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In this essay, I intend to tackle some of the most debated topics regarding paladins and their behavior. I can not possibly respond to every situation a DM can dream up, nor do I intend to. I simply hope that this article will serve as a helpful, self-consistent guide for players and DMs who find themselves at a loss for how to handle various situations. I hope the reader will realize that many great thinkers have spent lifetimes considering these kinds of moral, ethical, and philosophical issues, and all have failed to come to any conclusion that is satisfactory to everyone. I can not hope to do better than they.
From the PHB v3.5, here are all of the statements regarding a paladin’s code of conduct, social behavior, and overall character. (Bolded text is rules text, non-bold text is descriptive.)
• compassion to pursue good
• will to uphold law
• power to defeat evil
• purity and devotion
• final hope that cannot be extinguished
• demonstrate bravery
• develop martial skills
• learn tactics
• find ways to do good
• leading a mighty campaign against evil
• help others
• healing their wounds
• curing diseases
• destroy evil
• smite evil foes
• turn away undead
• swear to follow a code of conduct that is in line with lawfulness and goodness
• scrupulous in observing religious duties
• appreciate working with anyone who is brave, honest, and committed to good
• cannot abide evil acts by their companions
• work with a variety of people quite different from themselves
• well respected
• a fine leader
Code of Conduct Rules Text:
1. must be lawful good, loses all class abilities if willingly commits an evil act or grossly violates the code of conduct
2. respect legitimate authority
3. act with honor (not lying, not cheating, not using poison and so forth)
4. help those in need (with provisions)
5. punish those who harm or threaten innocents
Associates Rules Text:
1. may adventure with...any of good or neutral alignment
2. will never knowingly associate with evil characters nor continue an association with someone who consistently offends her moral code
3. may only accept henchmen, followers, or cohorts who are lawful good
A careful examination of the rules text will show that, clearly, much is open to interpretation. Most disputes over paladin behavior seem to come from conflicting views of what constitutes a “gross” violation of the code of conduct and what constitutes an evil act. For example, it seems obvious that a paladin would not lie to his superiors or friends, but is it ok for a paladin to lie to a demon? Some say yes, some say no. Similar arguments revolve around the question of under what circumstances a paladin is not bound by a promise.
All these dilemmas are compounded by the endless confusion concerning alignments. Concrete examples of this are: “Can a paladin slay kobold women and children?” and “Should a paladin use his detect evil ability on everyone he meets and then proceed to duke it out with anyone who comes up evil on his ‘radar’?”
Finally, there are the limitless questions involving a choice between committing evil A and evil B. Thus you have dilemmas like, “Should the paladin choose to kill the baby and keep the demon imprisoned or unleash the demon on all of humanity to save the baby?”
I can see two general perspectives on all these quandaries: the absolutist and the relativist. Simply put, an absolutist would say, “A paladin may never lie no matter what. If he does he will break his code and not be a paladin any more.” A relativist would reply, “Well, realistically, it is impossible for any person to go without lying his whole life. If any lie would strip a paladin of his status, then no one would ever be a paladin for more than a few days or weeks. This is just not reasonable. Plus, to some small extent, ends do justify means. If the paladin can fool the bad guy into releasing his hostages by lying to him, he has done a good thing.”
The goal of this essay is not to debate real-world morality. Yet, real-world morality is our only compass, our only reference, so there must be some entanglement of real-life morality and in-game morality.
Can a person be evil if he never does anything evil? Yes. A person’s moral compass is what determines his alignment, not his actions. It is easily conceivable that there are entities in the game that have never had the courage or opportunity to commit an evil act, but have always had the desire to do so. Example: A paladin does a detect evil sweep of the common room of a tavern, and notes that the bald guy in the corner is evil. The bald guy is a simple farmer with no adventuring spirit, no particular skills except “Profession (farmer)” with 8 ranks. He’s a grumpy person through and through. He resents his life. He resents that he was born into a life of poverty and hard labor. He hates the people around him, hates the world, he hates the town he lives in, and he would do just about anything to change his situation including killing, stealing, maiming, bribing (if he had anything to bribe with), etc. But the guy has been a completely harmless citizen his entire life! He is evil, but fate has decided that he will remain a nobody.
