Skip to content

Theories of human evil: Neutrality


Almost a year ago, on my birthday, I was listening to one of my presents to myself (2010 live recording of Les Miserables) and drinking alone (like you do) and came out with some thoughts on the moral philosophy of Les Miz viewed through the Good-Evil Chaotic-Lawful axis of Dungeons & Dragons. (Twitter thread here)

I was just ruminating on Twitter, but I came up with a theory of human morality that has been toying with my mind ever since: most people think they are lawful good, but are actually neutral neutral.

What do I mean by that? The D&D morality-lawfulness grid is intended to help people play characters from a consistent point of view that may or may not align with the player’s own impulses. It looks like this:

So, for example, Captain America (first movie anyway) is classic lawful good, while the Hulk is (usually) chaotic good. Darth Vader is lawful evil, the Joker is chaotic evil. Javert is a nearly perfect lawful neutral character. Spike has a long character arc where he changes his alignment from chaotic neutral to chaotic good.

I think, as a teenager discovering D&D for the first time, I tended to assume that neutral is merely an absence, a lack of strong feeling one way or the other, or perhaps an arbitrary midpoint as you transition from one side to the other. But a year ago, I realized that was probably the wrong way to understand it — the neutral impulse is a value in its own right.

If you think of the lawful alignment as deriving from a general sense that the world is orderly, and the chaotic alignment as deriving from a general sense that the world is chaotic, the neutral impulse derives from a general sense that the world is balanced.

There’s a reason Fox News calls itself “fair and balanced,” and it’s not just to make your head explode. Think about how often you see accusations of “bias” and “partisanship” and “slant” delivered as slurs. People will accuse even writers of fiction and editorial opinions of “bias,” as if we are all under some inevitable natural obligation to “see both sides” or “play devil’s advocate” or “tolerate different points of view” — no matter what those points of view happen to be.

We’re at an impasse here
Maybe we should compromise
Open up the door
Let me come inside and eat your brain

A neutral good person will be a lot like a lawful good person, but more laid back about it. (True lawful people can be super uptight, it’s a thing.) But a neutral neutral person — well, they will also be a lot like a lawful good person. Most of the time, they’re doing the same stuff a lawful good person would do. Being kind to their neighbors, their family, their friends. Not stealing things from people. Not murdering or punching anyone.

People with any kind of good alignment and people with a neutral neutral alignment have a lot in common. They want people to get along, things to go well, peace and good things generally. They like puppies and friends and having fun. Under ideal circumstances, you might never know the difference between somebody with a good moral alignment and somebody with a neutral moral alignment.

The thing that tends to reveal the split is when evil appears. Because people with a neutral alignment will keep on trying to find balance, only now they’re finding balance with evil.

Immediately after the 2016 election, I had a number of social media arguments that went roughly like this:

Person: I know you don’t like him, but you’ve got to support the president.

Me: Why?

Person: He was elected fair and square.

Me: I dispute the “fair and square” part based on voter suppression and gerrymandering and Russian interference. But even if true, so what?

Person: You didn’t like it when the Tea Party protested Obama, so you shouldn’t protest Donald Trump.

Me: You don’t understand. We objected to the Tea Party because they were racist. We object to Donald Trump because he’s racist.  It’s the racism that’s the problem, not the protesting.

Person: You’re really suggesting that 60 million people voted for Trump because they’re racist?

Me: Why is that so hard to believe?

Person: You can’t just go around insulting people by calling them “racists” and “Nazis” and “deplorables.” This is why Trump won. Because people like you called them names.

Note the repeated appeal to a vague concept of “lawfulness” in phrases like “you can’t” or “you’ve got to,” and the use of that as a stand in for morality. It clearly works on many people to frame an argument for neutrality as IF it’s an argument for lawful goodness. True lawful people recognize it’s not lawful, and people with a good alignment recognize it’s not moral, but other neutral people will nod their heads sagely and praise you for your obviously superior wisdom.

(Or at least that’s what happened when these arguments played out on Facebook or wherever. I got fed up and stopped talking to one of the dudes entirely — he was just somebody I know in fandom — but I was sincerely baffled by his attitude. Not just that he was arguing in favor of passive lawful neutrality, but that he seemed surprised by my stubborn refusal to play along. I was, like, dude, we talked about Buffy the Vampire Slayer, you know my view of things, what part of chaotic good did you not understand?)

Suggest that 60 million people might have voted for Trump because of racism and the important thing isn’t whether or not it’s true, the important thing is that me saying so isn’t “fair.” It’s “taking sides”and in neutral balance world, “taking sides” is bad, even if the other side is evil.

I suspect we evolved these neutral tendencies because as a species we’re highly social and empathetic and cooperative, but also selfish jerks. We follow the “rules” of social cooperation, but imperfectly. We punish each other for violations of these “rules,” also imperfectly. We have an innate concept of “fairness” that can lead us to seek both justice and revenge. We like having power, but also recognize that too much power without any checks on it can be a really bad thing.

We like having peace and order in the group, but aren’t always concerned with how order is achieved, who is expected to suffer for the sake of it. Most of us have a raw animal empathy that keeps us from wanting to see people suffer right in front of us, but we are quick to believe that suffering we don’t see doesn’t exist, or to accept that the suffering of certain designated groups is either necessary or no big deal anyway.

