Archive for January, 2013

(No) Movies Jan 30 …

January 30, 2013

So, this week I’ll be skipping what I was hoping to be a regular weekly “Rent a couple of movies in the evening” event. Part of this is because the weather has been a little odd this week, ranging from snow to freezing rain to rain, which has shuffled by schedule a bit. Part of this is because work is a bit busy and I’m looking at putting in more hours to get ahead of problems I’m having.

But a big part of it is that I broke down and bought the rather massive complete series of “Dark Shadows”, as I hinted at doing here. I mulled it over for quite a while because the complete series involves a significant investment of money and, even more importantly, time. To get through the entire series would take me about 5 months at my best possible watching speed … and you have to remember that I don’t watch a lot of TV outside of DVDs. So that’s a lot. If I don’t like it, it’s a lot of money to spend for something I’ll never watch, even if it’s worth the price if I even get through it once, but the length of it encourages me to either try to blast through it or leaves me watching the same thing for months. Both can lead to burn-out, although as a soap opera stopping and continuing later is always an option.

So far, I’m through about 30 episodes, and I like it. The series starts without Barnabbas Collins, and so has the time to develop the other characters. Carolyn and Roger, for example, are actually developed in the series where they basically just existed in the movie, and the relationship between Carolyn and Victoria is interesting and believable. You also get a number of secondary characters that will play roles later that actually get talked about. And all of them have plotlines around them that are interesting. Returning to Carolyn’s, her plot was far more interesting that … whatever happened in the movie, even though the idea that she wanted a white knight to carry her away might not have played well to today’s audiences, as a young woman would be expected to leave on her own instead of waiting for her husband. Then again, the movie was set in the 70s, where it would have been more believable, and if they wanted to avoid such anachronisms it would have been better to have simply moved it to today.

Victoria Winters, again, is far more developed. She was essentially the lead character in the first year or so — the first 200 episodes! — and so her character is well-developed and involved in a lot of things. And she is an interesting character, and I like the actress. I also liked the actress in the movie, but she wasn’t around enough for me to really pay attention to her. Ultimately, in watching the movie it always seemed like they were horribly underusing the characters, and in watching the TV show that was clearly the case. Even Elizabeth Collins Stoddard played by Michelle Pfeifer was underused, and she’s one of the actors that clearly outperforms her counterpart in the original TV series; she does a far better job reflecting the character, even though the actress in the TV series did a good job.

This is not to say that the TV series was perfect. The acting can be uneven, and is often incredibly melodramatic. But it actually all seems to fit in fairly well. So far, then, I’m enjoying it … and am not even at the part where everyone says the series got good. I should get to that point in … about a month.

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Breaking the Law to Do What’s Right …

January 25, 2013

So, I was reminded today of people who, in the name of social change and changing unjust and immoral laws, break the law to do so. Either they protest when protest is illegal, give out information they shouldn’t, or simply break the unjust laws to demonstrate their unfairness. And, in doing so and being tried and convicted for those crimes, they draw major attention and, if done right, outrage, which causes the laws to be repealed. And most of the time, a lot of time is spent talking about how they shouldn’t be in prison, and they are often released when the laws are changed.

To me and my moral code, this is what the ideal person should do in those cases:

Oppose the law by breaking the law.
Get the law changed.
Either present themselves for legal punishment, or insist on serving out the rest of their sentence. Although they can accept a legal pardon, at the very least they shouldn’t think that they’re owed one.

This is because of one of the things that really attracts me to the Stoic view, which is their hard-headed insistence on responsibility. Ultimately, in this case the person knowingly broke the law, and knew that the consequence of that was that they might be imprisoned for it. It therefore should not be a surprise to them when they are, in fact, imprisoned for breaking the law. Even if the law was unjust, they knew what the consequences of breaking that law were, and should be prepared to accept them. If they weren’t, they shouldn’t have broken the law in the first place.

Thus, that person — and all of us — should break the law when it conflicts with our morality, but be prepared to accept the consequences of the legal fines and even imprisonment that comes from that (although if we can avoid that legally, that would be nice). And this applies to any other circumstances we might have to face. If my doing the right thing will cause other people to hate me, then they’ll hate me. That’s just what has to be done.

