"Ignoring what he's done in the past. Blindly, stupidly disregarding the entire graveyards he's filled, the thousands who have suffered, the friends he's crippled."
- – Jason Todd to Batman about Joker, nailing how Stupid Good characters actually end up causing massive harm for the sake of their own "morals."
Stupid Good is a term derived from the Dungeons & Dragons alignment system, but can easily be applied to characters in any role-playing game in fact, it can be applied to characters in any medium, for a specific way of playing a morally good character, usually a Paladin with a relatively even split between this and Lawful Stupid.
A Stupid Good character takes actions with good intent, but without regard to long-term consequences and obeying one typically "good" principle while completely disregarding all other principles. This alignment is not at all selfish, just rigid to the point of insanity. For example, a character might refuse to lie (an action that, in a neutral context, is usually considered "bad") under any circumstances. If asked by a serial killer whether he'd seen a man running past, such a character might say that he did see that man running past, even though this would realistically lead to the man's entire family being tortured to death. A good rule of thumb is to ask whether any person in real life would consider this to be an ethical and reasonable course of action. If not, time to check for Stupid Good.
Batman's treatment of the Joker is probably the most famous example. By not only refusing to kill the evil clown, but often saving his life, Batman has enabled the murder of millions of people. When it comes to deciding which action is right, they pick one specific idea (don't kill the Joker) and make it the absolute cornerstone of their decisions on morality. This also highlights another aspect of a Stupid Good character - they can be shown to be intelligent in many other ways. A refusal to kill an enemy is probably the most common form of Stupid Good presented in media. This is usually applied selectively instead of generally, as a character who refuses to kill the villain may have just burned twenty of the villain's henchmen to death without a second thought. The villain is often spared simply because they are narratively important.
A common thought experiment in the field of ethics is the Trolley Problem, where you have a choice to directly cause the death of one innocent person and save ten people, or save one person and indirectly cause the death of ten others. This can be argued either way, but Stupid Good is a matter of extremes. A dead giveaway of Stupid Good is if that person would not kill the villain even if it would save the lives of a billion people the villain himself put in danger.
While crazy in the context of real life, Stupid Good characters are sometimes shown to be right within the context of their very contrived narrative. Stupid Good cartoon characters can seem to have made the "good" choice, but only in retrospect and only because they got lucky with a one-in-a-million matter of pure chance. A leader with responsibility to subordinates or subjects who acts in this way in real life would clearly be betraying their team in order to "uphold their morals".
In the vast majority of cases, however, a Stupid Good character will become That guy in a gaming group. The player's Disneyland version of what he thinks a really nice character would do is sure to get in the way of the plot and make it seem very stupid if he is allowed to influence the direction of the story. Amusingly common in terms of actual game mechanics in Dungeons & Dragons, along with Lawful Stupid. Paladins often suffer from some degree of MAD in various D&D editions, thus leading to intelligence being a dump stat, leading to characters who are literally lawful good and very, very stupid.
Examples of Stupid Good
- The Autobots particularly from the classic 80s cartoons. Almost incessantly "good" and stubborn in their refusals to do anything remotely bad. Seriously, in the whole run of the original series and the millions of years of war between them and the Decepticons, did they kill anyone?
- Optimus Prime can also be equally described as Lawful Stupid, thanks to shit like the time he let himself get blown up as a consequence of a duel in which he knew the other guy cheated.
- The Organians from the original series of Star Trek are peace lovers to the extreme, to the point in intervening in the Federation/Klingon War and stopping all fighting across the galaxy. Particularly in the expanded content where they refuse to get involved in Q-Wars threatening multiple dimensions of existence.
- Batman. Just...how many times did he let the Joker live, FULLY KNOWING that he'd escape Arkham and kill many more innocents, and doing the whole dance over again? Oh yeah, because for some stupid reason, putting a Batarang through the psycho-clown's throat to stop innocent people from being tortured and killed makes the Batman as bad as the Joker. This also extends to other dangerous villains, including Oswald Cobblepot AKA Penguin (or in one specific case, Oswald "kill all of Gotham's firstborn children in their sleep" Cobblepot).
