As asked in the title.

Is being an evil aligned creature, in and of itself, considered an evil act?

I was playing a Paladin at one point, and my more chaotically aligned party members wanted me to take part in a coup of an admittedly Lawful Evil aligned mayor of a town. I felt I couldn't because while he was evil aligned, he was the lawfully elected mayor of the town, and as much as I am sworn to root out evil, I am also sworn to uphold the law.

My party mentioned how he was evil aligned and therefor I should have attacked him on sight, but I purposed that being Evil aligned is not an evil act. I can only act against them if they actually do something Evil.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Welcome to Stack Exchange! Unfortunately this is probably not the best place for this question. Alignment questions are not a good fit for this site as discussed at rpg.meta.stackexchange.com/questions/5357 unless they deal specifically with the mechanics or the social contract of alignment. \$\endgroup\$ – Stop Being Evil Oct 7 '19 at 0:49
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    \$\begingroup\$ @sevenbrokenbricks This one is one of the more mechanical questions—the books do provide an answer—so it might be all right. I think my answer is a bit better than the typical “well that’s going to depend on everyone’s definitions of ‘good’ and ‘evil,’” though of course ultimately there is going to be some dependence on personal opinion. \$\endgroup\$ – KRyan Oct 7 '19 at 1:48
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    \$\begingroup\$ @KRyan I thought so too for a while, and maybe I'm just splitting hairs here and focusing on the stated table problem instead of the theoretical question. But unless the complaint about the paladin not following their mechanics by not attacking an Evil creature on sight is coming from the DM (either as a warning that they're about to Fall or as a ruling that they have Fallen) then I don't see how the mechanics are involved. \$\endgroup\$ – Stop Being Evil Oct 7 '19 at 2:08
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    \$\begingroup\$ @sevenbrokenbricks There are explicit rules in the game which indicate whether or not it is an evil act to attack, or not attack, a creature on the basis of their alignment. \$\endgroup\$ – KRyan Oct 7 '19 at 2:09
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    \$\begingroup\$ Wouldn't attacking an elected official just because your evil divining rod went off also be evil? \$\endgroup\$ – Jason_c_o Oct 13 '19 at 4:43

As a paladin, you may personally be lawful, but your cause, your quest, your goal, is Good. Being lawful is about honor and honesty and integrity; it is your means to an end—but the end goal is Good. That doesn’t necessarily mean that you should overthrow the lawfully-elected mayor of a town just because that mayor happens to glow under the effects of detect evil, but it does mean that you can work to prevent an evil ruler from doing evil unto their subjects—even if you have to break that ruler’s laws to do it.

On the other hand, there are any number of reasons why someone might glow under the effects of detect evil, that really may not justify you doing anything at all to them. For one thing, creatures with the evil subtype—which means they literally have evil baked into their bones—can yet still be redeemed and be good-aligned. Despite their alignment, they will still glow under the effects of detect evil,1 because no matter how good they act, there is still evil as part of their flesh and detect evil will see that. Such creatures will also glow under the effects of detect good—as they are good—but a paladin doesn’t have as easy access to that as they do to detect evil. Attacking a redeemed fiend or other evil-subtype creature for no other reason than that they glow under the effects of detect evil would almost-certainly be an evil act.

More pertinantly, being self-serving, callous, and greedy can, particularly when not mitigated by forms of generosity and assorted good, lead to an evil alignment. But these personal qualities don’t automatically make a person a bad leader of people. Mayor Vetinari of Discworld fame is a prime example, if you’re familiar. There are all kinds of self-serving reasons to not visit wanton cruelty upon your subjects—there can be very self-serving reasons for making their lives better. Particularly if the mayor is democratically-elected, it’s in their best interest to make people happy. It may not be a bad situation to have a certain type of evil character in charge.

So a paladin has to weigh all of that. They have to be responding to some actual evil done to others, innocents harmed and so on. They can’t just knock off the mayor because they don’t like their attitude, or don’t like how they look under detect evil. There are ways to be evil without deserving death (or injury or exile or humiliation), and the paladin has to be aware of that.

Thus, you are right to be hesitant. But you also should be decisive—if the mayor isn’t just evil because detect evil says so, or because they’re self-serving, but because they are actually harming innocent people, you as a paladin are empowered to act in order to serve the most Good. And there are honorable—lawful—ways to go about doing it, insisting on eliminating collateral damage, ensuring that any surrenders are honored, and so on.

Finally, while we’re on the subject, make sure you talk to your GM about all of this. Everything I’ve written here is supported by the books, but... people tend to have their own ideas for alignment, paladins especially, and alignment is vaguely-defined enough that they can rationalize those ideas against what the books say pretty well. Alignment is a really problematic part of the game, the cause of a lot of arguments and strife, primarily because the book authors can’t really define “good” or “evil”—everyone in the world has pretty dearly-held opinions on what those words mean—and definitely can’t adequately define “lawful” or “chaotic”—which are a tangled knot that are almost impossible to untie. So make sure you understand what your GM, in particular, believes about these words.

  1. Most creatures that have this subtype also have evil alignments; however, if their alignments change, they still retain the subtype. Any effect that depends on alignment affects a creature with this subtype as if the creature has an evil alignment, no matter what its alignment actually is.

  • \$\begingroup\$ @sevenbrokenbricks Moving this here since it is now more about my answer than the question: I have cited a very specific cause for that to be case, namely that someone who appears under detect evil may not actually be evil. \$\endgroup\$ – KRyan Oct 7 '19 at 2:18
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    \$\begingroup\$ It talks about whether they pop for evil. It says nothing about whether popping for evil is grounds to attack. \$\endgroup\$ – Stop Being Evil Oct 7 '19 at 23:43
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    \$\begingroup\$ One, we're not talking about popping for good, but about popping for evil. Two, isn't this exactly the kind of argument the meta post cites as why these kinds of questions are off topic? \$\endgroup\$ – Stop Being Evil Oct 8 '19 at 0:31
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    \$\begingroup\$ That's exactly what "popping for evil" means - detect evil registers you as evil. Sorry if I didn't make that bit of jargon clear. \$\endgroup\$ – Stop Being Evil Oct 8 '19 at 2:13
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    \$\begingroup\$ Even the argument that, for the third time, this entire exchange is why this question is off topic for SE? How is that specious? \$\endgroup\$ – Stop Being Evil Oct 8 '19 at 4:33

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