I will be the first to admit that I have trouble working with binary systems in general, not just binary gender. The vast majority of the time I find binary concepts to be overly simplistic and reductive, to the point where they are dysfunctional and misleading. A lot of that dysfunction stems from assumptions and connotations inherent in binary thinking. Binary systems often fail to include important aspects of the thing being modeled, or present related concepts as oppositional when they are not. These problems cause exclusions and misunderstandings both in everyday life, and in metaphysical practice, problems that are often easily solved by non-binary thinking.
Let us focus on the binary model of good and evil. It’s a nice, neat, very comfortable trope, found woven throughout our culturally dominant stories, religions, and mythologies. It is intertwined with the ideas of bad guys and good guys, moral and immoral, ethical and unethical, lawful and unlawful, and so on. I think most people recognize that life is not actually that simplistic, but most do believe in the existence of good and evil, and it can be comforting to believe that there is some cosmic absoluteness of good and evil to be found.
The unending philosophical debate on good vs. evil may seem like a daunting place to start when comparing the differences between binary and non-binary systems, but I have a very specific reason to start there.
I’m starting there because of Dungeons & Dragons.
If you have ever played D&D (or really, any role-playing game), had friends who played D&D, read much fantasy, engaged in or studied fiction writing, been at all interested in anything “geeky” or “nerdy”, or paid any attention to humorous social commentary memes, I’m sure you have at some point encountered the classic D&D alignment chart or some derivation of that chart. It is a 3×3 grid with two spectrums. One direction is good-neutral-evil. The other direction is lawful-neutral-chaotic.
This chart is an example of non-binary thinking, because it describes the subject (good and evil) in two planes and has four terminus instead of two. Odds are you’ve been using it just fine for years, and never thought about it in terms of binary vs. non-binary. Non-binary thinking really can be that easy and natural when it more accurately describes the subject.
The D&D alignment chart exists for a couple reasons. First, archetypal definitions are critical to creating a base of understanding from which to build your group fantasy adventure, which is why all successful role-playing games have lots of reference charts. Second, labeling characters as just good or evil is too simplistic to functionally accommodate any depth of character development or storytelling. A good-evil lawful-chaotic chart is still a simplification of reality, but some amount of simplification is necessary to avoid getting bogged down in minutia when trying to play a game. The chart the creators of D&D arrived at is a very practical middle ground between simplification and complex reality, such that it has become standard for writing and storytelling, and is very much a part of prevailing culture among middle-aged and younger people.
Lawfulness as an Expression of Goodness
The classic D&D alignment chart is beautiful because it shows that variation has as much practical meaning as main concepts, without getting bogged down in complication. Lawful evil has traits that are usually associated with good in a binary model (ex: following the rules, being conventional or conservative), and chaotic good has traits that are usually associated with evil in a binary model (ex: bucking the system, rebellious behavior). Using the D&D alignment grid, you can create a lawful neutral or lawful evil character who believes themself to be good. If the character views the world through a binary lens, they see their lawful traits as good. As a result, they can fail to see that they are not doing good in the world, and may actually be doing harm. In this case, the oversimplification of the binary model causes the character to misidentify their own nature, and the non-binary alignment grid illuminates their true nature. If you think there aren’t real human beings running around with the same sort of self delusion for the same reason, you’re not paying enough attention.
Binary thinking creates the illusion that good and evil are opposing absolutes, when in reality they are fuzzy concepts that are wound up with lots of other fuzzy concepts in a very complicated web of interrelationships. What is “good” or “evil” often depends very much upon your point of view, and the factors that add up to concepts of good and evil are so complex that when using a binary model, those factors are easily mislabeled as belonging exclusively to either good or evil, even when they can apply to either. This causes people to make falsely strong associations between the binary terms and their related concepts.
