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Thursday, August 21, 2008

In Defense of Lawful Good

Some of the comments to Mightygodking's superhero/villain alignment thingy got me thinking. (It's an old post, but I found it via Rich. Thanks Rich!)

Of course some of the logic in the comments is pretty crazy. Batman as lawful good? Have vigilantism and civilian terror tactics become legal in the DCU now? Superman as neutral good because he protects everyone from floods and crime and the like (because apparently following the law means that if I see a person caught in a flash flood, I'm going to leave him behind?). Personally I agree with MGK's take on pretty much every character there except possibly John Constantine, who, depending on the writing and the story, occasionally creeps into chaotic good for me.


But what really got me is how misunderstood "Lawful Good" as a concept really is.

Lawful Good characters fascinate me, because ultimately they are, I think, in a very precariously balanced position. Lawful good does not mean following the laws to the exclusion of common sense or morality. It doesn't mean following laws that are plain unjust or unfeasable. It doesn't mean ignoring evil or misfortune because everything is accordance with the laws. That's Lawful Neutral.

It also doesn't mean you can break laws just because you disagree with them. Laws are, at least ideally, designed to protect and serve the rights of the populace. And violating those laws is violating that protection and those rights. Even if the end result is good. A neutral or chaotic good character can take those liberties, a lawful good character cannot.

In the case of Batman, for example, it's simple. Vigilantism is illegal. VERY illegal. He may have a less antagonistic relationship with Gotham's police than otherwise, but that doesn't make him lawful. Personally, I'd argue Batman as Neutral Good. He's aware of the laws, will uphold them when it is good to do so, and will break them when he sees the need.

A lawful good character really cannot do that. It's a balancing act in which the character is often torn between ethics (law, chaos) and morality (good, evil) and find some way to reconcile the two. (Mind you, a lawful good character is not perfect and may have to make a choice occasionally one way or another, but it should never be EASY.)

Superman, I agree with MGK, is Lawful Good. Though to be fair, it's remarkably rare that Superman is involved in stories that really involve conflicts between ethics and morality without there being an easy answer. I haven't read very many stories like this and its possible that, once I've read more of these sorts of stories, that my opinion will change.

The single greatest example of the pinnacle of a Lawful Good character, to me, is Captain America, original flavor. Steve Rogers was CONSTANTLY caught in the struggle between ethics and morality. He followed and upheld the laws. When the law violated his morality, he left, became Nomad, fought for change to the law, or found some other means to reconcile the conflict. Even in Civil War, when he was so flagrantly against the Government, he remained lawful. To him, the Registration Act was unlawful, unconstitutional and an abuse of power. In essence, to Cap, the Government was acting unlawfully.

Bucky Barnes as Captain America makes for an interesting contrast, but it's clearly temporary. Even if we're not looking at the fact that this is COMICS and thus resurrection is inevitable anyway, Bucky's not lawful good. There's never going to be any conflict between acting according to the law and doing what's morally right.

It annoys me when gamers and geeks paint lawful good characters as idiot frothing at the mouth fanatics. We've all seen the Quixotic Paladin stereotype charging idiotically into danger on the white horse. But that's an over simplification. Morality is simple: good, evil, right, wrong, do unto others... and all that. Ethics are hard. Laws are made by humans and humans are flawed and in as much as they're ideally supposed to protect people, they are also used by those in power to keep their power. To be both lawful AND good requires contemplation and deep thought, balance and rationality, and most of all sacrifice.

Besides, trying to attack windmills is probably in violation of some law or another anyway.

Ultimately, when it comes down to it, given the choice I will, most of the time, prefer to read about a Lawful Good character rather than a Chaotic Good one. It's the Cyclops vs. Wolverine thing to me. I'm not sure I'd consider Cyclops to be "lawful good" per se, given the whole illegal secret army aspect to the X-Men, but of any character in that group, I'd say he comes closest. (While Cyclops and Batman both take part in illegal activities, I would be more inclined to see Scott as Lawful over Bruce. There's a difference between being an oppressed and villified minority fighting against an unjust and possibly evil regime that sends killer robots after you and being a filthy rich millionaire out to scare the life out of some lunatic in white greasepaint.)

