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RPGBOT.Podcast S2E9 – Alignment (part 1 of 2)

Show Notes

In this episode of the RPGBOT.Podcast, we discuss alignment with Doctor Terry Macmullan. We look at the history of alignment in DnD and Pathfinder, discuss some philosophy, and discuss how you make alignment an interesting and useful part of your game.

Due to the length of the episode, we’ve split this episode into two parts. Whenever you’re ready, enjoy part 2, where the hosts explore Random and Tyler’s example media and answer the question of the week.

If you’ve enjoyed the show, please rate and review us on Apple Podcasts, and rate us on Spotify or your favorite podcast app. It’s a quick, free way to support the podcast, and helps us reach new listeners.

Materials Referenced in this Episode

Transcript

Randall 

Welcome to the RPGBOT.Podcast. I’m Randall James, your chaotic evil podcast MC. With me is Tyler Kamstra

Tyler 

Hi everybody.

Randall 

And Random Powell

Random 

Howdie.

Randall 

And tonight we have a special guest with us. Dr. Terry McMullen.

Dr. Terry MacMullin 

Hello! Thank you so much for having me.

Randall 

Awesome. It’s great to have you here. Tyler, what are we going to do today?

Tyler 

Well, today we’re going to talk about some philosophical stuff. We’re going to talk about playing to your character’s alignment. So alignment is a system that loosely defines your character’s philosophical outlook and has existed in Dungeons and Dragons since the earliest editions. And over time, it has remained kind of this vague, frustrating part of the game that is sometimes very useful, sometimes not useful at all. And in a lot of cases, people have just decided to discard it entirely, because it’s so frustrating. So today, we’re going to try and talk about how to make alignment useful, how to make it meaningful for your character and how to actually play to the alignment that’s written on your character sheet.

Random 

I’m going to speak to the elephant or perhaps the professor in the room. Terry, here is a name you may have heard if you listen to other D&D podcasts. He was on Dragon Talk recently. He is someone I actually know in real life. If you did listen to that episode, you heard a decent chunk, where he talked about the Satori summer camp and running a class using a framework of D&D fifth edition to basically run through questions of morality. I was one of the people who helped him run that. I ran a table of four, and I have been part of that camp for a very long time. And that’s how we met and let me tell you, it was a really surreal experience to hear from my podcast crew. Hey, do you know this guy, Terry McAllen? Yes, how do you know this person? So it’s great to have you, Terry, thank you.

Dr. Terry MacMullin 

It’s really wonderful to be on the show. I’ve, I’ve been using your materials online since I got back into Dungeons and Dragons, with fifth edition. So it is it is a huge honor to be here. And Random, it was it was such a fun experience in the BP days, the before pandemic days, when we could do that. And I’m looking forward to doing it again, hopefully this summer. I literally just… Gosh, what is it two hours ago finished my first in-person, Game of D&D at my local comic book store. Two and a half years, something sadly, long like that. So hopefully, we’re moving back towards towards the good times towards the normal times. That time at Satori was it really was a surreal and wonderful experience. It absolutely sold me on the really powerful educational, philosophical power, latent power and potential in using D&D, if that’s something everybody at the table wants to do. And so I look forward to talking to you about that. And also, and also, what was said, kind of the inherent muddiness and the the inelegant sometimes of alignment. So I’m happy to get into and talk to you to all of you about this. Thanks again.

Randall 

Yeah, I’m really excited to get into it. Because like you said, it’s a wonderful tool for exploring your own thoughts and getting to explore, let’s say, an alignment that doesn’t match your own alignment. And yet, I feel like so often at tables that I’ve been at, we do just completely wave off alignment. Maybe somebody at session zero, or the first session will call out like, you know, I’m you know, lawful neutral. And then immediately the first thing that we’re doing is robbing a bank. And it’s like, how did… how did you come with us? How did we get here? What are we even doing?

Dr. Terry MacMullin 

Yeah, I have I have a neutral, good gnome cleric, who’s whose response to everything is like, just murder them! Just kill! And it said, it’s like, are you sure you want to? I’m not trying to say like, you’re playing your alignment, or I just constantly say, like, “Do you maybe want to look at chaotic evil or neutral?” Because I really feel like that says like, no, no, I’m good, let’s kill ’em all! So yeah, it’s, it’s the elegance is there sometimes. But maybe that’s some of the fun of the game.

Randall 

Yeah, I feel like what we really need is like a rubric. Just like here’s some outcomes I anticipated based on the situation I just gave you.

Dr. Terry MacMullin 

We can do it. I’m a professor I can do rubrics all day, I can throw down the rubrics, we can do it.

