Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Exploring Morality with Dungeons and Dragons

So as I’ve mentioned in, like, my first post, for a period in my life I was convinced there was some sort of perfect objective morality system out there that’s already been discovered by Philosophy’s greats and I just needed to discover it for myself via research.  Then I remembered that’s silly, all of reality is ultimately subjective, and it’s up to each of us to make our own morality systems.  Well I finally invented one for myself!!!  And much like how my personal beliefs in God coincidentally resembles the Force from Star Wars, my new morality system happens to follow the Dungeons and Dragons alignment system from the 1st through 3rd editions.  Disclaimer:  I’m fully aware of the inherent silliness that reducing a subject as complicated as morality is into a 2 axis system is.  I also know that anyone who’s not a stubborn moron changes their own opinions frequently throughout life, so I’m sure I’ll think the following ethics system I’m laying out is ridiculous within a few years.  But suck it, morality is subjective, and present-me is very is pleased as punch with this. 
For those of you unfamiliar with the D&D alignment system, it’s how one categorizes their character’s personal code of ethics.  There are two axises (axii?), Good and Evil, and Lawful and Chaotic.  Therefore there are nine alignments total, in a combination that looks like this:
It's always best to explain things with Batman.
This one's a little easier to read though.
                So anyway.  Back to me.  If you’re anything like me, you often hit little moments of clarity where you think “Oh yeah, that’s TOTALLY the way the world works and would be a good way to live my life!” But then you realize that when you look at the big picture, that idea has a shit-ton of flaws.  “Well gosh”, you might say.  “That inspirational speech in that movie/paragraph in a Ann Rand novel/lecture from my grandpa/stand-up comedy bit made so much sense to me!!! But it’s just too simplistic to live life by!!!  Whatever shall I do?!?!”  Well look no further!  I’ve realized that if I generalize the most convincing arguments/my own ideas about Life, the Universe, and Everything, they fit four categories that resemble the D&D alignment system EERILY well!  For your amusement:

Good:  This can be generalized as caring for your fellow human beings.  Empathy, if you must have a one word description.  Who can deny that there is something intrinsically right about helping others? From the classic helping an old lady cross the street to doing volunteer work throughout the world, sacrificing your time and energy for the good of other people helps you feel good and helps them feel good.  Not to mention the fact that altruism does occur in species other than humans, and benefits are almost also reaped by the practicing species as a whole.  Self-sacrifice for others is possibly the noblest way to live one’s life.
Cons: For the good of the species?  What about for the good of me?  I have just as much duty, if not more so, to my own DNA then to my fellow man.  What do you want me to do, give all my money to the government in taxes so that crackheads and the shiftless people can cheat the system and grab that sweet welfare money for themselves?  And why should I worry about the starving in Africa when I have myself and my family to feed?  Also, a person who self-sacrifices everything for everyone else soon has nothing left to give to others whereas as person who takes care of their own issues/needs first has more to give to others over time.  While a utopian society where everyone helps out each other is a nice thought, there are too many selfish people in this world that would take advantage of the selfless, meaning that trying to help the world is just pissing in the wind. 

Evil: Let’s face it: you don’t own anyone else JACK SHIT. Not only is the world filled with assholes that don’t deserve your help, but you theoretically can’t even prove anyone else but yourself even exists.  So why not worry about just yourself then?  You might want to call this one Selfishness, but I call it Apathy.  Just don’t give a fuck about all that outside noise and worry about your own business.  And as many fans of Nietzsche, Ann Rand, or the 1% can attest to, the world would be great if everyone just minded their own business and worked on satisfying their own self-interests.  Then we’d have a society of super awesome super men who deserved the luxuries they have because they EARNED them, while the have-nots have only themselves to blame.  You have to work hard (or smart (read as: taking advantage of people)) for what you want, and if you can’t cut it then you get nothing and you deserve to be poor.   Survival of the fittest, baby.  And those who say that altruism holds an important place in evolution just remember who benefits the most in those situations: cheaters!

http://sci-ence.org/cheater/  Great webcomic, check it out.  Like xkcd with only the science-y bits.
Cons: Really?  The world would be a better place if the cheaters always got their way with no society imposed limits?  The rich earned what they have without any support besides their own?  If you really think that you’re extremely childish, short sighted, and not even worth arguing with (okay fine I will: rich people, there’s like a billion people who helped you, your parents for one, your teachers for two, must I go on?).  And even if you’re the best at being a living organism by surviving and spreading your DNA through cheating and selfishness, what’s the fucking point?  All you’re doing is perpetuating the 3.8 billion year system of RNA molecules replicating themselves.  Life is nothing more that advanced chemical photocopying.  Maybe being human means adding something more to that process; rising above simple survival to make something greater.  Together.

