Friday, July 3, 2009

More Good and Evil Confusion

And people wonder why I have such a low opinion of many online bloggers/message forum members.

Here's one reason.

Alex seems to want to ditch worrying about the concept of Good and Evil completely, and just get on with the game.

Ok, Alex. Whatever floats your boat.


You go on to list Hecate as a Goddess of Evil Magic. In your own list. Which you than claim is muddled and meaningless. Maybe she shouldn't be on the list then?

And to say "I’m keeping the definition of good and evil muddied on purpose. All the powerful people in my worlds have strong Machiavellian tendencies. It’s all about power, and keeping it."

Italics mine.

Hey Alex, here's a clue. The pursuit of power for power's sake is one of the definitions of Evil. You've just in effect said that rather than worrying about Good and Evil, you've just decided to make everyone Evil.

That is a solution I guess, but it wasn't the one you were claiming.

In fact I'll go one step further, anyone saying they are ignoring questions of Good and Evil is lying (perhaps even to themselves). They've sided with Evil with such a statement out of the gate.


thanuir said...

Some meta-commentary on your blog. I hope you don't mind.

You have strong political and, I assume, religious or philosophical beliefs. They show themselves very strongly in your posts.

On the other hand, you keep saying that this is not a political blog and hence stopping such discussions (which you are completely in the right to do, given that this is your blog).

If I wanted to engage with this post I would have to engage it in philosophical or religious way, given your claim that those who ignore matters of good and evil automatically side with evil. I don't really see other ways of responding in a productive way.

This implies that you do want religious or political discourse, at least given this blog post. Or maybe you only want validation for your beliefs.

So, this is a question of policy: Should I keep disputes regarding politics or religion to themselves, or should I voice my opinions? Are you willing to discuss these matters in a reasonable manner?

Gleichman said...

I think that my statement "seeking power for power sake is one of the elements of Evil" is a common enough belief (one that crosses many religions and philosophies)that one doesn't have to get into anything other than general definitions held by most people.

Thus I don't see the need for a religious debate. And I wouldn't welcome it.

In any event, it basically break down to only two points of views- the word Evil has meaning, or it doesn't (i.e. the PoV from Moral Relativism*).

And there's nowhere to go from there really. I'm just happy to note it's existence and how it's affecting gaming culture. (And to point out that moral relativism does believe in evil- i.e. evil is anyone who believes in Good).

*Rational Egoism and few other ideas would also fit, but I've seen few hoist that banner.

John Morrow said...

Good and evil are not simply a matter a matter of religion but are hardcoded into the normal human brain. There has been a lot of research recently on moral decision making and good and evil and scientists are getting a pretty good understanding of how the human brain, normal and not, makes moral decisions. (A good intro summary can be found here)

Basically, there is a visceral emotional component and an intellectual component and it's the visceral component that makes normal people feel disgust at immoral acts that might otherwise make perfect utilitarian sense such as purposely killing innocent people for a greater good (e.g., cutting up one person to use their organs to save several others).

Further research show what what's wrong with psychopaths is that they lack the the visceral moral component and make their decisions largely on the basis of personal wants and rational grounds, instead. (A good intro to the psychology of psychopaths can be found here) Psychopaths commit, and encourage others to commit, the most horrific atrocities. I started reading about psychopaths while researching the psychology of evil and found that law enforcement and others frequently equate psychopaths with evil.

And here's the part that many (if not most) people miss, and it's of paramount importance, in my opinion. When people try to intellectualize morality into a rational thing, they wind up losing sight of morality and come to the conclusion, like a psychopath, that labels such good and evil are arbitrary, baseless, and not worth dwelling on because they wind up thinking exactly like the psychopath.

John Morrow said...

Morality and the sense of what is good and evil are not (and perhaps cannot) be derived intellectually (see this paper on the problem that psychopaths post to moral rationalism, "the idea that morality is based on reason or rationality"). True moral behavior is a product of empathy and other visceral responses that give cognitive substance to ideas such as good, evil, fairness, guilt, and innocence.

Because those moral emotions depend on a person's assessment of the situation and because the intensity of a person's connection to the others involved as well as the intensity of the emotions themselves matter, they can be manipulated and suppressed. But just because subjectivity plays a role in moral decision and just because they can be manipulated does not negate the fact that the moral emotional core is quite consistent (not only between humans but it's also been observed in chimpanzees and other social animals), that these moral emotional serve a critical purpose, and that the moral ideas generated by these feelings are real and important.

