Real World Alignments

by Ran Prieur

December 5, 2006

Creative Commons License
Alignment is a system in role-playing games to put characters in categories based on their moral behaviors and personalities. The most famous one is the Dungeons & Dragons alignment system. Basically your character can be chaotic, neutral, or lawful, and then good, neutral, or evil, for nine total categories, such as lawful good or chaotic neutral.

It works well enough for the game, but it's always made me uneasy. Gamers have high intelligence, but not always high wisdom, and I fear that some of them are going to gain real power in the real world and make serious mistakes by projecting poorly-thought-out ideas of good and evil and law and chaos on a universe that's not like that at all.

First, good and evil. The alignment section of the third edition Player's Handbook mentions "a paladin who fights evil without mercy," and lawful evil characters who "take pleasure in spreading evil as an end unto itself." Sure, but you know who else thought he was fighting evil without mercy, and never for a moment thought he was spreading evil? Hitler! Even when evil people are fully aware that they're enjoying selfishness and domination and abuse, they don't think of themselves as "spreading evil." They might think of themselves as winners in a might-makes-right world, or as ambitious hedonists taking pleasures that normal people don't understand, or they just think they're on the side of good. In the real world, the desire to call something "evil" and destroy it is evil -- that's even a pretty good definition.

Law and chaos are even trickier. From the same section, the chaotic neutral character "avoids authority, resents restrictions, and challenges traditions." Sure, and then he moves away from his parents, gets addicted to drugs or deep in debt, and spends the rest of his life doing what people tell him at a series of crappy jobs. My point is, no one is chaotic in the D&D sense. If you have friends over 35 who are successfully avoiding authority and living free, they probably have something that is not at all "chaotic": exceptional self-discipline.

In D&D, self-discipline and obedience to authority are lumped together under "lawful" -- but they're opposites! If you have one, you don't need the other. And if you have neither, you want to live free, but in practice you'll get eaten up by the first control system that comes along.

So we have at least three law categories: Self-Regulated means you can navigate the world as an individual, that you're able to go through life making good choices and feeling satisfied without any external structure guiding you. This is a lot like D&D chaotic, except that self-discipline has been pried loose from the obedient side and put on the free side where it belongs.

Obedient people love being under a control system. They have no reason to develop self-discipline because someone is always telling them what to do. If they lose one master, they feel aimless and uneasy until they find another.

Unregulated people do not like being controlled, but are unable to manage themselves. They need structure but can't find any that feels good to them. It's as if they're looking for a kind of law that they can't find...

I think there's a fourth category. Our culture tells us that our only options are extreme individualism, obedience to central authority, and total disharmonious chaos. But ecologists, systems theorists, and people who have experienced it first hand know that you can merge yourself into something greater that is not hierarchical but is very much ordered. It's a reasonable assumption that this is the consciousness of nature, that when a flock of birds moves, each bird experiences itself both as an individual and as part of a whole that has a mind of its own. This is a whole different kind of lawfulness, which I call Belonging.

Now, what are the relations between these categories? How does one move from one to the other? Let's start with Belonging, since it seems to be where we actually started. The best primitive tribes (we'll get to the worst ones later) have a unified mode of awareness that we can barely imagine. The anthropologist E. Richard Sorenson wrote a great essay about it, Preconquest Consciousness. He not only observed their incredible synergy and effortless peaceful culture, but observed it breaking down from too much contact with the negative emotions of outsiders: "They had no formal social structure, therefore no stable social safety net to hold them all together when affect-rapport gave way. When it did... they were bereft, existentially desolated."

So Belonging breaks down into Unregulated. We can see the same thing happening with wild animals when they're taken out of nature, or when nature itself is in upheaval. And the same thing happens to us as infants! We're born with the potential for integration to a Belonging culture, and in the absence of one, we quickly become unhappy, selfish, "normal" babies. Then, as we've already seen, and whether we're talking about nonhumans or infants or broken tribal people, the Unregulated are assimilated as Obedient. Some become true believers in their particular control system, and others are never quite assimilated, and remain ineffective rebels.

So how do we get to Self-Regulated? I don't know of any studies, so I'm going to guess. To learn self-regulation, you first have to be denied Belonging, or else you'll have no reason to learn any other way. Possibly you could start with Belonging and have it gradually withdrawn. Then, at some time in your life, and better when you're young, you need to be sheltered from control, and also sheltered from making fatal mistakes with your freedom. Eventually, self-regulation emerges to fill the vacuum.

How often does this happen? Is it getting more common? Are humans evolving toward self-regulation? Or is it just a surface phenomenon in a world of Obedience? Will we complete the circle to a new Belonging? Or, when our Obedience-based system breaks down -- as they always do -- will we just pass back into Unregulated, and from there bounce back and forth between the poles of Belonging and Obedience forever?