Random 

You talked about some of the history of like how in fifth edition, the three by three grid that you have seen many memes made of as a… summary isn’t quite the right word. As a very simplistic tool. I understand where they got to this you have lawful, neutral, and chaotic on one axis, good, neutral, and evil on the other axis. This gets you your three by three grid. Is that always the way it was?

Tyler 

No, it was not. Back in first edition when alignment was first introduced, it was just the law chaos access. Early days of the game, it was very much forces of order, so civilization, humans living in castles versus forces of chaos goblins and orcs living in caves. So it was very much civilization versus non civilization. And the idea of being good and evil didn’t really enter into it. I can’t speak for Gygax because I am not him and I haven’t had a chance to talk to him. He’s sadly passed. The idea of good and evil didn’t enter the alignment access until later in the game’s history. May have been second edition, I’m pretty certain that it was. It was definitely in third edition. We got that classic three by three grid in, again, I’m pretty sure a second edition. And then it stayed that way through third. Pathfinder first edition maintained it. Fourth edition is were changed again and it… they removed four of the nine possible combinations. So it was a five point access from lawful good on one end to chaotic evil on the other other end, which never made any sense. Like, why can’t I be chaotic good anymore? Who knows? Fifth Edition, of course, brought us back to that classic three by three grid. Law/chaos, good/evil, and all things fit into those nine neat little boxes. And so one of the things I wanted to hit on before before we go too far, the good and evil law and chaos. A popular thing in D&D is to say, no one believes that they’re the villain. A good way to create a sympathetic villain is for the sympathetic villain to believe that they are doing the right thing, or they’re doing what they’re doing for a good reason. A lot of people look at alignment say like, my villain is very clearly doing something very wrong, but they’re doing it for very good, justifiable reasons, potentially, it’s very difficult to fit them into this good/evil/law/chaos access system. Part of the reason I think people struggle with that is good and evil and law and chaos are really bad terms to describe exactly what they’re trying to capture. So something that that I suggest to people who are struggling with this. For law/chaos, use dogmatic and pragmatic. dogmatic meaning I have a strict philosophical code by which I live. Pragmatic meaning work on kind of figuring this out as I go. And then for Good and Evil, selfish, selfless. Selfish, meaning I am, I’m self-interested, I’m focused on the things that benefit me. And selfless meaning I am focused on things that benefit people other than me. Like, you could look at your your villain doing all of these evil things, and it is entirely possible that they are pragmatic and selfless, which would fit into essentially chaotic good, even though they’re doing something horrendously evil.

Randall 

Yeah, I think, like, to flip it. First of all, this is the first time I’m hearing this. And I think this is brilliant. I think this really does a great job of capturing what we should be capturing when we talk about this, like a classic villain is a villain seeking revenge, right? You know, there’s this kingdom, there’s a leadership in the kingdom, the kingdom did the small village that the villain is from some wrong, and so they will dogmatically be fixed on doing any harm to the kingdom that they can whatsoever, even if the harm that they’re doing is maybe poisoning crops or, you know, attacking innocent bystanders, this sort of thing. It’s easy for you to look at it and say evil, it’s look, it’s easy for that villain to look at and say, well, you’re all evil, because you support this kingdom, or you’re members of this kingdom. In reality, they are dogmatically opposed to the kingdom and all of its inhabitants. Yeah, I think this is really great.

Tyler 

Yeah, and, of course, a lot of that is just perspective, one person’s freedom fighters and other persons terrorist. And a lot of times it just comes down to which side of the fight you’re on. We’ll we’ll get into this later on, like, are there objective things, are there things that are objectively good and evil, but the biggest problem that I think people have with alignment is just how to assess someone’s alignment. And just that simple change in terminology can really, I don’t want to say simplify things, but it can make it much easier to use.

Dr. Terry MacMullin 

I think this is a really great idea. Especially… the problematic part of making sense of alignment, especially that of a villain has to do with the player looking at the character piece. And when you say the villain does not see themselves as a villain, I think that’s the heart of it. Socrates points out and no one ever thinks that what they’re consciously willfully doing is evil. They might recognize that it’s against the law, they might recognize the fact that other people don’t find it popular or right, but by definition, if a conscious person is doing something, they must think that in some shape, way or form, it’s the right thing to do. I think that that’s that’s one of the inherent problems with alignment. One way I try to make sense of this is to say… to truly talk about evil, you have to be looking at it through the fourth wall. You have to say that this is… I’m looking at my character, my character, of course, thinks what they’re doing is right. But I’m going to try and make sense of this according to one of these other alternate grids. I love the dogmatic, pragmatic, selfless, selfish one. I tend to think of it in terms of tradition, which which fits really nicely with dogmatic for lawful in my case, and then freedom as the emphasis for chaos. The one that I use instead of selfish and selfless is compassion and cruelty. Because that’s the only way that I can really make sense of truly evil, which is intending to do harm knowing that it will be needlessly harmful. But I I’m gonna I really have to try on the one that you just said about dogma and pragmatism. Of course, the problem I’m philosophically a pragmatist, so I have a hard time with them inherently being chaotic. But I think that’s, that’s wonderful. But this really elicit some of the inherent complexities of the alignment system in Dungeons and Dragons.

