Lawful Evil

Book cover, Dungeon Masters Guide by Gary Gyga...

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While I am a professional philosopher, my view of ethics was significantly shaped by the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons alignment system. This role-playing game provided players with a choice between the alignments: neutral, lawful neutral, chaotic neutral, neutral good, neutral evil, lawful good, lawful evil, chaotic good or chaotic evil. The player’s choice of alignment determined how she would (or at least should) play her character. As might be imagined, morality tends to be a significant part of fantasy role-playing games. After all, the fantasy genre has traditionally been about the epic battle between good and evil (or law and chaos). While my training in philosophy has provided me with a robust set of ethical theories ranging from moral absolutism to moral nihilism, I still find the AD&D alignment system rather useful for describing people and their actions. In my own case, I find the alignment system a handy organizer. In terms of speaking with other gamers, it is a handy way to get across my view of an actual person. For example, if I say “what he did was chaotic neutral at best” a fellow gamer knows just what that means. Or should. One interesting aspect of the alignment system is that it applies to organizations and not just individuals.  This, interestingly enough, includes entire nations. While an entire nation will generally not be monolithic in its alignment (after all, evil nations have their plucky rebels and good nations have their malign plotters), a country can be described generally in terms of one of the alignments. In the fantasy settings of role-playing games, this alignment is usually set by the rulers. For example, a country ruled by a council of evil necromancers would be evil. As another example, a country ruled by a paladin queen would be good. Real life countries follow the same model. That is, the effective alignment of the country is set by the alignment of those in power. To use the obvious example, during WWII not all Germans were evil, but Germany acted as a rather evil nation. To be fair, most nations tend to be evil and, more specifically, lawful evil. Pathfinder, which is a current variant of Dungeons & Dragons, defines the alignment of lawful evil in the following 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. Some lawful evil people and creatures commit themselves to evil with a zeal like that of a crusader committed to good. Beyond being willing to hurt others for their own ends, they take pleasure in spreading evil as an end unto itself. They may also see doing evil as part of a duty to an evil deity or master. Lawful evil represents methodical, intentional, and organized evil.

This definition nicely captures the behavior of most countries in terms of how they operate (or desire to operate). In regards to the lawful aspect of the alignment, it is obvious that a country would tend to be lawful. That is, they have a set of laws aimed at creating order and expect the citizens to be loyal to the rulers. Appeals to the value of tradition, be they religious or social, are commonly used to persuade the citizens to maintain the existing order. Hierarchy is, of course, essential to the state as is a willingness on the part of the citizens to follow the laws. Anarchists and other thinkers have argued that the state is essentially evil—interestingly enough because the state is supposed to be opposed to freedom and dignity. While it could be argued that evil is not a necessary quality of a state, the rulers of states always seem quite ready to restrict freedom in order to maintain security and order. There is also the obvious fact that the rulers of states generally act to take or do what they wish, albeit within the limits of the rules (even if they must create new rules and laws to allow this behavior—note how the Obama administration carefully argues that drone strikes and Prism are both legal). As the description notes, some lawful evil people (and nations) profess to have a better sort of morality and use this to claim that they are good people, especially when engaged in activities that are rather clearly not good at all. Interestingly enough, the lawful evil type tends to avail herself of utilitarianism. The idea is rather straightforward: a person can claim that the seemingly evil acts being committed (like drone assassinations, domestic spying, enhanced interrogation, denying women rights, allowing pollution, and so on) are not evil because they serve the greater good. Or, rather, the greater good as they see it. Perhaps they truly believe they are on the side of the angels even while they are using the devil’s tools.   My Amazon Author Page

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  1. I think your last sentence is very correct. I don’t lawfully evil people realize that they are evil because they always claim to the contrary, always claim to be helping. While they could be just straight up lying, I am somewhat of an optimist and would like to think they are ignorant and truly believe what they are doing is right. Anyway who are we to tell them they are wrong. We go by right and wrong based off of what our society has shown us to be right and wrong, but for all we know everything about morality could be wrong. That’s the problem. Nothing is ever concrete when it comes topics like morality.

