A Treatise on Good and Evil                            Back To Tyrran Timeline Index

Seronia Merritt
September 603ER

 

            What is good?  What is evil?  It seems to me that with the adventuring population ever expanding, now is as good a time as ever to try to offer some guidance on that question.  Adventurers, you see, consider themselves heroes and those they oppose are villains.  In some cases, the line seems very clear, but in other cases it is a bit more blurred.  I am undertaking to try to determine the true nature of good and evil so that we might be able to offer more insight into those situations where the line is blurred.

 

Section One

 

            In order to determine the nature of good and evil, I propose a kind of thought experiment.  Let us imagine a world where there were no moral boundaries at all.  In this world, people would be able to do whatever they wish, and never feel guilty about it.  We might think that in this world there would be rampant stealing, murder, and all other types of what we consider evil actions.  In such a world, it stands to reason that those who are strongest might be able to impose their will on others, and as such become leaders.  However, there would be a frequent transition of leadership, as anyone would be able to become the leader simply by killing the previous leader.  In such a chaotic environment, it is hard to imagine that much progress would be made, and people would be stuck in a perennial stone age, so to speak.

            Thus, one leader might seek to impose laws.  He might realize that it is in his own self-interest to not be assassinated, and so he might make assassinations of the leader illegal.  However, this would not be a moral rule, but purely a legal rule.  Over time, though, perhaps the leader will realize that it is in his own self-interest to have his people love him, so that they might work harder for him, and thus produce more for him.  He might bestow gifts upon his people, and as such the people may come to have a real respect for their leader.  That respect would not be created by force, however, but instead out of self-interest.  After all, people will quickly realize that respecting the leader and working hard for him gets them gifts, and so it is in their best interests to do so.  In time, people may decide that killing the leader is not only illegal, but also an incorrect action.  And from there, it is a small jump for people to go from believing that assassination is incorrect to believing that it is wrong.  And once that jump is made, the society has its first moral word, as wrongness has a strong sense of morality that goes along with it.  To say that something is wrong is not far off from saying that it is evil.

            However, this seems to me to be a very cynical argument.  At its base, this argument is claiming that all sense of morality comes out of a base of self-interest.  There are probably many people out there who would argue with such a view and instead claim that morality does not come to exist, but that it simply is.  That is what I will talk about in the next section.

 

Section Two

 

            The idea that Tyrra is bound by moral laws that do not come into existence, but instead simply are, is not a new one, but is indeed one worth investigating.  If these universal moral laws were to exist in our world, what form would they take?  How would we know what they are?

            For example, let us say that there is a universal moral law that says that “it is wrong to kill.”  First of all, then, how do I come to possess this knowledge?  Is it inherently a part of me at my birth?  Do I walk up to a wall and read this information off of it?  Are there little voices that carry the knowledge on the air?  It is difficult to understand how a universal moral law might interact with the physical and spiritual worlds.

            Let us make the assumption, for now, that I would be born with knowledge of this universal law.  If people are born with knowledge of moral law, then how do we explain changes in moral law over time?  For instance, there is right now in Evendarr a transition of thought on the concept of slavery.  While before there were some people who thought that slavery was wrong, as time has progressed many more people have come to adopt the same view.  If slavery being wrong is knowledge that we are all born with, then how come some people consider it right or justifiable and others consider it abhorrent?  It doesn’t seem to make sense that it could be a universal moral law.

            Also, the same is true of killing.  There are times when we find killing to be wrong, and other times when we find it to be justifiable or even right.  How could this be if there was a single universal rule that said that killing was wrong?

            Additionally, it must be recognized that these are some of the more concrete examples.  The majority of people seem to find killing and slavery to be wrong.  It becomes a much more difficult issue when one is dealing with lesser crimes of morality, such as stealing.  If one steals to feed their family, is that wrong?

            Secondly, there is another problem with having universal moral laws, and that is that morality seems to work differently in different places.  Different parts of Avalon have different moral rules, different conceptions of good and evil.  For example, the practice of eating a person’s body at death is considered by many humans to be disgusting and wrong, but in Myrr it is considered a way to honor the dead.  Also, many barbarian cultures consider celestial magic to be wrong, but many other cultures consider it an ordinary and natural part of life.  If there was a universal moral law that was obvious to us all at birth, then shouldn’t all parts of Avalon have the same moral rules?

            A third problem with universal moral laws that we are born with is the idea of moral education.  If we were born with a full grasp of right and wrong, then we would not need to be educated on morality as we grew.  But that is not the case.  Instead, we do need to be educated on morality, and those who raise us, whether family or clan or pack, take it upon themselves to teach us those lessons.

In light of these arguments, it seems that it is very difficult to claim that there is a universal set of moral laws we are following.  Instead, it must be the case that we are following moral rules that have developed over time.  Still, though, we know nothing about the nature of what these rules are.  That is what we will begin to explore in the next section.