Using lawful-chaotic as the second dimension works because lawfulness is very intertwined with our cultural concepts of good, and yet lawfulness and chaos can be applied equally to both good and evil. When we conceptualize good and evil, we want to know exactly how lawfulness factors into that. If we are using a binary model, we have to put “lawfulness” somewhere on that binary line, and that place usually ends up being the “good” end of the spectrum, even though evil people are just as capable of being lawful. The fact that lawfulness is equated with goodness allows people to do evil under the guise of goodness, because following the rules = good. This trope is extremely common in movies and books, and infuriatingly common in real life.
How we model our understanding of the world affects how we perceive and interact with the world. That means if you think in a binary way, and equate lawfulness with goodness, then you are likely to equate a lawful person with a good person. There’s nowhere else to go, because everything is stuck on one line. This is directly at odds with the commonly held understanding that lawyers often work a great deal of evil in the world.
When you expand into non-binary thinking by creating the second “lawfulness” dimension, it suddenly becomes easy to see how lawfulness plays into goodness, but is not the same thing as goodness.
Morality as an Expression of Goodness
If you have been watching The Good Place on TV, the characters frequently talk about morality, and consequential morality is of critical importance to who racks up enough points during their life to be able to earn a spot in the Good Place. In the show, and in real life, morality is a very important factor in understanding good and evil. As a result, just like with lawfulness, we want to know how it fits into the good-evil model. Thus, in a binary model, moral behavior = goodness and immoral behavior = evil.
Don’t worry. I’m not going to try and argue that evil can be moral. What I am going to argue is that morality is so profoundly complicated that determining absolute morality is impossible. Every philosopher who has ever written about morality has a different take on how to determine what is moral behavior, so if this interests you, I highly recommend doing a lot of reading. For the sake of brevity, I am going to focus on just a couple of small points.
- There are more consequences to our actions than we can foresee or see.
- At least some of those consequences are likely to be bad.
- Whether or not a consequence is good or bad often depends upon your point of view.
- What is considered moral behavior is usually religiously or culturally defined, and varies from group to group.
Let’s use curing an infection as an example. I will always advocate for healing and curing infections, because I believe that the vast majority of the time it is the good and moral thing to do. However, on a fundamental level, the bacteria has just as much right to exist as the person or animal being cured. From the point of view of the bacteria, antibiotics are an evil attack on their existence.
If we take culture and religion into account, Wicca has the Rede (and all the ways to interpret that). Christianity has the ten commandments. Heathenism has guidelines about honesty and honor, while Japanese culture has completely different honor standards. Literally every culture and religion in the world has different ideas of what constitutes good and moral behavior. Some religions vilify nudity as immoral, and in the western world we have a lot of laws based on the idea of immoral nudity. Most cultures in the world historically found nudity normal and acceptable, and would be confused by the idea that nudity could be assigned moral value at all, let alone that it was bad.
So, getting back to our binary model of good and evil, there is an inherent desire to include morality since it is one of the measures we use to determine goodness. Therefore, moral behavior goes on the good end, and immoral goes on the bad end. Seems easy, right? Until you think about how hard it can be to know if an action is moral in an absolute way that makes sense for determining goodness. Because it amuses me, I am going to call this ambiguity in moral goodness “Chidi’s Paradox”. It’s a good idea to keep this indeterminance in mind because it supports thinking critically, but don’t let yourself become paralyzed by it.
The morality trap comes in creating absolute definitions of morality and applying those to any model of good and evil, because whether or not a particular action is moral, and therefore good, is often debatable and debated. Because the binary model is the simplest, it leaves the most room for error. If you step outside the binary model, and, let’s say, apply morality to the D&D alignment grid, you immediately get a very different and much more complex representation of the nature of morality.
Let’s use our nudity example here, applying it in a non-binary way using the D&D alignment grid. From a fundamental Christian point of view, female nudity would be on the evil side of the grid, probably chaotic evil because it is believed to tempt Men to evil and unlawful deeds. If you view nudity through the lens of most historic world cultures, it would be true neutral, without any actual moral value or inherent goodness or evil. If you view nudity from the perspective of a modern pagan who sees skyclad as a gift from the gods and an expression of the perfection of imperfect nature, you are probably going to put it somewhere on the good side of the grid.