As a philosopher, I want to know what the human potential is, where we can go from here. As a gamer, I need to know whether to draw the categories in a line or a ring! I'm tempted to draw a ring and inspire people with the hope that Self-Regulated will pass again into Belonging. But I have to be honest: I've never heard of any person or society passing directly between Self-Regulated and Belonging. They appear to be the stable poles framing an ugly center.

If they're poles, I'd like to draw them as poles instead of boxes on a chart. Imagine a sphere. At one pole is Belonging, then around that pole is Unregulated, which blurs into Obedient in the middle, and if you can get through it to the other pole, you're at Self-Regulated. Except now I want to put unregulated at the equator, with different kinds of order increasing toward the poles. Also between Unregulated and Belonging, we need another category for the barbaric primitive people.

Finally, it would be nice to have something like good and evil. Originally I was thinking of a grid, like the D&D system, with the law categories in one direction and something like good and evil in the other. But this system is not value-neutral -- the poles are better! So I want to add a new element that explains movement toward or away from the poles.

I've defined evil elsewhere as active inhibition of empathy, because you're in a situation where your own empathy threatens your practical needs. I've also defined it as a coping mechanism in a world of domination, where you choose to sympathize with the dominator in every conflict, so you feel like you're winning even when you're being crushed. One problem with both of these is that there's too much room for deception and self-deception, for evil people to declare and believe that they're good. Also they don't fit my new system!

I have another idea, which I got from an article in 2004 by a guy who went undercover with Republicans in Florida. He figured out that the reason right wingers hate liberals so much is that they have to hate someone to feel alive. Their whole sense of identity comes from the edge of their identity, the place where "self" meets "other," and they need conflict at that boundary to feel like they even exist. If political people need conflict at the edge, then higher class people need control at the edge, and greedy people need to take at the edge, and so on. Whatever they need to do there, I call it Edge Identity.

The opposite is what I call Center Identity -- it's not your boundary but your center that defines who you are. This "center" is difficult to explain, especially to an Edge Identity person. It's not the same as Ego, which I would call a false center projected from the edges. A practicing Buddhist friend, who has done a lot of meditation, says you discover that all the stuff you thought of as "you" -- your beliefs, your personality, your likes and dislikes -- isn't really you. Under that is what Buddhists describe as "the part of you that's in everything." I've also read about hypnotists who claim to have discovered the "human soul" -- if you get people deep enough, they all have a voice in them that is very wise and seems to be the same for everyone.

I would describe my center as that-which-experiences. A great practice to get there is the "not that" meditation: You repeatedly ask yourself, "Who am I?" And whatever answer you come up with, you say "not that," and look deeper. Another practice (which I got from a useful general trick of inverting Decartes) is to try to imagine awareness without existence. (If you say that's impossible, you're dodging the exercise.) Or if you're a computer gamer, imagine a game where you can "zoom in" to play any creature, or any function of that creature, or zoom out to play groups or the whole map. Your "center" is that zoomable perspective, and it's not limited by your human identity. When you find it, you feel both grounded and free, both immortal and egoless.

Centering removes the need to sympathize with the dominator, since you never feel like you're losing. It enables empathy, because it's easy to see when others need help, and to see their interests as equal to "yours." And it doesn't rule out fighting, but it changes how you feel about it. As Thaddeus Golas said, "When your consciousness is open, any action you take in reference to evil has no more significance than digging a ditch to channel floodwaters away from a house."

So here it is all put together:

center belonging edge belonging unregulated edge regulated center regulated Center Belonging (south pole): These are the really nice tribal people that Sorenson and many other anthropologists have observed. We don't know what proportion of primitive societies are like this, but the important thing is that some of them are, that it's part of the human potential, and therefore it's possible in theory for all of us. The problem is their fragility. It's obvious that what is centered in these societies is the group consciousness, and not individual consciousness. If individuals were centered, then they would easily adapt when the group consciousness collapses. Instead they fall into the next two categories:

Edge Belonging (south mid-latitudes): These are the scary primitive tribes that make giant centralized domination systems look almost like a lesser evil. When Center Belonging systems collapse, the people can get totally lost and fall all the way to Unregulated, but more often they form a new semi-Belonging order based on edge identity. Individuals are often selfish and competitive, and the tribal consciousness is extremely hostile toward outsiders. There is still a group identity that's different from obedience, but the integration is not as deep or as internally stable as Center Belonging. Humans can get back from Edge Belonging to Center, but they won't do it in this age of history, because resource extraction has made every corner of the Earth too unstable. Instead they tend to get broken down further into Unregulated and then assimilated into

