I have a huge issue with alignment systems. I really don't like them. I have two published games out there and I'm hoping to have a third ready for Gencon, and none of them have alignment systems. [sarcasm] Hooray for me [/sarcasm]. My dislike of alignement systems means I get to keep them out of my games, but I am often stuck playing games (one game in particular) that employs them. So lets talk about alignment, which is really talking about ethics.
In my experience, most people are ethical most of the time. A small percentage of people produce most of the bad stuff in the world while the rest of us get by without committing major theft, murder, or other unethical acts. So, at first glance, alignment systems make sense. Most people are good, a few are evil, lets send the good guys after the bad and have ourselves a game!
Well, not so fast. I would argue that most people are good because it is easy to be good. The rules of society are set up to severely punish acts that fall outside accepted social norms. When people are making decisions, they choose the "good" option because the cost of being "evil" is too high in our society.
So, what happens when regular people are presented with hard ethical choices? Will they take the high road? Or low? Quick example: you find a purse on the side of the road. It has a woman's ID in it, and would be easy for you to return to her. Do you? What if that purse had $20 in it? What if it had $100? Or $500? Or $10 000? Or $100 000? You, being "good", might claim you don't need the money and return it. What if you just lost your job and are about to be evicted? What if that $10 000 will pay for your child's education? What if it will pay for medical treatment? Maybe you could donate the money to the local food bank or Red Cross. Wouldn't they do far more "good" with the money than the previous owner ever could?
There might be a few diehards who claim the money must be returned. Well, let's say you recognize the ID of purse's owner, and you know she is a criminal, or a child molester, or even just some one you really don't like. You know giving that money back to the owner will result in negative effects. What then?
No matter the situation above, if you fail to return the money, you are 100% guilty of theft. The law is crystal clear on this. However, it might not be the best choice to follow the law. And rather than following/breaking the law based on some predetermined understanding of it, I would argue that most people would make a choice based on their current situation, needs, and conscience, and would not make the same choice in every instance. A brilliant story about situational morality is "The White Knight" by Eric Nicol. It's very short and worth the read.
Ethics are complicated. People are complicated. Good and Evil are illusions that we create to simplify situations that have many more layers than first appear. We project good and evil into the creatures in games so that we can have monsters we kill without remorse, knowing that we made the right choice. I think this oversimplifies situations and does a disservice to players who I believe are more than capable of handling more depth.
Here's something to try, let's use a fantasy staple: orcs. Next time you're running a game and the characters charge in and slay a party of orcs. Add a little coda to the scene. Have one of the PC's hear the cries of a baby, and then have them find a tiny baby orc that is crying for food. Remind the characters that the baby orc has done no evil, and is helpless. Make it clear that the orcs the characters faced were not marauding, but were hunting game to feed themselves and their young. Make the characters question their choices, make them regret indiscriminate slaughter, and make them decide what to do with a helpless orc baby that might grow up to be a loyal ally or a terrible enemy.
One of the best games I ever played in started with all of us attacking a prison and releasing what we thought were political prisoners and revolutionaries. It turns out that we set free all of a country's most dangerous criminals. The rest of the game was about hunting them down and limiting the damage we caused to the world. My character, being "goodish" was so torn up about his mistake that he became consumed by guilt and relentlessly hunted down the prisoners. He killed most of them on site. Was that murder? Justice? Retribution? My character thought it was right, and while others might disagree, he was a little more relieved as each target died. He made amends for a prison break with a series of murders. Now that was an interesting game, and I hope you can find the same sort of complexity and moral ambiguity in yours.