As to the point that you object to, that "those who ignore matters of good and evil automatically side with evil," I think that's exactly what ample evidence, including the scientific research into moral decision making shows. There are real people in this world, with estimates that the make up at least 1% and probably more like 4% of the general population, who not only ignore matters of good and evil but have no visceral sense of good and evil. Those people are estimated to make up 50% of the violent criminals in prison, comprise the worst of serial killers, and do things so horrific that they are difficult for a normal person to comprehend. Richard Pryor talked about asking a murderer in prison, " why did you kill everybody in the house?" and his answer was, "'Cause they were home." and Karla Homolka not only drugged her own sister so lover Paul Bernardo could rape her but was quite indifferent to the fact that her sister died in the process.

That's what an absence of good and evil looks like. It's not benign. It's not harmless. It's not randomly good or evil because psychopaths lack any motivation to befriend or help others. There are support groups on the Internet for people whose lives were destroyed by the more mundane, more numerous, and less murderous type of psychopath that simply uses and discards people as it suits them.

In other words, to be truly indifferent to good and evil produces much more evil than good. Further, it excuses and provides aid and comfort to those who are evil.

In the article on psychopaths I provided a link to above, Dr. Robert Hare discusses his attempts to implement an effective program to help treat psychopaths so that they would not commit more crimes when released that does a pretty good job of capturing why a flawed understanding of good, evil, and human nature are so harmful:

"There's still a lot of opposition -- some criminologists, sociologists, and psychologists don't like psychopathy at all," Hare says. "I can spend the entire day going through the literature -- it's overwhelming, and unless you're semi-brain-dead you're stunned by it -- but a lot of people come out of there and say, 'So what? Psychopathy is a mythological construct.' They have political and social agendas: 'People are inherently good,' they say. 'Just give them a hug, a puppy dog, and a musical instrument and they're all going to be okay.' "

John Morrow said...

Still not convinced? How about this characterization of psychopaths (called sociopaths in this book)? The opening paragraph reads:

"Imagine - if you can - not having a conscience, none at all, no feelings of guilt or remorse no matter what you do, no limiting sense of concern of the well-being of strangers, friends, or even family members. Imagine no struggles with shame, not a single one in your whole life, no matter what kind of selfish, lazy, harmful, or immoral action you had taken. And pretend that the concept of responsibility is unknown to you, except as a burden others seem to accept without question, like gullible fools. Now add to this strange fantasy the ability to conceal from other people that your psychological makeup is radically different from theirs. Since everyone simply assumes that conscience is universal among human beings, hiding the fact that you are conscience-free is nearly effortless. You are not held back from any of your desires by guilt or shame, and you are never confronted by others for your cold-bloodedness. The ice water in your veins is so bizarre, so completely outside of their personal experience that they seldom even guess at your condition."

Basically, convincing people that good and evil are not real or are not important makes it much easier for people who really are evil to take advantage of others and do evil because people don't believe that they exist. They do. Clearly they do.

And please note that none of my points have been based on politics or religion but on what the scientific research on moral decisions and the evidence shows. In fact, many of these things can be observed in chimpanzees and other social animals as well as in non-social animals. I don't think this is a political or religious issue. Consider this exchange from the 1986 remake of The Fly:

Seth Brundle: You have to leave now, and never come back here. Have you ever heard of insect politics? Neither have I. Insects... don't have politics. They're very... brutal. No compassion, no compromise. We can't trust the insect. I'd like to become the first... insect politician. Y'see, I'd like to, but... I'm afraid, uh...

Ronnie: I don't know what you're trying to say.

Seth Brundle: I'm saying... I'm saying I - I'm an insect who dreamt he was a man and loved it. But now the dream is over... and the insect is awake.

Ronnie: No. no, Seth...

Seth Brundle: I'm saying... I'll hurt you if you stay.

thanuir said...

I'll keep my thoughts to myself, then, though I must make one exception:

"And to point out that moral relativism does believe in evil- i.e. evil is anyone who believes in Good"

This seems to make no sense, as moral relativists by definition don't judge the beliefs of other people. They may think that people who believe in objective good and evil are closeminded or something similar, but certainly not evil.

(I am agnostic: I don't claim to know if there is objective good or evil.)

John Morrow;

The philosophical part is saying that psychopaths are evil in some way above their destructiveness. For example: Evil in religious sense of opposing whatever good religious power the person happens to believe in. Or maybe better wording would be that evil is something tangible that changes things, as opposed to being merely a label that can be put on some people based on their actions or thoughts.

Gleichman said...

thanuir: I don't consider moral relativism to be political or religious (although I could claim the latter if I wanted to), but rather an cultural issue.

To that degree it relates IMO directly to how RPGs are played and designed these days. So it's fair game for this blog.

So to answer your point:

Your definiton of Moral Relativism is the one they like to give. Completely non-judgemental.