Recall that for the Stoics one should give up one’s life before doing what is immoral, and so it seems that there could hardly be any consequences more severe than that. If we accept that view, then the other consequences surely are far less worthy of acting immorally, and so cannot be used as a reason to not act morally in all instances.

(And yes, I am aware that this is actually really, really difficult at times. Hence, why I claim that some moral lapses are understandable, even if they are still moral lapses).

Superhuman Ethics Class with the Avengers Prime

January 24, 2013

I swear I didn’t plan it this way … both it taking two weeks for the next installment (I’m aiming for once a week) and the specific topic of this week’s essay.

Two weeks ago, I talked about Peter Parker having a good life, and pointed out that it demonstrated the difference between some of the candidates for various moral principles, albeit imperfectly because it focused more on the ultimate value of a human life rather than specifically about what the right moral view is. And then we have today’s essay from “The Avengers and Philosophy”, which just happens to be next on the list of my Philosophy and Popular Culture books, which is “Superhuman Ethics Class with the Avengers Prime” by Mark D. White, which is about … looking at the differences between the Big Three views in moral philosophy by looking at the differences in the moral outlook of the Big Three Avengers, or the “Avengers Prime”, who are Iron Man, Captain America and Thor.

I love it when a non-plan comes together.

Anyway, White argues that Iron Man represents Utilitarianism, Captain America represents deontological morality, and Thor represents Virtue Ethics. And what’s interesting about this is that we can tie at least the first two to an actual value clash in the Marvel Universe, which White also makes a reference to: The Civil War, where Iron Man comes out in support of the Superhuman Registration Act — after opposing it, for the most part, originally — while Captain America opposes it. Iron Man’s main reason for supporting it is indeed Utilitarian, as he thinks that even with the abuses that the authorities and even he engage in that it’s still better than the alternative, while Captain America sees it as an unacceptable violation of basic principles even if it would turn out better overall. So, if you’re a Utilitarian but supported Captain America in the Civil War, maybe you’re more of a deontologist than you think. (Thor wasn’t available in the Civil War, but he was unimpressed that Iron Man would do such things to his friends).

So, we can identify some of the problems with each view, and how they balance against each other. Utilitarianism can allow for horrible means to the end of overall happiness and has a hard time ever making any kind of absolute moral principle (Rule Utilitarianism is an exception, but it starts to look a lot like a deontological moral system). Deontology runs the risk of getting out of date and not being able to adapt, and also may not produce a very happy life for anyone. Virtue Ethics has problems defining what the virtues are, and has issues when virtues clash.

So, let’s take the scenario of One More Day (slightly tweaked) to show these problems as well as the benefits. Imagine that these three heroes find out about the deal, but Peter Parker himself doesn’t remember it, and they are put in a position where he asks them if the deal had happened. What would they do?

Iron Man would weigh the benefit of the deal being broken to all people against the detriments, and if he concluded that it would be better for the universe that Peter know, he would tell Peter even if that would devastate Peter. Peter’s well-being is taken into account in the calculations, and if the outcome is to destroy Peter to make things better for everyone else, that’s what Iron Man must do.

Captain America, likely, would have a deontological rule that says he shouldn’t lie, and thus he would tell the truth, again even if it would devastate Peter. However, this is too simplistic for Captain America because unlike Kantians he likely has rules that would allow him to lie under certain conditions. If this is one of them, then he would lie, and if it isn’t then he wouldn’t, but note that unlike Iron Man he would do it even if the total utility works out to be against his principles.

Thor would likely be torn between two virtues. Honesty would demand that he tell the truth, especially to a comrade like Peter … but friendship would demand that he not do anything to deliberately hurt Peter. He’d likely have to jump through a number of argumentative hoops to come to an answer, or else simply refuse to answer at all so as to not have to choose.

So, if you find that you don’t like the morality of one of these heroes but claim to support the view they’re attached to, you might have to reconsider what moral view you actually support.

