Thursday, 25 December 2014

Beyond Nietzsche: 1984, Law and Evil

From 1984:

'We are the priests of power,' he said. 'God is power. But at present power is only a word so far as you are concerned. It is time for you to gather some idea of what power means. The first thing you must realize is that power is collective. The individual only has power in so far as he ceases to be an individual. You know the Party slogan: "Freedom is Slavery". Has it ever occurred to you that it is reversible? Slavery is freedom. Alone -- free -- the human being is always defeated. It must be so, because every human being is doomed to die, which is the greatest of all failures. But if he can make complete, utter submission, if he can escape from his identity, if he can merge himself in the Party so that he is the Party, then he is all-powerful and immortal.'
'The Party seeks power entirely for its own sake. We are not interested in the good of others; we are interested solely in power. Not wealth or luxury or long life or happiness: only power, pure power. What pure power means you will understand presently. We are different from all the oligarchies of the past, in that we know what we are doing. All the others, even those who resembled ourselves, were cowards and hypocrites. The German Nazis and the Russian Communists came very close to us in their methods, but they never had the courage to recognize their own motives. They pretended, perhaps they even believed, that they had seized power unwillingly and for a limited time, and that just round the corner there lay a paradise where human beings would be free and equal. We are not like that. We know that no one ever seizes power with the intention of relinquishing it. Power is not a means, it is an end. One does not establish a dictatorship in order to safeguard a revolution; one makes the revolution in order to establish the dictatorship. The object of persecution is persecution. The object of torture is torture. The object of power is power. Now do you begin to understand me?'
Here (particularly in my added italics) Orwell expresses the idea of the D&D Lawful character—that the group is immortal and the individual a cell in its body. Just as each cell in the human body is committed to the whole but is replaced many times over its life, the member of a group is committed to its collective goals and sees the continuance of the group's existence as a form of immortality, similar to the way some people view having children.

Separating the specifics of the character's intent, there's nothing in this which is inherently evil. The character could apply the same attitude to medical research, cleaning up polluted rivers, founding orphanages and so on, and many people have. This is the essence of D&D's Lawful alignments—working with others and subsuming personal goals into a bigger picture.

The book picks up on the other aspect of the Smith's interrogator's alignment a bit later on:

'How does one man assert his power over another, Winston?'
Winston thought. 'By making him suffer,' he said.
'Exactly. By making him suffer. Obedience is not enough. Unless he is suffering, how can you be sure that he is obeying your will and not his own? Power is in inflicting pain and humiliation. Power is in tearing human minds to pieces and putting them together again in new shapes of your own choosing. Do you begin to see, then, what kind of world we are creating? It is the exact opposite of the stupid hedonistic Utopias that the old reformers imagined. A world of fear and treachery is torment, a world of trampling and being trampled upon, a world which will grow not less but more merciless as it refines itself. Progress in our world will be progress towards more pain. The old civilizations claimed that they were founded on love or justice. Ours is founded upon hatred. In our world there will be no emotions except fear, rage, triumph, and self-abasement. Everything else we shall destroy everything. Already we are breaking down the habits of thought which have survived from before the Revolution. We have cut the links between child and parent, and between man and man, and between man and woman. No one dares trust a wife or a child or a friend any longer. But in the future there will be no wives and no friends. Children will be taken from their mothers at birth, as one takes eggs from a hen. The sex instinct will be eradicated. Procreation will be an annual formality like the renewal of a ration card. We shall abolish the orgasm. Our neurologists are at work upon it now. There will be no loyalty, except loyalty towards the Party. There will be no love, except the love of Big Brother. There will be no laughter, except the laugh of triumph over a defeated enemy. There will be no art, no literature, no science. When we are omnipotent we shall have no more need of science. There will be no distinction between beauty and ugliness. There will be no curiosity, no enjoyment of the process of life. All competing pleasures will be destroyed. But always -- do not forget this, Winston -- always there will be the intoxication of power, constantly increasing and constantly growing subtler. Always, at every moment, there will be the thrill of victory, the sensation of trampling on an enemy who is helpless. If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face -- for ever.'
This matches up well with what the DMG defines as Evil. Evil in D&D is suffering without purpose; suffering without a balancing redemptive outcome; suffering, above all, as a demonstration of domination. The DMG text for all the evil alignments mentions strength and domination - something that Nietzsche talked about a lot too and Orwell's Party is the logical end point of his "philosophy".