Lawful: Organization.  The Man.  No matter how you look at it, systems tend to organize themselves, whether it’s salt molecules forming crystals or groups of humans forming government.  Even when anarchy takes hold, organization always arises from the chaos again.  Longtime readers will know from my environmental posts that I don’t like using the term “natural”, but organization just seems so, well, natural.  Building something together with other beings to make something bigger than just a single individual has something grand about it.  I find this hard to put into a single word.  Honor?  Seriousness?  The point is, there are some things in this world that are worth the effort and sincerity, whether be an anime club that binds local geeks with similar interests in a fraternity, or a government that cares for the needs of its people. 
Cons: You want to talk about natural?  What’s more natural then chaos?  Entropy is one of the natural laws of the universe.  And what about THE MAN, dude?  That guy’s a dick.  Human governments always are wildly mismanaged at best, and take advantage of its citizens at worst.  Trying to form a stable organization or even following a personal code of ethics like, I dunno, following the rules at school or work is impossible to achieve in the long-term, and is even more like pissing in the wind then being nice to people is.

Chaotic:  Chaos seems to be one of the main laws of the universe.  In fact, it’s the Second Law of Thermodynamics.  Systems always seem to break down as soon as they hit their peak efficiency.  There’s something beautiful and natural about chaos.  Libertarians will argue that society works best if people are more or less left to their own devices, and anarchists will go so far as to say society itself is inherently unnatural.  Existentialists will argue that only the individual can find their own meaning to life, and a nihilist will go so far as to say that there is no meaning to life in any case (and an absurdist, a philosophical term that I’m pretty sure only exists in the world of Wikipedia, says it’s absurd to even try to find meaning in life).  I have my own personal spin on this.  I’m a HUUUUUUGE fan of comedy.  Favorite genre; love everything from the “stupid stuff” like physical comedy to the more subtle and complex forms like satire, as long as it’s done well (despite what people think, “stupid humor” can actually be very smart when done by the right people like the Three Stooges, Will Ferrell, etc.).  The one underlying theme of Comedy (besides amusement) is this: mocking the negatives of the established systems that terrorize us humans.  As Cracked.com once put it, “Comedy is the art of making people laugh at their miserable existence.  Sometimes it can make people think too.”  I’d hope most of you reading this know that when chimps make a smiling expression, it actually means they’re terrified, right (all those chimps in film are pretty much being abused in the shot to make them look like they’re smiling)?  Well evolutionary psychologists have hypothesized that human laughter/smiling what-have you developed in situations of false-terror.  For example, when a group of hominids heard a rustle in the bushes, one guy would go check it out, see that it was a squirrel, make the terror face to fuck with the others,  and then when the squirrel popped out everyone would be like “Fuck Jim, you totally had us going for a minute there!!”.
Jim's such an asshole.
That’s right.  Comedy evolved from trolling.  And comedy continues to be that way today, from us laughing at pratfalls on, to the Daily Show poking holes through our government’s silly-ness, to the bits of more dark humor like rape jokes.  All of us know that rape is real, terrible, and way too common in society, but that’s a disgustingly hard fact to live with.  Joking about terrible things like rape helps us to relax and excise our inner fears and demons.  I have two personal (and fictional) heroes when it comes to this subject.  Marco, from that old book series the Animorphs, explained that the reason he was always joking was because life is inherently ridiculous; people fight bloody wars over patches of sandy desert.  How is that not funny?  Pinkie Pie from My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic has a more primal understanding of comedy:

Cons: You know another character I like who has a similar outlook on life as Marco but should in no way be a role model?  The Joker.  In Alan Moore’s famous, character-defining story The Killing Joke, the Joker tells Batman that chaos is the only thing that makes sense. 

“Do you know how many times we’ve come close to World War Three over a flock of geese on a computer screen?  Do you know what triggered the last World War? An argument over how many telegraph poles Germany owed its war debt creditors! Telegraph poles! HA HA HA HA HA!” 