Movies January 23 …

January 24, 2013

So, last night I braved the cold to wander down to the end of my block and rent movies again. This time, it was horror night, as I rented “The Apparition” and “The Collector”. Now, I’m not actually a really big fan of horror movies. I like ghost stories, and don’t tend to like movies that are mostly gore fests. Which means that I probably should have skipped “The Collector”, which seems to be something of a “Saw” knock-off … or, at least, how I’d imagine that to be since I skipped those movies. Anyway, the sorts of horror that I have liked are “The Ring”, “Rose Red” (the TV miniseries by Stephen King”), “Silent Hill”, “The Exorcism of Emily Rose” (but not for the horror parts), “The Blair Witch Project”, and “Paranormal Activity” (which “The Apparition” appears to be trying to emulate), and a few others. So as you can see, for me the story behind the supernatural events is as important if not more so than the actual plot itself. In these two movies, my problems are going to be with the story behind the story and with the story, and as such are going to contain massive, massive spoilers. You have been warned.

I picked these two up because “The Apparition” did sound like an attempt at being similar to the first “Paranormal Activity” (which is the only one I’ve seen, oddly enough, and whose alternate ending is one of the few horror movie endings that really, really, really creeped me out; it’s too bad they couldn’t use it because of the sequel) and “The Collector” sounded like it might have a bit more of a plot, by introducing the ex-con/handyman there to rob the family who has to then try to save them. Unfortunately, neither of them could pull it off very well, and they both failed for two really big reasons:

1) They both ended with the evil winning.
2) They both didn’t explain the story behind the story at all.

Now, ending with evil ending or it being ambiguous is not unheard of. Out of the movies I list above, in fact, only “Rose Red” can really be said to not have the supernatural win and not be stopped by the heroes (it’s not really relevant in “The Exorcism of Emily Rose”). And yet, I do like them. So what’s the problem here? Well, first, I think I’m getting a little tired of it. Sure, it’s nice as a subversion every once and a while, but it seems that far too many of these movies are aiming at that subversion. I’d really like to start seeing more when after many trials the heroes come out on top, even if there are only a few survivors after all of that. Then again, perhaps being not particularly a fan of horror I miss more movies where that does happen, and just got unlucky having two of them on the same night.

But the other reason I disliked it here, I think, is because of the second point. Neither movie really explains the backstory of their villains properly, so I don’t really know what’s behind all of this. In “The Apparition”, you get the exposition about it trying to get into the world and perhaps lead an invasion, and about its methods … but not really anything about what it wants beyond that. And since that story hints at it deceiving your perceptions, we aren’t even sure how much of what she say was real before she basically gives in and it, well, wraps its hands around her at the very end. I don’t know if this is bad in general or just bad for her, or what will happen to her, or what it wants from her, or if it wants something in particular from her (since it seemed focused on her), and why it seems to have just grabbed other people without wearing them down but tried to wear her down, or if that quick grab leads into a wearing down or … well, anything really. In “The Collector”, there’s talk about the villain collecting people, and only killing the people the villain doesn’t like … but that seems to be almost everyone, since the villain can only keep one person at a time in that box. Does the villain store more people somewhere else? And why if the villain wants to collect people does it create so many painful death traps? We really get nothing on the villain’s backstory, and in “The Collector” we also leave a ton of plot threads open, such as what happens to the thief’s family, the little girl, and so on.

It’s okay to try to keep a villain mysterious … but if you do that, what you really shouldn’t do is drop in a lot of exposition telling us interesting hints about the stuff you’re trying to keep mysterious. Both movies do this, and they suffer for it. I want to know the answers to the questions they open up, and if I think of contradictions I want them to either be resolved and shown not to be or, at least, to be shown as being false. In “The Ring”, for example, almost all of it is tracing through her backstory to come to a conclusion about how to stop her … that turns out to be absolutely, positively false. That’s interesting, even if it invalidates a lot of what went on before. None of that happens here. Oh, sure, there are a few red herrings here and there, and both have cases where you think the horror is ended and it isn’t, but for the most part there just isn’t enough underneath the plot to really make me care about the false leads. Instead of things feeling like my whole view of the movie has been turned upside down by the twists, I feel more like I was only going along with the first plot segment because I might as well, since it’s pretty much just what people were saying, but then when it changes my thought falls back to “Well, okay, sure, this can work, too.” Or, worse, that I just don’t really care. By the end of “The Collector” I was just wishing for them to get away already so that the movie could end; in “The Apparition” I was just following along by rote and not really thinking about what was happening. Neither of these are good for a horror movie.