But the end result is never that, as John Morrow indicated in his more detailed (and science based response). Once one refuses to judge Good/Evil, one is without exception drawn to Evil.

Indeed moral relativists are in fact the most judgemental people I have ever encountered. Willing and able to attack and overturn laws and entire cultural norms almost at their whim.

If they truly were non-judgemental, they wouldn't make the effort for it wouldn't matter. No possible outcome of theirs could be any better that what already exists. And yet it typically becomes a crusade for them.

In the rpg world this is expressed by attacks on 'orc murderers' and rejection of any traditional morality in rpgs. This they do from the (what should be impossible to them) moral high ground as if other people are wrong and evil.

In short, there is no differene in action between them and say the anti-D&D movement of the past. Except the excuses they give and the lower (rather than higher) morality standards they seek.

John Morrow said...

thanuir; I don't think the identification of evil is philosophical or about their destructiveness, per se. My point is that normal people innately understand what evil is and viscerally feel an aversion to it. Those studying moral decision making can not only see that process taking place in MRI scans (to the point that the level of activity in the emotional centers of the brain producing disgust are a pretty good indicator that a person will reject a moral decision regardless of the intellectual or utilitarian arguments in it's favor.
For example, normal people will reject the idea of you cutting up an innocent healthy person to use their organs to save the lives of a half-dozen other people in need of their organs to live. The utilitarian case is sound (one life for six, say) and in other contexts a person might accept the exact same utilitarian trade-off (see the Discover Magazine article I provided a link to earlier for a detailed example), but people will reject the idea of slaughtering innocents against their will because of a visceral revulsion at the idea that trumps any intellectual arguments in it's favor. It's that emotional context that makes moral arguments so emotionally charged and in that revulsion, one can find an innate sense of what evil is.
Whether by God or by evolution, the brains of normal humans (as well as chimpanzees and other social animals) are built to viscerally and absolutely accept or reject certain decisions no matter how irrational they are, to find certain ideas shocking, to distinguish guilt and innocence, and to identify evil in acts and individuals. And the value of that innate sense of right and wrong and good and evil is clearly and spectacularly demonstrated by psychopaths who are not only often normal in every other way but highly intelligent, rational, and charismatic. Such people produce a disproportionate amount of pain, misery, suffering, and death in the world.
And the way you get a normal person to think like a psychopath and to excuse psychopathic behavior and ideas is to intellectualize morality and ignore the visceral response. As the Discover Magazine article points out, the intensity of the visceral response can depend on emotional attachment to the actors involved and there are practical reasons for that. It would be impractical to care for everyone in the world as deeply as people care for their friend and family and equally impractical to care as deeply about those guilty of evil or enemies as one does about friends and family. Yet that's exactly what many moral philosophers argue and it's becoming increasingly clear to me that this sort of aloof intellectualization produces a psychopathic way of looking at the world and it should be no surprise that such moral philosophy drifts toward amoral, morally relative, or even outright psychopathic thinking.
Philosophies like existentialism are something that only a psychopath (or normal person thinking like a psychopath) could appreciate and it's no mistake, in my opinion, that the two existentialist characters in the Firefly episode "Objects in Space" are a crazy girl with a broken mind and a psychopathic killer. And I think many normal people have an innate understanding that a person or creature devoid of an emotional moral response will inevitably be a monster, which is why characters like River in Firefly are inherently frightening and why sentient machines, sharks, and insects are so commonly depicted as monsters.

John Morrow said...

