The Book of Exalted Deeds: Part Two, In Which We Follow the Straight and Narrow
Since this series began we've looked at the definitions of good, being good and their implications on Lawful Good, Neutral Good, and Chaotic Good. Today we move on toward the Straight and Narrow Way.
When do good ends justify evil means to achieve them? Is it morally acceptable, for example, to torture an evil captive in order to extract vital information that can prevent the death of thousands of innocents? Any good character shudders at the thought of committing torture, but the goal of preventing thousand of deaths is undeniably a virtuous one, and a neutral character might easily consider the use of torture in such a circumstance. With evil acts on a smaller scale, even the most virtuous characters can find themselves tempted to agree that a very good end justifies a mildly evil means. Is it acceptable to tell a small lie in order to prevent a minor catastrophe? A large catastrophe? A world-shattering catastrophe?
In the D&D universe, the fundamental answer is no, an evil act is an evil act no matter what good result it may achieve . . . (pg 9)
Here is where we run up against some of Monte Cook's work in the Book of Vile Darkness. Monte denoted lying as an always evil act. I would contend that lying is not an evil act in and of itself. Think about the lies you tell every day: you're losing weight; you look good in those jeans dear; I must have shrunk those clothes dear; and so on, and so on.
There are lots of lies that are a natural extension of being alive. Think back on your memories and recall something that matters more to you than anything else. Now write it down and ask some one else who was there to write about the same event and compare. I'll bet that you'll find that you're not as brave or wonderful as you remember. That there were people there you don't remember and that there were entire chains of events that you've forgotten. But in your memory, where you've been lying to yourself, things are as you recall. You were brave and everything was wonderful.
Now why do we tell these lies?
According to many the reason for such lies is a result of our ability to cope with the world. We lie to ourselves about horrible events in our past so that they don't hurt as much. We lie about events where we were scared and powerless making ourselves brave and powerful so that we can live with the little and big tragedies of our lives. These lies help us to survive and are necessary for our psychic well-being.
So do I think that it's okay to tell a lie to avoid a catastrophe? Ab-so-fucking-lutely.
Now in regard to torture I find no fault in their logic. Torture isn't a part of our natural coping mechanisms and is an act that rarely gives accurate information, and that harms both the torturer and tortured. So yeah, torture always bad, lying not so much.
Some good characters might view a situation where an evil act is required to avert a catastrophic evil as a form of martyrdom: "I can save a thousand innocent lives by sacrificing my purity." For some, that is a sacrifice worth making, just as they would not hesitate to sacrifice their lives for the same cause. After all, it would simply be selfish to let innocents die so a character can hang on to her exalted feats.Wow, what a mess of pressure on your every decision. Remember we're still working under the lines of Monte Cook's Evil Acts which defines everything from mundane every day lies to simple greed as objectively evil. So every day you, by just being a human being, are titling the scales of good and evil solidly to the side of evil.
Unfortunately, this view is ultimately misguided. This line of thinking treats the purity of the good character's soul as a commodity (like her exalted feats) that she can just give up or sacrifice like any other possession. In fact, when an otherwise good character decides to commit an evil act, the effects are larger than the individual character. What the character sees as a personal sacrifice is actually a shift in the universal balance of power between good and evil, in evil's favor. The consequences of that single evil act, no matter how small, extend far beyond the single act and involve a loss to more than just the character doing the deed. Thus it is not a personal sacrifice, but a concession to evil, and thus unconscionable . . . (pg 9)
I'm with them when it comes to the though process that you can not trade your moral 'purity' for the lives of innocents as your 'purity' is not a quantity that can be traded like cows and gold. But the idea that every act is important in this war between good and evil creates a situation where a conscientious character can not act at all, and that just sucks.