I will say that “The Collector” does a sterling job with “Chekhov’s Gun”, though.

For the most part, for me both movies fall into the trap of caring too much about generating suspense and not enough about making all of that really, really scary. There are some lovely cat-and-mouse scenes in “The Collector”, but without a really firm hold on what’s at stake they can’t carry the fear themselves and the death traps eventually just seem contrived. In “The Apparition”, there’s some very good potential but the inconsistencies in the plot make it so that, again, I don’t really know what is at stake, and so all my emotion has to be carried by my caring for the protagonists, and mostly the female lead … who isn’t developed enough for me to care that much about.

I really feel like these movies are a bit like “The Sphinx” from “Mystery Men”: all you can really say about them is that they’re mysterious (“terribly mysterious”). But that’s not enough for horror, and not getting a resolution to the mystery makes them bad mysteries as well. I’m sure that some people will really enjoy them, but these end up being the first movies in this renting spree that I probably should not have rented; there were a number of candidates that would have been far more enjoyable, even if I was just after some decent horror.

And it makes me wonder if I’m just picking from the weak end of the movie pool, or if this is saying something about my standards for entertainment.

Spheres of Responsibilty and Hypocrisy …

January 24, 2013

So, a new story is making the rounds about what is claimed to be the hypocrisy of the Catholic Church. The one’s over a lawsuit levelled at them because they didn’t perform a C-section on a woman who was having a heart attack to save her seven month old twins. The purported hypocrisy, however, comes in with the defense, where one of the legal defenses raised is that under the law in Colorado the foetus is not a person, and therefore under the law in Colorado they cannot be held legally responsible for “Wrongful Death” because it has been clearly determined that that only applies to persons, and a foetus is not one. Of course, this contradicts the Catholic Church’s stance that foetuses are persons and that they should be considered such under the law, and so leads to suggestions that they consider it a person until someone wants to hold them accountable for what they do to one, at which point they deny it.

(Note that this organization doesn’t seem to be officially affiliated with the Church, and this isn’t yet explicitly a decision advanced or advocated by the Church).

At first skimming and first thought, I was fairly neutral on this, but on reflection I think that the position here is actually completely right, and it all comes down to the fact that the counter-argument is being made in a legal context, and not a moral one. Essentially, what’s happening is this: they are being taken to court to be held legally responsible for their actions in that matter. They are not, in this case, being held morally responsible for their actions. And the law in Colorado is exactly as cited above: foetuses aren’t persons, and you can only be held legally responsible for Wrongful Death if a person has died. So, in terms of how this shakes out:

1) Regardless of the organizations stance on whether or not they would want to pursue this line of argumentation, the law firm they hired would have to because it’s actually the law. They would be a very terrible law firm if they allowed their clients to accept legal responsibility for something that, by the law, they are not actually legally responsible for, and any judge that didn’t call them out for malpractice would also be a very poor judge.

2) Their views on their moral responsibility in this case are irrelevant to whether or not they should accept legal responsibility, because legal responsibility does not reflect moral responsibility. So there’s no hypocrisy in saying “Yes, we think that morally a foetus is a person and so we have moral responsibility, but by the law we don’t have legal responsibility, and that’s what we’re arguing over here”.

3) That they want there to be that legal responsibility does not, in fact, change the fact that the law does not give them that legal responsibility. This can also lead to a bit of a smug sense of satisfaction knowing that if the people who want to hold them responsible here had just changed the law to what the Church wanted, they could hold them responsible … but since they didn’t, they can’t. In fact, at this point it would look like those who are charging them with hypocrisy are the hypocrites, wanting the law to allow the direct killing of foetuses in the case of abortion but when the Church simply asks that the laws they support be applied to all people equally they turn around and insist that they, who oppose the law, should therefore not share its protections.

This is a bit of a reverse is/ought fallacy, which is the argument that if you think that a law ought to be a certain way then you must be treated as if it is a certain way. But that’s false, and again this is all about how the law really is, not about how they want it to be.

