The Punisher’s Alignment
League Alum Jamelle Bouie recently started a food fight on twitter when he asked the following:
On a D&D alignment chart, where would you put The Punisher?
— Jamelle Bouie (@jbouie) March 19, 2016
The “he’s *OBVIOUSLY* Chaotic Good” people and the “he’s *OBVIOUSLY* Lawful Evil” people 1 start screaming at each other in the way that only deontologists and utilitarians can scream at each other. The answers seem so very obvious to a huge chunk of folks in the twitter thread. Statements expressing surprise that there are other interpretations showed up in the threads conclusions that end with “it seems hard to argue otherwise” or begin with “I don’t see how” and these little tells are usually tips of fairly big icebergs.
Then, even among themselves, there are fights over what kind of ice is under the water. The deontologists argue over whether the prohibition against murder is rooted in the lawful kinda thing or in the good kinda thing. The utilitarians argue over the second order effects and the whole differing qualities of pleasure thing (which seems to me to have some serious deontological assumptions when you start sorting things like that), and that’s without even touching on the whole “wait, are we focusing on the maximization of pleasure thing or the minimization of pain thing?” argument or whether the Punisher 2 is serving some higher law or serving some greater good or something like that.
Of course, the D&D Universe makes this sort of thing easy because you have clerics who are capable of casting spells like “Detect Evil” and if you cast it on Frank Castle (The Punisher) and he doesn’t light up, you know that, well, he ain’t evil. (Same for Detect Good or Detect Chaos or Detect Law.)
Additionally, if something is somehow connected to the Plane of Negative Energy (e.g., undead), then you know that it is Evil. If it is somehow connected to the Plane of Positive Energy (e.g., healing spells), then you know that it is good.
But that doesn’t really help us because we don’t have any of those clerics here currently, and so we’re just stuck arguing over whether or not the prohibition against murder is rooted in the concept of goodness or rooted in the concept of lawfulness or what.
Which brings us back to the issue of these obvious answers obviously eluding us. Is the extra-legal killing of violent and unrepentant felons (who, surely, will go on to kill arguably innocent people) an act of murder because it is extra-legal? Is it because the ending of a human life is in itself an evil act (even if arguably in the service of good)? To what extent is the context of the killing relevant to the killing? The shooting of a mafia hitman certainly *FEELS* different than the shooting of a person minding their own business (doubly so when the question is whether someone should shoot a mafia hitman who is going to shoot a person minding their own business).
Are we supposed to focus on the outcome here or the act itself? Because if we focus on the outcome, we see that the Punisher is kind of making the world a better place, kind of. Some of the 2nd order effects can be argued, of course, but a world with N mafia hitmen is a better one than one with N+1 mafia hitmen. But he’s breaking the law… so he’s obviously Chaotic Good.
But if we’re looking at the acts themselves and saying “well, murder is wrong, period”, then we’re stuck seeing that the Punisher is doing evil acts in the direct service of some higher moral structure and so it’s obvious that he’s Lawful Evil.
Splitting the difference and saying “well, why not Chaotic Evil?” seems to not apply, given the amount of care he puts into not killing innocent people or even goodish people like Daredevil himself.
So we’re stuck trying to hammer out exactly what it is that we’re finding offensive by the Punisher’s murderous vigilantism… and what we focus on when it comes to the fact that he’s killing people that everyone agrees is a bad guy who has something like this coming.
We’re stuck coming back to the question: Why is murderous vigilantism wrong?
It’s a Euthyphro dilemma 3 in its own right.
Is murderous vigilantism Wrong because society says that it’s Wrong? Does society merely agree that murderous vigilantism is Wrong because murderous vigilantism is Wrong?
As such, it seems like the “obvious answer” is, like most of these questions, really asking the individual “how have you resolved this ancient philosophical question within yourself?”
Are you someone who knows that society says that murder is wrong because murder is wrong? Then you just might be a “Lawful Evil, duh” kind of person. Are you someone who knows that murder is wrong because society says that it is wrong? Then you just might be a “Chaotic Good, duh” person.
So instead of asking “What alignment is the Punisher?”, the question is really “What alignment are you?”