Unregulated (equator): Few people come here on purpose. They just end up here after they escape or get abandoned by various external or collective regulation systems. Also the equator is wide -- there are a lot of things people are doing or looking for here. Seekers don't know what they're looking for. They tend to be young men with a wild, searching look in their eyes. One of the tribes in the American southwest described white people that way. Really they're looking for Belonging, but even if they found it they'd keep looking, because they don't know how to center themselves in the here and now. Hedonists just like to feel good, but they don't know how to balance feeling good now with foresight about what will make them feel good later, so they spiral downward into feeling worse and worse, and if they don't find some kind of structure, they end up on the streets and then dead. Then you've got people who are not only seeking pleasure but conflict, and they get in trouble much faster. They get killed, or in a tightly controlled society like this one, they fill the prisons. Most people just want some kind of regulation that they feel good about, so they get snapped up by cults or religions or political causes or personal goals, which are themselves in orbit around the big domination systems.

Edge Regulated (north mid-latitudes): If I wasn't trying to fit the categories into this system, I would call Edge Regulated "Edge Civilized," and Edge Belonging "Edge Primitive." And they do blur into each other. The main differences are that Edge Regulated people are more socially disconnected, and they're obeying written rules instead of social customs. Written rules and disconnection enable domination systems to be much larger and more complex. If the controller is a tribe or a kingdom or an empire, its center will be a combination of culture, symbols, and abstract values -- for example, giant cars, the American flag, and the word "freedom." But the controller could also be an economic system, or an ideology, or a charismatic leader. If this center is destroyed or changed, the OC is only mildly distressed, and quickly switches allegiance to the nearest convenient new center.

is furious when the owning values or symbols are threatened, and will fight to protect them, whether that fighting involves bullets or just insults on the internet. Because they're passionate and good at following orders, OE's are the most powerful weapon in the world for whoever can organize them.

"Soldier": As above, the OE's edge is the collective edge, which could be a physical boundary with actual invaders, or it could mean the integrity of the collective center. Unlike the Obedient Center, the OE is furious when the owning values or symbols are threatened, and will fight to protect them, whether that fighting involves bullets or just insults on the internet. Because they're passionate and good at following orders, OE's are the most powerful weapon in the world for whoever can organize them.

"Predator": Predator is not quite a fair word. If sharks were SE and not Belonging, they would have destabilized their habitat and gone extinct 80 million years ago. Human predators are not part of anything greater, and proud of it. But their center is hollow, and their sense of self comes from conquest and domination at the edges. Where Self-Regulated Centers are good artists and thinkers, SE's are the most successful political and economic leaders and criminals.

Self-Regulated Center: You don't have to physically explore, but if you have a strong enough center to have open edges, and you aren't tied to any external value system, you're going to live your life looking around more and having more experiences than other people, in whatever realms you can get to. Even if you're trapped in a control system you can explore ideas and imagination.

I long ago abandoned any hope that this system will work for a game. Instead of defining good as opposition to evil, it's been redefined as something like neutrality, and fighting evil has been redefined as evil. More than half the alignments are unplayable. The main things RPG characters do -- fighting monsters and gathering loot -- have been declared evil, and evil has been defined so that it's no longer fun to kill. Almost everybody is going to want to play as Self-Regulated Center.

As a social philosopher, I like it! Something that seems like neutrality has been recast in the role of good, and the people who thought they were good because they were obsessed with fighting evil, discover that they're no better than their enemies. The main things we do in this society -- outcompeting competitors and gathering loot -- have been declared psychologically unhealthy. Almost everybody is going to want to play as Self-Regulated Center, and evil has been defined so that it's no longer fun to kill.


This system will strike gamers as odd. Something that seems like neutrality has been recast in the role of good, and the people who thought they were good because they were obsessed with fighting evil, discover that they're evil too. Will anybody want to play this? Before I make final judgment, I want to look at the categories in detail:

At this point, we'd best dump the words "good" and "evil," since they'll only get in the way. We have an alignment system where people actually know what they are, where someone will stand up and say, "Damn right I define myself through conflict at the edge," where no one would ever stand up and say, "I'm evil."

Philosophers have been trying for thousands of years to define the difference between good and evil, and now I'm going to take a crack at it. The Player's Handbook says "Good characters and creatures protect innocent life," but in a world where we all have to eat to survive, it's difficult to define "innocent" without getting into some serious ecology. Then it says "Evil implies hurting, oppressing, and killing others," but presumably it's not evil to harm others who are themselves harming others... unless those others are harming others, unless... and so on.