Randall 

Alright, I have a test I want to bring to this idea of selfish versus selfless. And we could have picked easier words, but here we are, versus the compassion versus cruelty. The Lich. Alright, so what do you what do you have to do as the lich? I want eternal life, I want stronger magic, and I must sacrifice souls to my phylactery in order to reach my gains. It is cruelty. It isn’t needless cruelty, because it is serving a purpose. And ultimately, that Lich is deciding I am more important, my desires are more important than the souls that I feed to my phylactery.

Tyler 

I think that’s one of those things that you can call objectively evil. Like…

Randall 

Well, that was the whole reason I brought it up is that I’ve, we’ve we’ve had a couple conversations recently on the podcast where you’re talking about like, oh, you know, it just depends on what side you’re on. You know, whether you view it as good or evil. And like, there are certain things… no that’s, that’s just evil. Like that’s cut and dry. Perhaps it was a person at one point, but a Lich is clearly on the monster side.

Random 

You think about… they are now a lich. But what drove them to be a lich? Very few people are going to say, I want my life’s goal to be sacrificing souls forever, so that I can keep myself immortal. No, this is a person who probably started with a goal of I need to keep living so that I can defend my family. I need to get stronger magic, so that I can hold off this invading army. And then at some point, they slip. I like both of the alternative titles to grids that you guys have talked about. But if we would just want to add a Z axis on here, which apparently comes out of the screen unless you’re in Blender. Pro-social versus anti-social. You can be a lawful good person that’s a hermit living in a cave by yourself. And you can have a very dogmatic I do my six hours of prayer and rituals every day. I am in really good harmony with my environment. The animals, nature, all that stuff, and not care at all. And so you know, if someone were to come in and say, “Oh, wise Druid please help our city.” Instead, your city can bugger off man. Like, this is my forest. I love it here. If you want to include that that can add a lot of depth, no z-axis pun intended, to how you want this character to play out. Because that’s, that’s another really important thing for people’s personalities. Simultaneously if go to the other end of that spectrum, if you had someone chaotic, evil, but pro-social, you know, you could very much have someone who’s like, yes, I 100% believe that the entire world it should be my dictatorship. You can optimize for efficiency at the expense of people. That’s very much like a another thing that you could take this down and that would be a much more believable villain than someone who’s just mustache twirlingly evil.

Tyler  

Those are my favorite villains, though.

Randall 

I’d say the mustache twirling absolutely helps in the pro social-case, I have to say. It’s interesting to think about. Is being pro-social, necessarily roughly correlated with being lawful?

Tyler 

Not necessarily.

Randall 

Well, hear me out for a second. So when I think of the idea of lawful, I do think on being able to depend on societal norms and potentially even enforcing societal norms. And so within an organization, like, I had the… with what Random was describing for being pro-social and going to take over the world. You know, I have the the thought of like, you know, the equivalent of like, you know, a thieves guild or a mafia within my fantasy world. But you would argue those organizations are strictly lawful, there’s a hierarchy, there’s levels within the system.

Random 

But are they? Because as an organization, there could certainly be those those hallmarks of things that you might expect to be lawful. But the individuals inside them, consider the amount of backstabbing, the amount of plots that you’re going to have inside any of those organizations.

Randall 

Well, Sneak Attack. Keep going.

Random 

Sure. Stuff that you’re going to find incitement sort of organization, I would say makes it so that the organization, while it has labels for things that you’re talking about, doesn’t really conform to what I would think of as lawful.

Randall 

Well no, those are just the unwritten rules, right? Like everybody knows, you can murder somebody, one rung above you two rungs above you, you murder somebody three rungs above you, oh, oh boy.