Anyway, I know most people I know prefer Wolverine. As he is more badass and awesome and this is pretty undeniable. But personally, I think it's EASY to be Wolverine. Not that I think it's easy to have suffered through his insane backstory, tragedies, injuries and loss or anything like that. But when it comes to morality and ethics...he does what he wants. He's a moral guy and certainly has to make hard decisions, but I don't ever get the sense that he's bound by anything outside of that.

Cyclops is conflicted and angsty and brooding and makes an outright tangle of his relationships and is a repressed and sometimes assholish sort of fellow. But I find his struggle to do what's right and balance all the responsibilities and pressures and other issues in the great taffy pull of life. I think it's HARD to be Cyclops. I certainly wouldn't want to do it. And that's what makes him more compelling to me.

(Remind me to blog sometime about my sudden realization that Guy Gardner-post-brain-damage-getting-fixed may be the most lawful good of the four Earth Lanterns. In a very bizarre, brain-hurty kind of way.)

In the end, I just think the entire concept tends to get an unfair shake. It's HARD to stay within the rules, do the right thing and still WIN. There are very few opportunities for badassery, you get labeled as being uptight or sanctimonius, and it's certainly not as much fun. In the end though, it can be VERY interesting.


  • At August 21, 2008 5:27 AM, Blogger Ami Angelwings said…

    I think Batman is Awful Good :D

  • At August 21, 2008 7:21 AM, Blogger kalinara said…

    Eek, such a pun. For shame! :-)

  • At August 21, 2008 8:26 AM, Blogger Centurion said…

    To me, the Lawful part of alignment deals more with a character's personal code - and whether or nor the character is willing to break their own code.

    Take bushido for example. I would say someone who follows it is Lawful, despite what the actual laws may me.

    In defense of Batman, he only has one rule: no killing. Until he kills he is Lawful in that regard, however, Batman is a poor example because of that. He also acts out in his own interests fairly often, which sort of Evil to be honest.

    So Batman = Lawful Evil?
    There is nothing wrong with that alignment. Basically is means he keep's his word out of his own self-interest.

    Tim Drake and Dick Grayson are closer to Neutral Good than Batman.
    Barbara is, too.
    Jason Todd is Chaotic Neutral.
    Spoiler is Chaotic Good.
    Alfred is Lawful Good.

    At least that's what my take on the whole matter is...

    But Captain America as Lawful Good? No argument there.

  • At August 21, 2008 8:58 AM, Blogger kalinara said…

    Centurion, the key word in the term "lawful good" is LAW. The whole point to the lawful good conflict is that you can't take LAW out of lawful good. That makes it by definition neutral or chaotic.

    Law is more than someone's own personal code. Law has to do with our interactions with society at large. Law is what protects everyone's rights from one particular person's individual sense of justice. A lawful good person cannot flagrantly ignore the LAW for his own personal judgment. That's the POINT.

    You can be ethical without being lawful. And with the definition you offer for Batman, EVERYONE would then be lawful because pretty much everyone lives according to their own personal code.

    Lawful good doesn't work that way. Lawful good involves working within society's rules. (There's a reason that, in Dark Knight, Bruce Wayne is so emphatic about Gotham needing a hero that doesn't wear a mask and works within the law. Whereas Batman himself inspires chaotic vigilantism.)

    For that matter, Alfred's in blatant violation of the laws far too many time to be lawful good.

    The only possible lawful good member of the Batclan is Jim Gordon (and that's definitely debatable). Everyone else is various degrees of Neutral/Chaotic.

  • At August 21, 2008 10:32 AM, Blogger SallyP said…

    I suppose that it is just more fun to be able to break the rules, like Batman and Wolverine. It takes a lot more restraint...a characteristic not normally associated with superheroing, to do things within the law, like Superman and Captain America.

    Is it too soon to remind you to do an essay about Guy being lawful?

  • At August 21, 2008 10:51 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    The closest Gotham has to a Lawful Good is probably Alan Scott...

    Batman is definitely Neutral good to me.

    I thought John would be the closest Lantern to LG among the Humans. A guess a lot depends on whether you consider the Guardians Good or Neutral these days.

    I guess playing that Paladin made you think about that.

  • At August 21, 2008 10:59 AM, Blogger kalinara said…

    I think all of the Earth Lanterns are definitely Lawful Good in the end. It's a matter of degree. Which I will eventually blog about.