The neutral person is easily swayed by circumstance, by culture, by perceived norms. They know cheating is wrong, and won’t do it, except when they will. They know stealing is wrong and won’t do it, except when they will.

So, neutral people aren’t especially evil in and of themselves. A world with nothing but neutral people in it functions reasonably well, and looks very similar, in broad strokes, to a world with nothing but good people.

The problem? Evil.

Neutrality enables evil. When you seek balance with evil, you get evil. When you compromise with evil, you get evil. When you appease evil, you get evil. When you try to get along with evil, have dinner with evil, be buddies with evil, you get evil. When you ignore evil, you get evil.

The New York Times, in the Trump era, has become infamous for an editorial stance that argues sternly for the importance of maintaining balance or neutrality well beyond the point where it should be obvious they’re enabling evil behavior. Like, if it weren’t so awful, it would be hilarious that a major newspaper could publish, in all seriousness, editorials trying to argue that maybe the murderous woman-hating cult of “incels” has a point about how it’s hard to get a date sometimes and maybe the government should do something about that, or it’s really a shame people are being so “uncivil” nowadays, what with the Trump administration taking children away from their parents and putting them in cages, and other people getting upset about that and maybe using strong language.

When fascists are fictionalized into villains, like Darth Vader, they’re usually presented as lawful evil, so I think there’s a tendency for us to assume real-life fascists are the same — lawful evil. But I’m starting to think that’s just their own hype.

Fascists aren’t lawful or disciplined or tough, they’re selfish, lazy and sadistic. They like the appearance of lawfulness because it gives them a ready-made justification for some of their worst abuses. “Oh, we don’t want to steal children from immigrants and put them in cages, it’s just the law!” But they don’t believe in the law themselves — they just know it’s a way to get you (a neutral person who wants to think of yourself as lawful) to accept what they’re doing. But true lawfulness applies the law to everyone.

Lawfulness all by itself isn’t justice — the law, as they say, in its majestic equality, forbids the rich as well as the poor from sleeping under bridges, begging for food, or stealing a loaf of bread. But if you have one law for the elite and another law for the poor, one law for family and another for strangers, one law for rich white men and another for everyone else, that’s not lawful, that’s neutral.

Fascism can also appear lawful because a lot of its mechanisms are the same as the mechanisms of lawfulness. Rules, regulations, police, jails, courts — all these things might be present in a lawful state, and will CERTAINLY be present in a fascist state. But they function differently. A police force in a lawful state exists to protect citizens, while a police force in a fascist state exists to maintain authoritarian power structures.

(Note: our country has always been a lot more fascist and less lawful than we like to pretend.)

You might have noticed that people on the authoritarian right, particularly the religious right, seem to value affirmation of their worldview more than they value integrity of behavior. So you’ll get people thumping the pulpit about how important it is to resist “sexual immorality” when that means same-sex weddings, but at the same time they’re eager to embrace a serial adulterer and sexual abuser as their own special president, using the “God uses imperfect men” excuse.

It looks like simple hypocrisy — say one thing, do another — but it’s actually much worse than that. It’s authoritarian sadism. They don’t actually care about whether or not you’re gay, they care about whether or not they get to punish you for being gay.

They’re really pissed off that we’re trying to take that away from them.

There’s a truism that people never see themselves as evil, which I don’t think is accurate. I think people with an evil alignment do see themselves as evil — it’s just, they see the very concept of being evil differently than the rest of us, because they don’t believe in the value of being good.

They might see goodness as sincere, but pointless and a little pathetic, or they might see it as a real thing, but inferior to power. One particular kind of evil we’re dealing with right now sees good as a myth, like a god they don’t believe in. This is how people on the “alt right” come to sneer at “virtue signaling” and use “social justice warrior” as the ultimate insult. Because they don’t believe good exists, they don’t believe anybody could possibly be motivated by a desire to do good. So, they assume we’re just as evil as they are, but being dishonest about it.

Perhaps the most insidious evil we’re dealing with right now is coming from the authoritarian evangelical church. They’ve found a sneaky way to teach the doctrine of evil, that goodness doesn’t exist, by teaching that goodness comes only from God.

They teach that you can’t trust your own conscience — you have to trust only in God. You can’t trust your own intellect — you have to trust only in God. You can’t trust the apparent goodness of other people — you have to trust only in God. This world is inherently corrupt and deceptive — you have to trust only in God. But think about what that means in a practical sense. Do you see God? No. Does anybody see God? No. What we see is the world. What we see is each other. By removing the possibility of goodness or truth from this earth, they remove it from human existence entirely.

This is an extremely convenient moral philosophy to have, if you want to practice evil and still feel good about yourself. It’s particularly useful if you want to wear the cloak of “lawful good” respectability, where “just following the Bible” becomes the new “just following orders.”

But here’s another thing about evil: you can resist it.

Your position along the lawful-chaotic axis, is, I suspect, largely a matter of temperament and not likely to change. But movement along the good-evil axis is very much a matter of choice. Good people can slip, evil people can redeem themselves, neutral people can take sides.

You can take sides.

You can take the side against evil.

Published inBlog