When you use a binary model, there is no way to define something or someone as neither binary property. There are the two binary items, and maybe a spectrum in between, and all of reality is expected to fall somewhere on that line. In a binary spectrum model the tendency is to try to put non-binary items in the middle, the point mid-way between the two extremes. In our good-evil binary, placing something in the middle indicates that it is equally good or evil, and if it is impossible to describe in terms of the binary, then it is usually believed to not exist at all. The true neutral representation of amoral nudity is impossible using a binary model. That is because your only options are defining the non-binary item (amoral nudity) in terms of good-evil, or leaving it out entirely.
When you are talking about moral value, it makes sense to put something in the middle if the thing has both good and bad consequences, like buying a car. The car can be invaluable for traveling freely, getting to and from a job, and otherwise participating in modern society. However, it produces a lot of bad including non-renewable resource consumption, manufacturing waste, fuel consumption, pollution, poor working conditions at various stages of manufacture, disposal problems, and so much more.
If you view nudity without religious baggage, it isn’t middle ground morality, it is without morality. That is, morality is not part of the definition or value of nudity. It is amoral. When you use a model to describe something fundamental to our understanding of existence, the desire is to understand how everything works within that model. So, there is a tendency to define everything in terms of that model, even if it doesn’t really work. If you view nudity as an amoral concept, it fits into the non-binary model, but not the binary one.
When we treat two related concepts as binary, they are inherently placed in opposition. This usually implies that they are somehow incompatible or mutually exclusive, even when they are not. When you use a binary spectrum model in an attempt to be more inclusive or accurate, this opposition is further emphasized. A spectrum illustrates very clearly that the two binary concepts are at opposite ends, two extremes, of what is possible.
Goodness Through Different Models
In our good-evil model, this results in an oversimplification of what good and evil mean, and creates a lot of false equivalencies regarding specific behaviors and how they relate to good or evil. I have heard people attempt to expand the good-evil spectrum model by saying that if you go far enough to the good end, you circle back around to evil, like an ouroboros. It’s an interesting approach, because it recognizes that if you are too rigid in following the rules and obsessing over ideas of morality, it’s easy to lose sight of how your actions impact others and the world, and end up doing a lot of harm.
It doesn’t really work in the other direction, though. If someone is greedy and awful, they can’t be more greedy and awful and suddenly become good. They can’t be less lawful and be certain of coming around to goodness.
When you view good and evil using the D&D alignment chart, you don’t have to try and shove a square peg into a round hole. The rigid person doing harm is lawful evil. What was extremely difficult to define and understand suddenly becomes easy and obvious. That’s the profound difference an effective model makes over an ineffective model.
The D&D alignment chart has been around for a good four decades, but the binary model of good an evil is still going strong, and will surely continue to do so for the foreseeable future. That’s because models are at heart simplifications of reality, and each will have its good points and its bad points. Which you want to use will depend upon what exactly you want to examine and how important it is to have more or less detail in that model. For me, using binary models is an exercise in frustration because they are too simplistic for my taste. However, there is something to be said for the elegance of such a minimalistic model, and that elegance and simplicity can lend focus to intent.
Finding new models for viewing your life and your practice can be incredibly eye opening. Collect them. Seek to understand them, how they work, and why. Use them when you can best play to their strengths and minimize their weaknesses. Just because you open yourself to non-binary ways of viewing traditionally binary topics doesn’t mean you have to throw out the binary view or its symbology. Greater conscious awareness simply allows you to more deliberately choose which model you use and when.
Take some time to think about other binary themes in your life and practice. Male/female and light/dark are two of the most common (and volatile) in p-word practice, but there are lots of them. Is there more to those concepts than just the binary? Do you already have models you use that account for greater complexity? Do you experience frustration with particular binary models, but you’re not sure how to model them in non-binary ways?