    I admit, playing my paladin has given me a new appreciation of the concept. :-)

  • At August 21, 2008 11:17 AM, Blogger ticknart said…

    The one that always bothered me, on that list, was Wolverine as Chaotic Good.

    The chaotic part is spot on, but good? I'm not so sure. Too many of his motivations are based more on himself than on others. He'd slash and stab his way through a mall full of people to keep someone from the Weapon X program from getting away. I'd always pegged him as a Chaotic Neutral character.

  • At August 21, 2008 12:48 PM, Blogger Your Obedient Serpent said…

    Law is what protects everyone's rights from one particular person's individual sense of justice. A lawful good person cannot flagrantly ignore the LAW for his own personal judgment.

    And yet, sometimes, a Lawful Good person must, as you yourself pointed out with Steve Rogers. There legislation, and there are LAWS. Governments can act unlawfully, can even pass legislation that is inimical to the rights and well-being of The People -- and when that happens, no matter what the Law of the Land might say, a true Paladin (like Steve Rogers) has to answer to a Higher Authority (in his case, the Constitution).

    Which is not to say he won't be conflicted. As you point out, that's what makes him interesting.

  • At August 21, 2008 1:04 PM, Blogger kalinara said…

    It's true. No lawful good person is perfect in that balance anyway.

    There's a difference though between what Steve does as Nomad or during Civil War than what Batman does every day. I'd argue that Steve doesn't ignore the law, but rather challenges laws/governmental action that are truly illegal, unconstitutional or otherwise violating the ideal of the system. Batman doesn't have the same concerns.

    I suppose a good way to say it might be that while a lawful good character may occasionally violate individual unjust laws, they can't ignore the spirit or ideal of the law.

  • At August 21, 2008 4:44 PM, Blogger Centurion said…

    I read up on the alignments in the player's handbook. Seems I've been playing too many games with home rules thrown in.

    By the book, Batman would be NG. No question about it.

    Makes me rethink my original declarations...and feel a little off.

    In my defense, its not an issue of having a personal code - it's a matter of willingness to forego the code for an outcome (the outcome being selfless, good, or selfish, evil)

  • At August 21, 2008 4:50 PM, Blogger Ferrous Buller said…

    [Can't connect to the original article for some reason, so this will just be based on what you wrote.]

    Well, since Ami beat me to the awful pun, now I'm gonna have to wax on my nerd-fu - so blame her for this! :-)

    In D&D terms, being Lawful (as opposed to being lawful) is about adhering to a strict code of personal conduct: the belief that there are certain rules which you always have to follow (to the best of your abilities). It isn't necessarily about obeying all (or even any) of the laws of men, since those can contradict one another or be founded on different principles. Most Lawful characters serve a higher power - e.g., a government, secret society, or religious organization - but I don't think that's a necessary component.

    Batman breaks the law all the time, but he doesn't break HIS laws - no killing, always try to save people (even bad guys), bring criminals to justice - which is why one can argue he's LG. Captain America's duty is to his country, not its government; if the latter is wrong, he'll defy it. For him, going along with the Registration Act would have been un-Lawful (even though defying it is unlawful), because it violated a higher rule.

    As you say, the narrative tension for a Lawful Good character comes when the choice is between breaking their own code or letting something bad happen. [I surprised I've rarely seen a story where someone asked Batman point-blank, "If you had killed the Joker the first time you met him, how many of his victims would be alive today?"] On the flip side, for Lawful Evil characters, the tension comes when they have to choose between, say, honoring their word or exploiting an enemy's moment of weakness.

    And, as OotS makes clear, being LG isn't about being perfect, it's about always trying.

    [Personally, I think D&D's alignment system is silly and arbitrary - but that doesn't mean I can't get into nerd arguments about it!]

  • At August 21, 2008 5:23 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    I made a few posters on this subject myself.

    Think I'll have to make a post myself once I am home.

    Some quick thoughts though...

    1. All arguments on whether a personal code/pledge to ideal = lawful aligment are kind of moot. By that definition, various versions of The Joker would be lawful. I'm content then to say that Batman is Neutral Good simply because nobody who is as comfortable with breaking-in-and-entering as Bruce can be Lawful.

    2. Spider-Man should be Chaotic Good. Peter is too much of a smart-aleck/prankster NOT to be Chaotic, even ignoring his long history of authority issues under certain writers.

