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(This question moved originally from RPGs and pertains to the D&D game where individuals and societies may have explicit allegiances to good or evil.)

A typical convention in fantasy settings are evil races; not demons, but mortal beings who casually act evil. They live their whole lives in ways we would consider reprehensible. They are not simply operating according to different moral standards we might consider objectionable: they idealize evil in the same way we idealize good. Such societies consider casually betraying superiors (and not, say, ritualized honorbound combat) to be an acceptable means of promotion. They treat everyone around them, even their own companions, as disposable playthings.

I cannot wrap my head around having an allegiance to evil. Evil is defined by being malevolent and causing harm to others. An evil creature is a sociopath. How do evil creatures form societies without being hypocritical? By hypocritical I mean they have stop being evil under certain regular circumstances: working together, gathering food, building shelter, making weapons, raising children, etc. In this case they're only evil some of the time and mostly towards outsiders... which is exactly how many human societies have functioned throughout history. They wouldn't be sociopaths.

My only real world contexts for "evil" societies is those which selectively applied their morality to justify slavery, genocide and so forth. Those societies didn't consider themselves evil or aspire to it: they didn't consider their victims to be human and thus worthy of humane treatment. No real societies that I am aware of acted anything like orcs or drow. No human society had murder-based social advancement, casual betrayal or unironically worshiped demons.

I can wrap my head around being so alien that your definition of good may involve removing free will, fatal rites of passage, causing some suffering now to prevent worse suffering later, trying to restructure or destroy the universe... but I cannot comprehend idealizing evil unless you are a literal demon who feeds on suffering and live in a plutocracy where said food doubles as currency. Not so much being funny looking but no different from humans in terms of basic needs.

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    $\begingroup$ Do you have any examples of "evil societies" in fiction? A lawful evil society works (where their allegiance is opposed to the ultimate goodness, often god/heaven, of the universe), but not an evil chaotic society. What would that even mean? Society is build upon structure. Because of this I don't believe a society composed solely of chaotic evil people is at all possible. $\endgroup$ – AngelPray Mar 4 '17 at 0:52
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    $\begingroup$ Short answer: they wouldn't. $\endgroup$ – kingledion Mar 4 '17 at 1:12
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    $\begingroup$ @AngelPray: A possible example of such a society is the mirror universe in Star Trek. $\endgroup$ – Peregrine Rook Mar 4 '17 at 3:09
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    $\begingroup$ I can find many posts across the Internet that would claim the emphasis on individualism and the extreme dedication to individual free speech and gun rights at the cost of societal stability qualifies the United States as exactly such an "evil society", using the D&D definition. These posts argue that a good society would ban hate speech and prevent gun ownership (Germany, for example). Your mileage may vary in topics like these. $\endgroup$ – SRM Mar 4 '17 at 11:10
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    $\begingroup$ Isn't this just human society as it stands? There's a far stronger argument that we idolize evil than that we idolize good (traits like selfishness, lying, etc are all traits that are rewarded if done well in human society, but are generally socially discouraged at a young age because it's only really advantageous to have the elite do these things). $\endgroup$ – A. McDaniel Apr 11 '17 at 22:28

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Without diving too far into philosophy and such, I think it's pretty easy to picture an evil society. Most humans are at least somewhat inclined to act in their own self interest. All you have to do is push that to extremes and things get awfully dark.

Having known a few "Satanists" this self interest seems to be the core of their ideology and oddly enough it doesn't seem to keep them from doing "good" things, they just do good for their own interests... It may help them gain influence, prestige, and power.

So extrapolating from that you could probably picture a society of sorts where each individual is only really interested in self, but occasionally their self interest aligns with another's. This society may even appear somewhat normal from the outside, but the evil lies in the underlying motives.

More or less all you have to do is remove the concept of altruism, everything becomes about profit and power.

Wait a minute this is starting to sound awfully familiar...

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From the WIKIPEDIA on Alignment in D&D:

Good implies altruism, respect for life, and a concern for the dignity of sentient beings. Good characters make personal sacrifices to help others.

