Pure Belief

Eric Lis

Do you believe there's such a thing as Evil?

I've discussed evil here a few times in the past, each time in a different way. Concepts such as Good and Evil, as comprehensible and perhaps even measurable absolutes, are fascinating ideas from a scientific and medical perspective. In most role-playing games, good and evil tend to be easily defined: you can spot the white hats or black hats, stick close to the green lightsabers or the red, or cast a low-level spell and know right away if your date is ethically-compatible with you. Scientists often choose not to believe that there is such a thing as absolute Good or Evil, because both tend to be subjective in the real world; a fundamentalist Christian may not make the same value judgments as a devout Buddhist, for example, and members of two opposing political parties, despite being similar in all other sociocultural respects, may differ significantly on some issue. Depending on who you speak to, good and evil may be inflexible absolutes or may be context-specific uncertainties. Medically speaking, there's no such diagnosis as "evil," although psychiatry recognizes such labels as "antisocial personality" and, to a lesser extent, "psychopathy." Understandably, quite a number of psychologists, physicians, and other mental health workers have tried to come to grips with what Good and Evil really are... always with limited success, because these are huge questions which aren't easily broken down into measureable, researchable constructs. We can't easily study pure Evil in the laboratory.

But we can study what people THINK about the existence of absolute Good or Evil, which can be pretty nifty too, and this can offer us insights into storytelling and characterization.

The other day, while doing some reading around something entirely unrelated, I came across a recent publication which looks, not at good and evil themselves, but how people perceive them. The timing was amusing, because I found myself reading the article on Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the Jewish calendar and the date on which Jews are supposed to be contemplating whether they've been noble or wicked in the past year... in short, the one day of the year when I'm supposed to be meditating on how I perceive Good and Evil. The authors did something really clever, split up between several individual studies. First, they created a questionnaire which measures whether the respondent believes in pure good and evil, by asking people to rate how strongly they agree with statements such as "evil people take every opportunity to make other people’s live a living hell" and "the forces of evil will fail when they try to corrupt pure-hearted people." The scores they obtained for belief in pure good or evil didn't correlate with each other, indicating that people were perfectly capable of believing in pure evil without believing in pure good, and vice versa. People who believed more strongly in pure evil tended to score higher on measures of pessimism, while those who believed in pure good tended to think more deeply about the causes of others' behaviour as opposed to simply attributing it to the individual being a bad person. When participants were asked to for their attitudes on punishing criminals, unsurprisingly, those who endorsed more belief in the existence of pure evil tended to advocate for harsher punishments for wrongdoing, were much more likely to support the death penalty, and were less supportive of rehabilitation programs. Next, they demonstrated that two months after a first assessment, people's attitudes towards pure good and evil didn't change; the authors argue that this shows that people's attitudes remain stable over time, but I have to say that a two month period to me seems MUCH to short to actually comment on something like that. In their fourth study, they showed an association between belief in pure evil and the perception that the world is a harsh, dangerous place. Those who believed in pure evil were more likely to support such things as pre-emptive military action and torture of prisoners. Belief in pure good was negatively associated with belief in such things as torture, but was actually positively associated with support for "provoked" military aggression. Exactly as one would expect, belief in pure evil was associated with advocating for a more aggressive foreign policy, while belief in pure good was associated with advocating for a more peaceful policy. Finally, in their fifth study, they showed that belief in pure good correlated with religiosity, while belief in evil didn't. Belief in pure good also correlated with egalitarian and humanitarian beliefs, while those who believed in pure evil tended to express more racist attitudes.

I'm sure that I'm not the only one who, reading this, feels that "belief in pure good" seems to almost perfectly match the system reference document's description of a paladin: charitable, loving, accepting, and perfectly open to violence when provoked.

On a side note, the authors wrote something I found fascinating. They offered a scientific definition of "evil," which was, "when harm is perceived as consciously deliberate and not commensurate with provocation." They cite this as having come from other writers before them, but this was the first time I had seen this particular operationalization. It's interesting not simply because it's elegant and compelling, but also because it fits in so nicely with the definitions offered by the common System Reference Documents.

Does it matter whether someone believes in Pure Evil or not? In our games, it almost certainly does. When we believe that someone is pure evil, and that they will always be pure evil with no possibility of changing, then in the minds of many, it becomes expedient to simply destroy them. In game terms, this results in the situation of adventurers wiping out goblin warrens and orcish encampments at the slightest provocation. I'm not saying this is *wrong,* and indeed, one of the nice things about gaming is that it often gives us the satisfaction of experiencing a situation where right and wrong are relatively straightforward, but one has to wonder what a game of D&D would be like when we don't have the ethical obligation (to say nothing of the secondary gain from experience points) to kill everyone who disagrees with us. I suppose the scary thing about the article I mentioned above is that it demonstrates that to a lot of people in the real world, good and evil really are as simple as they are in D&D.

More than four years ago, Dr. Eris Lis, M.D., began writing a series of brilliant and informative posts on RPGs through the eyes of a medical professional, and this is the one that appeared here on September 15, 2013. Lis is a physician, gamer, and author of the Skirmisher Publishing LLC OGL sourcebook Insults & Injuries, which is also available for the Pathfinder RPG system