In the beginning of time as we know it (1973), Dungeons & Dragons had a single alignment scale – Law vs. Chaos. Law was mostly synonymous with Good, and Chaos with Evil. Four years later, AD&D added a second scale, Good vs. Evil, so a character could now be Chaotic Good or Lawful Evil.
D&D Paladins are unbending, unwavering goody-two-shoes. They always do what’s right, escort little old ladies across streets, and never run a red light. They stay in the extreme “Lawful Good” corner of the alignment chart.
Lori and I had a different vision of “what is a Paladin?” when we created Quest for Glory, and that affects the School for Heroes view of a Paladin as well. Our Paladins are total individualists. They do what they believe to be Good regardless of laws or conventions. A Quest for Glory Paladin is closer to Neutral Good than to Lawful Good.
Most people consider “law-abiding” and “good” to be like cake and icing. They just naturally go together. If you’re one, you’re probably the other. But what do you do when these ideas are in conflict? What action do you take when a law forbids what you know to be right? For that matter, how do you behave when a law is merely inconvenient to you?
Who Wrote These Laws Anyway?
Not all laws were created with the wisdom of Hammurabi. Some range from poorly-conceived to downright stupid. If you drive at night on a rural road in Pennsylvania, there is still a law on the books that requires you to stop every mile, shoot a flare, and wait ten minutes before proceeding. That gives the local farmers time to get their livestock off the road. How many Pennsylvanians – or visitors to the state – have any idea that law exists? How many would even consider obeying it if they were aware of it?
You may laugh, but how lawful are you when it comes to more reasonable traffic laws? Do you scrupulously drive under the speed limit at all times? Do you come to a full and complete stop, then look both ways and wait, before continuing at a stop sign? Have you ever downloaded software, videos, or music from a pirate site or copied a friend’s CD or MP3?
There’s an old joke about a policeman pulling a woman over and asking her if she knows what a yellow traffic light means. She answers, “Of course I do, officer! It means drive like Hell because the light is about to turn red.” How about the opposite? I read a story in the Fresno Bee about a man who stopped suddenly when the light turned yellow. His car was rear-ended by a police cruiser, and the officer told him that he was at fault for driving unsafely.
Joke again, right? No. It happened. I remember the story because I almost had a similar accident at that same intersection. I stopped for the yellow light and the car behind me slammed on his brakes, then swerved to pass me (after the light had turned red). Contrary to the California Driver’s Handbook, apparently a yellow light does mean, “Drive like Hell.”
I wonder how well engineers in Indiana (this may be apocryphal – I’ve heard it told about other states) were able to do their work after the state legislature decreed that Pi = 3. Or whether anyone has been arrested under the Blythe, California ordinance that makes it illegal to wear cowboy boots unless you own at least two cows.
The thing is, legislators are people. The fact that they have discussion and debate before passing laws does not mean they get it right all the time. Sometimes they make mistakes, sometimes they get caught up in their own “authority”, and maybe they even get bored occasionally and throw something in as a joke. In any case, all laws are not created equal, and some aren’t worth the paper on which they’re printed. Yet our legal system insists that “law is law” and we must obey every single one of them to the letter… even those that most of us have never heard of.
The Dark Knight of the Soul
We grew up reading comic books in the 60’s. Most of the heroes, including Superman and Batman, had a “code against killing”. They relied on the police and courts to put criminals in jail because killing the criminals would make them criminals too.
“The Dark Knight” questions that cookie-cutter morality. The Joker asks Batman, “How many have died?” The implication is that Batman is responsible for every criminal whom he helped imprison, and who later escaped or was released. It’s a little like the Chinese philosophy that, if you save a man’s life, you are responsible to him forever after.
“Thou shalt not kill” is a pretty straightforward law. And yet there are many exceptions. Soldiers are expected to kill “the enemy”. Criminals are put to death in many states and countries. Police are authorized to use deadly force when they consider it necessary. Is it immoral, unethical, or illegal to kill when that seems to be the only way to save your own life?
Put yourself in the boots of the Batman. What would you do when a despicable villain who has killed dozens of innocent people is hanging from a ledge and you have the opportunity to save him? Would you rescue him so that he can “face justice” (knowing that he has escaped from prison before)? Would you give him a push to make sure there is no escape this time? Or would you stand back and let destiny make your decision? What if the police are watching and you know you will be held accountable for your decision – Does that change your answer?
Life, Death, and Free Will
Breaking the law to “do good” is rarely an easy choice, for Heroes know that laws are important. Without them, might society descend into anarchy? Would “The Lord of the Flies” become our new guide to survival? Consistent enforcement of the law gives people guidelines for behavior that benefits society.
Striving for “the greatest good” is a challenge because we have neither perfect knowledge nor perfect ability to calculate tradeoffs. Nevertheless, as Heroes, we need to try.