Now, that “moral responsibility” part is really important, because I do think that they need to examine what happened and find out why they didn’t try the C-section to save the twins’ lives. Even without the Catholic morality in the mix, it would seem that even basic medical procedures would demand that they give it a shot. So they really do need to find out why it happened, figure out how to ensure it won’t happen again, and give restitution for their likely moral lapse. None of that means that they are legally responsible for a Wrongful Death if the legal defense is right, and that does not mean that they need not fight against being held legally responsible for what they are not, in fact, legally responsible for by appealing to the actual laws, even if they wish the laws were different.

More Movies …

January 16, 2013

So, last night I yet again decided to wander down the block to my local video store — one of the few that still exist — and rent a couple of movies. This time, I was browsing the new releases and picked up “Dark Shadows”, because it sounded a bit interesting although I had heard that it was more of a comedy than I think the original soap opera-ish “Dark Shadows” was (I never actually watched the original, although I had heard a little bit about it). Browsing for my second movie, my eye fell upon “The Cleaner”, and I decided to get it for two reasons: 1) Lucy Liu was in it and 2) it was seemingly a comedy about an ordinary person mistaken for a spy, which can be entertaining. So, let me walk through these movies a bit more, and let me warn you again that, yes, there will be spoilers.

First, “Dark Shadows”. This was not, in fact, a comedy. It was not, at least to my mind, even a dark comedy. This is because, to my mind, it wasn’t structured like a comedy. In a comedy, generally the plot serves the jokes; the plot is the framework which supports the jokes, and the jokes then flow from the plot. The plot here, however, is the driving force of the movie, and it is a generally tragic and certainly dramatic plot. From the beginning, we’re thrown into a world of conflict and tragedy, with nary a laugh in sight. As the movie progresses, there are jokes, but good drama often contains bits of humour. But there isn’t that much humor in “Dark Shadows”, unless you simply laugh at his talking in a formal and outdated manner. For the most part, this is a drama, and the humour is used to lighten the mood and play off a bit of the formality, but the plot itself takes centre stage.

The plot, however, is a bit problematic. The reason is the incredibly number of storylines that it tries to cover. You have: Barnabbas and Angelique; Victoria and her link to Barnabbas’ lost love; David and his mother; the rebuilding of the Collins fortune; the doctor and her wanting to be a vampire; Caroline’s werewolfism; and David’s father and his issues. I think that the number of storylines here would have made up at least a season if not more of the original show, and it doesn’t do them any good to be crammed into a 2 hour movie. Because of this, Victoria’s character is reduced to nothing more than Barnabbas’ love interest, despite being an interesting character in her own right, with interesting problems. The doctor storyline is wrapped up in about 10 minutes of screen time, when it could have had much more. Caroline’s problems are barely hinted at before being revealed in the final scene (out of necessity). David’s father’s story is again about 10 minutes of screen time and is most of his actual screen time. Michelle Pfeifer’s role as the matriarch is a waste of an interesting character. The rebuilding takes about 10 minutes with no sign of struggle on the part of any of them. And so on.

What I would have done is focus on one part, with some hints at the others, and the main one likely would have been the rebuilding of the Collins fortune. Have them struggle with that against Angelique’s interference, and get a big win out of it at the end … and have Angelique swear revenge. This way, you’d have a tighter plot and have more time to develop some of the other characters in and around that plot without having to resolve them. The only problem with this is that it would cry “Sequel” … but the end scene with the doctor opening her eyes screams that anyway, so why not do it?

“Dark Shadows” was okay, but I wouldn’t buy the DVD. I’d be more likely to buy the original TV series based on watching this movie, because the threads are interesting but need far more development.

Now, onto “The Cleaner”. I didn’t laugh a lot at this movie, so that says something. Either about me or about the movie; I’m going to blame it on the movie. However, it was entertaining. The problem with the humour is that pretty much everything that happens was fairly standard for the sort of movie it was going for, and the way it was done wasn’t really any better than the previous attempts. The interaction between Jake and the butler early on was interesting, but not laugh out loud funny, at least for me. Plot-wise, it suffered a bit from leaving doubt in our minds about whether Jake was just a janitor or actually a spy, and I would have preferred he return to a more normal life at the end and take up with the attendant than take up with Lucy Liu’s spy girl at the end, but that’s a minor quibble.

Again, I wouldn’t buy this DVD, but it killed almost an hour and a half in a way that didn’t bore me or make me turn to reading the whole way through, so that’s something.

