I wrote a little throwaway post a few days ago offering examples of Chaotic characters from real life and fiction; I was going to do one for Lawful and Neutral alignment types too, but then I read a recent article on Turbulent Thoughts regarding the topic, and it got me thinking about it in a little more detail.
To sum up my own position: I'm a believer in (as that great philosopher Dante Hicks once put it) taking a shit, or getting off the pot. That is, either make a decision to do something and carry it through all the way, or don't bother at all. This philosophy has a great deal to say to the 4e designers, and nowhere does this apply more than in the field of alignment. They had their chance to excrete alignment completely; they had their chance to get off the pot and keep it as it was; instead they did neither, and ended up with thoroughly soiled pants. The 4e alignment system is a remedial red-headed stepchild of the old structure, ill-brought up and without any clear place in the world, and the designers should have had the balls to throw the baby out with the bath water. And that makes three analogies for the price of one - so don't try to tell me I'm not providing value for money on the metaphor front.
I'm not wedded to alignment at all; I've played enough non-D&D games to know how unnecessary and weird the whole thing is - a sort of hang-up from Moorcock which morphed into a creaking quasi-religious philosophical framework over the years. The Planescape campaign setting should in fact have proved that D&D characters at least didn't need alignment, in its rather more sophisticated and practical view of their motivations. Yet there is something oddly compelling about the old diametric structure. The symmetry itself is appealing, but I also like the attempt it made (whether conscious or not) to create a set of ethics which had absolutely nothing to do with real-world politics or religion. It's a fantasy belief system for a fantasy world, and that in itself is highly interesting. And while it has little worth as a way of policing players, it does at least prevent politics from ruining a gaming session. I've met enough idiots from both the Left and the Right who'll take any opportunity to spout out bilge, and in my experience the D&D alignment system distracts them from doing so where other games can often fail.
The key to sensible alignment lies, I believe, in not seeing it as an explicit way of thinking of the world, but rather an implicit one. People don't see themselves or their behaviour as Chaotic Evil or Neutral Good, even if it is - indeed, those terms do not exist as ways of describing people or the world. They are rather metaterms for groups of philosophies and behaviours to which actors unintentionally subscribe, perhaps known only to the Gods and whoever governs the multiverse. Thus an Epicurean pleasure-seeking anarchist sees himself as "a libertine", rather than "Chaotic Neutral", but he is nevertheless considered "Chaotic Neutral" by the laws of reality and the 'powers that be' across the universe. It is those immutable and unkown laws which deprive a ranger or paladin, unbeknownst to him, of his powers when he has crossed alignment lines too many times.
From tomorrow I'm going to start a ten-post marathon run-down on each alignment and how I see it. Be afraid. Be very afraid.