Inherently Evil

Wednesday, May 13, 2009 - 12:49 PM

We have had some great comments on recent posts... inspired by Elf Rage. This post is a bit late but I think some people will find it very interesting reading.

It is important to note that in a fantasy setting, just like science fiction, you are dealing with the concept of beings who simply do not think or feel the way humans do. They don't perceive the world the same way, either. Being human ourselves, we have to use the human perception as a baseline for these depictions, but it is important to understand that an entirely different species might make decisions on an entirely different set of thoughts, rationales and feelings. and this is rather more absolute than merely having an opinion. Evil implies motive, and if something cannot help but be what it is, how evil is it really? This is one reason why I don't think the presence of absolute evil makes things suddenly black and white. Absolute evil does not negate moral shades of gray.

I will also mention that I don't believe that something born inherently evil is automatically Absolute evil. Absolute evil is reserved for those supernatural things such as demons, who are removed entirely from the constraints of natural law. In my mind, something like a demon might be able to make sense, but ultimately, their way of thinking would be almost entirely incomprehensible to a mortal creature.

Of course, right from the start, you have a problem with the terminology. What does inherently evil even mean? Considering how out of control 'what if my paladin...' threads get in RPG forums, it is pretty easy to see how differently people view good and evil (my favorite one-liner is from a friend of mine: 'if you have to explain why it isn't evil, it's probably evil'). Instead of philosophizing, I'm going to use some examples of three intelligent races from my own campaign which are commonly regarded from the human standpoint as 'evil'.

Goblins are widely considered a dangerous nuisance. They are not very bright, breed very quickly, and can be extremely tenacious. They are careless with resources, but are capable of living in places humans won't even go near. Goblins have only one real sense of morality, and that is the survival of their own kind. The fae blood in their veins has given them a degree of creativity, whimsy and fascination, but the goblin view of beauty is a bit skewed, and they find the extreme of creatures in shock or pain oddly compelling; it is like one step up from the human tendency to stare at a car wreck. Part of this is how they were bred; goblins were made to be expendable soldiers, meant to fight and die en masse for their ogre autarch masters (the Gavarrhan).

Goblins left on their own don't want to fight wars, but there is a constant danger implicit to a goblin population. Bred to obey, goblins are compelled to follow orders from hobgoblins or ogres, and will do so even if it kills them. Goblins fear their masters for this reason, often actively avoiding contact with ogres or hobgoblins, but they literally cannot comprehend direct disobedience to either. They can coexist with humans fairly well if coached, and are quite capable of emotions like love or compassion. The irrevocable splinter of obedience to the Gavarrhan is troublesome enough, however, and there is a lot of prejudice towards goblins. Goblins, not understanding prejudice as a concept, attack would-be attackers furiously in order to protect their own, and have no compunctions about resorting to torture or atrocity to scare other races out of their territory.

The pheesu are a rather different case. Like goblins, they were manipulated into becoming a race of their own, but in this case the pheesu were merely uplifted to sapience from their original animalistic state, and left to develop on their own. Originally pack-hunting reptilians, the pheesu developed a kind of 'over-pack' hierarchy that provided a foundation for a large society, bolstered by an acknowledgment of racial identity. But the old tenets of predator-prey relationships and territorial rights were hard-wired in the pheesu psyche. As much as the pheesu became capable of rationalizing or comprehending, their instincts were in them from birth. Their initial conquest was merely for more territory as their race grew, but they were not interested in subjugating other races for any other reason than to use them as cattle. The pheesu were indifferent to the philosophy, art or science of prey animals. They would toss human captives to their hatchlings so that their hatchlings could fight over the food, giving their young practice at killing as well as weeding out the weak.

