Neutral Evil

English: Protester seen at Chicago Tax Day Tea...

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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.


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  1. Ethics and morality are simply ways to make stupid selfish people behave like intelligent selfish people.

    Of course there is a third category. Cunning but stupid selfish people. They cause nearly all the trouble in the world.

    They always spend a lot of time talking about other peoples moralities.

    And how they should be receiving more than they have otherwise managed to.

  2. I’ve always thought that Socrates’s refutation of
    the ring of Gyges thought experiment was not very convincing.

    That is, the reason most people, including myself, don’t do bad things (when we want to do bad things, which is not always the case) is fear of getting caught and facing the social and legal consequences, that is, being the object of blame and punishment.

    Now I don’t always want to do bad things: that is, I’m not constantly besieged by so-called selfish or destructive desires.

    I guess that would make me a neutral evil person without absolute power and with enough awareness to avoid getting caught.

    I suspect that we neutral evil people without absolute power make up the majority of humankind.

    Once again, that does not signify that I spend all day plotting how to murder my neighbors for the pure joy of extermination, but I do have a little list and I can assure you that I for one would not miss the follow who plays loud cumbias all night long nor feel guilty if he were to have an unfortunate, disabling accident.

  3. “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.”
    I see a contradiction with this definition of evil as “She is out for herself, pure and simple……”. It appears to me that at this stage of evolution, mankind has proven the benefits of society and civilization. I believe that is the reason we outgrew other life forms.

    Therefore, how can a person serve his known interests by destroying others? There is no society and civilization without others, including their interst, etc. What you call evil, it appears to me a way of going back to some primitive from of life/being.

  4. Mike LaBossiere,

    “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 ”

    In the world of philosophy Ayn is usually considered the crazy aunt no one wants to acknowledge. She made some accusations that she’d been plagiarised. There may be some truth in this. (there could be a lot of truth in this).

    Absurd extreme altruism? Like what? A young person giving life and limb in battle to defend the existence of a society that has no intention of reciprocity. And that is precisely the kind of situation Ayn foresaw in her Utopian republic. The truth was to be reserved for the elites. And mythologies for the plebs.

    Ayn derives her ideas from Plato – (which she makes no secret of, though people who derive ideas from Ayn, and then pass off as their own platonic derivation do). But historically it’s been an ideology and praxis of power, independent of Plato.

    The powerful elites believe that awful sacrifices must be made to defend their society (that is, keep the elites powerful and rich, so they have the power to run the society which would collapse without them – and a distinction between Ayn and Plato’s coldly rational society is that elites like the colonial era British, and the contemporary nightmare of George W Bush’s Neocons is the belief their position, completely anti-democratic position in power is divinely decreed – God thinks that without their leadership the world would collapse – this is the Just World fallacy, probably the root of all evil.).

    All is pure to the pure. Any evil they commit is serving a higher purpose. Lynndie England believed she was serving a higher purpose in Abu Ghraib – in some nebulous way protecting the innocent folks back home. Now like Lady Macbeth she goes mad.

  5. Professor LaBossiere,
    I suss that you could be on to something here: Do you have a set of tests (say verbal, solitary performance under observation, cooperative/competitive performance under observation etc) to detect neutral evil versus rule-bound selfishness versus altruism? And do you have a theory of these psychological types? I think Plato (as per JMRC) tried to do some psycho-typing in Books 7-9 of the Republic.

    We treat selfishness the same way we treat athletic superiority. We want winners but at the same time we want athletes to play fair and to not play to injure.

    Say! Did you see the clip of the Leafs-Sabres battle-royale? Now there’s a man’s game — ten guys duking it out and then the two goalies get into it too. Awesome.

    Maybe y’all should give up guns and play hockey, eh?

  6. Neutral evil suggests amorality; not willing or choosing evil but being apathetic in relation to it. It even suggests pathology.

    A person who is selfish may have a sense of scarcity and act accordingly. A person who is altruistic may have a sense of neediness. A neutral evil person could not be considered neutral if they use will to perpetuate evil. Neutral evil appears to be an oxymoron.

    Usually people operate according to the personality they have carved out for themselves. Few have total dispassion in any given situation. Knowing the person it can be anticipated how they will act.

    Ethics and morality play a role but they require discrimination in application. A person with good intentions will attempt to know what the relative good is in any situation at any given time.

    Time does play a role. Shakespeare knew this when he had Richard II say in prison “I who hath not an ear to hear my true time broke.” What may be the relative good in one situation may not be in a different situation in a different time.

    It would appear that neutral evil does not correspond to time, or reality. It could be perceived as a sin of omission. The person does not rise above the dualities of good or evil by not choosing either the relative good or evil. The neutrally evil person appears to be an non-entity.