Dr. Terry MacMullin 

The example of the yhieves guild or the assassin’s guild or the mafia. They only have social rules, because they’re trying to create a tiny little social microcosm, inside what is fundamentally a predatory anti-social organization. And what they’re trying to do is they’re trying to get around the rogue’s ethical conundrum, which is, I want… this, this is a truism. Thieves hate being robbed. People who lie hate being lied to. So these groups are predatory. In a deep sense, because they say, hey, everybody out there, respect property rights, everybody out there, don’t stab me in the back when I’m gonna go get my espresso. When we decide it’s time to do crime, then we do crime. And in order to do that, effectively, as an organization, we have to have a little pretend laws inside our group. So this is why we say Oh, my, you know, my chaotic neutral Rogue, he’s he follows the the Zentarim code so strictly. That doesn’t make them lawful neutral, that makes them not want to get whacked. They fundamentally have no respect. And this is what Kant would say, it’s not just about following the law, it’s respecting the law. Having an actual respect, which they utterly lack. What they respect is not getting killed, is one point, I make. Another one, and this is, this is so great. This is, I was, I teach a  philosophy and Star Wars class. And we’re just getting to Nietzsche. And I tell them before we get there, I was like, I’m going to tell you right now I’m going to ruin all writing for all villains for you in all time. Friedrich Nietzche. I’m not kidding. 90, 95% of it is a hair’s breadth away from plagiarism. And it’s true when you see the Sith I can, and then I have a fun time, I show them exactly where the writers literally just change one or two words. And we have Nietzche saying sacrifice of others. This, we were talking a minute ago, about the importance of you know, selflessness, or selfishness. Nature has this, I don’t want to say great line. I, I’m a big fan of Nietzsche. I don’t follow him, but I do think he is a tonic at the right time, where he says, the over person, the over man, will sacrifice anyone for his intent, for his mission. And now, I was thinking of Nietzsche, I think it was Random when you were talking about liches. Filling their phylactery with all these weak souls, that’s a, it’s a very kind of Nietzsche move. I need to do this, right? For my power. We still have no problem calling them evil. And this is one of the wonderful… and Nietzsche is actually really the first person to talk about this. He said in the old days, we didn’t have good versus evil. In the old days there was good versus bad. The good were people who just kicked ass, and that’s what good meant. Eris Steyer, he was noble, he was powerful, and who ever had greatness we called “good.” The opposite of good was bad, which was like, Oh, they’re just a mob. They’re just, they’re just, you know, they’re just an NPC. They’re just gonna get steamrolled. It’s only later that humans invented, they had they had what’s called a “revolt of morality,” where it became good versus evil, and the evil person is the exact same person who used to be considered good. And so that this underlines this idea that our modern notion of good and evil has a notion of community woven into it, which Nietzsche finds really creepy and unhuman and insincere at its base. But I think when we were talking about this idea of social and anti-social, I think that’s kind of one of the thickest, most accurate, most consistent ways anyway of thinking about what what good and evil are.

Tyler 

That’s awesome.

Random 

This is gonna be edited. But we all just like sat there stunned for a second, like.

Tyler 

Yeah. Wow.

Randall 

I’m not done taking the note.

Tyler 

We’ve already hit three philosophers. That’s amazing.

Randall 

Good. That’s a brand new metric.

Dr. Terry MacMullin 

ON Dragon talk, I had this, sadly, I had the same effect. They all just kind of stared at me after I did my professor thing. So, I’m sorry.

Tyler 

That was so cool!

Randall 

It was, it was good. It was awesome. You raised several interesting points. So I think we alluded to it, and then you explicitly said it. We’re willing to entertain the argument of sometimes who the good person is, is from the perspective of the person. But there’s a collection of things that we can isolate. And we can certainly mostly agree that these things are evil, and that these evil things tend to be anti-community, anti-social, against everything else. And even that, I guess, is a societal pinning, right? Like that is something that’s been impressed upon us that if something is mostly going against the common thought of society, surely it is a bad thing.

Dr. Terry MacMullin 

Yeah, you’re right, it is impressed upon society. I would also say, it’s actually one of the deepest things woven into our nature as human beings. And I’m not making a, you know, a spiritual, moral statement. We’re gregarious beings. Like, if you look at as biologically, that’s why we have podcasts and the meerkats don’t is because we cooperated. And in order to cooperate, here’s the basic thing. 90, 95% of the people have to be telling the truth most of the time because a tiny amount of bad actors can have an incredibly corrosive effect on the only thing we do better than all the other critters, which is plan, cooperate, and move forward as a group. There’s, and this is a lot of a lot of philosophers like oh, you just turn this into biology. That’s not… No, it’s just, it’s like digestion. Well, I mean, I actually find that really encouraging to say… and Plato, which is Plato’s often seen as a super idealistic, it’s all about the forms and the ideas. And he had this lovely story where he said, the gods were giving gifts to all the creatures, and the Eagle woke up early and got flight and the Badger got there and got claws and the Fish could swim. And humans, since we sleep more than almost all the other animals, we got there late. And we were the last ones. And we say, oh, no, no, what do you have left? He says, Oh, well, you’re last but here’s the good news, you get to have the last two tools that nobody else wanted. Okay, what are they? First one is technic. Skill. You will be able to make things that don’t exist. And the second one is ethos, which is either custom or laws. And so it’s this idea that laws aren’t just a bummer, like, oh I’ve got to be lawful good. I can’t just kill the shop owner. No, being lawful good is actually to everyone’s advantage including yours. Who wants to trade with the liar? Who wants to trade with the backstabber? Be lawful and people will start to trust you.