In the real world, these two attitudes do exist, although they are rarely articulated so clearly (the most important exception being the testimonies at Nuremberg, especially Goering's). Nietzsche and Arendt were both wrong - not only is there evil which is the opposite of good, but in its true form it is never banal except to those who are mentally undeveloped enough to expect monsters to have fangs.

So what are the opposites of these things? What is Chaotic and what is Good? For one thing, they are not simply the absence of these attitudes, they consist in the efforts to undo them and to oppose them.

The chaotic says that subsuming one's desires into a group kills the soul. It is the individual who is uniquely creative and therefore uniquely able to achieve the heights of human potential; Lawfulness, they would say, is compromise. Compromise may achieve some things, and perhaps it avoids the worst depths but at the cost of never reaching the highest peaks either. Lawfulness is a form of slavery; groupthinking is the opponent of freethinking.

Goodness seeks to minimise suffering; to eliminate it if possible. To steal from a fat cleric's tithe barn to feed the starving peasants on his estate is not evil, it is good. But to steal from the starving peasants to fill the tithe barn is evil. The former alleviates more suffering than it creates, and the latter does the opposite. The neutral position is to not get involved.

When D&D was originally released, it was with a simple one-axis alignment system of Law and Chaos. This was an odd choice and it was instantly obvious that it was a bad one and by page 6 of Supplement I: Greyhawk Gygax is conflating Chaos and Evil, and by Supplement III: Eldritch Wizardry, it was necessary to footnote the Mind Flayer's Lawful alignment with "highly evil but otherwise lawful". This was a bird that was not going to fly much further.

Perhaps if Gygax had introduced the game with just Good Vs Evil alignments we would never have seen the nine-pointed alignment system, as that is a much more commonly depicted system in stories, but the Law/Chaos axis is not unknown before D&D and it does express an idea which crops up in rhetoric, although there it is often conflated with Good/Evil. Interestingly, it's normally conflated in the opposite way to D&D: Chaos=freedom=good.

In any case, the original system was inadequate and was replaced in the fifth issue of Strategic Review by the two-axis system. Now intelligent creatures could fight "the system" and do so for the good of mankind (or thingkind as the case may be), or set up oppressive hierarchies of diabolical and sadistic faceless bureaucrats, as well as the simply cruel or charitable who did not care about such things and the plain officious or mule-headed. All was at if!

One place where confusion enters is the subtle distinction between an act which fits the stereotype of an alignment and being that alignment. This is rather like the distinction between weather and climate, although there's perhaps more of a ratchet in alignment than in climate.

Simply put, stealing an apple doesn't make a Neutral Good character Neutral, although killing the apple seller and throwing the apples in the canal probably will.

But even if the appleseller is murdered, the question of alignment is still about patterns of behaviour, not simply the last action taken, because the word "alignment" is not casually chosen or used. It expresses the fact that the game system is concerned with what philosophical view the character is aligned with, and that represents how useful to the real (in game) metaphysical forces the character is. A character who has a bad day and lashes out is not necessarily a reliable tool for the powers of Evil; a character who takes pity on a stray dog is not necessarily a reliable tool for the powers of Good etc. A single unprovoked killing may be a sure sign that the character is not reliably Good but it's not proof of the opposite.

Within the game's metaphysical laws of thermodynamics, the characters are able to do things that 99% of the population can not because they are being granted those abilities by the Alignments that find them useful. To keep things fair, the game assumes a post-rationalisation that each alignment contributes in more or less the same way, and that neutral characters receive "contributions" from multiple alignments so that it all balances out. But, ultimately this is why changing alignment causes the loss of level—the Powers lose confidence in the character and withdraw some of their sponsorship for a while, even the one(s) to which the character is now aligned. These powers (hit points, saving throws etc.) are investments and a return is expected; fickle characters are a risky proposition.

Similarly, detect evil doesn't function on characters below name level because they simply haven't enough of the good/bad stuff invested in them.

If the DM treats the four main alignments as NPCs who are not stupid but are not omniscient then it can be a lot easier to judge the effects of character actions. These Powers have goals, as discussed above in relation to 1984 and if they see creatures advancing those goals then they will pay attention to them. That attention is what changes the creature's alignment because it reflects their attunement to the Power. The lack of omniscience is why, in D&D, actions speak louder than words and a character who does good things for bad reasons will remain aligned with Good. It's of no benefit to Evil if a character feeds the starving millions just because they want to be adulated and be able to have sex with a different partner every night; the fact remains that the starving have been fed!

However, the Powers are not stupid and being forced to act against them is something that can be tolerated, but the character has to show that they regret the actions after the fact. Hence, there is an atonement spell and it is not available for voluntary actions.

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