Everyone has that rational psychopathic "voice" in their head, often depicted as a devil sitting on a person's shoulder, providing a cold rational argument to excuse horrible things and in normal people, that voice is countered by a visceral revulsion at the idea of doing horrible things, often depicted as an angel sitting on a person's shoulder. Or call it Freud's Superego and Id, if that works better for you. It's why the creature of the Id is the monster in Forbidden Planet. An Id without a Superego to mitigate and moderate it produces a monster.
People know this viscerally because they know what they'd do if they didn't have a conscience, which psychopaths, machines, sharks, and insects, clearly don't. They don't intellectually understand that a serial killer or psychopathic con man is evil. They feel it an know it and readily identify it when asked, even when such people don't match the intellectual philosophical criteria for evil produced by many moral philosophers. Whether it's God or evolution, we are built to know and identify evil and to want to destroy or avoid it and it only abets evil to totally suppress those feelings.
You claim that as an agnostic, you don't claim to know if there is objective good or evil, yet I would bet that you either you really do know the difference and can feel it viscerally when considering moral decisions or you are a psychopath. As the article I posted a link to about psychopaths points out, normal people don't react to words like "murder" and "rape" the same way they react to "tree" and "comb" but psychopaths do react the same way. Normal people aren't existentialists and their moral landscape isn't infinitely malleable. Normal people understand the difference between violations of social convention and deeper moral violations, a distinction that psychopaths don't make. Yet moral philosophers and particularly moral relativists want us to look at all morality as social convention. To what end? What's the benefit of having everyone consider morality like a psychopath and why are people pushing that approach?
One last point. Moral relativists confuse what a culture does with what the people in that culture think is good. Thus if a one culture endorses slavery, infanticide, or pederasty and another culture rejects those things, that leads moral (cultural) relativists to argue that those things are not inherently right or wrong but are simply called right or wrong, good or evil, out of social convention. I think the evidence shows something very different. Cultures that practice things like slavery, infanticide, and pederasty always seem to have internal critics of those practices. People do things that they know aren't good and what people consider good and evil don't vary nearly as much as cultural practices do. And in the case of the Spartans and some other cultures, the culture is designed to crush a person's innate morality and turn people into psychopaths. So I would argue that you shouldn't fall into the trap of assuming that because moral practices vary significantly between cultures that the underlying innate morality in people varies to a similar degree. It doesn't.

Scott said...

"The pursuit of power for power's sake is one of the definitions of Evil."

In D&D terms, I'm pretty sure it wouldn't be. It would be Neutral. There's nothing inherently Evil about power, nor about desiring more of it. Evil comes in trampling on other people in order to achieve it, and in using it to further evil ends.

Of course, anyone who claims to be pursuing power "for power's sake" is either lying or insane, or operating from a frame of reference alien to humanity. People seek power because they perceive some use or benefit to it. Someone who claims to want the power itself is probably really after security -- which again is not necessarily Evil, and may very easily be Good.

Wolfboy said...

I guess the thing that you assume is that there are people in the roleplaying setting who clearly represent Evil (which moreover has to exist as an absolute force, rather than an adjective used to describe people or their actions). This is what seems to me to be confused in the thinking behind "orc-murder" comments.

In Tolkien, Orcs are corrupted Elves, and are inherently hateful and evil. If you continue this line of thinking, and strap something like the D&D alignment system onto it to boot, the concept of "orc-murder" doesn't make a lot of sense.

I'm personally not a big fan of the concept of Evil as a force - I believe it makes sense to talk about someone behaving in an evil way, but I don't believe there's such a thing as Evil (in the sense of an alignment).

The way I'd get around it (and I don't know how useful this line of thinking is to you) is firstly, to probably not play a fantasy setting/system. Fantasy seems to have hard/polar Good/Evil dichotomies built in more often than other genres in my experience. The other thing I'd do is set up conflicting agendas rather than conflicting moral stand-points as a starting position. I'd feel perfectly free to go into morality based on the action of one side or the other once the situation was rolling.
For example - let's say we have nomadic orcs and city-dwelling humans. Neither side starts out good or evil, but a conflict begins over who has access to some resource, say grazing land wanted for civil expansion. The conduct of each side in this conflict sets the moral conditions from this point on.
I suspect the confusion in thinking and argument we've seen in comments on this blog stems from trying to do something like I've described with a system geared more to the idea of Good and Evil as powers to be served than adjectives to describe actions.

thanuir said...

John Morrow;

Most people certainly have visceral reaction to something (this can be shown by experiments and I have no reason to doubt your word). Calling this something evil, however, is not something that can be done by science.

Confounding psychopathy and existentialism I find strange at best; existentialism tells there is no inherent meaning in the world and people need to make their own; further, they are responsible for what cause they take, so no excuses like "god made me do it" or "I was just born or raised that way".

Can you explain what you mean by refusing to judge something as Good or Evil? With all the capitalisation, I assume you mean them as forces or entities of some sort.

Moral relativism does not prevent one from judging things as undesirable or desirable; the objectivity of such judgements is what is denied.

What do you see as traditional moral values?

There are certain problems with wholesale orc slaughtering; namely, say there is a tribe of orcs living in the nearby hills and they've been raiding the countryside. Can all of them be killed with no moral issues? Not all of them have participated in the raids. If we are playing third edition of D&D, they are something like "usually chaotic evil", which means that there probably are some non-evil orcs in there. This is a moot point if the orcs indeed are creatures of inherent and utter evil, much like in Tolkien.

There are also racist undertones in the treatment of non-humans in general, which makes especially slaughtering them somewhat problematic. Replace "orcs" with "(cannibalistic) black men" in the example above to see what I mean. (The noble savage treatment is also problematic.)

Gleichman said...

Scott: It is difficult for me to express how very little I care about D&D alignment in this exchange.