 

Section Three

 

When presented with a moral situation, we can usually make a determination if as to whether we believe that the action is right or wrong.  For example, if Marcus casts a death spell on Jason because Marcus wants to steal Jason’s gold, we would describe that as wrong.  If Marcus consorts with a necromancer in order to gain power, we would describe that as wrong.  How, though, do we state the rules that allow us to make these determinations?

One popular theory of morality holds that a moral action is that action which produces the most good for the most people.  This, on face, seems plausible.  After all, isn’t that what heroes do?  And we all seem to consider heroes to be paragons of good.  Some might even argue that the definition of a hero is a paragon of good.

There are, though, several problems with this theory.  First, it still leaves us with the question of what good is in the first place.  How can I do the most good for the most people if I still have no definition of good?

Second, there seem to be exceptions to this rule.  Take the following example.  I am wandering along and accidentally venture into the camp of the famous lich Necronomicus.  I see that Necronomicus has captured twenty innocent people and is about to kill them.  Necronomicus, being a cruel being, decides to have fun with me.  He presents me with a cruel choice.  Either I can kill one of the innocents, and then he will let the rest free, or I can watch him slaughter all twenty.  Clearly, neither of these options is what we would intuitively call a “good” option.  In fact, we might say that I am stuck with a choice where I have to choose the lesser of two “evils.”  And yet, the second option is the one that would produce the most good for the most people, and so our theory would tell us that it is the good option.

Given these arguments, it seems to me that the theory of morality that holds that good is that which does the most good for the most people is inherently flawed.  Another theory that some have proposed is that a right action is that which most benefits the person making the action.  In other words, good actions are actions of self-interest.

This theory, though, seems to have even more problems than the first.  The primary problem is that it is plainly counterintuitive.  We think of a good person as a person who helps others, not someone who helps themselves.  Thus, this theory runs counter to our most basic notions of common morality.

Secondly, this theory has many counter-examples.  For instance, if I go on an adventure with a group of people and then secretly steal all the treasure when no one else is looking, is that a good action?  The theory would hold that it is, since I benefited myself tremendously.  But I doubt many people would agree that such an action is right or justifiable.  Another example might be casting necromancy.  It might benefit the caster in the short run, but in the long term it corrupts the land and taints the caster.  So again, it is hard to see how this would be a good action.

A third potential theory of morality is that morality is that which is publicly accepted as good.  So, for example, because killing is generally seen as wrong, this theory of morality would hold that killing is wrong.  And because stealing is generally seen as wrong, this theory of morality would hold that stealing is wrong.

As with the other theories, though, this theory has flaws.  First of all, it runs into a problem mentioned earlier, and that is that different societies have different morality.  To cite my earlier example, gorbe consider the eating of the dead an honor, while humans consider it wrong.  Which society is correct?

Well, the natural answer would be to say that both societies are correct.  Perhaps you have heard the old saying, “When in Evendarr, do as the Evendarrians do?”  That saying might very well apply to this example.  In Myrr, eating of the dead would be right, but in Evendarr City it would be wrong.  In other words, one has to adapt their moral views to the local custom of where they are.

This theory seems plausible, but lets discuss an example which shows potential difficulties in its application.  Let us imagine two societies, which we will call Arnhaven and Bedalia.  In Arnhaven, necromancy is legal and widely used.  In fact, it is considered to be a moral good to be a necromancer.  In Bedalia, necromancy is scorned and hated.  Necromancers are considered evil beings who should be driven out.  However, there is a stretch of land between Arnhaven and Bedalia called Carranor, which was settled both by people from Arnhaven and people from Bedalia.  In Carranor, there are some people who consider necromancy good, and some people who consider necromancy evil.  Which side is right?  By the theory that we are discussing, neither side is right.  It is impossible to say whether necromancy is right or wrong in Carranor.  And thus, it seems to me that any theory that cannot make real determinations of moral right and wrong is not an adequate theory of morality.

A second problem with the theory that the good is that which is publicly accepted as good is that it leaves morality based on the will of the majority.  For example, in the land of Therendry right now, there is a large group called the purists who hate all non-humans.  If the purists were in the majority, would that make them right in hating all non-humans?  Of course not.  Any theory which holds that majority rule determines the good leaves itself open to the will of the mob.

 

Conclusion

 

So, where does this leave us?  We have gone through many theories of morality and not been able to settle on any one.  While the subject may eventually require more exploration, I think for now it is safe to say that there is no one theory of morality we can use to determine what is good and what is evil.  In reality, most situations fall into a grey area that neither fits into our full conception of good or our full conception of evil.

The truth is that such questions are why the sentient races are born with judgment.  We have the ability to make determinations of good or evil for ourselves.  We do not always make the right decisions, but we also certainly do not always make the wrong decisions.

In the end, what might one take away from this treatise?  First, one should beware of people who claim that they have a monopoly on virtue or good.  Second, one should beware of broad classifications such as “all fey are evil.”  And third, one should never forget to exercise their good judgment, because ultimately it is what everything comes down to.

 

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