Dungeons & Dragons (D&D) introduced the alignment system to the gaming world. This system, though regarded by many players as restrictive and artificial, offered a degree of guidance on how to play good, evil, lawful, chaotic and neutral characters. This system has also proven useful in the real world, allowing gaming nerds like me to quickly categorize actions and people. This system is also rather useful for mapping the current political landscape of America.
A key component of any society is its institutions. In the United States these institutions include the systems that constitute the government such as Congress, the Environmental Protection Agency, the Supreme Court and the Federal Bureau of Investigation. These institutions are used to maintain (or impose, if you prefer) order. While it is tempting to mistake order for goodness, D&D makes a clear distinction between lawful and good—a distinction long recognized by philosophers. In the D&D alignment system, creatures can be lawful (as opposed to chaotic or neutral) but also evil at the same time. Good creatures can be chaotic or neutral; thus rejecting the constraints of law and order. Evil creatures that are not lawful also have the option to be chaotic or neutral. While chaotic good and neutral good creatures will support (or at least not harm) good institutions of order and law, evil creatures that are not lawful are generally willing to harm evil institutions of order and law—as will be seen, they care not for order.
The alignment most vehemently opposed to order and institutions of order is chaotic evil. Chaotic Evil is defined this way:
A chaotic evil character does whatever his greed, hatred, and lust for destruction drive him to do. He is hot-tempered, vicious, arbitrarily violent, and unpredictable. If he is simply out for whatever he can get, he is ruthless and brutal. If he is committed to the spread of evil and chaos, he is even worse. Thankfully, his plans are haphazard, and any groups he joins or forms are poorly organized. Typically, chaotic evil people can be made to work together only by force, and their leader lasts only as long as he can thwart attempts to topple or assassinate him.
In the real world, chaotic evil types are generally involved with institutions from the outside and this is typically an adversarial role. For example, a person who is actively chaotic evil will tend to run afoul of law enforcement. Chaotic evil types can be useful to institutions—for example, terrorist groups find this sort of person useful as a suicide bomber or cannon fodder. If a chaotic evil person holds power in an institution, either or both will tend to fare poorly—such types tend to either destroy or be destroyed by the forces of order. Be they good or evil.
Neutral evil beings can operate within institutions far better than chaotic evil types. Neutral evil is defined this way
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 illusion 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.
While chaotic evil types can be like wild beasts assailing order or beastly idiots within the china shop of society, neutral evil types tend to be like parasites within a host. While institutions sensibly regard neutral evil types as a dangerous enemy, neutral evil people often find institutions very useful as means to their own selfish ends. For example, a neutral evil person who secured a political office would use it to enrich themselves at the expense of the institution and the people they are supposed to serve. Sensible neutral evil types are careful to not kill their host—at least for as long as they need it. They can even seem to serve order by exposing or destroying other neutral evil people. But this is also from selfishness-they do not value order for its own sake, they merely dislike having competition.
As should be surmised from the name, lawful evil creatures favor institutions of order and law. D&D defines lawful evil this 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.
In the real world, lawful evil people find happy homes in institutions. In some cases, they make up most of the leaders of the institution and rely on non-evil, but lawful, followers to implement their evil. In fiction, the Empire of Star Wars is a paradigm case of lawful evil. In the real world, Nazi Germany is often presented as a paradigm of lawful evil. While these examples are clear cases of evil, most governments tend to have strong lawful evil components. For example, the legal acceptance and state enforcement of slavery in the United States was a paradigm case of lawful evil.
Lawful evil people, as the description suggests, can appear to be good people—or at least to have virtues. For example, a lawful person in the real world might work for law enforcement and be a paradigm of loyalty, a respecter of tradition and a stickler for rules as they systematically oppress people of a certain ethnicity or religion within their society. They are a paragon of law, but not of goodness.
Both Plato and Kant were aware of this sort of problem—the danger of a person with only some of the virtues, or in Kant’s terms, lacking a good will. Plato warned of the clever rogue: “Did you never observe the narrow intelligence flashing from the keen eye of a clever rogue‑how eager he is, how clearly his paltry soul sees the way to his end; he is the reverse of blind, but his keen eye‑sight is forced into the service of evil, and he is mischievous in proportion to his cleverness?” Kant, in his Fundamental Principles of the Metaphysics of Morals, raises a similar point:
Moderation in the affections and passions, self-control, and calm deliberation are not only good in many respects, but even seem to constitute part of the intrinsic worth of the person; but they, are far from deserving to be called good without qualification, although they have been so unconditionally praised by the ancients. For without the principles of a good will, they may become extremely bad; and the coolness of a villain not only makes him far more dangerous, but also directly makes him more abominable in our eyes than he would have been without it.
The paragon of lawful evil is just this sort of person and the most dangerous villain of all, for they are not content with mere selfishness nor are they merely bringers of chaos. Rather they forge institutions of evil or corrupt existing institutions. This allows for systematic, large scale evil that is easily perceived by good—even by the lawful evil themselves.