And how sad it is to see it brought up as examples of Good & Evil.

As for why one would seek power, the answer if very clear. To enforce their desires upon others.

No matter those desires, that very goal is evil.

Wolfboy: It has nothing to do with system, it has everything to do with real life people losing touch with basic morality.

thanuir: Without an objective standard (be it hardwired as John suggests, declared by the culture, or drawn from religion) there is no value to the judgement of the moral relativist.

If you wish to declare your self without value. Please feel free.

That declaring a person valueless is one of the primary steps of evil shouldn't deterr you in the least.

After all, if they end up sending you to the ovens- they were as right as not by your viewpoint.

Scott said...

@Gleichman: Considering the post that started the exchange was about a D&D game, I'd have to question why you saw fit to write a response to it, if you don't care.

As for power, enforcing one's will upon others is certainly a use for it. It's not always an evil use, particularly not in a fantasy world. "I want to become powerful and protect my village from the marauding orcs who continually raid it" is definitely enforcing one's will upon the orcs, but just as definitely not evil -- especially not from a morally-absolute point of view that recognizes "Orcs are Evil."

John Morrow said...

It's not that people have a visceral reactions but that those reactions follow predictable patterns and can be found even in non-human animals. And the visceral reaction also follows a predictable pattern (it produces shock and disgust). And the people who do those things are predictably identified as evil by normal people. What more do you want? Please note that I'm not equating psychopaths with evil. What I am saying is that normal people viscerally know good from evil and that the absence of those visceral feelings or the suppression or ignoring of those visceral feelings does not lead to neutral behavior. It leads to evil behavior.
As far as I can tell, science is doing a far better job of identifying what evil is than moral philosophers who seem to get further and further from the mark the more they intellectualize the question. For example, trying to define good and evil self-referentially leads to the false belief (that seems to lie at the heart of moral relativism) that everyone thinks of themselves and what they do as good rather than when there is plenty of evidence to the contrary.
Yes, existentialism tells that there is no inherent meaning in the world and people need to make their own. Normal people don't experience the world like that. Psychopaths do. From the article Psychopaths Among Us (link posted earlier):
In another Hare study, groups of letters were flashed to volunteers. Some of them were nonsense, some formed real words. The subject's job was to press a button whenever he recognized a real word, while Hare recorded response time and brain activity. Non-psychopaths respond faster and display more brain activity when processing emotionally loaded words such as "rape" or "cancer" than when they see neutral words such as "tree." With psychopaths, Hare found no difference. To them, "rape" and "tree" have the same emotional impact -- none. describes Antisocial Personality Disorder like this: (Antisocial Personality Disorder is yet another name for psychopathy):
Psychopaths regard other people as mere objects to be manipulated - as instruments, tools, or sources of benefits and utility.
For normal people, much of the world and words around them have an emotional and moral context. The meaning isn't something that normal people make, it's something they naturally experience. The meaning of words, object, and acts are not arbitrary for a normal person. But for a psychopath, the emotional and moral context of everything is arbitrary and is a blank slate that the psychopath has to consciously assign meaning to. Psychopaths live in an existentialist world where words, things, and even people have no inherent meaning except what the psychopath decides to give them. And while existentialist thinking may make one responsible for their own actions, intellectual reason unrestrained by a moral or emotional context tends to produce monstrous behavior. Want to know what it looks like when a person drowns? Kick an infant into a pool and pull up a chair. (That's something a 9 year-old psychopath actually did to a young "friend".)
Psychopaths are not only willing to take responsibility for their monstrous actions but sometimes even brag about them. But what good is taking responsibility without a moral context or remorse for doing wrong?

John Morrow said...

