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.