Neutral good goes to university

My teenager is into Dungeons and Dragons, and many weekends are spent planning and playing with friends. I feel an odd sense of nostalgia. I haven’t played D&D so the intricacies are lost on me, but at university I hung out with role-players and recognise the lexicon that goes with that magical worldview.

For the newbies, characters in D&D (almost always) have an alignment that determines their moral/ethical perspective and influences game choices. Are you good or evil (or neutral)? Within that characterisation, are you on the side of law or on the side of chaos (or neutral)? The latter is where is gets interesting: your allegiance to rules, structure and power relations (law) or commitment to individual freedom (chaos).

That gives you the following options: lawful good, lawful neutral, neutral good, true neutral, lawful evil, neutral evil, chaotic good, chaotic neutral, and chaotic evil.

Chaotic evil always sounds fun to play, like reverting to toddlerhood, with choices determined at whim without respect for anyone or anything other than the self. ‘What amuses me right now?’ is the guiding question of chaos.

I took a quiz on D&D alignment and was slightly disappointed to discover I am neither evil nor chaotic but the blandest of descriptors: neutral good.

Then I started thinking about what neutral good looks like when it goes to university.

Rules can be broken

Neutral good players do not follow every rule or expectation, nor do they actively resist them. Rules can be broken in pursuit of the greater good. At university, this may mean working by the pirate’s code — seeing institutional expectations as guidelines rather than rules — or writing book chapters in defiance of impact factors, or upholding compliance with policy without making unkind decisions (as my former colleague Mitch Parsell taught me).

Don’t follow the leader

While respectful of others, the neutral good character is not beholden to positional leadership. At university, neutral good is akin to a distributed leadership approach. As Harvey and Jones (2022) put it: “Distributed leadership … is a flexible, multi-level and iterative reflective process in which individuals who trust and respect each other’s expertise collaborate to take responsibility for leading action for change while growing the capacity of the group.” See their work in practice in this post on claiming leadership to advance gender equity.

Value goodness

Neutral good characters care more about upholding good than following the law. At university, this might take the form of slow tiny acts of resistance. It might mean being a teacher with a social reform perspective challenging students to make the world a better place. It might be being intentional with citations in publications. Or speaking out and being brave in the struggle against rampant individualism, unrestrained commercialisation and passive complicity with the neoliberal agenda (as my colleague Cathy has done). Underpinning these acts is a commitment to the values of care, collegiality, openness and challenge.

Question everything

Neutral good characters are sometimes seen as indecisive, spending time evaluating choices before making decisions. At university, questioning is learning and ongoing reflection is crucial— theorising, wondering, reading, listening. And what does it mean to be good anyway?

Edited to add: Penny van Bergen took this post up a notch with the following comment on Twitter

Photo by Sophie Elvis on Unsplash

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