I wrote previously on the usefulness of Dungeons & Dragons alignments in discussing ethics in the real world. In that essay, I wrote about the lawful evil alignment. I now turn to the neutral evil alignment.
In the Pathfinder Role Playing Game version of the alignment, neutral evil is defined as follows:
A neutral evil villain does whatever she can get away with. She is out for herself, pure and simple. She sheds no tears for those she kills, whether for profit, sport, or convenience. She has no love of order and holds no illusions that following laws, traditions, or codes would make her any better or more noble. On the other hand, she doesn’t have the restless nature or love of conflict that a chaotic evil villain has.
Some neutral evil villains hold up evil as an ideal, committing evil for its own sake. Most often, such villains are devoted to evil deities or secret societies.
Neutral evil represents pure evil without honor and without variation.
This alignment, unfortunately enough, matches up quite well to some people in the real world. As the description above indicates, neutral evil people are completely selfish. It is important to note that this is different from having a sense of self-interest. The distinction is that self-interest means that a person takes into account his or her own interests when making decisions. A completely selfish person takes self-interest to an extreme, perhaps to the point where only her interests are regarded as having any value. Being self-interested is perfectly compatible with being good. In fact, a good creature would need a degree of self-interest or it would be engaged in wronging itself, which could be an evil action.
Interestingly enough, neutral evil actually has its own real-world moral theory, namely ethical egoism. This is the moral view that a person should do only what is in her interest. This is contrasted with altruism, which is the view that a person should at least sometimes consider the interests of others. There are, of course, degrees of altruism (and egoism). As might be imagined, the extremist form of altruism (always sacrificing all one’s interests for those of others) is an absurd position that could be seen as a form of evil given how the altruistic fanatic treats herself. More moderate altruism just requires at least not being totally selfish—which seems both reasonable and good.
Stupid neutral evil people are open about their selfishness and simply do as they wish. However, unless they are powerful or protected by powerful people, they would tend to come to a bad end. Neutral evil people who are not stupid and also lack the power to do whatever they wish with impunity tend to take one of two approaches.
The first is for the neutral evil person to conceal the fact that she is neutral evil. The classic example of this is the Ring of Gyges story in Plato’s Republic. Such neutral evil people are careful to maintain the appearance that they are not neutral evil and, provided that they have the skills and resources to do this, they can remain unexposed. Even if they are exposed, they sometimes have the ability to regain their mask and return to their evil actions in secret.
The advantage of this approach is that the neutral evil person is able to act in a selfish way in relative safety. The disadvantage is that maintaining the illusion of being not-evil can be costly and can impede the person’s ability to act on his selfishness. This is, however, a viable option for those who are evil and capable, yet lack absolute power.
The second is for the neutral evil person to present their selfishness as being virtuous rather than a vice. That is, rather than concealing their evil behind a mask of false ethics, they endeavor to convince people that their selfish behavior is actually ethically correct.
Ayn Rand is perhaps the best known philosopher who took this approach. She argued that selfishness is a virtue and that altruism is wrong. Of course, the altruism she attacked was the absurd extreme altruism presented above, rather than the sort of moderate altruism that is embraced by actual human beings. Unfortunately, the sort of extreme ethical egoism she endorsed has been embraced, most famously by certain folks in the American Tea Party as well as those who have manipulated this movement.
In the United States, there has been a concerted and brilliant effort to present supporting altruism as supporting vile socialism or communism and of wanting to rob the “job creators” of the wealth they have earned. That is, being altruistic and wanting to assist others is cast as vile villainy. There has also been an equally brilliant effort to cast anyone who benefits from public altruism as being lazy, thieving and parasitic. Naturally, racism has been cleverly exploited here as well.
This has been a rather successful campaign in that many Americans now regard those who support public altruism as exceeded only in wickedness by those who might receive it—especially if those who receive it are minorities.
In contrast, those who have great wealth that has been acquired from the labor of others are cast as having made it on their own, despite the massive government subsidies and state support that helped make their success possible. Ironically, those who are the most selfish are cast as the most virtuous and even those they shameless exploit rush to their defense.
While this alignment can be quite beneficial to the neutral evil person, it is a rather corrosive alignment. After all, neutral evil types are essentially damaging to society. Unlike the lawful evil types who believe they have a stake in the success of society, the neutral evil types are selfish to the degree that they only consider what they regard as their own self-interest.
While an enlightened neutral evil person might get that she has an interest in society, this sort of enlightenment is actually contrary to the alignment. After all, an evil person who sees value in society would be lawful evil rather than neutral evil. As such, while good people have a clear interest in combating neutral evil people, so too would the lawful evil people. In a sense, the neutral evil person is everyone’s enemy—even other neutral evils.