Interestingly, I didn’t fall asleep during either of these movies, which has to be some kind of record. Then again, I have fallen asleep during much better things, so that doesn’t say much.

The Process Vs the End Goal …

January 15, 2013

There are a lot of little things that I want to do. I add them to my lists of things to do and even try to schedule them in at various points. These range from things like reading books to finishing video games to doing some light programming to writing novels and essays. Even updating the blog falls under that, as well as ordinary, everyday things like “Clean the basement” and “Seal the driveway”. But my record at finishing these things is, well, less than stellar. To put it in perspective, you know my list of games to finish? That’s a relatively good success rate compared to some of the other things.

I was musing about this the other day, particularly with respect to programming. I was wondering why I never make any progress on programming; it’s probably the thing that I have the least done with over the most years. And I recalled that while I was interested in the final product — such as a tactical simulator based off of Star Wars: Rebellion, or a personal implementation of Babylon 5 Wars or the Buck Rogers board game — I wasn’t that interested in the process of actually doing it. And programming can, a lot of the time, be repetitive and kinda dull. But I was remembering this while at work on a weekend, doing programming, and programming that included just as much if not more boring and repetitive work. Why is it that I get my work done but not the little things I want to do for fun?

A big part of the answer is that I get paid to do my job, so that leaves me feeling that I have an obligation to do that. The same reasoning applies to my modding Arkham Horror games; I put the time in to set it up and run it because I committed to do it and so have an obligation to do it. I ended up “retiring” from the industrial recreational soccer league I was in because I wanted to do it mostly for fun but felt that I had an obligation to go … and hated, then, not fulfilling that when, say, it was too hot for me to play (or it rained, because someone who wears glasses and doesn’t wear cleats should not play soccer in the rain). So I can overcome the boring and repetitive parts if I feel obligated to do it and see it through to the end.

But it’s hard to obligate yourself to things that you are doing just out of personal interest.

Another part of the answer is options, or distractions. At work, well, I’m generally working. When I do other things, it’s because I’m in a bit of a lull period or in a break and so trying to do something to keep myself entertained during that. When I work on the weekend, I’m in to do something and to make some progress, and so I can’t go home until I make enough progress. So if I delay, that means that I delay my coming home, so it’s easier to stay focused on the task. It also means that the few things that I can do in breaks also get done, because there’s no real competition. So, for example, considering my schedule … or why I don’t do things and how I can do to improve that. Or short blog posts. Or considering my move in that PBF board game. These are the only things I can really do, and so they get done to keep my mind busy while I’m waiting for answers or compiles or just need to think about something other than my code for a while.

At home, everything’s different. I have a plethora of things that I need and want to do, which includes eating and sleeping. So it’s hard to get myself into sitting down and doing some of these things, especially the ones where the process is less fun than the end goal. I mean, I like programming well enough — I’d have to, to make it my job — but for me it’s certainly less fun than watching Star Trek or reading Wing Commander or playing SWTOR. If the process itself isn’t fun, then it’s far too easy for me to pick something that is fun instead of the things that will be fun later, or will produce a worthy result.

Finally, there’s also access. At work, because I have access to the Internet things like blogging, updating games and reading articles/webcomics are easy and at my fingertips. I don’t have to do anything except launch the browser to the normal sites and go. Again, this makes it easy to get into, and provides a filter for what I can and can’t do. At home, however, in order to write a blog post I have to boot up the computer and then launch the site and the relevant sites, or launch the programming IDE or do whatever I need to do. This extra step introduces all sorts of new worlds that I can do in the same amount of start-up time or less, and forces me to have to directly commit to doing it, as opposed to simply being reminded of it and then hopping on.

This seems to explain most of my tendencies. Why is it the case that finishing games is one of the best of these things for me? Because the process is more fun. Why is it that I blog less while on vacation despite having more time? I have to explicitly log in, and it’s easier for me to just boot the system that will let me play games or watch a DVD than to get there. Why is it that programming is the thing that I make the least progress at? Because the process isn’t fun and it requires set-up time.