  7. JMRC,

    The absurd form she attacked was the idea that people should sacrifice everything for others. While there are people who do that, this does not refute moderate altruism.

  8. Boreas,

    I do not have a set of explicit tests on par with that in Blade Runner, however there are tests (apparently) for assessing sociopaths. A sociopath would often be neutral evil (or even chaotic evil). A smart neutral evil would learn to test out as good.

    We do play hockey-leading to the saying “I went to a fight and hockey game broke out”. 🙂

  9. The neutral in neutral evil is defined relative to chaotic and lawful. So, a neutral evil person lacks the commitment to order, rules and tradition of the lawful evil type. S/he also lacks the commitment to chaos of the chaotic evil. A lawful evil exemplar would be an authoritarian dictator who rules to establish order by any means. Darth Vadar would be LE. A neutral evil exemplar would be a paradigm of self gain without concern for anyone else beyond how they benefit him/her. You know, the corporate villain in the movies. The chaotic evil person would seem violently insane-think of the classic Joker from the comics.

  10. Mike:

    You define the “neutral evil person” “as a paradigm of self gain without concern for anyone else”.

    What if my “selfish” desires involve some concern for others, but not much regard for so-called moral rules?

    For example, if I had the ring of Gyges, I’d simply walk into the bank and fill my pockets with money. I go to the supermarket, take the fanciest imported beer and the most expensive cheese without paying and I just might visit some of my women neighbors to watch them undress.

    What’s more, without bothering to call the police, I’d simply eliminate, that is, kill, certain habitual offenders against the peace of my community space. I already have a little list.

    However, given that I could go back and fill up on cash at the bank whenever I feel like it, I pay small merchants whatever price they ask and certainly buy my books at local bookstores, even though they charge higher prices than Amazon.

    Although I confess that I might spy on my more attractive women neighbors while they undress, I’d not touch them because sexual abuse, not to mention rape, cause them harm.

    Now, as outlined above, I am acting selfishly insofar as I am doing what I want to do, given my handy ring of Gyges, without worrying about the so-called moral rules, although I do have my own rules. However, my rules are part of my self and guide rather than restrain me.

    Am I guilty of neutral evil?

  11. “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. ”

    The most interesting thing about this description is it is essentially the clinical description of a psychopath.

    “On the other hand, she doesn’t have the restless nature or love of conflict that a chaotic evil villain has.”

    Contrary to popular misconception. The vast majority of psychopaths never engage in the chaotic evil stuff. And they are as likely to be bomb disposal experts as mass murderers. Probably about one in 50 soccer moms are psychopaths. But it is very rarely they’ll do something like murder their children, because their new lover doesn’t want them. They may have none of the pathological traits – or that it may not be pathological; in that it does not causes them or anyone else suffering.

    When psychopathy is in combination with other traits, then you have problems. The unholy trinity is considered psychopathy, narcissism, and Machiavellianism. The narcissist needs a constant supply of attention, fawning, etc. And also experiences anything that compromises their narcissism as an existential attack. This is the wicked witch in Snow White. She sets off to kill Snow White after her mirror tells her that she is not the fairest of them all. And Machiavellianism, taken to extremes is pathological.

    There’s a paper I’m trying to read though I can’t access it Psychopathy, Other-Regarding Moral Beliefs, and Responsibility – llyod Fields.

    From the abstract
    In this paper I seek to show that at least one kind of psychopath is incapable of forming other-regarding moral beliefs; hence that they cannot act for other-regarding moral reasons; and hence that they are not appropriate subjects for the assessment of either moral or legal responsibility.

    Can a psychopath be evil – if they exist in a parallel dimension super imposed onto our own – but aspects of our dimension are completely inaccessible to them – a colour blindness and tone deafness where they can hear and see something on an intellectual level – but their interpretation of the world, though coherent and functioning is incorrect.

    With a pathological Machiavellian. The best example might be girls soccer – which can be very dirty – it’s a very competitive game. But it is a game. When the game is over the girls do not carry on like they’re still playing competitive soccer. But for the pathological Machiavellian, the game never ends. If they’re pathologically incapable of making a distinction, between what is and what isn’t a game. (A little like the psychopath who believes everyone is just the same as them, and their displays of empathy are superficial social customs – the pathological Machevillian believes they are in a 24/7 world of girls’ soccer – 90 minutes including injury time is enough for anyone.) (And this is the reality of computer game play too – if any of us repeated even a handful of the things we did in Grand Theft Auto, in the real world, we would be going to jail for a very long time – Also the important corollary is that when you are playing GTA or girls’ soccer, it is a competition, there are rules and violations of the rules that are accepted norms – you can beat a girl to death with a baseball bat in GTA, but not girls soccer – but in girls soccer you can expect pinching, shirt and hair pulling, etc, but murder is generally frowned upon – this is also in athletes’ attitude to drug use; is it an acceptable violation or an unacceptable one)

    The narcissist experiences slights to their narcissism as existential threats – as violence. They experience their retaliations as legitimate defenses of their existence.

