Law (or Lawful) represent respect for rules, and willingness to put the benefit of the group ahead of the benefit of individuals. Lawfuls respect fairness and justice.
Chaos (or Chaotic) is the opposite of Law. A chaotic is selfish and respects no laws or rules. Chaotics cannot be trusted.
Neutral (or Neutrality) is concerned with personal survival. Neutrals will do whatever is in their best interest, with little regard for others.
I have big problems with this explanation. To my mind, doing "whatever is in their best interest, with little regard for others" is a very good definition for "selfish" — the first word that describes Chaos. What is the difference? To boot, "willingness to put the benefit of the group ahead of the benefit of individuals" can also be selfish and have little regard for the law (especially in places where individualism is codified into the law, as it is in the U.S.). It also very well describes such totalitarian and (I would argue) evil regimes as Nazi Germany and Communist Russia. Neither of these "lawful" societies were trustworthy.
Ultimately, Cook's explanation of this alignment system is meaningless. Unfortunately, Holmes is not much better:
Characters may be lawful (good or evil), neutral or chaotic (good or evil). Lawful characters always act according to a highly regulated code of behavior, whether for good or evil. Chaotic characters are quite unpredictable and can not be depended upon to do anything except the unexpected -- they are often, but not always, evil. Neutral characters, such as all thieves, are motivated by self interest and may steal from their companions or betray them if it is in their own best interest. Players may choose any alignment they want and need not reveal it to others. Note that the code of lawful good characters insures that they would tell everyone that they are lawful. There are some magical items that can be used only by one alignment of characters. If the Dungeon Master feels that a character has begun to behave in a manner inconsistent with his declared alignment he may rule that he or she has changed alignment and penalize the character with a loss of experience points. An example of such behavior would be a "good" character who kills or tortures a prisoner.
Once again, there is no real distinction between Neutrality and Chaos. The explanation that Neutrals "are motivated by self interest and may steal from their companions or betray them if it is in their own best interest" sounds an awful lot like Chaotics who are "quite unpredictable and can not be depended upon to do anything except the unexpected." I do appreciate Holmes' take on Lawful, however, because it allows for both good and evil codes. The only guidance for what is good or evil, though, is whether or not one is willing to torture and kill prisoners.
Holmes does provide a diagram of his two axis alignment system. Regrettably, this, too, is mostly useless because the various examples it provides are meaningless fictional and mythical monsters with little cultural or historical reference. The only concrete example he gives is demon, for Chaotic Evil. He further muddles things by the way he assigns alignments to monsters. For example, Brass Dragons (which he uses as an example for Chaotic Good on his diagram) are listed as neutral/chaotic good. White dragons are neutral/chaotic evil while red dragons are chaotic evil/neutral. What is the difference? Further, displacer beasts are neutral (evil) and black puddings have no alignment at all.
Fortunately, Cook is a bit more consistent in assigning alignment to monsters, and this actually helps to clarify a few things. With a few exceptions, animals — normal, giant and fantastic — dominate the neutral monsters. Thus, in practice, neutrality is more about behaving as an animal in nature would. Or, to put it another way, neutrality approximates animal intelligence.
All undead are Chaotic. This strongly suggests that Chaos is related to the unholy and unnatural.
The list of Lawful creatures is very short:
- Blink Dog
- Storm Giant
If we accept that neutrality = animal (and therefore jettison the notion that all thieves are neutral), we can glean from both Holmes and Cook the following adjectives for Law, Chaos, Good and Evil:
- Law: religious, natural, follows a code of behavior
- Chaos: unholy, unnatural, selfish, untrustworthy
- Good: merciful
- Evil: merciless
While still not wholly satisfying, it is still more useful than the explanations provided by either Holmes or Cook while still trying to adhere to those explanations.