One way that I get things done is because there are deadlines, which force committment. I’m a procrastinator to the point that I never leave things to the last minute, but always to the next to last minute, just to be safe. I finish essays for classes because there is a deadline that forces me to. I finish my features because there’s a deadline that forces me to. The problem with me, though, is that I recognize false deadlines and so they don’t motivate me, so it’s hard to get that “deadline” effect. And the other option is to try to improve how fun the process is, but that’s pretty difficult.

Well, right now I think I’m going to try the false deadline route, but to do them piecemeal, and try to commit to getting certain small goals finished in the hopes of, well, getting committed to them and thus making progress. We’ll see how that works out.

More additions to my reading list …

January 14, 2013

So, I’ve added more books to my reading list.

I had the Hadot and Chase book on Marcus Aurelius recommended to me over on Unequally Yoked (which is also examining humanism at the moment) and was looking for the copy of Marcus Aurelius that I was sure I had but couldn’t find, and the one there had 10 reviews that were all 5 star, so I picked that up. While I was there, I picked up the Kaufmann book because Jerry Coyne over at Why Evolution is True was promoting it as an excellent counter to theology, and while I couldn’t find “Faith of the Heretic” this one was available, at least for now. So, despite its age, I’ll give it a try and see if its counters really work. And while I was getting the commentary on Aurelius, I picked up one on Plotinus out of general interest.

Now all I have to do is find a spot in my schedule to do the reading and comment on them. Next up is the work of Edward Feser, but I still have to comment on Plantinga and Dennett.

Would you commit genocide if you thought it was the right thing to do?

January 14, 2013

Almost a year ago, Adam Lee raised a challenge to theists based on the interaction of God and Abraham over the sacrifice of Isaac:

Going further with this, I have a question for every religious believer, based on the Abraham episode: Do you believe that violence in God’s name is wrong, or do you merely believe he hasn’t personally told you to do violence? If God appeared to you and spoke to you, commanding you to commit a violent act – to murder a child, say – how would you respond?

My reply was to return this challenge:

Before I answer your question, I need you to answer this one for me:

If you truly believed with the certainty you expressed in an earlier post about your principles that it would be moral to kill an innocent being EDIT ( in a particular case; it’s not likely to be a general rule) /EDIT, would you do it?

As far as I can recall, I have never seen a credible answer to my question, or even a credible attempt at one.

And this is important, because it seems to me that the whole “empathy-based morality” philosophy is leading at least the Gnu Atheists to answering that question with a resounding “No!”, which I find very, very frightening.

We can, for example, point to Sam Harris’ comments on Divine Command Theory in his debate with William Lane Craig:

Ok, well here we’re being offered—I’m glad he raised the issue of psychopathy—we are being offered a psychopathic and psychotic moral attitude. It’s psychotic because this is completely delusional. There’s no reason to believe that we live in a universe ruled by an invisible monster Yahweh. But it is, it is psychopathic because this is a total detachment from the, from the well-being of human beings. It, this so easily rationalizes the slaughter of children. Ok, just think about the Muslims at this moment who are blowing themselves up, convinced that they are agents of God’s will. There is absolutely nothing that Dr. Craig can s—can say against their behavior, in moral terms, apart from his own faith-based claim that they’re praying to the wrong God. If they had the right God, what they were doing would be good, on Divine Command theory.

Which Chris Hallquist seems to agree with, and refers to in a more recent post:

I almost have a hard time believing Randal is serious here. When he talks about “adherence to a divine command theory of meta-ethics,” what he means is believing that blowing up a bus full of children is right if that’s what God told you to do. That may not be explicitly listed in the Psychopathy Checklist, but neither are things like actually blowing up a bus full of children. And being willing to approve of such an act just because you think God approves certainly sounds like something that would require a shocking degree of callousness and lack of empathy.

Yet as Harris says in the debate, “this to me is the true horror of religion. It allows perfectly decent and sane people to believe by the billions, what only lunatics could believe on their own.” The horror here is in the fact that there may people with a perfectly normal helping of empathy, who would normally never think of hurting a child, but who would approve of blowing up a bus full of children if they thought God wanted it.

This quote isn’t a smoking gun, but it seems to very strongly imply that he thinks that the hurting of children is wrong in and of itself and that empathy should stop you from doing that.

