Evil & Institutions II: Reconsidering Lawful Evil

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In an earlier essay, I considered the various evil Dungeons & Dragons alignments in the context of institutions. In that essay, I took the view that lawful evil people are the most dangerous of all because they aim to institutionalize evil. However, a case can be made that the lawful evil approach is better than that of the other evil alignments. Making a case for this involves appealing to the work of Thomas Hobbes.

In the Leviathan, Hobbes argues that the state of nature would be a war of all against all, a state perhaps best described as chaotic evil at worst and chaotic neutral at best. However, his description of people makes most of them seem to be neutral evil (utterly selfish, with no concern for others). He regarded the chaos of the state of nature as the worst and his solution was, roughly put, for people to accept a sovereign to rule over them and impose order. This would transform the chaotic evil of the state of nature into the lawful evil of the state of civilization. In D&D, lawful evil is defined in this way:

A lawful evil villain methodically takes what he wants within the limits of his code of conduct without regard for whom it hurts. He cares about tradition, loyalty, and order but not about freedom, dignity, or life. He plays by the rules but without mercy or compassion. He is comfortable in a hierarchy and would like to rule, but is willing to serve. He condemns others not according to their actions but according to race, religion, homeland, or social rank. He is loath to break laws or promises.

This reluctance comes partly from his nature and partly because he depends on order to protect himself from those who oppose him on moral grounds. Some lawful evil villains have particular taboos, such as not killing in cold blood (but having underlings do it) or not letting children come to harm (if it can be helped). They imagine that these compunctions put them above unprincipled villains.

This description shows that lawful evil types have the qualities needed to maintain civilization and hold off the state of nature. The lawful evil persons respect for tradition, loyalty and order lead them to value the institutions of the state and they will seek to protect and preserve them. They might even be willing to tolerate some goodness in these institutions, provided that the goodness contributes to order.

Interestingly, a principled lawful evil person would be loath to harm or attack an institution even if doing so was personally advantageous. For example, a lawful evil ruler being investigated for a crime would do much to avoid being punished but would be very reluctant to harm or weaken the institutions of law enforcement. This is because a lawful evil person lacks the shallow selflessness of the neutral evil person and cares, in their own evil way, about the preservation of society and its institutions. As such, the lawful evil person can act in a principled way and could even sacrifice themselves for others, and thus they could be mistaken for being good people.

While a lawful evil person would not be good, they could be rightly said to have virtues.  Kant, in his Fundamental Principles of the Metaphysics of Morals, makes this point:

Moderation in the affections and passions, self-control, and calm deliberation are not only good in many respects, but even seem to constitute part of the intrinsic worth of the person; but they, are far from deserving to be called good without qualification, although they have been so unconditionally praised by the ancients. For without the principles of a good will, they may become extremely bad; and the coolness of a villain not only makes him far more dangerous, but also directly makes him more abominable in our eyes than he would have been without it.

While Kant regards evil combined with virtue to be perhaps the very worst, the lawful evil villain, as noted above, operates within limits that puts them above the worst villains—the chaotic evil and neutral evil types. While lawful evil types lack, in Kantian terms, the good will, they could be said to have the lawful will. That is, while they do not will the good, they do will the law. While this would certainly not satisfy Kant, it would be quite enough for Hobbes. For him, what gets humans out of the chaos of the state of nature is not goodness or love or others, but self-interest and an acceptance of order. Roughly put, enough people are willing to shift their alignments from chaotic or neutral evil to lawful evil to allow society to form. Maintaining that society requires that enough people remain lawful, even if they are lawful evil. As such, good people who value society and order can find allies in their lawful evil fellows, although this alliance can presumably never be more than one of convenience. This is because while good and lawful evil people share a common desire to oppose chaotic evil and neutral evil types, they still have an irreconcilable moral difference regarding good and evil.

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