You argue that there are problems with wholesale orc slaughter but that depends on the nature of the orcs. If the orcs are free moral agents, then they are essentially human beings in funny masks. If, however, orcs are inherently cruel, murderous, and destructive, then they are something very different.
While I think D&D 3.5 has a very good definition of alignments on the Good to Evil axis, I think it tries to have things both ways. It tries to simultaneously present evil as nature and evil as nurture, probably to keep everyone happy. But I think in trying to please everyone, they wind up causing more problems than they solve. And I would argue (and have done this myself) that the GM needs to decide the moral landscape of their game. If the PCs take an orc baby home and treat it kindly, can it grow up to become a Paladin or will it inevitably become a murderous monster that will kill the PCs in their sleep the first chance it gets?
One mistake I do think that many people make is that they play evil that's not really evil. The D&D alignment system talks about what the alignments do, not what they think. I once got someone very angry with me in an online discussion because I argued that good characters make personal sacrifices to help others, they don't simply think about making personal sacrifices to save others or mail in a donation. The person in question wanted to think about themselves as good and didn't like the hurdle set above what they were willing to do personally. Similarly, D&D talks about evil characters hurting and killing others, not thinking about it. When one talks about radiating an alignment aura, I think it's reasonable that that aura comes from deeds, not words, and another option is is to assign alignment on the basis of deeds. But, in that case, as with the case of innate evil, there is no such thing as benign evil, harmless evil, or mild evil. Such evil is not something that you tolerate or coexist with.
And to that end, I think the D&D alignment system, by including neutral, is quite clever. Neutral is not good but also not evil. Neutral people (according to the D&D 3.5 SRD) act out of self-interest and personal relationships but still have compunctions about killing innocents. In other words, they might not be willing to make self-sacrifices or go out of their way to help others and might even wrong people, but they have a conscience. They aren't psychopaths and aren't irredeemably evil. Evil people, on the other hand, enjoy hurting and killing. They have no compunctions about doing it and may even go out of their way to do it.
As for the "racist undertones", I would argue that you are looking at the problem in reverse. Monstrous traits are attributed by racists to various groups because those traits are legitimately menacing and frightening. Nobody wants to live next door to a neighbor that's going to murder them, eat them, rape their women, carry off their children, and so on. These are the traits of a monster or bogeyman and those traits are attributed to racial and ethnic groups in order to encourage people to fear and hate them because they are legitimate reasons to fear and hate others. The traits, themselves, are not inherently racists. They feel racist because they have unfortunately been used toward racist ends. Or to put this another way, orcs really are the monsters that racists claim other races are. But if you humanize the orcs and make them people in funny masks, then you find yourself right back where the racists are. But it's a mistake to assume that everyone does that or wants to do that.

thanuir said...

Gleichman, you said:

"Without an objective standard (be it hardwired as John suggests, declared by the culture, or drawn from religion) there is no value to the judgement of the moral relativist."

That is only true if you assume the value would have to come from somewhere but the individual people making judgements. That is; moral relativism is not inconsistent in the way you are suggesting. It only looks suspicious when looked at from the outside.

(Agnosticism is not relativism.)

John Morrow;

I am not saying that it is wrong to call what provokes the visceral reactions evil; I am saying that it is not something that science can do. I think that it is a reasonable way to define evil. Science is about observations, while naming things is essentially arbitrary; you can't falsify a name. At most you can say that most people find or do not find it intuitive.

As for existentialism; I like helping people and act accordingly. I dislike hurting people and act accordingly. Still, I don't think the world has inherent meaning. If it has, someone has neglected to inform me of the fact (in a suitably persuasive manner). Am I an evil existentialist, given how I must assign meaning to the world in order to function properly and have a direction to my life?

On D&D alignment: I personally see little point in alignment systems, but do agree with your criticism of that in D&D.

On racism: I am unqualified and right now uninterested in having the discussion. Suffice to say, people of colour find the situation problematic and I think they have a good reason. You can find out more by googling for racefail 09 and reading.

John Morrow said...

While you can't falsify a name, you can test how humans and non-humans make social and moral decisions and what their brains are doing while they make those decisions and what sorts of mental processes people apply moral and social words to. So while science can't falsify "evil" (or "love" or "disgusting"), it can observe what brains are doing when they describe or experience those things. Further, when dealing with the meaning of any word, that people do or don't find it intuitive is essentially how you prove or falsify a definition.

John Morrow said...