This realization helps us make decisions on two of the most contentious paladin issues. First, it shows that a paladin is not justified in smiting without discrimination each and every evil creature he detects. In real life, it is not fair to jail someone who has done nothing wrong (but remember that actively plotting to do something wrong IS doing something wrong) even if they are horrible, detestable people. I believe a paladin is bound by the same standard. Evil thoughts and daydreams are not punishable offenses, only evil deeds committed willingly.
Second, a paladin forced into the uncomfortable predicament of choosing “evil A” or “evil B” can not be stripped of his status, regardless of his choice. In and of itself, killing an innocent, for example, is an evil deed. But everything has context. In and of itself, killing ANYTHING is an evil deed. Context must be considered in these cases. A paladin must regularly choose between the two “evils” of a) killing the marauding orc vs. b) allowing the orc to kill men, women, and children. There are few who would argue against a paladin choosing option a. Why? Because he has chosen the lesser of two evils. He has the greater good in mind and has chosen “the lesser of two evils.” The paladin’s moral compass, in this case, has stayed true to justice and goodness.
Why would we treat any other choice differently? The paladin who must choose between a) kill the innocent vs. b) unleash the demon is not willingly committing evil. He is simply deciding which action has worse consequences for all of humanity. Though (in and of itself) killing the innocent would be an evil act, he is clearly not committing it of his own volition. This is not a willing act, it is a forced act. His hand is forced by unkind circumstance. Thus, there is no conceivable way this paladin would be judged unfavorably by his deity. So long as a paladin chooses the least evil of all available options, his moral compass is pointing true. All this means that when we read the statement, “loses all class abilities if he willingly commits an evil act…” in the rules text, we must not ignore the word willingly, lest we begin judging paladins’ behavior unfairly.
What does a paladin do with the kobold females and young after he has slaughtered all the kobold warriors? I believe that the alignment system was invented to simplify decisions like this, rather than complicate them. Any creature whose race or class is described as being “always (lawful, neutral, chaotic) evil” CAN be killed by a paladin even if they have not committed any specific evil act. This seems to contradict what I’ve just finished saying in previous paragraphs. Consider this question: “Should the lawful-good farmer ruthlessly butcher rabbits because he knows that they will grow up, reproduce, and decimate his crops?” Certainly, farmers do, and it is not considered evil, generally. Unfortunate, but not evil. If a paladin can kill neutral rabbits, how much more so then when the paladin KNOWS that the kobolds that he leaves alive will certainly multiply and come back to wreak more destruction? It is true that the Monster Manual states that even some “always evil” monsters are not evil. However, a good DM will make the circumstances extremely rare, and significant enough that the paladin will know the difference. Take, for example, this scene:
DM: You lose your abilities.
Paladin: Why? What did I do?
DM: You killed a nest full of kobolds, and one of them happened to be good.
Paladin: Well how was I supposed to know that? There was nothing setting him apart from the rest! I couldn’t detect evil on every single creature, there wasn’t time.
DM: Too bad. You lose…
A good DM will construct a situation more like this:
DM: This looks like the kobold lunch-room. A large number of kobold young are taking turns beating up on one particular runt kobold that is shackled to the wall.
Paladin: Detect Evil on the shackled one.
DM: To your complete astonishment, he’s NOT evil!
Paladin: Wow! Wonders never cease. I’ll slaughter everyone except him…
A good DM should provide good role-playing clues whenever he intends to break from the norm in this way, and they should always be significant plot points in the campaign story. After all, what is the point of throwing in a random good kobold in a nest full of evil ones if his presence there has no significance to the story?