    Not only does this pose a problem for the possibility of Objective Morality – but for moral relativity (in the Meyerson sense, derived from Einstein. Where like the laws of physics, morality is the same in every frame of reference – but due to relativity effects appear to be different when viewed from other frames). What we witness as evil, is following a moral logic that does not exist in our moral universe at all. It’s something in hidden dimensions – weakly interacting dark matter.

  12. JMRC,
    Indeed this post is becoming darker. Are we saying that moral character changes with the situation? E.g. soccer brings out the worst of young women.

    And is the professor darkly saying that understanding ethics is like understanding why and how a competitive game is played? Is the purpose how to win friends and cope with psychopaths?

    Try this idea. Let’s suppose that individuals are inherently defective. Much of the imperfection rubs off from where one lives. Say: most individuals are imperfectly normal, the British more so and the American most so. And British women football players are horrid.

  13. Is it a bit scary, how (A)D&D provided so many metaphors for life, and such a useful vocabulary of words and ideas? ❓ ❗

  14. Boreas,

    “Indeed this post is becoming darker.”

    Discussions of evil tend to turn that way. And the truth is, why we even term it as darker, is that it is inexplicable. That when confronted with the rational, the motivations, that even though they sound coherent, they still do not make sense. Adolf Eichmann in his trial attempts to explain himself – I believe, being as honest as he could be. We’re none the wiser. Eichmann’s evil is not the chaotic evil of the outcast. It was a very middle-class bureaucratic form – we go in looking for a laughing monster – and instead we find something a bit more frightening.

    “Are we saying that moral character changes with the situation? E.g. soccer brings out the worst of young women.”

    No, I think it’s something else. I picked women’s soccer because it can be particularly awful spectacle – and maybe it’s for these reasons culturally women were prohibited from playing these kinds of games for so long. Watching young men play dirty is bad enough – watching young women do it has whole new level of shock and horror.

    It’s important not to fall for the ludic fallacy. That is to mistake what happens in a game for what happens in the greater world. In games there are rules – and even the violations of the rules have conventions. In rugby, it’s perfectly acceptable and part of the game to use physical force to stop other players moving. There isn’t a moral issue here – but the rugby player cannot go out in the external world and knock people to the ground to get to the bar or the supermarket checkout ahead of them.

    The interesting thing about conventional fouls in sport – a good player is supposed to be able to cope with them to an extent – and though they’re unsporting they become part of the game. One major difference I have heard between top level professional footballers and the lower teer, is the top players are far more muscular – if their body hits you at speed it hurts – even incapacitates. But the players are at an equal level of fitness – so it’s not as unfair as putting a little unfit guy in the ring with a heavy weight in their prime.

    So, there isn’t really that much of a moral issue – though if a game became “whoever fouls best wins”, no one would watch it – and this is where the stricter rules come in.

    Where there definitely is a moral issue. A friend used to referee children’s soccer. And one day a team of children turned up with their parents. And from the first whistle they are fouling as if it is the game – not part of the game. My friend is really shocked and he tries to stop this. But the parents of the kids are calling them from the sideline encouraging them to foul. My friend broke down in tears, because what was happening was so obviously a moral corruption of the kids. Are the parents of these children encouraging them to behave like this in all their other relations in the world. As a referee he could do something. He called for penalty kick – and told the goal keeper to get out of the goal. The kid scored – the parents went crazy – and became very abusive – so he ordered the kid to take another goal keeper less penalty. And this goes on, until he feels the parents and children had learned an important lesson about life, and soccer.

    “And is the professor darkly saying that understanding ethics is like understanding why and how a competitive game is played?

    Is the purpose how to win friends and cope with psychopaths?”

    Well, it’s a very wrong way to think of the world. In a game you have a sporting chance. If you even survive in a toxic environment then it can be largely due to chance. Khrushchev survived Stalin, because Stalin thought he was an idiot.

    In environments where there are games, you must learn them to survive.

    Or as Dylan put it :
    An’ though the rules of the road have been lodged. It’s only people’s games that you got to dodge.

    But note how Dylan says dodge, and not play. If you’re playing against someone who is making the rules, obviously you will not win. If you’re playing with a psychopath, there are no rules whatsoever.

