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Let's say there is a forest gnome named Treeloff. Now Treeloff is one of the kindest, most innocent people you will ever meet; however, one day that all changed. You see, Treeloff loves the forest beyond belief. So when he wandered through the woods and found a logger brutalizing the trees he loved, he snapped and violently assaulted the logger.

This question is about perception. In this scenario do you think Treeloff is still of a good alignment or not? Sure, he did something evil (assaulting the logger), but to him the logger was evil because he was committing crimes against nature! So if a character does something evil but they can justify their actions as good are they themselves still of a good alignment?

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I am not sure this is a constructive question, as alignment debates usually spiral off into heavy subjectivity. Please be advised all activity on this question will be scrutinized and if it is not of the high quality we expect here this question will be closed. – mxyzplk May 27 '14 at 18:53
This seems like a question for Philosophy. That is, unless you actually want a "tell me what the rules about alignment say about this action" in 3.5, but it seems like that's not actually what you're after. – EnvisionAndDevelop May 27 '14 at 19:06
@EnvisionAndDevelop I think that is what he's after. The alignment rules can be difficult to understand if you're not experienced with them. – Tridus May 27 '14 at 19:11
Your question boils down to "Do the ends justify the means?" which is a question of philosophy that has no true answer. Any answer given is a reflection of the character and personal philosophy of the answerer. – Sammitch May 28 '14 at 18:12
Is this character a politician? – Zachary Yates May 29 '14 at 11:34
up vote 31 down vote accepted

There's two questions wrapped up together here that need to be separated:

So if a character does something evil but they can justify their actions as good are they themselves still of a good alignment?

  1. If they commit an evil act, but it can be justified as good, is the act still evil?
  2. If a good-aligned person commits an evil act, are they still good-aligned?

I'll answer these separately.

I also won't delve into the specifics of judging whether the Treeloff scenario really involves an evil act. When the roots of the game lie in constantly fighting and killing monsters for loot, when exactly murder is and isn't evil becomes a pretty sticky subject. D&D's alignment system is a bit of a rabbit hole I don't want to dive too deeply into. I'll assume that's a just a concrete example that's tangential to your main question, because there's a more straightforward example available anyway: creating undead.

To #1: Evil acts are always evil, no matter what.

Morality in D&D is different to real life morality.

In real life, good and evil are constructs of human mind and language, and whether a given act is good or evil is a subjective matter we could spend a long time debating. Morality doesn't really exist in the universe beyond that: if life and language vanished, you would not be able to point to something that is objectively evil, things just are. (Depending on your own philosophies this summary might be inaccurate or oversimplified, but to go further would be beyond the point of this answer.)

In D&D, however, good and evil is an inherent and objective property of the universe, just as much as gravity. Evil acts are evil no matter what.

Consider the spell Create Undead, which has the Evil descriptor and is therefore an evil act. Creating undead isn't an evil act because people think it is. It's the other way around: by fundamental properties of the universe, it's an evil act whether people think it is or not, and people consider it evil because it is. Creating undead and trying to justify it as not evil is akin to jumping off a cliff and trying to justify that you shouldn't fall, and doing either is probably a display of insanity.

So if you murder someone as an evil act, no matter why you did it, it's still an evil act.

To #2: Evil acts do not instantly affect alignment.

Actually, this could open up plenty of argument. There mere discussion of alignment is a minefield for fervent debate, because no two people will likely completely agree on how it all works.

But, in general, if your character is good, it will take a series of evil acts to become evil. Your alignment does not correspond simply to the alignment of the most recent action you took; it corresponds to your history and nature.

Most of the time a character simply won't commit enough evil acts to go from good to evil, because it would be against their nature to perform those acts in the first place. If they do, though, their nature is clearly changing, and that should be reflected by an alignment change. Treeloff might be getting corrupted by anger, and may be on the path to become an evil being, which is an awesome storyline in itself.