Evil implies harming, oppressing, and killing others. Some evil creatures simply have no compassion for others and kill without qualms if doing so is convenient or if it can be set up. Others actively pursue evil, killing for sport or out of duty to some malevolent deity or master.

Evil is all about strength--and a society based on that recognizes that goodness is ultimately weak, and to survive, we must be strong. The weak deserve oppression. That's what they're made for. Not exploiting them will just lead to weakness ultimately. We can only allow them to keep living if they are of USE.

Basically, Evil is a different philosophy and way of looking at things, so much so, that what is typically looked on as "good" seems a sin or problem for evil types.

It's all in how you look at it. Could be an extreme form of Darwinism, made more religious.

How does the society work? You need a strong leader that is ruthless enough that no one questions his authority. The people know that weak leaders mean in-fighting and might leave them open to good societies sweeping in. A secret cabal may even orchestrate the making of such a leader, because without it, their society collapses.

Everybody is out for themselves, yes, but if you make it beneficial for the rules to be followed, and dire to break them...well--the system works. The people would be looking for strength, ruthlessness--not fairness or altruism. I speak of a LAWFUL EVIL society, which, is the one that works best. Chaotic Evil ends up not being a system at all...

But do consider that the evil alignment is not, you know, always utter slavish devotion to evil-- because there's neutral good, where you try to do good when you can, but...you know, you gotta look out for yourself. Some of the evil alignments are the same way--you're selfish and you look out for yourself, as you should, but..you know, sometimes it's a good idea to make friends, to be nice when it costs you nothing, because it might benefit you later. "A neutral evil character has no compunctions about harming others to get what they want, but neither will they go out of their way to cause carnage or mayhem when they see no direct benefit for themselves." Countries can do the same. They do what's practical, making allies when they can, and doing evil when the consequences aren't dire.

I say, you're looking at this all wrong--all judgy-like. Evil doesn't mean you don't work together. It just means you only do it for as long as it benefits both of you, as is right and proper, at least in the eyes of someone with an evil alignment.

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    $\begingroup$ "Countries can do the same"??? IMHO, IRL countries act strictly this way. If you listen to the news consistently, have the hability to remember the chans of events and the clearness to read between lines, every country acts stricly as neutral evil by your definition. Interesting. OP might end up with it's answer in the history books instead of WB.SE $\endgroup$ – Oxy Apr 12 '17 at 11:59
  • $\begingroup$ @Oxy Yep. That was kinda my point. Doesn't mean that everyone in the country is evil either, but certainly governments can and do act like this. I mean Capitalism is actually based on the premise that everyone is out for themselves. We have regulations because people realized that a system just based on that is not always beneficial for society as a whole--it works when the COST of not following said regs is high enough that the corporations and individuals follow them. $\endgroup$ – Erin Thursby Apr 12 '17 at 16:19
  • $\begingroup$ @Oxy Prior to the publication of The Jungle, there were few rules regulating things such as canned milk and meat. Companies simply did what was most profitable, even if it wasn't sanitary and was essentially a slow poison. (Or in the case of milk and formula, lacking in nutritional value.) The FDA was formed to punish those companies. If it isn't profitable to poison people, companies won't. Fines and shutdowns make sure that it isn't, as much. $\endgroup$ – Erin Thursby Apr 12 '17 at 16:26
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    $\begingroup$ You can't have a chaotic society at all. By definition, societies are lawful. Individuals can be chaotic though. $\endgroup$ – PyRulez Apr 17 '18 at 19:50
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Good and evil in fantasy settings such as those you describe are universally mirrors of our own cultures. Good and evil are actually considered to be "Cultural Universals," meaning every culture has them but they may (strongly) disagree on what is good and what is evil. Accordingly you can see whispers of these game evils in real life:

Such societies consider casually betraying superiors (and not, say, ritualized honorbound combat) to be an acceptable means of promotion. They treat everyone around them, even their own companions, as disposable playthings.

Tell me, does this not sound like the behavior of the popular cliche of girls at a highschool? This sort of behavior is so common that it becomes a stereotype in the movies.

