A Philosopher's Blog

Lawful Evil & Working with Dictators

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy by Michael LaBossiere on February 8, 2016

While role-playing games like D&D, Pathfinder, and Call of Cthulhu are typical seen as escapes from reality, they provide many useful conceptual tools for dealing with the real world. One of these, which I have written about on numerous occasions is the alignment system created for Advanced Dungeons & Dragons. While based in fantasy, it serves remarkably well for quickly classifying people and actions in real life.

During a conversation with Eric Molinsky about this matter, we used various dictators as examples of the lawful evil alignment. In Pathfinder, which is a version of D&D, lawful evil is described in the following manner:

A lawful evil character goes about her business motivated by her own interests, but knows that ultimately order protects her. She seeks to achieve her own ends—but through order, not chaos. Even when boiling with anger, she is more likely to carefully plot vengeance than risk her own death through hasty actions. Sometimes that revenge will take years to happen, and that is acceptable.

A lawful evil character at the extreme end of the spectrum is zealous in her aims and will make any sacrifice to achieve them. Her twisted philosophy can make her paranoid of her closest followers, even family and friends. She stops at nothing to gain control, for only through control can she have peace. Yet even the most powerful and ordered society has its enemies, and to a lawful evil character only the destruction of those enemies can bring fulfillment.

Order is everything, at any cost.

Dictators tend to fit this description quite well. They are devoted to their order and are quite committed to the use of their legal systems. They also tend to be quite evil—employing secret police, torture, domestic spying, and brutal military oppression against the citizens. Bashar al-Assad is an excellent example of a lawful evil dictator: he is very much committed to order, but embraces evil. While the West has asserted that Assad must go, he is being backed by Russia. Russia, it can be said, has its own lawful evil dictator in Putin. As such, the Putin-Assad alliance is not particularly surprising. That said, the West (which likes to profess goodness) has long been happy to accept evil dictators as allies. During the cold war, this was standard practice for the United States. Even now, the United States is quite willing to remain allied with what amount to dictators—perhaps because our professed goodness merely masks the fact that we are also lawful evil. Or, slightly less cynically, that we accept evil on pragmatic ground: we need the ABCs (allies, bases, and crude oi).

Returning to Assad, the West seems to at best have a weak commitment to being rid of him. One reason for this is consideration of the consequences. The deaths of Hussein and Qaddafi mainly served to lay the rubble foundation for chaos. While they were bad men, they did maintain order (that is, they were lawful evil). Daesh (also known as “ISIS”) grew in the order vacuum in Iraq and seems to also fit within the alignment system, most commonly regarded as chaotic evil:

A chaotic evil character is driven entirely by her own anger and needs. She is thoughtless in her actions and acts on whims, regardless of the suffering it causes others.

In many ways, a chaotic evil character is pinned down by her inherent nature to be unpredictable. She is like a spreading fire, a coming storm, an untested sword blade. An extreme chaotic evil character tends to find similarly minded individuals to be with—not out of any need for company, but because there is a familiarity in this chaos, and she relishes the opportunity to be true to her nature with others who share that delight.


While Daesh does have structure and plenty of rules, it does (like most terrorist groups) fit quite smoothly into chaotic evil. While states are willing to work with dictators like Assad, states are generally not willing to work with groups like Daesh (though they are often willing to use them). In contrast, states are often quite willing to work with lawful evil dictators—Assad and Daesh serve as good examples here.

Interestingly, the context of role-playing games is useful to explain the difference. The standard approach to play in games like D&D is to form a party of player characters (the roles taken by the players, such as wizard, fighter, rogue or cleric). This party then goes on adventures, typically to fight monsters and get loot. Since the party is typically outnumbered or up against powerful foes (or both), cooperation is essential—the players need to work together to succeed. As might be guessed, good aligned characters tend to be the best at this cooperation—they will not betray each other and can be trusted. Second best are neutral characters, especially those that are lawful rather than chaotic. Lawful evil characters can also work well with the party—while they are evil, they follow rules and are (in their evil way) team players. They value social order and their reputation within that order. Some even have compunctions—boundaries on their evil. As such, they can be trusted to a degree.

In contrast, chaotic evil characters are effectively psychotic—they cannot be trusted and cannot be depended on. They do not care about the social order nor do they worry about their reputation in society. Chaotic evil generally is not a viable alignment for player characters—if the player is playing the alignment properly. That said, there are players who will disagree with this.

The same sort of reasoning seems to be applied to evil dictators and terrorist groups. While dictators are evil, they do operate within the social order and are concerned about their status and reputation within that order. As such, they are willing to stick to agreements (mostly). As such, they can sometimes be trusted within certain limits.

In contrast, the chaotic evil terrorist groups cannot be trusted. They do not care about the social order and their reputation in that order (except for a reputation of being terrifying). They are the greater evil, so it is no wonder that the lawful evil are chosen over them. But, as a wise gamer once said, “never forget that lawful evil is still evil.”


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4 Responses

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  1. ronster12012 said, on February 8, 2016 at 10:15 pm


    Please tell me exactly why Assad, Saddam, Gaddhafi, Putin etc are evil. Because we are told that they are evil or are they actually evil themselves?

    One measure of evilness may be how many people they have killed. Who has killed more people, the above lot or Bush1,Clinton(Balkens etc) Bush 2/Blair or Obama?

    Another measure may be how many wars they have started.

    Another measure may be personal popularity. Who has more popular support (and therefore legitimacy) Obama or Putin.

    Another measure may be who tells the most lies.

    FWIW, it seems that we are continually told who are the bad guys so as to provide popular support for upcoming wars. It’s all bullshit IMO….

    A better question would be are the Saudis evil, supporters of ISIS, they have just started a war with Yemen(and thankfully are losing) or Turkey,nominal democracy and supporter of ISIS and buyer of stolen Syrian oil. Or the US/UK/Israel for supporting both of them?

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on February 10, 2016 at 9:12 pm

      Everyone can be evil in varying degrees. Good beings try to avoid fighting each other, but evil is happy to fight everyone.

  2. nailheadtom said, on February 9, 2016 at 1:35 pm

    “Dictators tend to fit this description quite well. They are devoted to their order and are quite committed to the use of their legal systems. They also tend to be quite evil—employing secret police, torture, domestic spying, and brutal military oppression against the citizens. Bashar al-Assad is an excellent example of a lawful evil dictator: he is very much committed to order, but embraces evil.”

    If dictators like al-Assad are “quite evil”, what’s that make of the US “majority”, which employs all of the examples given of evil? The fact is that no dictator can perform any sort of evil without the acquiescence of a substantial number of followers. Fidel Castro didn’t march around Havana by himself, intimidating the populace with his own Kalashnikov.

    Academics laud the importance of institutions to successful societies. Reality is very much different. The history of the world is a continuum of personalities. These personalities either co-opt institutions for their own purposes or simply dispose of them. Alexander the Great, Caesar Augustus, Charles Martel, John Churchill, Lenin, FDR, Hitler are examples of personalities that were able to negate institutional boundaries to effect their own agenda. Whether any of them were evil or not depends on an individual’s perspective.

    The current term limit for the US monarch has been a clever method of mollifying the plebes while at the same time removing the major drawback to holding the highest office in any land, death by the opposition. Failed US presidents become millionaires with little possibility of later assassination. It’s a good gig and worth the effort of trolling the country for election funds. Ask William J. Clinton.

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on February 10, 2016 at 9:09 pm

      Lawful neutral types will follow lawful evil leaders. Most people are lawful neutral.

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