Dungeons and Dragons and Philosophy: Sympathy for the Devils

I’m not just using a generic title here to refer to a philosophical rant on Good vs. Evil in D&D. This is the title of chapter one of Dungeons and Dragons and Philosophy, of the Blackwell Philosophy and Pop Culture series of books, which I just got in a bundle from the Humble Bundle on a sale which I pretty much guarantee has expired by the time you read this post even though it will (hopefully) be published before the end. You can still buy it at full price, although I’m pretty iffy on whether you’d want to so far. Its examination of philosophical concepts as related to D&D has been pretty basic so far, and through to the end of the first chapter I’ve never had the kind of “huh, interesting” moment that you want from a philosophy book.

Instead, what I’ve had are a few “you presumptive ass” moments that come from reading someone packaging their answers to philosophical problems directly alongside their initial presentation of them, with no space dedicated to opposing viewpoints at all. If you’re introducing philosophical arguments to an audience who may not be familiar with them, you have an obligation to present any reasonably respectable perspective, even if only to destroy them. This is what legit philosophers like Plato and Aristotle did all the time (including to each other), presenting an opposing viewpoint so that it could be dismantled, but they still presented it. Being confident you are correct is one thing, but rigging the game undermines the search for truth and beauty, which is fundamentally the goal of philosophy.

Hi, me from the future here. Just wanted to post something from the next article on the subject of the paragraph just above this one:

“Also, I want to offer an actual legit apology [to Greg Littmann] because in retrospect, considering the time he gave to things like compatibilism and quantum probabilities, his failure to include some valid counterarguments to his position is probably a result of human error and not an intentional omission intended to mislead readers. I maintain that he is wrong, but in retrospect he’s probably not being an asshole about it.”

So let’s talk about the failures of the first chapter specifically today, and tomorrow we’ll talk about the next. Different chapters are each different, self-contained essays by different authors, so it’s very possible that despite ripping the first chapter up today, tomorrow I’ll mostly be praising the good work of a different author writing on an entirely different subject. For now, though, let’s get complaining.

Pity the Pit Fiend

Greg Littmann’s essay Sympathy for the Devils is the opening chapter of Dungeons and Dragons and Philosophy. It is divided into six parts, and in each part he, as the title suggests, attempts to paint the creatures born from pure capital-E Evil in a sympathetic light. This isn’t automatically a bad idea, but it’s a big task and Greg isn’t up to it.

The first part of the essay is entitled Pity the Pit Fiend and discusses the idea that devils aren’t really responsible for being bad people because they didn’t choose to be devils. Unlike humanoids, the argument goes, who can choose between good and evil, devils are overwhelmingly pre-disposed to be evil. There is something inherent in being a pit fiend that makes them evil, whether they want to be or not. This, claims Greg, absolves them of guilt.

This argument might seem superficially convincing, but it breaks down almost immediately on examination. Why should we care that the pit fiend didn’t choose to have an evil nature? He still chose to grind up puppies into cocaine to sell to underprivileged children in the slums of Waterdeep. Why should we absolve him of guilt for that action just because he had a lot of fun doing it? “It’s in his nature” is the opposite of a defense for an action. Not only does the pit fiend being naturally predisposed towards puppy snorting mean that it is ultimately his fault that the puppies were snorted, it also means the pit fiend is likely to do so again, so we should take into consideration the likelihood that he will be a repeat offender when deciding what to do about it. While there are many valid philosophical questions to ask about how to react to the pit fiend’s reign of terror, all of them involve recognizing the simple truth that the pit fiend is responsible for his own actions.

What would it even mean to be responsible for actions otherwise? It is very trivially true that a being’s decisions can only be influenced by two types of factors: Factors internal to them, things like emotions, past experiences, their perceptions of their environment, and other things that are component parts of what they are and what they experience, or factors external to them, like the environment itself, other beings present, and other things that are not component parts of what they are or what they experience. It is clearly true that the being cannot be held responsible for external factors. It is not the pit fiend’s fault if an orphanage he’s never even heard of burns down. The idea that the pit fiend isn’t responsible for actions that arise from his internal factors, however, is ludicrous. To discard that is to discard literally all possible means of being responsible for anything. In short, people who say that beings can’t be held responsible for their actions because those actions arose from internal factors are saying that nobody can ever be held responsible for anything under any circumstances imaginable. They aren’t just saying that no one can be considered responsible for their actions if we live in a deterministic universe, they are saying that it is inconceivable that anyone could ever be responsible for their actions.