  2. A lawful evil villain can also accept that Utilitarianism leads one to do very evil things for the “right” reasons.

    My favorite kind of Lawful Evil takes the shape of a villain who simply believes she is better than everyone else. She firmly believes every decision she makes for someone else will likely be much better for them than their own decisions, and, if she gets to rule the world in the process, why shouldn’t she go for it wholeheartedly?

  3. Professor LaBossiere,
    You blog posts are a bit like cheeses that require aging. The suggestion that ethics involve role-playing might well be ripening capital — Top of the Future Pops as some used to say.

    Roles give individuals a place in a community. And, then, there is this: What if the community is ill-formed?

    Consider, as Ludwig suggests, the old English village that has waxed and waned by socio-economic impulses over a long time (as opposed to good rational planning). Such is a social group that drags its aged self behind its every move.

    As a meta-ethical question, what good or evil hides in the interplay of individual behavior and family, village or departmental expectations?

  4. Boreas,

    Much of my writing has been compared to cheese. 🙂

    Interesting point about the expectations of the group for the individual. Lawful creatures tend to favor the group over the individual but the extent and nature of this would vary based on whether the creature is good, evil, or neutral.

  5. Luke,

    That is certainly a classic villain. They can make a sympathetic villain in the sense that s/he is doing what s/he thinks is best, rather than being merely selfish.

  6. Previously there were just good, bad, or neutral options, similar to the positive, negative, or neutral forces in nature. There were not so many shades of grey, and relativity was one, not many.

    Now, maybe because the intelligentsia is tired or as Yeats’ expressed it: “lack all conviction” it is not up to dealing with “passionate intensity”. Maybe civilizations are meant to fall when they run out of steam. Religion has been a potent force in the past through passionate conviction in bringing about change.

    Yeats’ ‘The Second Coming’ was judged by some as lacking in intellectual credibility, which is in its favor. Intellectual credibility is and has been weak tea, whether in relation to communism, religious fanaticism, or morality in general.

    Maybe it is best to just stick to the good, the bad, and the neutral in real life; tempered by relativity, and leave the shades of grey to games.

  7. I often consider the alignment system and what impact it’d have on a society.

    Let’s pretend that you have objective evil and good (as determined by the pantheon).

    That doesn’t preclude all the same value judgements we currently make. They’re all still there, and you’ll still have all the same arguments about right and wrong. The fact that ‘Team Lawful Good’ bears that title doesn’t mean one necessarily considers them the most good/ethical/justified. Presumably every God (and every one of their followers) believes that their particular ideology is the most rational and righteous and appropriately ordered.

    Therefore, to call Team Torm ‘Lawful Good’ and Team Talos ‘Chaotic Evil’ would be rather nonsensical nomenclature for the inhabitants of the Faerun to use.

    Having a religion in Faerun seems akin to being the member of a political party, with the additional property that your party membership determines your afterlife. That’s kinda funny though, cos I’d have thought that an afterlife in Pandemonium or The Abyss would be a hard sell…

  8. Tristan,

    True-if good and evil is set by the pantheon, that would be a polytheistic version of divine command theory (good is what the gods say it is, bad is bad because the gods say it is bad). This leads right to the usual Euthyphro problem and all the other problems with DTC.

    In my campaigns, I’ve always gone more Platonic: Good and Evil are real entities (among the realist) and the gods are good or evil based on their connection to the real good or real evil. In the case of mortal beings, they get the usual choice. Supernatural beings are often stuck-they are infused with good or evil, but I do “allow” them to change their alignments (fallen angels, for example).

    I do agree with you about selling the Abyss or Pandemonium. After all, if a person knew that the Abyss awaited, she would seem to have to be insane to pick the life of chaotic evil. My stock explanation is that evil people think they will be rewarded by power and such in the Abyss if they are really good at being evil. So, for example, a wizard might go all in on chaotic evil in the hopes of becoming a vrock or greater in the afterlife. Without such motivations, few would be evil-and what would a campaign be without evil?

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