- The reason he gives is actually pretty sound: he is afraid to become a villain with killing Joker as a start, much like the Injustice version of Superman. It's the fact he doesn't do anything else to stop him (like push to have him lawfully and legally executed by the government) is stupid. Of course, if he's afraid of sliding towards evil, that the execution would be lawful isn't really the issue, it would still be just as much of a kill as the batarang in the neck.
- Ned Stark can both fit into Lawful Stupid and Stupid Good, as his penchant for mercy (he doesn't want Robert to murder Tommen and Myrcella in a fit of rage) ends up getting him executed and generally starting the major clusterfuck known as the War of the Five Kings.
- The War would have likely happened anyway because Stannis and Renly were both gathering armies & planning their moves. The real stupid things there were not only not getting his kids out faster (he tried but Sansa wanted to stay), but not getting more trustworthy allies given how Littlefinger betrays him. Another note is that Ned’s execution was both unexpected by most and virtually everyone thought it was a bad move. Tywin personally claimed it made no sense and was forced to fight Ned’s angry family as a result. Numerous others acknowledged that they just executed a highly valuable political hostage and pissed off powerful family members and vassals of Ned. Ned himself didn’t expect to be executed because he did his part and knew how valuable he was. Had things gone “normally” (fan theories include Joffrey being insane or Littlefinger whispering into his ear to cause this), Ned would have gotten out alive but still badly off.
The darker side of goodness
"You either die a hero, or live long enough to see yourself become a villain."
On the flip side of Stupid Good, there are those who attempt to justify whatever it is that they do so long as their characters create good outcomes. In essence as opposed to good actions "no matter the cost", the other side of stupid good is good consequences "no matter the cost". Generally those who circumvent moral problems with clever use of ethics and is therefore more often associated with Chaotic Good on the alignment scale (though not exclusively).
This "ends justifies the means" approach is less like taking good actions to the point of situational absurdity and more like players using logic to create goodness out of absurd situations.
An example of a dilemma surrounding this phenomenon is: Is it morally good to do something evil, to result in an even Greater Good? Such as killing an innocent to save the king/country/world/universe?
The Book of Exalted Deeds says that the above example is most definitely not a Good act, no matter the intention of the PC and treads the muddy Neutral ground at best, however not all RPGs use the D&D alignment system, but any RPG that involves some mechanical tracker of morality may inevitably encounter a player action which causes an awkward collective intake of breath, followed by the question of "did you really just do that?".
This is dangerous ground for any potential GM and needs to be decided upon firmly when it arises. While there are many examples of real-world applications of the line of thought historically and politically, they are controversial almost without exception. In roleplaying games; the end justifies the means approach can certainly be seen as upholding the "moral good", but if a GM allows attitudes like this to take root, savvy players may eventually find reasons to do anything and have essentially just become Murderhobos with apparent moral authority, and it can force hard-alignment systems to lose their legitimacy.
If "Good" players start justifying why they are seeking out and slaying whole villages of Orcs "just BECAUSE they are evil" or if they are committing acts of terrorism against an oppressive state even when that state system is perfectly codified and functional then a GM should probably think about dropping any alignment systems rather than attempt to enforce muddy and dubious decisions.
Examples of "Good" done Stupidly
- The Tau in 40k, though with particular reference to the harsher side of the Greater Good where they believe that people can be forcibly brought into harmony with one another. It's not terribly unreasonable given that pretty much everyone else in the setting is either insane, evil, or xenophobic (or all three) to the point where almost nobody gets along without a gun to their head.
- Konrad Curze - VERY VERY much so, despite the fact he brought crime and corruption on his world to near-zero, improving efficiency and bringing hope to his world, he was NOT a good person, no matter what he was attempting to argue.
- The Organians again; Though only in video games where they have given up the non-violent approach and decide to force everyone into peace by declaring war on them.
- Stannis Baratheon, from the show adaptation of A Song of Ice and Fire. He keeps on committing morally dubious and sometimes even downright villainous acts, such as sacrificing his own daughter to a fire god, in order to save Westeros from a bunch of evil elves, their zombie minions, and their Darth Maul lookalike leader; all at the behest of a crazed priestess who can't see that Stannis is NOT the chosen hero of yore, which she has fooled both herself and him into believing. In other words, he's a more well intentioned Macbeth who will end up with the same fate.