If a thief says he’s not responsible for taking a paladin’s orphanage money because he only did it because he wanted more money, and it’s not his fault that he wanted more money and lacks the moral fiber to care whether or not orphans are harmed by his actions, is that at all reasonable? Of course not. Just because the thief wants something and lacks the morality or impulse control to avoid harming people in pursuit of it doesn’t mean he’s not responsible for the harm. That’s what being responsible for a crime is. No external factors worked on the thief to coerce him into robbing the paladin, he just has poor impulse control and little concern for the happiness of others, and thus doesn’t care who he harms in pursuit of his own selfish gain.

Pit fiends are still capable of doing good works, and they are in no way being coerced into avoiding them. They are not being mind controlled by a greater evil, they are not being tortured by external forces whenever they commit good acts, they are not incapable of figuring out what a good action would be. They just like doing evil things. They inherently enjoy the suffering of other creatures. They inherently enjoy the sort of Lawful Evil societies that crush the weak and helpless under their boot. A pit fiend claiming he’s not responsible for enslaving a continent because it’s in his nature is literally a joke. It’s Rocket Raccoon saying “no, you don’t understand – I want it.”

Damnation Without A Saving Throw

In this section of the essay, Greg mainly builds on the previous section, taking the argument he’s made concerning the pit fiend and applying it towards regular humanoids. Since his premises in Pity the Pit Fiend have already been reduced to the utterly absurd “people can’t be held responsible for hurting others because they wanted to have the thing they hurt others for,” this entire section is likewise reduced to the absurd for the same reason.

Free Will in the Lair of the Succubus

Here, Greg finally brings up compatibilism. Compatibilism is an explanation for how free will and a deterministic universe can coexist, and it’s what I’ve been riffing on up above. The basic idea is that “free will” is not “acting without the influence of internal or external factors,” (despite the fact that internal and external factors tautologically cover all possible factors, since external factors are defined as “any factors which are not internal”) but rather “having your decisions ultimately made by your internal factors and not your external factors.”

Compatibilism is obviously correct. I don’t mean this in the sense that “I am so much smarter than Greg that obviously my beliefs are accurate,” I mean this in the sense that “compatibilism is the only model in which free will makes any sense, so obviously it is correct because every other model relies on a definition of free will that does not make any sense, and what’s even the point of having words if they don’t mean anything?” It’s one thing to argue that the universe as we know it has no free will. If someone is arguing that the idea of free will doesn’t make sense in any universe, then all they’re doing is using a bad definition for “free will” and then complaining about their own bad definition. They picked it! Why would they intentionally pick a definition that’s useless? Definitions are supposed to apply to concepts we actually use!

The primary thought experiment of the lair of the succubus is that an adventuring party enters a succubus’ lair and the fighter is beguiled and turned against the rest of the party. After the fight is over, the rest of the party gets ready to lynch the fighter for his betrayal. Greg claims that this thought experiment is supposed to prove the limitations of compatibilism, but A) if the fighter is really being flat-out mind controlled then his body is being puppeted against his will, so external factors are responsible for his attacks on the party, and B) if the fighter is not being flat-out mind controlled, then he is indeed responsible for being easily swayed to betray the party.

Whether or not situation A or situation B is true depends entirely on how you interpret game mechanics and neither answer is right or wrong. For the sake of this thought experiment, Greg assumes situation B is accurate (specifically, he says “When [the fighter] took a swing at the warlock, it was because he wanted to chop him up[,]” emphasis from the original text). I personally think that situation A fits the succubus’ Dominate spell better and that situation B is better suited for the less effective Charm spell, but as mentioned earlier neither interpretation is strictly right or wrong, just a matter of personal preference.

Greg claims that the fighter is not responsible for his actions even though they came from his internal factors, his desire to protect the succubus and thus to kill his former friends. Firstly, it should be noted that this desire is imposed by the succubus and vanishes immediately upon her death, and it is therefore treading in murky waters between being an internal and external factor. Is the desire to protect the succubus really a part of the fighter’s own self if killing a completely different being removes that desire from the fighter’s mind? Similarly, drugs introduced into someone’s system are generally considered an external factor even though they’re messing with the chemical balance of the brain, which is usually considered an internal factor.

Secondly and more importantly, Greg does not understand how Will/Wisdom saves work. Out of character, failing a Will save means the fighter’s character is now under the control of the GM, or at least that the GM has veto power over certain actions (those that don’t involve protecting the succubus from the party at all, for example). In character, however, failing the Will save means that the fighter is willing to kill his friends for a hot demon. The Will save just represents the fighter’s willpower to resist the carnal pleasures the demon is offering him in exchange for his treachery, because obviously it is easy for the player to refuse carnal pleasures he will never be able to actually enjoy in favor of companionship which is, in fact, real. The choice is so much easier for the player than for the character that the game mechanics simulate the character’s potential to think with his dick using a die roll. Whether or not that’s good design is not currently the subject of discussion. What matters is that this is what’s happening when you roll to resist a charm (and, in this interpretation, domination) effect.