Random 

So real quick first off, welcome to the RPGBOT.Meercat. You say lawful good and I just, I do want to take a quick step backwards. As we talk about in previous editions, the mechanics of alignment were actually far more important. Tyler and I, 3.x natives in 3.x, your alignment defined your class. Monks had to be some kind of lawful. Paladins had to be lawful good. Bards and barbarians couldn’t be lawful. The concept of lawful good required for Paladin meant role playing these classes was a real challenge. And it was to the point where they later came out in Unearthed Arcana with several variant Paladins for the different alignments. So you, like, you had your Liberator, your chaotic good Paladin. You had your tyrant, the lawful evil.

Dr. Terry MacMullin 

Your myrmidon! Lawful neutral myrmidon. I remember that from Dragon magazine. Yeah.

Randall 

Okay, I have to stop though. Would your DM actually enforce this? Would they be like, look, you’re not acting correctly.

Random 

Yeah.

Randall 

And so I’m going to strip you of your paladinness. Now you’re just a fellow with the sword and a shield

Random 

for Paladins explicitly that was written into the Paladin class description that if you broke your oath, if you acted outside of accordance with what your deity believes you should do, you explicitly lost all of the abilities of your class levels, and you had to go find someone to cast an expensive spell on you to get them back. This is a real thing.

Randall 

Oh man, I’m losing the word. What was the word? Martin Luther, 95 thesis. You paid the money for forgiveness.

Dr. Terry MacMullin 

Indulgences?

Randall 

Indulgences. Thank you very much. It’s an indulgence spell. Is that what it is?

Tyler 

Yeah, it’s called Atonement, but now that you mentioned it yeah, basically. Yes.

Dr. Terry MacMullin 

An indulgence, technically, an indulgence is I’m about to go do something chaotic evil. Let me pay you ahead of time to get one chaotic evil worth of chits. And then I’ll sin later. You could literally buy an indulgence before you did the sin, which was the *mwah* that was the French kiss that the Vatican had going

Randall 

But here’s the deal. I know I’m not gonna be able to help myself. But, so it snuck into D&D, right? Right. So so you can do this thing. And you can pay somebody,

Random 

They went so far as to make a whole palette and prestige class explicitly, to make it easier for you to go break the law and still be a Paladin. It was Gray Knight or something like that. And, like, the first level ability you would get is when someone casts Atonement for you to get your Paladin stuff back because you went and murdered a bunch of people, it doesn’t cost anything anymore. It’s free. It was such a mechanically important thing. Now I’m I’m grateful that they tried something different in fourth edition, and then stopped trying that different thing in fourth edition, and went back to the grid. But it’s it’s really interesting to see, like, there was a time when this stuff really mattered to your character. There was magic that could change your alignment. A helm of opposite alignment was a printed cursed item in the DMG. Stick it on, fail a will save, boom, move you to the opposite side of the three by three chart.

Randall 

Although it’d be fantastic if you really wanted to fix that Rogue.

Random 

Exactly.

Randall 

The rogue becomes a magician, but not that they know spells, just that they’re doing card tricks. And that’s exciting.

Random 

In the Book of Exalted Deeds, in the Book of Vile Darkness, there were spells that both affected alignment but also there was like a spell list for if you are good, I don’t care what class you are. If you are good and a spellcaster you can add these fellas to your list. And they would usually have self-sacrificing costs. What a great segue in a moment. And the vile darkness, something similar. This used to be a really important thing. And people who only played in fifth edition, obviously, I’m seeing the wonderful consternation on Randall’s face here, It really did used to matter that much. It’s interesting how much it does get ignored now because this used to be a huge part of your character. It’s interesting to see that we’re now letting it go when it’s so useful with a little bit of fleshing out and tweaking to determine how this character would actually react in a situation.

Randall 

I’m really glad that you brought up how things used to be, because one of the questions I wanted to answer while we were doing this live, are there any mechanics? Are there any classes where your alignment actually matters in 5e?

Tyler 

Not in 5e. There are a very, very small number of mechanical things which can interact with your character’s alignment. I believe the Atonement spell, I’ll have to double check. I think the Helm of Opposite Alignment actually did make it into fifth edition. I’ll have to double check.

Random 

Why?

Randall 

I’ve always viewed this as only an RP thing. And then an RP thing that we skip.

Tyler 

Yeah, exactly. And hey, they they got rid of the Girdle of Gender Changing at the very least. So, like, we’re doing okay.

Randall 

Yeah. Which which shows that once he is in fact, neutral good?

Tyler 

They’re making progress. Yeah.