On existentialism, I made the parenthetical point that a normal person thinking like a psychopath could appreciate. Unless you are a psychopath, I doubt you really live your life as if the world has no inherent meaning and that any meaning it has was assigned by you. For example, you claim that the world has no inherent meaning yet you tell me "I dislike hurting people and act accordingly". You dislike hurting people because you are normal. Normal people all grasp the idea that hurting innocent people has moral meaning and it's a bad thing to do and you have to ignore that meaning that you seem quite aware of in order to make the claim that it has no meaning. In other words, instead of looking at hurting people the normal way, that it has inherent meaning and is wrong, you've decided to write that inherent meaning off as a personal dislike even though you just happen to share the same exact dislike with billions of other people as well as social animals like monkeys and dogs. So to make the claim that the world has no inherent meaning, you have intellectually ignore your innate emotional moral sense and look at the world like a psychopath, that no meaning can be found in moral feelings and that any moral feelings you might have as simply an arbitrary personal preference.
I don't believe you consciously assign meaning to the world around you in order to function properly because you'd know if you had to do that or you'd be dead. For example, there are a small number of people who don't innately feel danger and thus have to consciously recognize when they are putting themselves in danger. Such people might walk out into a busy street or grab a knife by the blade and not realize what they are doing is going to get them hurt until it's too late. Unless you have that sort of problem, then I'm going to find it difficult to believe that you really inhabit a world with no inherent meaning and don't rely on such inherent meanings to live a productive life. If you really had to assign meaning to the world around you, your life would be very difficult and I'd find it odd that your preferences for helping and hurting people would be more a matter of indifference (like a psychopath) than like and dislike. That like and dislike is your moral conscious speaking with the meanings it inherently assigns those acts. It's not simply an aesthetic choice, nor is it arbitrary. Through the study of brain damaged people, we know what happens when people become unhinged from innate meaning and the results are rarely a well-functioning person.
Here is another article on recent research on how people think that covers some areas beyond simply moral decisions. What should stand out is that when you remove all of the innate, unconscious, and irrational elements that go into making normal decisions, the decision making process breaks down, sometimes entirely. That is, when people go into making a decision with no meaning or preference, they not only can't make good decisions but often can't make decisions at all. And even when people have brain damage that makes it impossible for them to consciously understand what they are seeing, they can make decisions based on their innate understanding of the meaning. Babies startle when being dropped because their bodies interpret that feeling as danger, even long before they might understand what any of that means intellectually. Monkeys get angry when they are cheated just like humans do, so how is it that all normal monkeys and all normal humans apply the same meaning to the same social situations if those situations have no inherent meaning?

John Morrow said...

By the way, the reason I understand this quite personally has to do with conversations I've had about role-playing in the past. Advocates of diceless role-playing have told me that the way to make decisions without dice is to "just decide" or give me equally useless advices such as "just do what's the most fun". The problem is that when it comes to making decisions about what happens next in a role-playing game, I often truly have no preference for what happens next. And in such situations, I find it impossible to make a decision. I've experienced it and that's what an absence of preference or meaning feels like. It's easy to imagine but something else to really experience it.
As for racism and "people of color", "people with color" don't all think the same way any more than white people do. But since you don't want to discuss that, I'll let it go.

Wolfboy said...

You're right - it's not system in this case, it's setting. Part of the setting in Tolkien (and by extension D&D) is the idea of Evil as a force. In such a setting, people who ignore Evil side with it by default.

In a setting where evil is an adjective applied to people/beings as a result of their actions (more like the world we live in) there are some people (like psychopaths) who are clearly describable as evil. However, psychopaths are in the vast minority compared to people whose actions are selfish, stupid or simply misguided/short-sighted and have evil consequences.
In such a setting (or in the real world) I'm less happy with the idea of killing people who represent "evil" because for the most part it's unnecessary.

Gleichman said...

@Wolfboy: I find your attempt to assume much of a link between D&D and Middle Earth morality to born of ignorance of at least the latter and perhaps both.

Beyond that, you've hit on why I used a cap 'E', I wasn't talking about "selfish, stupid or simply misguided", as bad as those are- they don't rise to the level of what most people consider Evil.

Try murder, rape, mass killings and the like.

After all, few rpgs focus on the heroes opposing jay walkers.

Gleichman said...

thanuir said...: "That is only true if you assume the value would have to come from somewhere but the individual people making judgements."

The individual has no value except that he give himself, that is your standing in this.

And thus, looking at things from that PoV- I declare you wihout any value at all- and would see you hit by a car than say a stray dog.

And in so doing I'm as correct about your value as you are.

Ugly world you've made for yourself. Luckly for you, people of different views are keeping you from living in it.

Pity really. I think you could learn something if you did live in that world for a while.

Gleichman said...

Scott said... : " Considering the post that started the exchange was about a D&D game"

The post referenced my posts here, and wasn't it seems D&D related as a) it didn't say so, and b) didn't even speak to Law and Chaos.

Just Good, Evil and Power.

And stop being disingenuous. When someone says that they are ignoring Good and Evil and only caring about power- take them at their word and stop inserting your own.

Wolfboy said...

The link between Tolkien and D&D is in the idea of Good and Evil as forces in a contest for world domination. I don't think it's entirely inaccurate to refer to Middle Earth, as Gygax et. al. borrowed from Middle Earth along with everything else when they set up the alignment framework.

The bit that Middle Earth lacks is the Law-Chaos axis, which again comes from fiction as they arguably lifted it from Michael Moorcock.

I agree that in a D&D context you're mostly going to be worrying about Evil, but I think it's a bit of a straw man to count jaywalkers as an example of evil.

Small 'e' evil would relate much more to someone who does a lot of public good, but is harmful in their personal relationships (say, manipulative rather than violent - because I'm trying to keep the waters at least a bit cloudy here).