Pheesu were ferociously protective of their children, but they did not make allowances for runts of the nest. The strong live, the weak die. Killing was just part of being a pheesu; the imperative of predation would overwhelm them if ignored for too long, and the average pheesu would have to kill an animal once a week or so. This was not regarded as a hindrance to them. It was just part of being pheesu. Likewise, physical confrontations between packs were an accepted occurrence. Like many animals, they had behavior allowing for minimal harm of their species in a confrontation, and that became a ritualized but nonetheless brutal act of resolution. They had no empathy for prey races, such as humans. A pheesu was not being cruel when it started eating a human alive. It would not have thought to spare the human the pain, because the human was merely not important. At no point did the pheesu ever ask whether or not they were doing something wrong. It would have been exceedingly difficult for them to even understand the notion that it would be wrong from another point of view.The pheesu only respected or communicated with those creatures that were individually tougher than a pheesu, or for some reason did not set off their territorial instinct.

The Shepherds, descendents of the Alfar who studied human symbols of corruption, are all sages and scholars. They seek out forbidden secrets and keep many of the same, occasionally letting one or half of one slip to watch as the disease of knowledge spreads through the world. They study corruption in all forms; body, mind and soul. They examine the countless ways corruption might manifest and grow as well as how it is stopped or dealt with. Shepherds watch the process of secrets growing into different secrets, and collect all manner of lore that is regarded as repugnant, grotesque, frightful or blasphemous. The malice of a Shepherd is incredibly subtle and far-reaching, and thus to the common mind, they do not seem nearly as cruel as they actually are. The act of manipulating other beings is so ingrained to a Shepherd that it is instinctive. They are capable of compassion, but it is often for the purpose of building trust so that they can violate that trust in the future. Though the horrors they practice on others (and sometimes themselves) do further their constant study, Shepherds feel contentment in doing these things, and regard it as quite healthy and normal.

All Shepherds consider themselves part of a family. All Shepherds follow a common goal, which is so integral to who and what they are that it is an intimate bond between them. In a sense, one can consider all Shepherds to be in love with one another. In their view, no one else can see the depths that a Shepherd has descended to, and no other race can possibly understand how far a Shepherd can go. To a Shepherd, the world is a strange place, for it does not mirror the nightmare life that they are content with nor the twisted, selfish place they see the world as. Expressions of love between Shepherds border on atrocity in the eyes of other beings, and the compassion they show to non-Shepherds is pain at best.

So, which of these is inherently evil? Which of these is evil at all? How much black and white morality do you see here? Could any of them be potentially allies or heroes? What about antiheroes?



At May 14, 2009 7:16 AM, Blogger MCHossman said...

Declaring something as being 'Evil' is, I think at best, a subjective attempt to distinguish between culturally defined 'good morals' and 'poor ones'. In a fantasy setting (or even a religious one) it is too quickly made to distinguish 'That Team' for ease and for sake of giving the heroes something to struggle against. Yet the shades of gray of what is evil or good is tend to become confused to the point that most people don't want to take he time to understand what is behind the motive of X, they just want to feel that they are justified in denying or thwarting X - primarily because it is different from their own morals, motives and/or points of view.

In Tolkien's world, evil races were corrupted and created with a goal to bring about the end of man and elves and dwarves. This goal became a part of them, they lived, breathed and feared this ultimatum, the sunlight was made to hurt them and in reading you got the sense that the races of goblins, orcs and trolls, etc. were all hellbent on bringing about this end.

In DnD, that is not necessarily the case - at least it is not defined as being so in the core books. They are just monsters with no driving force behind them making them so, so in answer to your question: No, I don't see the Goblins or the other races as being 'Evil' in how you have presented them. Acting naturally to ones nature, from an Anthropologist's point of view would not be evil, but normal. Your shepherds, though have potential, but I'll try to expand more in a bit...

Put under the subjective light of the villagers that find themselves being preyed up on by Goblins or Pheesu, they would indeed see these beings as Evil - but again that is the subjective element, not an objective one. And in this sense I don't think we need to go into great detail as to how ethnocentric approaches divide and facilitate the pitting of different groups (or races) against each other.

As far as being 'inherently evil' I would claim that if this is possible that that entity which is born or created so would not be able to pursue or even understand what is 'good'. Your Demon example is a good one and I'd further it by saying that if there were 'inherently evil' creatures about then their mere presence would have an effect on those surrounding them. A sort of chaotic form of changing the natural order of what is around them. Seen from the outside, this would be evil as it challenges and forces change on what would be viewed as normal. If your shepherds were to be included in this, then they'd not have the means of changing themselves back, the chaotic warping of corruption would have changed their own essence so that they could not see what they once were as being any different from what they are now.