Random 

Oh, boy. Are we gonna start down the conversation of can any capitalist business be neutral good? Mm, don’t get me started.

Randall 

Hey. We’re doing our best.

Tyler 

I think we needed two-hour podcast for that one.

Dr. Terry MacMullin 

I just thought that was one of my favorite examples when students imply that… implicit in Random’s idea maybe is that, you know, good is for suckers and or to flip it around, if you’re making a lot of money, you’re probably hurting someone. Wonderful anecdote about the Quakers when they started doing business. They went into bakeries in London in the 1800s. And I mean, just the garbage people would put in the muffins and the bread and it was, and the idea was like, Yeah, we’re gonna put sawdust in this, it’ll be cheaper. And the Quakers said, you know what, we’re gonna make a pound cake. And we promise you there is exactly this, you know, we’re making what was it out of this much butter or something and the idea of a baker’s dozen. Because of their very Christian commitment to the good and to fair trading and doing well by others they blew all the other bakers out of the water, even though they were more expensive. It was, you knew exactly what you were getting. And so again, I think I’d like to hope that you can absolutely have, you know, a profitable business that’s that’s maybe lawful good or neutral good. Chaotic good, maybe not. If you don’t believe in the laws, I don’t know, it might get tricky.

Randall 

So what I think I just heard you say is being an honest member of society, where folks generally believe you when you speak that what you speak as the truth can then lead you to success in business if everybody else is stealing and lying in the same industry,

Dr. Terry MacMullin 

It can. I wouldn’t say it’s automatic. But I think it’s a game, right? It’s the long game. If you are consistently good, people will want to be your friend, people will want to do business with you, and people will trust you. I find it really sad. It’s also like, how quickly students will say, Oh, violence is natural, we all have to be ready to be, it’s part of human nature. And I say, raise your hand. How many of you who have used physical violence in the last week? In the last month? In the last year? And what’s happening right now, the terrible things that are happening in Ukraine. They’re terrible. And it’s aberrant. This is the, this is the first time that the NATO nell might be getting rung in any of our lifetimes. Which is sad when it happens. But again, I’m a very optimistic human being and I’m very pro-human, pro-sentient beings. And I think we’re actually more inclined to moral goodness than our cynical world often causes us to think.

Randall 

One, let’s ring one for the octopuses. Sentient beings.

Dr. Terry MacMullin 

Oh, cheers. Cheers. Yeah, that stuff is that’s been an eye opener in the last couple of years. Wow. That’s good stuff.

Randall 

Yeah. We talk about octpus brains for a little bit. There’s actually, like, an allegory to modern compute architectures, which is really amazing. But maybe we don’t step into that right now. You also brought up evil in the world, and there is evil in the world.

Tyler 

Let’s, let’s ask kind of a hard question. What is good?

Dr. Terry MacMullin 

Is that, is that for me? As the philosopher?

Randall 

No, no, no, no. You can’t go first, you have to let us go first and then…

Random 

And then he’ll come in and do his job.

Randall 

I have children, I work for a company that I think does good in the world. And I’m gonna tie it in a bow and say good is improving the quality of life of the people around you. And good is generally.. I feel like an important aspect of good, which has become more and more important, I feel like in the past decade, is having empathy not just for your neighbors, but for everyone. And then taking actions on that empathy. Like, Okay, how would this impact other people? How would this make me feel if I were on the other side of it? And letting that drive maybe how you handle your life. That’s my swing at it.

Random 

One very important thing is, is it constructive or destructive? I think that good has to be ultimately constructive. I’m not saying I’m not gonna say that that’s definitely an end all be all. Making art, by itself is not necessarily good in the same way that it’s not bad.

Randall 

We all saw Cats. Yeah. We understand.

Random 

But, for me, I definitely think that there’s also… Terry, you’ll have to step in and remind me which thing that I’m talking about here. But the best outcome for the most people is one of the very classic…

Dr. Terry MacMullin 

Utilitarianism.

Random 

Utilitarianism is very much a philosophy that I subscribe to, at the point where we have seven plus billion people on the world, there’s going to be things that are going to generate feelings for people that are positive, some feelings for people that are negative. And I think that ultimately weighing the needs of the many here are going to be a really important thing. So for me, it’s is it constructive, in a way that benefits the most people while causing the least amount of negativity for everyone?

Tyler 

I think I agree with you guys perfectly. Yeah. Utilitarianism is a good way to think of it. Like, maximize happiness, minimize suffering. Kind of a fun aside, but people who talk about utilitarianism sometimes talk about utility monsters, and one of the things I really love about Dungeons and Dragons is Dungeons and Dragons has utility monsters. They’re called dragons.

Randall 

I like that.

Dr. Terry MacMullin 

How are they? How are dragons utility monsters?