Evil is defined by being malevolent and causing harm to others.

This is an interesting choice of definition which may be the cause of your difficulty. Wikipedia defines it as:

Evil, in a general context, is the absence or opposite of that which is described as being good. Often, evil is used to denote profound immorality. In certain religious contexts, evil has been described as a supernatural force. Definitions of evil vary, as does the analysis of its motives. However, elements that are commonly associated with evil involve unbalanced behavior involving expediency, selfishness, ignorance, or neglect.

That definition may give you more room to understand these fantasy cultures.

Another key factor is power. Societies which succeed at holding on to power tend to have the power they need to avoid being toppled. There are many ways to hold onto power. Some of them good, some of them evil. Which ways are which is something that the society defines. For example, if you are worried about those you entrust with power getting murdered and having all their power stolen, there might be some value in having a society where anyone who reaches a powerful rank has demonstrated that it's rather hard to murder them.

Right now there are some people in our society who believe we are getting to "weak," because society makes life too easy. They want to go back to the trial-by-fire approach which they feel raises a "strong" next generation. Interestingly enough, despite wanting children to go through pain to "toughen them up," they view the soft society around them as "evil."

As a general rule, you will find all societies, good or evil, value something. They create something. They then typically associate the concept of "good" with that thing they are striving towards. If a society instead tries to destroy things, they associate the concept of "evil" with that which they want to destroy. These two forces are always in a sort of balance. If you have "pure evil," you never build anything, and your society will never take off. If you have "pure good," then you will fail to act against those who would topple you, and eventually your opponents will get lucky. You simply don't see pure good or pure evil in any realistic scenario. If something is portrayed as pure evil, it's most likely because someone is trying to convince you to go to war against them. Accordingly your "evil" societies are always trying to create something. It's just not necessarily what the "good" societies want to see created.

To go towards pure evil, you need to start looking at the nihilistic societies which seek the destruction of everything. Those who worship Cthulhu for instance, seek the complete end of everything, including themselves. Even in these societies, however, you will find the need to build something up in order to cause the destruction of everything.

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  • $\begingroup$ Altruism is evil - the weak harm the worthy by sapping what the strong created. By demanding food, clothing, housing, medical care, "education" and whatever else millennials are demanding these days, they gather large numbers of individually weak people to take what they want (like goblins). Parasites will just hollow out society until it collapses, harming the good people who responsibly provide for themselves and create surplus to build society. Better a morally righteous king of a society of rugged providers than a prevaricating bureaucracy of parasites. Evil, from a certain point of view. $\endgroup$ – pluckedkiwi Apr 12 '17 at 14:09
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    $\begingroup$ @pluckedkiwi An excellent example, although perhaps too close to our own modern politics for comfort =p $\endgroup$ – Cort Ammon Apr 12 '17 at 15:17
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If by evil you mean the society made up of people, whose main motivation is to cause harm to society, then I think this would be impossible for pretty obvious reasons. If, however, you conceive of them as, say, anti-utilitarians, then this could conceivably work. Think of disciplined, abstract sadism as their main driving force. The same way that human beings can commit hideous atrocities for the sake of the greater good (my favorite example would be letting millions upon millions of people starve to create a communist utopia), this society could choose to band together for the greater harm. They would look past their innate hatred of cooperation and mutual helpfulness, and envision the horrors they could inflict with an entire state's worth of resources. Their rulers would have to constantly justify themselves with atrocities – e.g. perpetual death camps for public ease of mind.

These people would have to be more easily motivated by distant and long-term goals than we are. Pictures of starving children motivate us to help, but this altruism is not strong enough to glue our entire society together. To them, pictures of the death camps (and the wars, and the famines they create etc.) would have to keep them going day in day out, would have to be enough for them to say, "this is why I work processing food for other people of this nation; this is why I didn't stab the unguarded neck of the person sitting in front of me on the bus".

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My gut reaction is that the terms "good" and "evil" as specified in AD&D are bad terms. Historically, the most evil people you can think of are, from their own perspective, doing the right thing. As soon as we define a set of principles as "good", opposing them becomes "evil".

