, so the natural law stemming from beliefs held by various religions might, and do, contradict.

    The point isn't that Aquinas wasn't sure about the existence of God, the point is what if what if Aquinas' God showed up on a fiery chariot and all the Muslims, Buddhists, ancestor worshipers, Satanist etc. saw this. How would that world's law be different than ours?

  24. or Kuan Yin for that matter. This discussion is reminding me that I should write a post about really giving proper consideration to alternatives to monotheism and nationalism.

  25. @Telecanter: Exactly. There is a big difference between believing something is true and provable for yourself, and believing something that is true and provable for everybody. The gods of our world are debatable, the gods of Oerth are not... they are as provable as gravity.

  26. Duglas said: "The gods of our world are debatable, the gods of Oerth are not... they are as provable as gravity."

    This may be a valid distinction from the perspective of D&D players (we can debate the existence of God here, but w/r/t D&D worlds, the existence of Pelor is proved by the manuals). However, it is not a distinction between the residents of Oerth versus residents of Earth. There are many accounts of people observing God acting on Earth, including angels descending, Christ ascending, and cities being annihilated. But obviously most people have not encountered God. I suspect that the same is true in Oerth.

  27. @Ivan: I think the distinction between the beliefs of the residents of Earth and Oerth are quite a bit more drastic than that. Declarations of the gods existence on Earth can't be scientifically proven, whereas on Oerth they can. (Magic being scientifically provable on Oerth.) Even a poor commoner on Oerth can be healed by a cleric and physically watch the wound being healed by divine magic. There is no room for doubt. The same cannot be said for miracles on Earth.

  28. It is true that magic demonstrably exists on Oerth. Gods? Who knows! The cleric *says* he gets his healing powers from Saint Cuthbert, but people say a lot of things....

  29. The most cogent critique of both the normative and positivist schools of thought is that they are intellectually indistinguishable - each admits that law is based in mutable societal mores. Positivists, however, better explicate the dominant effect of law enforcement relative to law making.

    This point might be made more clearly in Latin (o tempora, o mores!).

  30. Ivan, that's the way Ebberron does it, although they push it past the point of ambiguity by allowing people to "gain their powers" from explictly non-divine sources.

  31. Snap! I also teach Contract Law; John Finnis was my Jurisprudence teacher at Oxford, and I did my PhD on the 'Philosophy of Copyright'. :)

    I think the way it works in practice, Lawful Good characters tend to be presented as 'Natural Law' types, Lawful Neutral often as Positivists, and Lawful Evil either as Positivists if Diabolical, or Natural Law if tyrannical, Right of Conquest types.

    When I had to nail it down a bit for one tripartite alignment (L-N-C) campaign world, I had Lawful mean 'Liberty under Law', and Chaotic be "Do what you wilt shall be the Law". So AIR Aquinas and Locke were both Lawful, whereas arbitrary tyranny was Chaotic.

    That was pretty close to the Moorcockian approach AIR - Lawful could be (eg) Catholic Scholasticism or Enlightenment Natural Law. Law as arbitrary commands of the tyrant was Chaotic, even a divine tyrant, so eg Nazi Fuhrerprinzip was Chaotic, as was one major real-world religion.

  32. Overall I have to say that I think Lawful Evil and Chaotic Good are sufficiently stupid Alignments, that I am glad 4e D&D got rid of them. They only exist for the sake of symmetry. In terms of describing actual character behaviour, the 4e LG-G-U-E-CE system works much better.

    Of course Warhammer was using it - as L-G-N-E-C since the 1980s!

  33. For my PhD thesis I developed a 4-way typology for philosophies which contrasted Communitarian with Individualist and Pragmatic with Romantic. It was pretty limited, but was quite useful for drawing out how all the theories justifying modern copyright law came from a fairly narrow spread of highly individualist philosophies, with higher or lower levels of romanticism; traditionalist and communitarian world views did not get a look-in.

  34. "option in games that we don't have in the real world, that laws reflect actual truths about the universe"

    Eh, not only do RL religions believe that laws reflect truths about the universe; it's empirically verifiable that the existence of certain laws reflect truths about the universe. One obvious universal truth: if you don't have strictures against murdering members of your in-group, the in-group will soon cease to exist.

  35. S'mon: That's quite interesting. Sounds a bit like the American Legal Realists and their critique of contract law. I mean, if you wanted to take a quasi-Marxian perspective on why communitarianism didn't get a look in.

    I only lecture on contract law by accident, because basically nobody else in the department can stand it, but actually I like it. Then again I'm one of those weird people who loves common law-y subjects.

  36. I'm really hoping your real world religion that depends on tyrannical fiat wasn't Islam. I'm hoping even harder that gou wouldn't quote Weber on Cadijustiz to support such a view.

  37. noisms:
    "S'mon: That's quite interesting. Sounds a bit like the American Legal Realists and their critique of contract law. I mean, if you wanted to take a quasi-Marxian perspective on why communitarianism didn't get a look in."

    Yeah, I tend to subscribe to pretty much a Marxian descriptive analysis, though not prescriptive or (obviously) predictive.
    Barrington Moore Jnr 'Social Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy' was an influence.

    One way I differ from the Marxists I teach alongside is that they see individualism in classical Contract law as a 19th century phenomenon, to support 19th century labour relations - a conspiracy against the working man. From what I see, that's not accurate - classical Contract law ideas had already emerged in the 18th century pre-industrial mercentile period, and were complete by the mid 19th century. Also, Law is a lagging indicator of social change: 19th century individualist Contract law was a reaction to 18th century mercantile society; 20th century welfarist contract law was a reaction to 19th century industrialisation and the mass society.

  38. Talking of religion, is a religion like Buddhism which sees Chaos as part of the Divine Order, Lawful Neutral or Chaotic? >:)

  39. Greetings again.

    Being an avid Planescape player from the early-mid 90's, I thought that campaign setting had a robust take on what alignments meant... after all, the very substance of the Outer Planes was made up of the belief/consciousness of the Multiverse's denizens. A couple of things to consider: Order/Chaos wasn't much of a moral axis than an ontological one.

    Lawfulness reflected one's belief of reality being externally/objectively based/defined/grounded; one's viewpoints, perspectives, understandings derived from truths outside of oneself. [The Lawful Neutral plane of Mechanus expressed such qualities in a number of ways, such as the environmental effect of all spoken languages from any tongue being understood identically by all.]

    Chaos indicated that one's belief of reality was primarily (or even solipsistic) self-created, subjective definition/genesis, intuitionally granted, etc... or the existence of an objective universe isn't considered important and/or knowable. [The Chaotic Neutral plane of Limbo was a maelstrom of constantly changing elements, a soup of possibility that only took solidity with one's thought/willpower.]

  40. Wyzaard: I find your ideas interesting and would like to subscribe to your newsletter. I've never thought of it that way before but it seems an incredibly elegant explanation to me.