It is unfortunate, but I think the entire DnD system sort of bolsters the lowest common denominator of good vs. evil. They do so for obvious reasons but I never feel people should take such means without at least trying to explain what is behind their motives. Alignment is but a starting block that reinforces this notion. You must decide if you are good or evil or, if a cop out, neutral - but stories are rarely told from neutral points of view. There are not any 'Switzerland-style' based fantasy novels, so I don't find purely neutral alignments as being truly viable, personally. From within the DnD paradigm this works because it represents 'nature' but shouldn't every race have their own 'nature' too? What separates spiders and druids are no different from what separates the Pheesu and the goblins when you think about it. Lastly, the alignment system, as it is, puts serious kinks in trying to develop complex characters, why wouldn't a paladin have vengeful thoughts against a natural foe? By the rules, once he acted on these thoughts his powers would leave him, but it may be these thoughts that originally put him on the path of being a paladin. It just doesn't mesh - to me.

Clerical spells also help reinforce this perception. What I'd like to see for clerical spells effects that are dependent on alignment be based on more of a cultural or personal level. I want to see a Dispell Evil spell cast on a paladin of a different culture and have it work - because the cleric might see the strict lawful guidance of the paladin as being evil and cruel itself. This isn't so in the DnD universe or in most fantasy settings (or even books) because of the ease of basing things on the evil/good coin. Hell, if the god puts that much trust in a mortal to act on their behalf and in their interest, why would he limit the use of his power to some imperfect alignment system?

You could still keep 'protection from evil' spells, but I would have them work in a different manner than how they are set up now.

(and its only 10:15 a.m. and I've quit caffine - see what you do?!?)


At May 14, 2009 11:18 AM, Blogger C Hanson said...

This post has been removed by the author.


At May 14, 2009 1:45 PM, Blogger C Hanson said...

Tough questions. As with your other commentor, I've never been happy with D&D's simplified alignment system, though I can deal with the paladin's dilemna by saying it's all his/her deity's fault for being too picky, to whatever level of pickiness the GM chooses to enforce. Deities don't have to be rational. (And I love the idea of using "smite evil" spells against paladins from other religions!)

In a rational context, it's harder to justify labeling anything "inherently evil." I can run it through my personal belief system, but that's not the same. If I try to universalize it, to an "Evil" with a capital "E", I come up with something like "intentionally causing pain to others where that is the main purpose, for others to feel pain, suffering, terror, despair." Demonic spirits then are Evil because they would want to increase the level of pain and suffering in the universe, regardless of any desire to overthrow the angelic orders. Your Shepherds become Evil, because their purpose is to extend corruption, but not the goblins nor the pheesu.

Of course, this definition would absolve the Bush adminstration from being Evil in their policies on torture. But something doesn't have to be Evil to be evil, or even horribly Wrong.

Unfortunately, it does seem to include sadomasochism, which is a different sort of pain to me because I'd like to believe anything between reasonably sane, competant, and consenting adults shouldn't be judged so harshly.

Eh, needs more work.

(Re-posted, because the earlier post of this comment wasn't showing up.)


At May 15, 2009 9:35 AM, Blogger C Hanson said...

Still not showing comment. *sigh*


At May 25, 2009 5:19 PM, Blogger William said...

This entire debate leads me to the philosophical question of, does a universal set of morals exist?

Specifically, A code of conduct not based on culture, religion or any other external influencing factor, but instead something that is hard wired into the human mind.

Now obviously, as discussed, these other races seem to have their own codes of morality. I would bet that each race could have there own "ten commandments". The contents of each list and the resulting behavior may be rather eye opening to some people, in that most people would see little wrong with any of the morals individually, but be horrified how they all fit together. (might be a fun exercise actually)

I'll end how I started, with the question that has bothered me for years, is our moral code of right and wrong something that is hard wired or something that is taught from generation to generation using religion and culture?


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