The Klingons of Star Trek hold individual honor and valor in high esteem, whereas the humans in that same galaxy seem to approve of a group dynamic that values learning. And the Ferengi value the accumulation of wealth. Is any of these more evil than the others? Not from the perspective of that group.

Having said that, AD&D is a game, not a measure of reality. To make the game flow smoothly, we select a value system, call it "good", and define "evil" as its inverse. Real-world philosophy can be far too hairy for efficient gameplay.

Bonus point: Lawful and Chaotic are only marginally better, IMHO, because I simply don't see rational people behaving in a chaotic manner. What we do see in reality is people who hold closely to their cultural mores, and those who see them as more gray. A true neutral person is in that sense closer to "chaotic" than anyone else on the spectrum.

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    $\begingroup$ Chaotic Good in D&D just means that the person doesn't ascribe much importance to the laws. It does not mean that they're just random and chaotic. So Robin Hood, for example, would be CG. Lawful Good means that you ascribe importance to the rule of law serving the greater good. So, most cops and lawyers and tv shows would be LG ('cept for those loose cannons we all love). Doesn't mean that they don't apply the law loosely when they see it will do more good. Someone like Jack Sparrow would be the perfect example of Chaotic Neutral. $\endgroup$ – Erin Thursby Mar 4 '17 at 21:16
  • $\begingroup$ +1 for being the answer closest to my own. To it I would add only the emphasis that nobody really believes that they are evil unless they are trying to be something else. Hitler never thought he was evil; on the contrary, he seemed to think he was Wotan's gift to the world. $\endgroup$ – EvilSnack Apr 17 '18 at 6:34
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Another dimension to morality, aside from the good-evil and law-chaos that have been done to death, consists of the axis of positions regarding when the use of force is justified.

Some hold that the use of force is never justified. Others hold that it is justified only in retaliation against those who initiate it. Others think that differences of opinion in religion or of relative wealth justify it. Others believe that force requires no justification at all.

Each of these viewpoints is either evil or stupid in the eyes of the others, but none of them regard themselves as evil or stupid, but as good or smart, relative to the others.

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You have to be really careful here - there's a reason why evil (by our standards) has been weeded out through natural selection. I think a society more evil than ours, where everyone is after their own interests and is grabbing at power to try and reach the top probably could survive. But if people are too evil at the expense of others, they end up hurting the species as a whole and damage its chances of surviving later generations.

In short, the negative impact a society has on itself has to be balanced by some survival force or the species dies.

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    $\begingroup$ Hum, very interesting but vs dieing, wouldn't the probability be more a Cycle. Perhaps Collapse then rebuild, then collapse. With each iteration being either more good or more evil as in I have no clue which would have the greater survival characteristic. I accept your belief is Good would Triumph. As in a Mirror to your last statement, if the society is mostly Evil then the Goody Two Shoes are the negative impact. $\endgroup$ – Enigma Maitreya Mar 4 '17 at 8:04
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    $\begingroup$ The problem here is that much of the large-scale evil in this world is done by people who have (or at least sincerely believe they have) purely good and altruistic motives. $\endgroup$ – jamesqf Mar 5 '17 at 4:45
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Interesting post and question. I suppose if you think about it, there are some real-world examples of an "evil society", or at least "evil" by our definition. Whether or not those societies actually consider themselves evil is another question.

Think about a few criminal organizations, such as the Cosa Nostra, Russian Mob, or the Yakuza. These organizations function almost entirely devoid of altruism, unless putting on the charade of altruism provides them means of masking evil acts. They operate via fear and self serving means; each member of the organization is kept in his/her place through fear of punishment (including torture and/or death), and is motivated by personal wealth and advancement in the hierarchy. What happens if leadership shows weakness? They are "whacked" and stronger or more ruthless leaders takes their place. That said, even Al Capone justified his actions and would not consider himself "evil".

So I suppose in short; imagine order based on extreme fear and opportunism, and there's your foundation for an evil society.