    3. You want a nice easier answer for defining Chaotic Good? Green Arrow, as written by Dennis O'Neil.

  • At August 21, 2008 5:26 PM, Blogger kalinara said…

    Ferrous, the D&D system makes it clear that there is a difference between following one's internal code and following the external societal rules.

    Drizzt Do'Urden, like Batman, follows a very strict personal code with rules that he will not violate. He also occasionally defies the common rules of law to do his job.

    Drizzt Do'Urden has never been argued as being other than Chaotic Good.

    It does mean to always try, but it also means working WITHIN the system to execute change. Batman doesn't do this. He operates completely outside of it with his only ethical guideline being his own personal ethical code. In the process, he violates the rights of many for the greater good.

    It can definitely be argued whether Batman is Neutral Good or Chaotic Good, but there is no way by traditional D&D use of the term OR by dictionary use of the term "lawful" that he can be even debated as being Lawful.

    It's not like he tries to follow the laws but can't resist interfering when he sees someone being harassed or attacked. He actively goes out to hunt criminals on their own turf, violates all sorts of rules of due process, jurisdiction or privacy. (Heck, we can see enough of that in the most recent movie.) A lawful good person may be able to bend the rules sometimes as (debatably) Harvey Dent did or James Gordon does. But there's a very big difference between bending the laws of society and ignoring them completely.

  • At August 21, 2008 6:15 PM, Blogger Duskdog said…

    The writers, too, tend to give Lawful Good characters a hard time. One of the things that annoys me the most about characters who consistently break the rules is that, when they do, the storyline almost always implies that they were right to do so. When Wolverine goes and does something crazy, he "gets the job done", whereas Cyclops' hesitation to do so is viewed as a weakness. Likewise, when Batman breaks the law to bring a criminal to justice, it's supposed to be okay because it's something that needed doing anyway -- despite the fact that, in doing so, he simply made himself a criminal as well.

    Now I'm not saying that it's necessarily always wrong to do those sort of things. Maybe sometimes the ends do justify the means. But it seems like we never see stories in which their actions have terrible consequences which could have been avoided, had they only worked within the system instead of outside of it. Worse, other characters seem to respect them more because of it, rather than less -- probably because they hardly ever lose. Yet those same other characters are the ones who look at characters like Cyclops as a tight-ass, or Boy Scout, etc. And even when Batman (moreso than Wolverine, who is hardly ever portrayed as being wrong) does mess something up, everyone forgives far too quickly.

    Bats, at least, has suffered some criticism for his actions in recent years. But personally, I'd like to see more. He works outside the law. He does shady things, even to his friends. That should backfire more often than it does. And as for Wolverine... I can't remember the last time he suffered serious criticism for anything he's done, and he does worse things than Batman does!

    I'd like to see Cyclops and Cap-like characters proven right a little more often. Despite how most people feel about authority, sometimes the law really is there for a reason, and following it really is the best policy. Bats and Wolvie can keep on doing what they do -- I just wish the writers (and fans) didn't glorify their badassery so much at the expense of more "boring" characters.

  • At August 22, 2008 11:42 AM, Blogger Ferrous Buller said…

    In hindsight, I think I did a bad job of making my central point, which is that the rules which govern a Lawful character are not necessarily the same as the laws of the government where they live. Indeed, a LG character living in an "evil" country - or a LE one in a "good" country - would be actively working against those country's laws and authority figures, because they violate the Lawful character's rules.

    I also forgot to mention that what separates the Lawful character's code of conduct from the Neutral or Chaotic ones is the belief that it comes from a higher authority: that there is a set of external rules greater than themselves which must be obeyed. A Chaotic character simply follows the whims of their own conscience or impulses; while a Neutral one looks for the middle ground.

    In short, a Lawful character follows A set of laws, but they don't necessarily follow THE law, if that makes sense.

    Oh, and for the record, I don't consider Bats LG either: apart from the fact that he doesn't seem to acknowledge any higher moral authority other than his own judgment, he lets waaaay too many hawt chicks off the hook for their nefarious ways - Selina, Talia, etc. Way to set a good example for the kids, Bruce! :-)

  • At August 22, 2008 1:46 PM, Blogger kalinara said…

    :-) Fair enough.