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I love this answer, and I'd just like to add: The further right Treeloff slides on the Law/Chaos alignment spectrum, the more likely he is to be able to successfully justify evil acts as serving a good purpose. – ilinamorato May 28 '14 at 19:45
In-world, one might actually debate whether Evil acts (that is, Evil-aligned acts) are actually bad. But even if people decided that Evil acts aren't always bad, that wouldn't change that those acts are Evil. – GregRos May 29 '14 at 16:25
I think you provided the more thorough answer but I also think @ThalesSarczuk makes the more specific point to this case. Killing is not always an evil act in D&D. Murder (that is self-initiated or non-combat killing) isn't even always considered an evil act in D&D is not always considered evil. However, in such cases, as you pointed out it isn't how the character's justification but the metaphysical one. As the woodsman was not a known personal threat this would be murder. And since he was not engaged nor known to engage in metaphysically evil acts his murder would itself be evil. – Wesley Obenshain Jun 19 '14 at 19:51

What he did was evil, but...

In D&D, at least on the 3.x side, your perception of what you did doesn't matter - some acts are evil, some others are not.

Assaulting the logger in a violent manner is an evil(-ish) act. While violence is a common way of "fixing things" in D&D, Good characters are expected to try to find a more... pacifistic resolution before going all murderous against the big bad evil guy.

Slaving, murder, and rape are always evil acts, for example. There is not a "perception-relative point of view" allowed for Good and Evil - they are absolutes.

That's why paladins can fall when committing an evil act even if they don't know it's evil in the first place.

This doesn't mean, however, that Treeloff can't be good - if he shows remorse & guilt and in a general way feels bad for what he did (he lost control, after all), he can still be a Good character.

Alignments define what your character would likely do, not what he always does. Good characters can slip off sometimes and keep being good.

Also, as @EnvisionAndDevelop noted, a single, isolated action doesn't automatically turn a character evil.

A Side Note

In Portuguese, the 3.x Alignments were translated as "Tendências," equivalent to "tendency." At least for pt-BR players, your character is not aligned to Good or Evil - your character tends to be good or evil, tends to be Lawful or Chaotic. That is just a little bit of semantic difference, but it makes this alignment stuff clearer somewhat.

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Not all murder is evil in D&D - killing whole hordes of sentient beings with human or near-human intelligence is often the norm for Lawful Good adventurers. – Dakeyras May 27 '14 at 20:06
@Dakeyras By the Book of Exalted Deeds, killing whole hordes of sentient beings is indeed evil. Good characters are expected to find "another way" besides killing to solve things. A good character that needs to kill a whole horde will be at least upset because of this. – Thales Sarczuk May 28 '14 at 10:38
+1 for explaining that alignments do not mean characters have to be boring predictable stereotypes and can still do unpredictable and unexpected things, it may be worth noting this could potentially instead be a chaotic act as doing something unpredictable but justified in the moment fits that fairly nicely. – Vality May 28 '14 at 18:25
Side note to the "Side note": The Hebrew translation (in every D&D product from E1 to 3.x) also used "tendency" rather than "alignment" ("netya - נטייה" rather than "shiyuch - שיוך"), it is interesting that different translators working on different languages independently reached the same conclusion. Also, +1 for pointing out that murder shouldn't be the first choice of good aligned characters. – G0BLiN Sep 27 '14 at 9:25

A single evil act usually isn't enough to justify an alignment change.

There's a fair amount of overlap between the paladin's code of conduct and the paladin's requirement to remain LG, but they are not the same thing. You can change alignment without committing evil acts: for example, drifting from LG to NG doesn't usually involve doing anything evil, but a paladin who changes in this way will still fall. Similarly, you can commit evil acts without changing alignment, provided that it's not done consistently and the individual acts are not too egregious, but a paladin will still fall for committing an evil act.

