It’s an illuminating and frequently deeply flawed mode of perceiving character value, an apperception inherited from the Dungeons and Dragons rule set from as far back as I can remember [my second edition rule books]. If you’ve ever heard of “chaotic neutral” or “neutral evil,” you know what I’m talking about. For those that don’t, the alignment system is a means of attributing certain motivations and behaviors to both player and non player characters in a role playing game. At the very top of the list, you have “Lawful Good” which should be understood as the congress of two devotions, the interest in upholding an internally or externally consistent moral value set–the “Lawful”–and the desire to do “Good,” which might as well be described as to act in the interest in others rather than in the interest of self. I didn’t make up these conventions. At the other end of the spectrum you have “Chaotic Evil,” wherein these motivations are effectively reversed, as the character is inspired by no consistent set of ethical guidelines whether internal or external and furthermore the character acts quite generally in self interest. Furthermore, a “Chaotic Neutral” character would be motivated by no particular ethic but would be inspired neither by the desire to aid others or to aid self, a difficult character type that I might discuss at a different time, whereas a “Lawful Neutral” character would be purely inspired by an ethic and no other consideration whatsoever.
A paladin, cavalier, crusader, or conventional do-gooder might be described as “Lawful good.” The antagonist of a Saturday-morning cartoon villain might be described as “Chaotic evil,” and you get the idea.
But what’s interesting is what you can do with these conventions. Consider the sort of tree-hugging hippy that takes part in protest as if it were part of the nine to five. She’s protesting, along with a gaggle of her own ilk, the redevelopment of a nuclear reactor into a more current generation, on the grounds that “nuclear power is unsafe.” What she doesn’t consider, of course, is the relative paucity of options available. Hydroelectric isn’t feasible in the climate; fossil fuels have their own, more destructive consequences, and green power simply lacks sufficient output. In a way, she’s protesting the best option available, unless she wants to suggest that people should go without, causing rolling blackouts and other disasters that will negatively affect both agricultural production and the labor of trauma surgeons in the ER. Either way, people die. Consider further that the underlying motivation is not to save the world, even if she should not actually understand it, but rather the indemnification of her own rotten soul, which only participates in these protests as a form of virtue signalling. Either way, she’s participating in protest as part of a sort of ethic, even if derived from flawed premises, but the underlying motivation is selfish; as such, she would be classed as “Lawful Evil.” They’re rather like people that use ethical considerations for the sake of their own self interest.
Consider another suffering a moral quandary. Orders have come down from high. They’re to commence liquidation of the prisoners at the concentration camp under the correct or flawed premise that the cruelty is nevertheless necessary, as one might remove a necrotic limb to save the whole of the body. The warden of the concentration camp is a moral man, the well-educated child of a well-educated priest and a poetess mother. He knows that wholesale murder serves no moral ethic of which he can consider, but he also must consider the well-being of both those under his care and those of his entire nation, all the while considering the need to fulfill his woeful missives. As such, in riot between the ethical and the good, he fatefully resigns himself to the latter and orders the barrel-shot obliteration of the camp’s charges.
The warden of a prison camp could well be a lawful and a good man. A green party protester would well be lawful but in no-wise good. This is either an indictment of the alignment system or an indication of the deeper fields of human experience, something of which writers should be acutely aware. An interesting thought experiment and sometimes useful to elucidate the soul of a created character, particular if it’s a sort you’re not familiar with.