People like that are far more common in our world than Paladins or Anti-Paladin/psychopaths. Ditto people who engage in unlawful behaviour (say, theft or robbery rather than jaywalking) for reasons other than their personal inclinations toward depravity (and who may be good in the context of, say dealing with their own children).

Wolfboy said...

That being said, I agree with you initial post, just in case that wasn't clear. Alex (that was his name, right?) does seem to want it both ways.

I would suggest to him that if he wants a morally-greyer game, he shouldn't really be playing or running D&D or anything else that has a moral axis hard-written into the character creation system. Or, as you suggest, admit that his "Machiavellian" NPCs are either Lawful Evil or Lawful Neutral.

thanuir said...

John Morrow;

Regards your first post: I mostly agree, except that you don't prove definitions, you simply set them (or have them come to be in the course of history, as it usually goes).

On meaning: It seems to be a semantic confusion. By meaning of life I mean the purpose of we existing and living. That certain things are desirable or undesirable does not equal, to my mind, meaning. Not in any deep sense, at least.

On dice: They are nice in that they take away the burden of arbitrary decisions. Making arbitrary decisions is a skill, though, and one I think is worth learning. I'd like to GM a diceless game properly some times. Maybe ruleless variant of Nobilis.

You said: "The individual has no value except that he give himself, that is your standing in this."

You are wrong. My standing, should you wish to know it, is that the word value does not really apply to people unless given a strict definition. All, or almost all, people have value as objects, though treating humans only as objects is one popular way of defining evil (for example, Kant). Do people have value in some metaphysical sense? Maybe, but I certainly don't know. Do I value people? Yes, I put value in people, in their potential of perfecting themselves and expressing themselves, to be more exact. This is very different from people only having the value that they give themselves, or only having the value that others give them. The "maybe" is genuine.

I live on the world as is. Maybe there is an underlying metaphysical value to people (maybe to dogs, maybe to ants; I don't know). Maybe it is reflected in the way I assign value to things, maybe not. I don't know.

John Morrow said...


Concerning not providing definitions, part of my point is that I don't think normal people need them. I think normal people know good and evil, even if they don't always apply them to situations the same way and even if the purposely blind themselves to that knowledge. I think people are being taught to suppress their visceral moral understanding because they believe there is something wrong with it and I think psychopaths demonstrate that doing so is a big mistake and will not produce more moral behavior. On the contrary, a detached, clinical, and utilitarian approach to people produced horrific atrocities.

Concerning meaning, from what I understand about existentialism, it goes far beyond what you are talking about. See the Firefly episode Objects in Space. The name of the episode (Objects in Space) and the speculation about meaning provided through River and Jubal Early were a conscious exploration of the sort of existentialism and were inspired by Jean-Paul Sartre. You can Google for more details.

As for learning how to make arbitrary decisions, my point is that you can't. If the decision is truly arbitrary and a person has absolutely no preference for one choice over the other, then there is no way to pick one from the other. That's exactly what studies of brain damaged individuals show.

The only way to learn how to make an "arbitrary" decision is to learn how to make it a non-arbitrary decision and determine a preference for one over the other. That mirrors the advice that I've often gotten about making diceless decisions that are more detailed than "just do it". They usually suggest making the decision that will produce the "most fun" or the "best story" or the decision that's "most interesting" or "most obvious" but none of those suggestions really help me because I'm either not thinking of the game that way (story), can imagine an of the choices being equally fun or interesting and find obvious, and find consistently predictable or obvious decisions inherently unfun.

Further, I want to be surprised and want to surprise (I was once told that when I started co-GMing a game, it stopped being predictable) and I can't do that with formulaic decisions. I don't want the players trying to pay the GM to figure out what I'll do next. And I like being surprised, myself, as the GM. So there are also other reasons why I don't find diceless decisions particularly desirable as a player or GM.

thanuir said...

Just testing, don't mind me.

thanuir said...

Blogger is acting strange. Maybe this comment comes through, too.

John Morrow;

Definitions are useful for carefully investigating and analysing concepts, as well as for communication. (Also, mathematics.)

When (and it when, not if) I want to investigate existentialism I will do it by reading Sartre and Camus et al, not by watching random TV series.

The way one deals with arbitrary decisions is by making them not arbitrary. We don't disagree on that point.

In context of roleplaying, my heuristics are to go for the most uncertainty: Move the game to most uncertainty, typically by letting other people influence the direction it takes as much as possible. (I also have other heuristics, but this is one of the less obvious ones.)

Many people taking the obvious way lead to unpredictable results. Roleplaying games can be seen as a chaotic system, since rarely the same things are obvious to a given group of people.