  • At October 28, 2008 12:20 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    Wow. I always thought I was Neutral Good, but after reading this I realized I really am Lawful Good.

  • At April 16, 2009 11:09 AM, Anonymous kirayamato said…

    imho, i have different concept of lawful and chaotic

    lawful anything - the enforcer, he always wants others to behave like his ways. lawful characters doesn't have to obey the local laws, he wants others to obey HIS ideals.

    if lawful good/neutral characters disagree with his town's law, he would do it in peaceful ways e.g. dialogue, gandhian protest. lawful evil characters often do it with violent resistance such as coup d'etat or financing the rebel group

    batman is Lawful Good because of that, he wants other to follow HIS ideals

    chaotic alignments are often individualist, they have their code of morals, but they don't actively enforce their ideals to others

    chaotic good - the anarchist, supporter of civil rights, he holds liberal point of view, "people are free to do what he/she likes as long they don't infringe on the rights of others", but he don't actively help others, he will only help IF he wants, but he don't actively opress others, this makes Robin Hood Neutral Good

    chaotic neutral - i. don't. care. as long as i'm free

    chaotic evil - schoolyard bully, period.

  • At April 16, 2009 11:36 AM, Blogger kalinara said…

    Sorry man, your definition isn't internally consistent. When Batman doesn't agree with a town's laws, he doesn't protest them in peaceful ways. He breaks and enters regularly, committing actual CRIME.

    Batman is certainly ethical, in his own way, but the key word in "Lawful" is LAW. If you regularly commit criminal activities in order to do good, you're not LAWFUL. Period.

    For a LAWFUL person, personal ethics cannot outweigh the LAW except under very unusual circumstances. (For example: Captain America in Civil War.)

    So, sorry, Batman's NOT lawful good.

  • At July 26, 2009 4:25 PM, Anonymous Geek said…

    Hmm, this probably counts as threadnecro, but for the record, Wolverine is overall NOT easy to be. Sure, he's got no problem with getting his way by doing what he does best (which he admits is not very nice), but if you read the Wolverine canon, you'll find that he constantly struggles with his humanity, his animalistic side and the triggers put in by the Weapon X program.

    In fact, problems associated with a character's actions vis. the law tend to be touched upon by writers only when the character is intended to be Lawful Good, which, sadly, they don't do often. Cyclops and Cap would be much more likeable characters if some of their internal break-the-law-or-not conflict were emphasised, but don't forget they generally gain the reputation of being assholes because they do not accept the sometime necessity of meeting unlawful violence with unlawful violence.

    And no, Wolverine won't slash and stab his way through a mallful of innocent folks to get to his goals. The comics have him specifically sparing innocent lives while singling out the bad guys to beat on. In fact, he has a healthy respect for the law. Wikipedia's definition of Chaotic Good (in short; has good intentions, chaotic methods and does not necessarily enjoy it) suits him.

    And to think I found this blog while googling alignments :D

  • At July 26, 2009 7:33 PM, Blogger kalinara said…

    I think you might want to read more with Cap or Cyclops if you think they have problems with the occasional necessity for violence that often. :-)

    And Cap at least does NOT have a reputation as an asshole. :-)

    It IS easier to be chaotic than lawful though. Wolverine listens to his OWN moral compass, but that's about it. He does what he think is good, which is commendable, but he doesn't tend to try to balance societal concerns with them. Whenever you add in an extra element like that, it complicates things.

    And I would argue that, while not an easy dilemma by any means, fighting one's animal instinct isn't as much of a moral conflict. Wolverine might occasionally have to fight his instincts to do what's right, but he KNOWS what's right according to his code.

    For a lawful good type person, it's not a question of fighting bad urges to do what's right, but a matter of choosing which right-choice-with-inevitable-bad-consequences is the better one.

    Welcome, by the way. :-)

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  • At April 08, 2011 3:35 AM, Anonymous Chronos said…

    There's one thing that people consistently leave out; and that's that the alignment system is a continuum, and the alignment you use to describe yourself is just the point you fall closest to.

    And as far as Law/Chaos is concerned, I think that lawfulness is more of a measure of your commitment to Law in general. To use a better word, your commitment to Order. So it has little to with the laws or your own personal code (although the book uses that as an example, and it confuses a lot of people).


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