Ah, paladins, the quintessential do-gooders—people with such moral fiber that they are incapable of bending principles, no matter the situation. This is the character that exasperates the rest of the party by refusing to do what is obviously necessary in order to achieve some end. In many ways, the paladin is a caricature of a moral person, one who views the world in such stark black and white terms that other players spend half of their time thinking of ways to trick the paladin into ignoring what they plan to do next.
In ethics terms, paladins fit into a moral theory known as deontology (from the Greek ‘deontos’ or duty). This theory presents the world in absolutist terms, where every wrong act is always wrong, regardless of context, and nothing immoral should ever be done, “though the heavens should fall”. That quote is often misattributed to the most famous deontologist, Immanuel Kant. The phrase is actually a Latin saying that applies to justice, but Kant approved of the idea behind it and argued that morality should be based on innate, logical principle rather than a desire to achieve certain results. The details of this principle are a bit complicated for a blog post, but the key is that once our duties are determined, we are morally obligated to follow them in all cases, without exception.
This principled viewpoint certainly fits how most players approach the paladin class. A paladin has an unbreakable code, which means, for example, that lying is wrong, regardless of the reasons or the target of the deceit. Other beings are either good or evil, and the evil ones must be destroyed, even if they have information that might be useful to the party. Want to rough up a recalcitrant NPC in order to determine your next move? Forget it! The paladin won’t let you.
The result is a system in which deontological baggage basically dictates your character’s actions. I’ve seen many players become disillusioned with their first attempt at a paladin as they quickly realized that they have almost no free will with the character. Key decisions became exercises in algorithmically inputting information to get a predestined result. Many lesser DMs actually use the paladin’s principles as a way of railroading players, thus adding to the frustration. In fact, most editions of D&D punish paladins for any act that doesn’t perfectly fit what the system thinks paladins are supposed to do. A fallen paladin, bereft of his or her connection to the gods, becomes pretty useless, since they lack the full benefits of a straight fighter and lose all of the spell-like abilities they once possessed.
So, how can this be fixed? One way would be to drop the deontological requirements of the class, while keeping the idea that paladins have to be lawful good. Instead of deontology, the paladin might follow utilitarianism, which focuses on the results of our actions rather than the actions themselves. An act itself is neither absolutely right nor absolutely wrong. It depends on whether it creates more pleasure than pain when compared to other acts we might do.
I think playing a paladin as a utilitarian could be a lot of fun! Imagine if your character takes the Law of Utility to be the law that she follows (satisfying the ‘lawful’ part), and sees the greater good in long terms. Such a paladin might be willing to torture a defenseless goblin in order to foil a greater evil, especially since the normal flaws in torture (i.e. the victim’s willingness to say anything to end the pain) would be mitigated by the spell-like ability to discern truth from fiction. The possibilities here could be very interesting!
More importantly, this would eliminate some of the frustration that other players feel when there is a paladin in the group. For once, a group member could turn to the paladin and say “Look, we know that stealing is wrong, but it’s the only way to get the potion that will save the kingdom!” and the paladin would agree. Even the restriction on being in the same party as evil characters could be lifted, since the paladin might recognize that as long as the party is doing good, overall, it’s OK if that’s not the main goal of every one of its members.
This isn’t the only approach to ethics that could change how paladins are played. What if our paladin follows virtue ethics, a view that focuses more on character traits than principles? After all, paladins are supposed to be full of virtues, like bravery, honesty, integrity, and compassion.
Aristotle, the most famous virtue ethicist, proposes that we should aim at the Golden Mean when developing character traits. The basic idea is that every character trait has a deficiency, where too little is shown, an excess, where too much is displayed, and a middle ground, where we exhibit just the right amount. To help students remember this, I often refer to it as the Goldilocks and the Three Bears approach to ethics, where there is always too much, too little, and just right!
So how does this fit with paladins? Well, the bravery they display would have to be tempered rather than extreme. They have to be able to fight the forces of evil, but a single paladin charging into a legion of demons is not brave; he’s a fool. The same is true of compassion; too much makes you soft. Too much integrity is actually stubbornness, where one refuses to change position even when there is overwhelming evidence that the original position is wrong. A good DM should allow a player to play as an Aristotelian rather than a virtue robot programmed to always recite the truth, charge into evil, and accept every quest.
Paladins, as presented in most D&D campaigns, are too excessive to be virtuous. The advantage of virtue ethics is supposed to be its flexibility. An honest person does not have to tell the truth in every single instance; if that were true, none of us would qualify as honest. Ironically, as presented in the rules, paladins are too extreme to qualify as virtuous. They do not bend enough. (Am I the only one picturing a Stretch Armstrong paladin right now?).
These are just a few ideas on how you could spice up the role of paladins while still insisting that they follow a code of ethics. But we could take this a lot further! In my next post, I’ll explore two other ethics positions that could really change how paladins are played. The first seems at first glance to fit the idea of paladins perfectly. It’s called Divine Command Theory and is just what it sounds like; however, in a world where there are many gods, DCT could lead to all sorts of possibilities! I’ll also examine what I think would be an amazing alternate approach to take: The Existentialist Paladin.