Morality & Reality - meta-ethics in your game

What is good? What is evil? Are they real physical forces, purely mortal moral judgements, or what?

What started me thinking about this again - after I've already laid out my opinions and tool box for both gods and morality in games - was a rather heated discussion about a particular real-world religion and its morality or lack of it. I'm naming no names. The discussion got rather entrenched, but it made me think of a few things that I found helpful.

Now there are plenty of discussion threads out there on alignment, and some very serious heavy debate about religion. I'm not going to try to replicate those here - I want to look at how the different points of view can be used when creating your game world.

Like my article on gods, I think that one's attitude toward Good and Evil in the game setting can have profound consequences which may be more wide reaching than you'd expect. As in that article, I'm going to present some stances that  you might consider for your game setting, and look at how these influence the setting.

I'm going to talk about Good and Evil with capitals, in that I want to distinguish these grand concepts from the less important good (meaning beneficial, competent, fitting, etc.) and evil (meaning nasty, ill, etc.).
I'm also going to talk about gods, angels and demons, and mortals as creatures that have different moral scopes within a fantasy game setting - but I'm using these terms generally: I don't mean to refer to D&D 3.5's demons, WoD's angels, or Zoroastrianism's gods, or any other specifics.

Debating ethics

Good & Evil are Actual Forces?

In this stance, Good and Evil are real, measureable forces, like temperature or mass.

As well as conscious beings having morality, Good and Evil can inhabit objects and places. A book may be inherently Good, its presence harmful to Evil creatures - or dreadfully Evil, driving its readers insane. An Evil ring may corrupt the wearer. A Good, sacred place may heal the sick.

If Good and Evil are tangible forces, then are sapient creatures left with a fixed morality? Can Good be driven out of a person? Can an Evil being become Good?

Of course, it's a common complaint about alignment systems that characters' mortality becomes fixed, and this stance seems to reinforce that idea - but it needn't be like that...

A flexible alignment system in action?

Only Actions are Good and Evil?

Only the actions of sapient creatures are Good or Evil in this stance.

Things cannot have morality, only people - and then only as the result of their acts. By doing Good, Bobby the Barbarian is Good. By doing Evil, Winifred the Wizard is Evil.The Book of Nasty Tales, however, is just a book, the Sword of Demonslaying is just a magic sword, and the Chapel of Holy Rest is just a building.

Perhaps the build up of moral actions can be detected in a person - their Evil becomes tangible through their repeated acts, and we can sense it, through divination magic, or as a creepy feeling.

This stance inherently allows the moral standing of a person to change as they choose to act differently. Over time, a Good person can be corrupted by Evil acts, and vice versa. We can have redemption and damnation as story arcs - a rich vein of role-playing to mine!

While this stance is flexible and arguably more realistic, it lacks the supernatural element of Good and Evil that we enjoy from  fantasy literature.

The Middle Way

The above stances can be somewhat restrictive - especially for a fantastic setting, which is of course where we most commonly want to play with Good and Evil ideas.

Perhaps there are beings who are inherently Good and Evil, who are exemplars of those morals - Angels and Demons - but the common folk, the mortals of the setting, are free to choose their moral acts, and in choosing, to determine whether they are Good or Evil.

Perhaps objects can be inbued with Good and Evil by exemplars like Angels and Demons, or particularly pious or profane mortal magic users.

In such a setting, mortals retain free will, and can change their moral codes over time, but the existence of creatures of absolute morality is permitted. We can have our inherently Evil monsters, our literally holy ground, AND our ambiguous and mutable protagonists, struggling to do the right thing.

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