A tricky subject in D&D. What does being evil mean? Or better yet what does being good mean, after all the players are generally that one. All kinds of trouble comes from these two so lets go even farther back. Originally there where only 3 alignments; Lawfull, Neutral, and Chaotic. These three actually make sense without all the moral confusion. At the least it is if you understand that Lawfull means order and not something to do with actual laws so lets start with defining that one.
To be Lawful is to live for order. Any civilization not ruled by strength of the ruler alone is at least partly lawful or the civilization would quickly fall. Order is not all good though. Complete order would be an empty universe where nothing happens. In moderation though its what lets peace happen, of course on the flip-side of that is it is what lets large scale wars happen as well. Without order people would not be able to get along but they would also be unable to organize themselves enough to support large armies. To bundle this all Lawful is what lets a true civilization work in all its functions, whether peace or war.
In a single person Lawfulness is harder to define. Only beings from the plane of Order would be fully Lawful. Paladins are the extreme end of Lawful and yet they are not fully so because for a mortal creature it would be impossible. Some quality can be extracted to define order in a single person though. First of all a stable set of habits and traits. A person that wakes up and goes to sleep at basically the same time everyday would an example of this. Secondly a want for civilization as they understand it. This means that the person wants the world around them to be stable. Those two things are the important things, various other such requirements could be argued for but if you don't have these they are not lawful. This might seem very restrictive on who can be lawful but if you look closely at the two its good enough.
An important fact to know though is that while a civilization may be Lawful but this does not mean that everyone or even a majority of the people in it are lawful. It means that there are more lawful people then chaotic people. Most of the people will be Neutral because they will fail one of my requirements, generally the second one. A majority of the people will have an ordered life but want a better lot in life even if they are resigned to the life they have. A peasant farmer who has a set schedule everyday depending on the season that likes his life but would prefer less taxes or a nicer local lord would be an example of the majority of people in a civilization. A smaller number of people will not have that much of a stable life but like their lot in life. A painter who's income is by the piece and doesn't have any set schedule but likes his country because it allows him to live like he does would be such a person. An example of someone that is lawful would be the sheriff who gets up everyday and goes on his round, he is quite content with his civilization as is and lives a stable life.
Now I have already said a bit on being Neutral in the last bit but there is more to it then just not being Lawful. Being Neutral is the hardest to define for both a civilization and a person. The best way to describe it is the state of compromise. Maybe life is to chaotic for the person despite their want for order or maybe all of the order around them is stifling to the persons freedom but they compromise on it. Yes everything is constantly falling apart but, eh what can "I" do about it? Oh sure I don't have any freedom of the soul here but actually trying to change it is to much work. Basically if a person seems like they are chaotic but lives with order or a person "should" be lawful but is fine with the chaos around them they will fit in Neutral. The biggest problem is that the 3 alignments are not distinct set of points but a giant sliding bar with two sides and neutral being the gray area between the two. After all where does white stops being mostly white and becomes gray yet not somewhat black? Technically the color black is only 0,0,0 and white is only 255,255,255 but no one human is fully lawful or fully chaotic so the description needs to be extend to the in-between and when you do that it can get hard to define when it stops being one and yet is not the other.
Chaotic is easy on a personal level. If you don't have a personal schedule and want the rules of civilization to not apply to you then Chaos is your thing. Like lawful has few people who actually are it, chaotic is the same way in a civilization. Ironically a true civilization that has more chaotic people then lawful will actually tend to be neutral because a chaotic civilization will not last long enough to to support a "true" civilization. The best example of this would be the Old Republic in Star Wars. It last for millennium as a lawful civilization. Then lasted for quite a while as neutral when it had a corrupt government. Finally in the end when it finally falls to chaos and Palpatine has taken over it quickly falls and the Empire takes it spot and while the Empire would be evil it is also quite Lawful. On the fact it only last a short time, well I will talk about that in a later post about how I think Star Wars should really go but that is not important here. What is important is that this finishes up with the original 3 alignments so moving on.
Good is relative and so is Evil. Even some things that we consider universal are not so in other cultures. Murder is evil but there are religions that say its fine as long as you don't worship your god. The Mayan civilizations religion was one where they had to remove the still beating hearts from people as a sacrifices. Now this would be considered evil but to them that was just something you did because otherwise would be to chance gods wrath. No matter how much America tries to remove religion from government its basic laws are based on the christian religion. Now of course in D&D good and evil is based on a moral system similar to medieval Christianity mixed up with modern values because of its origin from the Wargame, Chainmail.
The biggest problem I have with good and evil is what do you do if you detect evil on a peasant and they are? At that point just being evil means nothing! So what if they are, they did nothing to deserve it. Good people can do bad things and Bad people can do good. I have gone over that already in a past post "B is for Bad Guys". At least with order and chaos you get a feel for what the person is like. After all what is the difference between a person that doesn't steal because they don't want to get caught and a person who doesn't steal because they think it is wrong? Good and Evil only matter in the big movers and shakers. If the king is evil now THAT means something! the cobbler? Not so much.
To wrap this all up what I plan to do is one of two things. First I will probably just not use Good and Evil for alignments but that doesn't work for all people and really all the people that I might get to play in my game around here are used to Good and Evil. So the Second option is to only give the two to important characters. This would mean that peasant working his field will only be neutral not neutral good/evil or true neutral. Some exceptions would be a NPC that actively does something considered evil like a thief. With this you won't get the Paladin jumping out of his skin in any big city with all the randomly evil people around and when he actually detects evil, it will actually mean something. It may only be the pickpocket in the crowd but it would mean something.