Consider the lowly goblin, the grist of the low-level adventurers XP mill. They are a neutral evil according to D&D and Pathfinder. They don’t particularly care for laws, or for their own freedom. Their societies are fond of slavery, and they rule each other by force, when they aren’t ruled by stronger beings. They eat people. Bad little guys, right?
You’ll get waylaid by them, or clear out their den with extreme prejudice without a first though, let alone a second; they’re evil. But why? Because their gods are evil. Why are their gods evil? Who knows. Are they the slaves of their gods? If so, they are victims, not villains. Shouldn’t your shining hero want to turn them to goodness? Maybe goblins just need a better role model.
But their explicitly evil nature may not be enough to make us comfortable killing them. They also have to be put in the right context. I’ve mentioned the den or the roadside ambush, but what if we found our goblins at home? What if their spouses, children, and elders were around? Their innate evilness seems to dictate that our Paladin should rush in and slay them, adult, elder and child alike. Perhaps even a few suckling goblins for good measure. Although, if you just leave them to the elements, they’ll die on their own. To me, that feels like a perversion of goodness. The context makes the difference
So what are good and evil?
In real life, there is significant disagreement over how we determine whether a thing or action is good or evil. Religions often help people define these terms. Monotheisms often leave it up to god to define good and evil. Divine command theory defines evil specifically as disobedience to god. An action is inherently moral if god commands, despite how we may view it, up to and including the slaughter of innocents. A philosophical utilitarian may describe good as that which does the most good for the most individuals. Again, we could justify the slaughter of innocents, assuming there were less innocents than people who would benefit. Paraphrasing Mr. Spock, the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few, or the one. As far as I’m concerned, we still have no answer.
I’ll attempt to come to a workable definition in the next part of this series.