Tyler 

I guess I’m thinking mostly of evil dragons and I’m, I’m not educated in philosophy, so I’m probably getting this very wrong, but big predatory creature. Eats everything it can, collects treasure, frequently terrorizes the people around it for its own selfish benefit, and it’s enormous. So we can do that a lot for a very, very long time. Disproportionately compared to like a single human.

Randall 

I think you need to combine one thing like not only eats resources and also gathers treasure, but literally eats treasure. So if you view treasure as a key utility…

Dr. Terry MacMullin 

Oh, the philosophers who came up with utilitarianism, the people like Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill, they didn’t have dragons. So even though they were British, they presumed, they presumed that all moral agents are inherently equal. And this is something that that ethicists who talk about vegetarianism or veganism will bring up. Which is, we as human beings are the dragons in this analogy. We say, well, we’re gonna cause intentional pain, but my happiness is worth more than their life. They would say, obviously, that fails, right? Which is, which is why most people would say that I think you’re right, the dragon to say my, my dragon hoard is more important than all the dead farmers or whatever. But we kind of look at that and say, well, that’s why we call you a monster. Because one dragon’s happiness doesn’t beat all these sad people who’ve been burned alive and everything. But if I were a dragon, I would totally think that other dragon is justified and these farmers need to stop complaining and perhaps consider tithing a little bit of gold to the dragon.

Randall 

Yeah, yeah, absolutely. Which, which underlines the fact that yes, the dragon would think that that’s why the dragon is wrong. And they’re evil, which is, which is, which is why Socrates says all evil is just a product of ignorance. So you said a phrase a second ago, and I wanted to, like… you named several philosophers. And then you said their claim is that all moral agents are evil.

Dr. Terry MacMullin 

Equal. Equal.

Randall 

Equal? Oh, yes, that changes the interpretation of that.

Dr. Terry MacMullin 

That’s Ayne Rand who says all moral agents are evil.

Randall 

I’m glad you clarified, because I was gonna have one other flavor on the rest of this.

Dr. Terry MacMullin 

Yes, that’s that’s Fountainhead. No. All moral agents are equal. Which is why, which is why Random is right, the greatest good for the greatest number. And do a headcount. Literally, I mean, this this is this is why sometimes utilitarians are so boring, but it’s really hard to argue with them. Or they say if I have an outcome that makes 17 people happier, and another outcome that makes 12 people happier, why… you’re monstrous knowing this to do anything other than what will maximize the greatest good for the greatest number. What other, what other, what other game are we in?

Randall 

That couldn’t possibly fall apart in real life, though, right?

Dr. Terry MacMullin 

That’s where gaming the system comes in, which is why 20th century philosopher by the name of John Rawls comes up with… one of the phrases, and this sounds like a magic item. This actually sounds like an item. “The veil of ignorance,” which is moral calculators. Before we like, if we were to say, four of us are here, and one house has to get knocked down for some reason. Let’s come up with the standards to decide. If we decide that ahead of time, I’m just going to vote for whatever standard doesn’t get my house knocked down. You have to construct things through a veil of ignorance where everybody deliberates on the principles either having or trying to have ignorance about how it would affect them, in particular. But you’re absolutely right, the utilitarianism, I mean, all moral systems could fall apart, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t shoot for them, the chair I’m sitting on is gonna break down one day still doesn’t mean the engineers should have done their best job to make it.

Randall 

Well, and actually what I was thinking about, so we had a prior conversation on the Overton window, where you might have a majority of people who are very comfortable in their zone and generally aligned with their views on how the world works, because most people do fall into that. And the question becomes, are you accepting of the rights of the minority in whatever the minority case is? The argument that you make that all are equal, and therefore let’s kind of optimize for happiness of the most feels like, especially if it was taken to the wrong extension, would directly lead to the oppression of minorities.

Dr. Terry MacMullin 

Yeah, absolutely. And one of the conversations that happened in response to utilitarianism. Aa distinction we make two things called act utilitarianism and rule utilitarianism. So the famous one of act utilitarians would say, Well, you know, two famous brain, two famous surgeons are dying in a hospital. Let’s find anyone in the hospital with the same blood type, harvest their organs, killing them, and we saved two doctors, which is going to go on to save hundreds of lives. That act might pass utilitarianism, but when we realize there’s a rule that people can just hack you open to treat you like a bag of organs, then that rule fails. A particular act might be okay to say, oh, let’s oppress a minority. But the rule that says let’s oppress a minority is going to fail because no one is going to feel happy living in a system where, at the very least, they might be on the bad side of the vote next time.