I bring this up because it's a fairly common misconception that a single evil act should bring about an alignment change, and the person who asked this question seems to be either laboring under this same misconception or mocking the people who are (I honestly can't tell which). This is usually caused by a pair of common misreadings of the paladin class description: that the code of conduct and the alignment requirement are one and the same, and that this is supposed to be how alignment works for everyone. Neither one is true: the paladin faces multiple different requirements, and these requirements are stricter than for other characters, and this is by design. Admittedly, Wizards (and TSR before them) have not helped matters: in many editions the paladin's code and alignment requirements barely get more than a sentence between them, and that tiny description is itself some of the most in-depth discussion of alignment that the core rulebooks ever get into.

But I digress.

Despite the above, sudden and dramatic changes are possible.

Sudden changes of heart are a well-known trope in fiction, and they provide great opportunities for dramatic tension. They just have to be really sudden and really dramatic: stealing a loaf of bread to save your starving nephew shouldn't change your alignment, but a sudden act of genocide certainly should.

Does the situation posed by the question count as "sudden and dramatic"? I'd put it as a borderline case. If I were DMing this situation, I would warn the player that the character is on the brink of shifting to Neutral, with potential to shift even further if this continues, and if the character wants to remain Good then he has some serious soul-searching to do.

The character can tell himself that this is justifiable all he wants, and if we were talking about shifting toward Chaos, then this would be a strong point in the character's favor. But his reasoning behind it being Good is thin at best, and it's transparently self-serving besides, which is in and of itself not a very Good thing to do.

But druids do this all the time!

Yes, and many of them are not NG. Druids only have to maintain at least one Neutral component to their alignment, as opposed to being locked to LG, but many of them find that the concerns of Good, while perhaps valid in their own right, must take a backseat in the face of sentient life's encroachment on Nature. That sounds a lot like what our gnome friend has done. There are things he considers to be a higher concern than being good, and that's fine: it makes for interesting characters. But it doesn't fit well with the commitment that a Good alignment implies.

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According to the Book of Exalted Deeds, any Evil action, no matter the intent, is inherently Evil and cannot be done for good. Make a deal with a Devil to save the lives of hundreds? Evil, I hope you enjoy your stay in Baator. Torture a man to get the information you need to prevent some deranged cult from summoning Atropus? Evil. Break into an aristocrat's house to steal an artifact that could create a breach between the world and the Far Realm? Evil. Elf conspires with the Sidhe to turn all Dwarves into fully aware mushroom beds because they don't like the shape of their eyebrows, and as such has to be murdered in his sleep to keep that from happening? Evil.

Except if you're Pelor, then you can burn, face-step, evil-cast, fiend-summon and shadow-walk as much as you like.

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I particularly liked how poison was Evil, but if you file off the name and call it a "ravage"? Totally Good. – Aesin May 28 '14 at 0:11
I'd like to know where (e.g.) breaking into an aristocrat's home to steal an artifact is Evil. I don't disagree, I'm just not sure the question is really answered here... Ok, what if the aristocrat (or the lumberjack in the question) was also a Devil? Then is stealing or killing still evil? That is, is it the target that determines the goodness of an act, or is the target irrelevant? This might seem like a tangent, but I say the tangent addresses the question of "is killing the lumberjack okay when they're somehow more evil". – EnvisionAndDevelop May 28 '14 at 1:37
Killing someone more evil than you is still an evil act. Heck, it happens all the way down in the Lower Planes, through a combination of deceit, treachery, plotting and other "immoral" acts. And stealing from a fiend is still stealing, and as such evil. – Thomas Jacobs May 28 '14 at 6:09
@GMJoe Then maybe you should be directing that idea at the answer? I personally don't care where the source of the idea is; I was just suggesting that the answer was incomplete. With that in mind, if killing someone especially evil is still evil, and killing someone doing something especially evil is still evil, when is killing not evil? How does the typical demon- or vampire-hunting party stay good? – EnvisionAndDevelop May 28 '14 at 12:28
You're touching the point I'm trying to make; there are certain circumstances that make the same physical action (e.g., breaking and entering) good instead of evil. I think the answer would benefit from explaining what details make Treeloff's act evil, and/or what could be changed to keep it good. – EnvisionAndDevelop May 28 '14 at 16:33

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