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  • $\begingroup$ Amusingly enough, many so-called "evil" organizations of organized crime do honestly put a lot of effort into using their wealth and power to benefit their communities by providing social services, often in opposition to corrupt and ineffective (or outright oppressive) governments. Everything from the drug lords in Brazilian favelas focusing on supporting the welfare of tens of thousands of the truly indigent, to terrorist organizations like Hezbollah seeing to the needs of their local communities (ever wonder why locals cling to them over foreigners who just bomb them?). $\endgroup$ – pluckedkiwi Apr 12 '17 at 14:26
  • $\begingroup$ @pluckedkiwi Agreed, and this is often overlooked by a large number of people. I was once speaking to a chap in San Remo and asked him about the mafia. He didn't support or condone them, but did describe them as 'an alternative government' which provided services and 'protection' in exchange for money, which TBH sounds little different than the core of most people's experience of governments: 'sometimes they pay for stuff in my area, and if I don't pay my taxes they take my stuff and put me in jail'. Only (important) difference is in ethics and democracy, which isn't a given on either side. $\endgroup$ – Ynneadwraith Apr 18 '18 at 9:03
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Evil does not have to be random killing and mayhem. That is the easiest form, but unless you are destined to be ruler of the universe you might need to rethink the strategy. Evil does not preclude you from collaborating with others. It just means that if there is real advantage to killing off the party then that is ok. However, if you are in the middle of a dungeon, trapped, and everyone but you is unconscious, you are an idiot to finish them off and take their stuff. The dungeon was build around a party of six. You are now a party of one. You have simply committed suicide and that is not very evil. The same principle applies to a society. I may not exactly care if my neighbor gets flayed alive, but if that means that I am next then it is not evil to help the flaying. Why give to the poor so that they make more poor. Starvation is kinder, and salt mines will help enormously.

Demons are a nice example. They are evil, but they do not usually spend their days torturing other demons. They torture non-demon races. All you do is replace "demon" with any other race/culture and all is "good."

Lawful evil is fairly easy. Rigid rules and society norms limit the random mayhem. Neutral evil is more difficult. Maybe this society relies on gangs and size? Chaotic evil will depend greatly on how you view chaos.

Gangs that derive power through illegal activities might be chaotic evil?

In part, it really depends on perspective. Evil is easily defined from a perspective of good. Good is defined as weak from a perspective of evil, and weak things should be removed to make room for the strong.

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The Banality of Evil

This term was Hannah Arendt used to try to come to terms with the most terrible period of evil in recent history: The Holocaust.

The Holocaust was an evil so broad in depth, so deeply inhuman, so impenetrable by any rational thought, incomprehensible in scope that it defies apparent existence. Yet it really happened.

The term refers to how strangely normal evil became. Germany was a republic, modern, well educated, industrialised populous nation with a high opinion of the rule of law and held in high esteem. A healthy fully functioning society. Yet within just under 6 - 8 years, you had accountants, teachers and ordinary citizens massacring tens of millions of children, women and men.

There would be acts commited so despicable and depressing, yet blazonly rational using all the faculties of human intelligence, to kill as many people as possible. Even in the last days of the war, when defeat was certain, a huge proportion of resources and people were diverted to the fullfillment of these nonsensical acts of premeditated madness, by those who carried it out more than willingly.

If you did not believe in evil before, you will after you research more deeply into the acts committed in this period, in particular thoughout the Ukraine and Eastern Europe (not to belittle acts commited elsewhere). It was not even caused (as many think) top-down by Hitler, Himmler or Goebbels, as many massacres and progroms happened without their instigation or their knowledge. These acts were commited by ordinary people, sometimes against people they knew, and yes previously respected, for no apparent reason (no economic, no military, no other reason other than simple burning hatred, ignorance, fear and xenophobia).

The human mind, unfortunately, can live with hypocracy, with irrationality, with madness, yet calmness, premeditation, justice and logic thought too, at the same time, in the same space. We are not single-sided beings.

So how could a society function with such evil? I'm afraid all to easily, and Nazi-Germany proved it so. And in a blink of an eye there is no reason to suggest we couldn't slide back into it just as easily.

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