Tyler 

For a while I’ve used kind of a dumb philosophical measurement. The extremely dumb measurement is, if a society was defined by some specific action, would my good-aligned D&D party go on a quest to topple that society? It sounds like rule utilitarianism is just a way better explanation of that concept. Thank you for teaching me that.

Dr. Terry MacMullin 

My pleasure.

Randall 

I think that you, um, you fixed everything that we said.

Dr. Terry MacMullin 

I don’t think that’s the case, but keep going.

Randall 

So Terry, what is your definition of good?

Dr. Terry MacMullin 

I’ll give you the the quick overview that the two of you hit upon two of the big three. And then I’ll try and give my super muddy take that you’ll be able to mess up easily. Randall talked about good as improving the quality of life for those around us and having empathy for all. This is an incredibly old tradition. It falls into a subsection of ethics called “virtue ethics.” And virtue ethics says goodness, I love this, goodness isn’t about the act or the product. It’s about the being doing it. One of my favorite philosophers, er, late 19th, early 20th century philosopher by the name of Jane Addams. She, really radical advocate in favor of children’s rights, in favor of the rights of the poor people and the incarcerated, and a really aggressive fighter against war. She has this notion of, I love this, concentric circles of compassion. First, you care for the people you love, which if you can’t do that, it’s really hard to say you’re good. I mean, let’s be honest.

Randall 

That’s fair.

Dr. Terry MacMullin 

That should, that should be easy, because you have fellow feeling. You should like that. And once you get that the pebble that was thrown into the pond, the ring expands. And you care for your neighborhood, and then you care for your country. And the goal, like you said is, I go all the way out, and I try and emotionally put my arms around everyone. We call that person “good.” And that was laid in very much in the teachings of people like Socrates, like the Buddha, like Jesus Christ, about extend that compassion all the way out to your enemies. So I think that is a really great, really viable understanding of what good is. Random talks about utilitarianism about this idea, I want to constructive world. That’s the, that’s the subset of ethics it says, it’s called “consequentialism.” I act for the sake of an effect. So let’s measure the effects. The third one that didn’t come up, and nobody likes talking about it. And this is why the person, the person most famous for it says “it’s because you know I’m right,” is deontology. Which is, you know what’s right. You know what’s good, and you’re just hiding it. You’re just, you’re just, you’re you’re flinching from the blow. So this, this prussian philosopher, Immanuel Kant says, we all have a rational understanding of our duty to each other. And that is the example I give my students, and I, I actually, I put… my dad actually, in the end, the very, very, very first D&D adventure I ever played, gave me a horrible Kantian fork, where there’s, you know, what you should do and then there’s what you want. And the one I give my students is you’re driving on icy road in December and you’re going to go on a vacation to Hawaii and you’ve been saving up and you’re driving through the middle of the night and there you see a car accident. Somebody skidded on the ice, hit a car, you see a bleeding human being. What do you do? There’s shades of I call, I try and do CPR. I get the, I get the med kit. The the small particulars are different, but the basic answer is always the same. You know what to do. Help them. You have to help. I never had to tell you, I never had to show you a book, I never have to show you a law. Your reason immediately told you what you had to do. In my, in my horrible case, my poor 10-year old mind, my dad ran us through a version of the Man in the Iron Mask by Andre Dumas, where at the very end, after three days, we’re finally about to stop the evil wedding of the false prince. And we stumble into a room filled with gold. And the right thing to do is run up the stairs and stop the evil wedding but we stopped for the gold which he poisoned and we all die. So Kant would say morality is doing what you know you must and that we have a rational understanding and the basic… it’s variations of the golden rule. You have to act in a way that you can imagine Every one doing the same if they were forced to do. So those are, those are the big three. And I found in experience, that last one bites the hardest, because once you see it, you can never not see it. And it’s really uncompromising, and it’s really hard. And that’s the one that is the most what we call moral realism. It’s real. Goodness is out there. And your reason is the tool you use to connect to it.

Randall 

Is implicit in that, that there is a implicit natural understanding of duty. Yeah, versus what, okay, versus what we’re nurtured towards.

Dr. Terry MacMullin 

Yeah. Yeah.

Randall 

Interesting.

Dr. Terry MacMullin 

Yeah. Now, I mean, there’s, there’s problems with all three systems, but those are those are the big three. Those are the big three. In terms of my own understanding, I think it is good. I’m a pragmatist, which is most close to Jane Addams. Which is… and this is why I really loved at the very beginning the difference between dogmatism and pragmatism, John Dewey says, almost any moral system can become privative and destructive of human flourishing if it’s done dogmatically. Almost anything can become painful. And so I really love trying to have villains that, that you could almost see them as lawful good. And it’s only when you’re close that you see they’re actually lawful evil. And it really is because they’re usually dogmatic. They’ve put the cart before the horse, they’ve put the law before the wellbeing of living creatures.

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