    An interesting difference between psychopaths and non-psychopaths. If you are a solider, and in the line of sight of a sniper – if you are wearing a beret, and the solider beside you is wearing a helmet. A non-psychopathic sniper will chose the helmet wearing soldier, the psychopath will chose the beret wearing one. And this is a reason you will see soldiers wearing berets in warzones – where if you were in the same position, you’d probably insist on several inches of Kevlar.

  15. JMRC:

    Great Dylan song!!

    Philosophers and sages seem to divide between those who see wisdom as understanding how to dodge other people’s games and those who see it as understanding how to win them.

    I’m a dodger myself. It seems to be that dodging other people’s game is what living autonomously is about. Of course, not everyone strives for autonomy.

    Dodging other people’s games can get you trapped in your own games, but at least your own games are under your control, insofar as anything is under your control.

  16. JMRC,
    I protest the use of psychological analysis. As a set of causes, reasons, explanations and pleasing ideas, psychological explanation is pretty low wattage.

    But now I need to explain the four causes that Hume did not tell. A cause is performative utterance. By that I mean, one can use a schematic or recipe to duplicate the same thing in the same way at any time. So, a cause is some bit of knowledge for consistently doing or changing something the same way every time the thing is done or made. Simply put, a cause tells us why and how-to.

    A reason has less wattage. With a reason, we can reasonably predict ‘From tit, tat’. A reason tells us why but not how-to. A reason is like having a diagnosis but no cure. Reasons, by the way, are the playground of statistics.

    An explanation is a way of categorizing. E.g. ‘What makes a really good American futball team?’ An explanation would be ‘One that finishes the season at the top of its National Futball League conference’. To use some Aristotelian jargon: an explanation discloses a persistently present accidental property. True but not enuff power to make a coach of anybubba.

    As for a pleasing idea, it is an ‘explanation’ whenever a scientist or intellectual must have an explanation but doesn’t really know what she is talking about. Did I get that right? These comments are supposed to be expressed in the female case; or no? Now much of psychology, I dare say, is no more than coherently sounding and pleasing ideas. Freud is full of it.

    Have you noticed — and I sure you have — that much of psychology has been pirated from the Greeks. Narcissism, for example. What a good story, eh? In the ancient Handbook, it was a fatal condition. But not the modern Handbook because what modern Doctor earns a fee from a dead patient?

    I trust this explanation pleases you, and that it sheds some light somewhere somehow in some predictable way.

  17. Steve Merrick,

    Not at all. RPGs have rules designed to allow the players to model reality (with fictional elements like magic added) so it certainly makes sense that the games would also provide a framework and vocabulary for ethics. I learned some decent science from Traveller and about insanity and history from Call of Cthulhu. Very educational. And fun.

  18. Boreas,

    Understanding ethics is rather like engaging in a game. In most RPGs the players are on the side of good and fighting evil. So, one of the common lessons of these games is sorting out who is evil and dealing with them. Experienced players know that you have to have a party with at least party ethics-that is, loyalty to the team and a willingness to act for the general good of the team. So, if you have players who play the alignments properly, they tend to be lawful evil at worst. Otherwise the party would quickly self-destruct.

    The same skills apply in life-sorting out who is evil and how to deal with them. In RPGs, the way to deal with evil beings is typically to thwart their plans of evil and destroy them. In the real world, our main option tends to be to avoid these evil folks or at least minimize their impact.

  19. The thing that must be taken into account is the tremendous human capacity for self-deception. People want to be good i.e. want to be considered good and have the reputation of being good but evil/selfish/insensitive acts have immediate advantages.
    As people grow up they acquire a conscience; which we can think of as a feeling of shame or guilt that occurs when certain circumstances are met. However, this sense of conscience has its defects in terms of regulating individual action. For instance, people can be convinced / convince themselves that actions that they would otherwise identify as wrong are really right because they benefit a group or higher ideal.
    This is the role that philosophy should have : not it’s current role of asking esoteric questions but rather instructing people to reason that the ideals they believe in apply in the current situation. People don’t commit crimes or act selfishly because of deeply held philosophical beliefs and if you ask them in normal times ( i.e. when they are not being morally challenged ) they will express acceptable beliefs ( remember they want to be / feel good ). The problem occurs when they are challenged and when there is an advantage in doing wrong things. At that moment, they need to be reminded of the harm they are doing or that there actions conflict with standards of justice and that obeying your boss or “doing what is necessary” is no excuse.
    Regarding altruism : it’s true that if we were all really good we’d all be working in a soup kitchen. We shouldn’t change the yardstick simply because we can’t measure up.

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