Today’s chapter of Dungeons and Dragons and Philosophy comes to us from Neil Mussett for…some reason. He’s a business analyst for Citi with no apparent philosophical credentials whatsoever. The last essay, Paragons and Knaves, was an insult that failed to present a philosophical argument at all, instead just giving its condescending conclusion a couple of times and working in some awkward D&D metaphors before walking away, but it was co-written by an actual professor of philosophy so you can see why the compilers of the book might have thought it was a good idea at the time. Neil is the opposite of that. I have no idea how he got on a philosophy production’s radar, but I’m glad he did, because his essay is pretty good.
As the title suggests, Neil’s essay is about whether or not anyone is actually Chaotic Evil. Neil has the unstated assumption here that in order to be an Evil character, a creature needs to consciously choose to take evil actions. Someone who does whatever they want, whether it’s evil or good, would appear to qualify as neutral in Neil’s view. That definitely makes the question of evil a lot harder to solve, since you have arbitrarily disqualified most perpetrators of evil acts from counting as evil people because they did not choose to do evil specifically because it was evil. Neil even admits near the end that Adolf Eichmann, the man in charge of overseeing the fucking Holocaust, wouldn’t count as evil in his interpretation of D&D alignments because Eichmann was an ordinary man given a job and decided he was going to do that job largely on auto-pilot. The ultimate root of Eichmann’s evil is not that he had a moral code that permitted and encouraged evil, but that he had no moral code at all. Eichmann never twirled his sinister handlebar mustache and cackled about causing death and suffering on an unprecedented, industrial scale, he just never stopped and asked “is overseeing the execution of millions of innocent people, many of them German citizens, something I should be doing?” Yesterday, his job was managing train depots. Today, he was managing the flow of Jewish, Romani, communist, and homosexual prisoners to Auschwitz. Basically the same, right?
When discussing philosophers shaped by the Nazi regime, Neil will admit that this view of evil as banal is the most accurate of any of the many different perspectives he examines while trying to find an answer to the question “what kind of person would be Chaotic Evil?” Then he discards it anyway, because he’s stuck on this idea that qualifying as D&D evil means that you have to willfully and intentionally choose evil actions. Apathy isn’t good enough. This is really bad for the game, because to the extent that alignment is useful at all (and for the most part it is not, because it is a terrible categorization of human motives), it has to cover actual human motivations, and after admitting that Hannah Arendt’s perspective on evil is probably the most accurate to actual human motivations, Neil disqualifies it for failing to meet his requirement of evil being knowingly chosen. Why, though? If Hannah Arendt is the most accurate perspective on real human evil, then shouldn’t D&D evil be defined around Arendt’s philosophy, rather than Arendt’s philosophy being disqualified by the nature of D&D evil? It’s not like the “consciously chosen evil” requirement is even pulled from the handbooks or anything. Neil doesn’t quote the alignment section from some core rules and state that D&D itself has declared that the evil alignment requires consciously choosing evil actions, which it does not. He just assumes this, for no reason.
Fortunately, this assumption casts almost no specter at all over the bulk of the essay. I won’t bother going section by section, because each section sees Neil examining the nature of evil from the perspective of several different philosophers and rejecting each of them as workable for the game in turn. The first three are Plato, Aristotle, and Aquinas, each of whom ultimately come to the conclusion (much to Aristotle’s chagrin, who deeply dislikes this conclusion and originally set out to prove it wrong) that virtue is the true road to perfect happiness and that everyone who commits evil has done a poor risk/reward calculation. Immanuel Kant, up next, claims that good is dutiful adherence to a rigid code of ethics and evil is living in pursuit of personal ambitions or desires. Then we get slightly more obscure philosophers Deitrich von Hildebrand and Hannah Arendt, the former of which talks about metaphysics and multiple different scales of good while the latter has that whole “evil is banal” thing that resulted from observations of Nazi war criminals. The explanation for each philosophy is reasonably clear, it covers the nature of evil according to two of the three most prominent philosophies of modern day, as well as adding in the works of the philosopher who actually got it right on this particular subject. Or at least, as right as anyone’s managed to get so far.
The conclusion that none of the philosophies examined work for D&D is wrong, because it is perfectly acceptable to play a Chaotic Evil character who is completely self-interested without being devoted to evil ideologically, who does evil things when they benefit him and doesn’t when they don’t. I still have no idea where Neil got the idea that this wasn’t the case. The meat of the essay, however, is meditations on the nature of evil by a half-dozen different philosophers and that is undeniably helpful to anyone trying to sort out why villains are villainous in any campaign in any system, whether it has alignment or not.