The Joker has a point, but his reaction to this fact of life is… killing people for fun?  There are some things that should be sacred, and most could agree that human life is one of them.  The most common complaint against satirists like Jon Stewart or South Park is that they can joke and joke about what’s wrong with society, but at the end of the day they never offer solutions.  Comedy and Chaos break down the organized and pompous, but they never build anything of value themselves.  Sarcasm literally means “to tear flesh”, aka, emotional flesh.  Comedy is a chasm, which, while refreshing and necessary just like entropy, would leave us all with nothing if left on its own.  There needs to be something worthwhile to our lives or all this is pointless.
                So put this all together and we get a similar morality chart to D&D’s.  As you should be able to tell by now my favorite way to examine reality is through reductionism.  Wikipedia definition :
Reductionism can mean either (a) an approach to understanding the nature of complex things by reducing them to the interactions of their parts, or to simpler or more fundamental things or (b) a philosophical position that a complex system is nothing but the sum of its parts, and that an account of it can be reduced to accounts of individual constituents.”. 
That’s just the western scientist in me, it’s how I like to think; I think you can figure out a lot about something by taking it apart and see what it’s based on.  But I’m no fool, and I understand the benefits of holism:
Holism is the idea that natural systems (physical, biological, chemical, social, economic, mental, linguistic etc.) and their properties, should be viewed as wholes, not as collections of parts. This often includes the view that systems somehow function as wholes and that their functioning cannot be fully understood solely in terms of their component parts.
                Only by taking a holistic approach to this completed chart can you live a balanced life.  Most people realize that too much of anything is bad, so I’d recommend trying to live a life balanced between my terms of Good and Evil, Lawful and Chaotic.  Let’s talk about True Neutral in D&D for a sec.  Most Non-Playable Characters are True Neutral, not out of some personal philosophical code but just by doing whatever benefits their situation at the moment.  They’re not saints but wouldn’t pass a dying person on the street; not villains but would resort to petty theft if they got a good chance.  They follow the rules most of the time, but break them when it’s appropriate.  I’d say almost everyone in real life is like this too.  I find this unacceptable.  Living an unexamined life and just acting without really considering the moral backing behind their decisions is not befitting a sentient creature.  I say we try to be like the rare True Neutral monks or clerics of D&D, who know that life is about balancing those four cardinal attributes of morality. 
                That being said, I’m not living this new moral system of mine as much as I’d like.  Throughout my life in general, I follow the rules “The Man” makes pretty well like a good little boy, even as I sneer about said rules to my peers.  I tried to be a tough asshole as a kid and as an adult try to remember the legitimacy of living an apathetic life, but can’t help but be nice and caring sometimes.  On the flip side of the coin, I can’t bring myself to be a true good person; I’m a dick most of the time.  I’m a mess who can’t stick to any moral code, just like the rest of the non-introspective True Neutral out there.  Well, the Lawful side of me likes charts, so maybe this chart will help me stick to this complicated moral code system.  One question I still have is this: Does this enlightened state of balancing Good/Evil/Lawful/Chaotic have to be achieved a certain way?  As in, would I have to do a little of each?  None of any of it?  Or do a lot of each which will balance itself out?  I think I can do the latter quite well, I can always put myself first in all things but help my friends and community whenever possible, and mock every organized system that I find silly but still strive to better my personal reality with involvement in things like the geek community and local government.  This seems the most ridiculous and contradictory way of doing things, but it’s the way of living I can do most easily.  Kinda like the way I strive for androgyny but being into manly man things and girly girl things at the same time instead of being unisex.  I dunno.  Life is hard, living by a personal code of ethics is even harder, and learning to balance things is hardest.  BUT IT’S STILL WORTH IT.

1 comment:

  1. Great post! You describe my feeling of Systematic Theology: good guideposts and neat that people spent so much time on it, but I'll never subscribe fully to one system as it's reductionist. I'm in to holistic.

    On my talk on zombie theology, we had a discussion as to whether zombies were evil or not. I used the D&D alignment chart to argue that they are a neutral evil. Love your thoughts on them.

    Life is complicated and messy. Our models and metaphors don't quite describe it but they often help when we're in a bind. Keep striving dawg! I'll keep reading!