In the Star Wars movies, there really isn't much gray area when it comes to the Empire: they're just straight up evil. Even if we didn't hear about oppression around the galaxy, or see them blow up a planet, there's the fact that their leadership actively worships something referred to as "the dark side." As such, one must wonder exactly how the organization is able to recruit new members - especially after the death of Emperor Palpatine and the destruction of the second Death Star - but according to J.J. Abrams there is a somewhat simple answer: the dark side is just really seductive.
The Los Angeles Times caught up with the Star Wars: The Force Awakens director at Disney's D23 Expo in Anaheim this past weekend, and asked him very directly about how The First Order is actually able to find people to sign on for the cause. In his response, Abrams noted that The Force is an energy of two natures, and that while there is the good side, there is also that equally powerful bad side. Said the director,
I do think the sort of obvious answer is that the Force has a light side and a dark side. It’s not just one thing. It’s not just that the Force is good, the Force is ... it can be a very dangerous thing. It can be a very seductive thing. I think that the story clearly requires a conflict of some sort.
Going further, J.J. Abrams added that people actively rejecting the Dark Side has its potentially negative aspects as well.. and in describing this idea also provided some interesting insight as to how he thinks things went down in the time after the end of the original trilogy. He explained,
If people were rejecting the dark side somehow entirely it would be a hard thing to figure out what we would be up against. It was part of the, what felt like an authentic and true inevitability of what might of happened in the years post-[Return of the Jedi].
J.J. Abrams is obviously speaking more to the philosophy of the Force and how it works within the Star Wars universe, but if we're just spit-balling about The First Order ranks from a practical standpoint, I'd just assume that the organization is really good at propaganda. We've seen many instances throughout history of people being misled into joining what is in actuality an evil group, and then remaining because they're convinced it's the right thing to do. I imagine they have a full-blown public relations and marketing team to make sure that their image is seen as positive throughout the galaxy, and that all the messy stuff is just swept under the rug.
This is a side of the Star Wars universe that probably won't explored deeply in The Force Awakens or any of the upcoming films in the series, but half the fun of being a geek is talking about the questions.