A Philosopher's Blog

Lawful Evil

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on August 12, 2013
Book cover, Dungeon Masters Guide by Gary Gyga...

 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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.


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20 Responses

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  1. T. J. Babson said, on August 12, 2013 at 10:14 am

    Does a lawfully evil person have evil intent? Does intent even matter? Are there degrees of evil? Or does waterboarding 3 people really compare with killing thousands of innocent people with drone strikes?

    • T. J. Babson said, on August 12, 2013 at 10:22 am

      Sorry, but to my mind any moral equivalence drawn between subjecting a known mass murderer to 30 seconds of discomfort and the mass killing of innocent bystanders is total bullshit.

      I have lost all respect for those who called out Bush for waterboarding, but give Obama a pass for killing thousands of people whose only crime was to be standing near someone on O’s kill list.

      • Michael LaBossiere said, on August 12, 2013 at 8:12 pm

        I don’t give either a pass. The Obama administration is rather clearly lawful evil.

        • T. J. Babson said, on August 13, 2013 at 10:45 pm

          Voting for Obama = giving him a pass.

          • Michael LaBossiere said, on August 14, 2013 at 9:00 am

            Interesting claim. On the one hand, when a voter votes for a politician, she is expressing a preference for that politician and also increasing (by one vote) the politician’s chance of being elected. On the other hand, voting for someone does not seem to entail that the voter is giving the politician a pass. Since you don’t specify what you mean by “giving a pass”, I’m guessing that you mean something like giving the politician a pass on misdeeds. If so, voting for a person does not seem to entail that the voter is giving the politician a pass. After all, a person who votes for a politician might expect the politician to do what he claimed he would do and, at the very least, the voter might expect that the politician would act ethically, professionally and in accord with the law. So, a person voting for Obama can still refuse to give him a pass.

            If voting for a politician gives him/her a pass, that would be odd. That would mean that anyone who is elected has a pass from the people who elected him/her-which would suggest that they would be somehow free to do whatever they want. Assuming that is what you mean by “giving a pass.”

            Overall, I’d say that voting for someone does not give that person a pass nor does it free the person from accountability. This holds for Obama. I voted for him, but he doesn’t get a pass from me. I’m critical of his drone assassinations, I’m critical of his PRISM, and so on.

            • T. J. Babson said, on August 14, 2013 at 1:48 pm

              Mike, if you vote for Anthony Wiener does it not imply that you are willing to overlook his sexting escapades?

              Similarly, by voting for Obama it means you are willing to overlook his cynical and immoral policy of killing people rather than capturing them.

            • Michael LaBossiere said, on August 15, 2013 at 8:45 pm

              Presumably a person who voted for him would weigh his positive traits heavier than that behavior. But giving less weight to something is not he same as giving the person a pass.

            • Michael LaBossiere said, on August 15, 2013 at 8:47 pm

              In the case of Obama, one problem is that we vote between evils for the most part. So, I’d pick a lawful evil type over a chaotic evil type, but that does not entail I’d give evil a pass. I’d rather have a good type in the party.

        • WTP said, on August 13, 2013 at 11:16 pm

          Of course that reply does not exclude the classification of GWB as unlawful evil. This classification of Obama’s administration fits in with the statement ” To be fair, most nations tend to be evil and, more specifically, lawful evil”….so nothing special about Obama being lawful evil. It goes with the territory.

      • magus71 said, on August 14, 2013 at 6:47 am


        Don’t believe some of the stats you’ve read on civilian deaths from drone strikes. They’re bullshit, too. These numbers are much closer to my experience than the recent (and absurd) 50 civilians killed per militant killed:


        That said, drones are a politician’s dream. They allow for the illusion of progress against an insurgency while minimizing political damage from soldiers’ deaths. The rhetoric from Obama and his campaign before elections was incredibly self-serving. The whole escalation of the war in Afghanistan was a political ploy based on a campaign promise which was intended to juxtapose Bush’s choice to escalate in Iraq, but not Afghanistan. Obama had to take the opposite stance that Bush did, in order to prove he was better than the Republican alternatives. The problem is, Obama believed his own propaganda. The whole military now believes its own propaganda. We are not winning, but ISAF and the White House will not admit it. If Lawful Evil equals the willful suspension of the fact for political purposes, than so be it. But it sounds more Chaotic Evil to me.

        • Michael LaBossiere said, on August 14, 2013 at 9:04 am

          Obama is still lawful evil-he might engage in mistaken thinking about the facts, but he takes the classic approach of doing wrong and carefully justifying it with orderly processes and careful adherence to the letter of the law.

          Chaotic evil types usually don’t get to be leaders of countries, at least not for long. No one wants to work with a chaotic evil-even other chaotic evil folks.

          • Anonymous said, on August 14, 2013 at 11:16 am

            “Chaotic evil types usually don’t get to be leaders of countries, at least not for long.” So Stalin, Mao, the Kims, Pol Pot, the Goodwin’s Law guy, Mugabe, Amin, Saddam, etc. etc. etc. were all “lawful evil” and fit into the same category as Obama, and one presumes, Bush? They only care/cared about tradition, loyalty, and order, but not about freedom, dignity, or life in so far as it fit their sociopathic needs. If all fit in the same category, of what use is a categorical system that fails to differentiate between such extremes?

            • Michael LaBossiere said, on August 15, 2013 at 8:43 pm

              There are degrees of evil. The alignment system is rather broad, but it is easy to draw distinctions between Obama and Stalin. AD&D had an alignment graph- a DM who was very concerned about PC alignment could plot out where a character fell between good and evil. So, Stalin would be closer to pure evil than someone like Obama.

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on August 12, 2013 at 8:14 pm

      Good question. Some lawful evil types know they are evil and intend to do evil. Some believe they are good and would be rather surprised to find that they are not-they probably even think they intend to do good as they pave their way to hell (which is, conveniently enough, the epitome of lawful evil).

      Evil totally comes in degrees.

  2. urbannight said, on August 12, 2013 at 2:05 pm

    Reblogged this on Urbannight's Blog and commented:
    Love this view point.

  3. ajmacdonaldjr said, on August 12, 2013 at 6:39 pm

    You need to simplify the matter, and cut out the semantic crapola: the epic battle is between good and evil.

    There is no neutrality.

    The sad thing about such fantasy games, and fantasy films – such as Star Wars – is that there is no reason given for why one should choose good over evil, or evil over good, because it is implied the Force is neutral, which is itself a fantasy and an illusion: there is no neutrality: the epic battle is between good and evil. Period.

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on August 12, 2013 at 8:18 pm

      True-it always comes down to good versus evil.

      I do think their is neutrality-but neutrality does tend to aid one side or another. Usually evil.

      Playing in RPGs that are group based have shown me the usual practical reasons to be good: you need to be able to trust and count on your party or you will probably all die.

      When I run my campaigns, I run evil as evil. The major evil villains can have many virtues, but they act in accord with their evil-underneath all the shallow glamour lies corruption. Under the corruption lies…nothing but the supreme emptiness of evil.

  4. Stitchersflock said, on August 16, 2013 at 9:13 pm

    We’ve been talking about this since we read it, he agrees and I think we’ve slid past lawful evil and are fully engulfed in chaotic evil

  5. WTP said, on August 28, 2013 at 8:45 pm

    And you think they can help Mike understand the simple fundamentals of economics? Well, you’ve posted on the wrong thread for that, sweetie, but thanks bunches anyway.

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