Greg finishes this vignette with the party preparing to lynch the fighter, saying “you don’t ever turn against the party!” That rule, like most other universal rules, is way too strict. We have judges for a reason. They are there to interpret phrases in law like “reasonable precaution” which are known to be too situational to plan for in advance and are intentionally left vague. It is obviously true that the party fighter shouldn’t necessarily be lynched for falling for the succubus’ supernatural beauty. He was partly a victim to external factors, that is, the succubus’ inhuman seductive skill and body. He was also partly a victim to internal factors, that is, his own poor impulse control. The Will save can be successful, after all, so clearly the succubus’ supernatural charms aren’t so overpowering that they absolutely crush all internal resistance. The fighter simply lacked loyalty, and that’s on him.

How Thorin Axebeard Randomly Defended the Bridge

We get some more tiresome thoughts on free will here, specifically the idea that if current interpretations of quantum theory turn out to hold water, then the universe is probabilistic, not deterministic. This means that while you can say there is a 70% chance of X happening as opposed to Y, there is no level of knowledge that will allow you to know for certain that X will happen instead of Y. Omniscience is impossible.

Greg posits and then rejects the idea that randomness means free will. Having your actions be determined by random chance isn’t any more free than having them be determined by the boundary conditions of the universe. This is all fundamentally accurate, except where he claims that his succubus example has proven compatibilist thought wrong, which it in fact has not. Whether a being’s personality is a collection of deterministic impulses or a collection of quantum probabilities, that being still has a personality, and any actions undertaken as a result of that being’s personality are the responsibility of that being.

Four-Dimensional Dungeons and Powerless Dragons

Greg’s argument here is that, according to Einstein’s theory of relativity, the past, present, and future aren’t objectively in the order we perceive them as, and thus the future has already happened, we just aren’t there yet. To help understand this concept, think of a tower that rises up in the third dimension. The top of the tower relies on the supports at the bottom and its shape is determined by them, yet the entire tower already exists no matter what floor of it you’re on. If you’re on the bottom floor and going up, it makes no sense to say the top of the tower is undetermined because we haven’t got there yet. Of course the tower is determined. Time works the same way. The future is already a place that exists in the same way that the top of the tower is already a place that exists, so it isn’t open-ended at all.

So what? Sure, the idea is generally very mind-bending (although philosophers, especially the kind of amateur hour philosophers that Greg Littmann has proven to be so far, usually don’t understand science very well at all, so I have no idea if he’s describing relativity or quantum mechanics correctly), but what does this have to do with free will? Greg tries to make the argument that because the future has already happened, we can’t be responsible for it, but this is an artifact of the very three-dimensional thinking he is claiming to have moved beyond. The flow of time is an illusion, which means we can be responsible for things that had already happened when we were born, because the time when we were born is actually contemporaneous with all other events. That’s really weird, but it doesn’t change the fact that a dwarf’s decision to defend a bridge or retreat from it will have causal effects on the future. Even if that decision and its effects have always existed, that still requires that they exist. The decision exists, and the consequences of that decision exists, which means it is important that Thorin Axebeard is the kind of dwarf who will defend the bridge and not the kind of dwarf who will flee from it. He is responsible for the defending of that bridge.

Free Will And Other Imaginary Monsters

This is the final section of the essay, in which Greg brings the inanity home by propping up a utilitarian worldview after rejecting the underpinnings that trying to do anything at all could be useful. Here, Greg talks about how lacking free will means that we shouldn’t seek to harm evil people, because they allegedly never had any choice, but instead we should try to make people as happy as possible. This is basic utilitarianism: The greatest good is to cause the greatest happiness for the greatest amount of people. Except, in a world with no free will, all human endeavor is predetermined and trying to do anything is pointless. This means that utilitarianism, Kantianism, Aristotelianism, etc. etc. are all invalid, and the only options are existentialism and nihilism. It’s telling to see Greg claim for five sections straight using one ultimately invalid argument after another that free will doesn’t exist, and then ends by imploring the reader to make decisions. He spends the entire essay saying that no living being can possibly decide anything, and then at the end asks us to decide to be more merciful in real life. I don’t disagree with the appeal to be more merciful, the problem is that the argument he built to get there is a total non-sequitir.

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