The major difference between the evil farmer in the tavern and the kobolds is that humans’ alignment is “any” and kobolds’ alignment is “always evil.” It is an important distinction because it indicates that the farmer is much more likely to be “reformed” than the kobolds. The farmer therefore deserves the benefit of the doubt, the kobolds do not. Similarly, one could say that the rabbits’ alignment is “always destructive to crops.” Rarely (probably never) will a person run into a rabbit that is NOT destructive, thus killing all that threaten your crops is justified, whether they’re babies or not. So if the kobold race has the alignment “always evil” (read, “always aggressively destructive to civilization”) certainly a paladin is justified in exterminating them, males, females, and young. I strongly advise against involving decisions that are more morally ambiguous than this in the game.
So if a paladin does detect that the farmer in the corner is evil, how should that affect his actions? The paladin would prefer to have nothing to do with the individual. He would probably warn his friends concerning their dealings with the individual, and that is about as far as he would take the matter. If the paladin found it necessary to deal with the evil farmer (let us pretend the paladin needs to buy a pig and the farmer is the only pig farmer around), he will do so in the most expedient way and be done with it. The paladin will realize that the best way to help such an individual is to simply be polite, be kind, be merciful, and be generous (as usual). Even doing so, the paladin will realize that no matter what he does, his actions are only more likely to embitter the evil farmer more. Usually there is nothing to be done about it. Sometimes, an opportunity to influence the evil person towards good will present itself, but even then, the good deed is as likely to be spat upon as it is to be welcomed.
How would a paladin know whether or not to accept a particular henchman/follower/cohort? Just because they don’t come up evil on the radar doesn’t mean they’re lawful good. This is by far the least of the paladin’s worries. A paladin can simply require that the candidate submit to an interview under a zone of truth spell. After 5 to 10 minutes of questioning and discussion, the paladin should have a good idea of whether or not the candidate has the appropriate moral outlook for the job. Sense motive skill comes in handy here as well. It is possible for a paladin to be fooled, but not likely. Again, the DM should make exceptions extremely rare and important to the plot.
What is “legitimate authority?” This term is by far the most ambiguous term the PHB uses in describing paladin-ly behavior. A paladin should understand that not all governments are good governments, not all parents are good parents, and not all bosses are good bosses. However, the alignment of authority figures, whether governments, parents, or bosses, are not what determines their legitimacy. The main questions a paladin should ask when deciding whether an authority is legitimate or not are, “Did this authority figure obtain his authority in the normal way? Is this authority figure acting within its societal role?” A person who kidnaps a child and claims to be its parent certainly did not obtain his parental role in a normal way (via birth or adoption), so his authority over the child is not legitimate. The counselor who usurped the throne by having the good king assassinated did not come by his authority in the normal way (via the rightful succession or appointment of an heir), so a paladin would not feel compelled to “respect” that authority. However, during the course of his adventures a paladin might find himself in a country where it is perfectly normal for one ruler to be assassinated by the next. In this case, the paladin must respect that authority, even though he may detest it.
How must a paladin respond to authority that is not legitimate? Simply put, a paladin does not need to feel compelled to obey it. Also, he would feel free to encourage other affected individuals to disobey it.
What does it mean for a paladin to respect legitimate authority? Simply put, a paladin must abide by its orders when it is acting within its role. Children must obey their parents, citizens must submit to their government, employees must submit to the will of their employers, etc.
But what if the government/parent/boss is legitimate but abusive (evil)? Malicious acts against good people can never be condoned by a paladin. Any authority who abuses his power out of wickedness to the detriment of its subjects should be removed or replaced. Abusive governments should be overthrown, children should be removed from abusive parents, and abusive bosses should be “fired.” This rule is not without exception. A paladin who makes a visit to Hell would be quite content to see demons tearing each other to pieces. The manifestation of a paladin’s power makes it proof-positive that he has divine authority in the world, hence the manifestation of his powers. He knows he has been put in a position of privilege so that he can defend those people who are unable to defend themselves, whoever or wherever they may be. Unlike in real life, a paladin knows that what he does, he does with the good blessings of his god, and that he has been given divine authority (an authority higher than any mortal authority) to bring justice to the world. It must be so, otherwise the paladin would not be a paladin.