And then there’s Jen McCreight from a few months back:

The reason this statement is so repugnant to liberals is that we base our system of morals on minimizing harm. Oddly I saw no blogs explaining this, probably because Warren’s source of morality isn’t exactly a secret. But I think it’s important to emphasize how repugnant it is to base your system of ethics on some random old book instead of the well being of others. Punching someone in the face causes harm; gay sex does not.

Putting aside that his is based on some random old book just like my morality is based on the random old books of Kant and Seneca, she sets up the idea that it’s based on minimizing harm, and finds his view relating punching someone or committing adultery repugnant because it isn’t based on the “minimize harm” argument, but is instead based on a completely different moral base completely. And the problem here is one that I’ve talked about before: minimizing harm can lead to some very repugnant decisions. And it is McCreight’s comments that, to me, highlight just how important the questions of “Would you commit genocide if you thought it was the morally right thing to do?” or “Would you kill children if you thought it was the morally right thing to do?” are, because if there are cases where the “minimize harm” morality would demand things that most people would find at least very, very difficult then I really want to know whether they will go with their morality, or their empathy.

So, that’s my challenge to, well, everyone who has any kind of defined moral system: Would you commit genocide if your moral code said that was the right thing to do? I don’t want to hear answers like “But my moral code wouldn’t say that!” because those are the equivalent of saying “But God would never ask me to do that!”. I’m interested it what you would do if your empathy and morality clashed, not whether you think that’s actually possible.

And the world of popular culture has given us a plethora of potential examples:

In the Marvel Comics miniseries Secret Wars II, the Beyonder has come to Earth. In his first contact with Earth, he kidnapped groups of heroes and villains and put them against each other in a war to examine Good and Evil. On coming to Earth, he clashes with various groups and kills off the New Mutants, and gives Pheonix incredible power to see if she’d use it to destroy the universe (and was disappointed when she didn’t). At the end of the series, he decides that he really, really wants to try being human and creates a machine to do it. Using it to become truly human, he discovers that enemies like Mephisto won’t let him be, so he recreates the machine so that he would be human but would still keep his power. It is during this transformation — and while he is still a baby — that the heroes come across him. This is their only chance to stop the Beyonder and keep him from doing what he has done in the past, but it would involve killing a baby. The heroes have problems with this … but the Molecule Man does it, believing it the right thing to do because it would minimize harm, as it trades one life — even that of a baby — for the many that might suffer or die at the hands of the rather unstable Beyonder. Was he right to do so? (This is similar to the “Would you kill Adolf Hitler as a baby to prevent the Holocaust?” question, which as alluded to when Pheonix was pondering killing everyone in the universe to stop the Beyonder by Magneto).

In the Wing Commander game “Heart of the Tiger”, the Terrans (read: humans) are fighting the Kilrathi, and are losing. The Kilrathi exterminate and enslave their conquered populations. Both Admiral Tolwyn and James Taggart invent devices that will destroy the Kilrathi homeworld, and Taggart’s device — the Templor Bomb — is deployed against it and destroys the planet, the royal family, and a host of innocents. Was it right to drop that bomb? (This is similar to Hiroshima and Nagasaki, except that in this case the humans are clearly on the ropes and are facing slaughter themselves).

In “Angel”, Jasmine brings peace to the world, at the cost of people losing a significant but not overwhelming part of their free will and her having to kill a small number of people in order to feed. Angel stops her. Was he right to do so?

So, there’s really no excuse for not being able to answer this really important question, summarized really as: would you do something that you found personally heinous or disturbing if you thought it was the morally right thing to do?

The Spider and the Swan.

January 10, 2013

So, I’ve decided to start taking advantage of the deal that my local DVD store runs more often, and so yesterday I rented two movies: “The Amazing Spider-man” and “Black Swan”. Unfortunately, I was disappointed in both, and so would like to spend some time ranting discussing them a bit. I warn you now: there will be spoilers that are not going to be put in a spoiler tag. Stop reading now if you don’t want either of these movies kinda spoiled.

First up, “The Amazing Spider-man”, which was not the first movie I watched. This is important because I watched them throughout my entire evening, and so I watched it right before I went to sleep. Which means that I fell asleep during it. This isn’t exactly odd for me, but my dreaming insertions into the plot is. At any rate, this does mean that I missed a fair bit of the plot and so might have to give it another chance, but I can talk a bit about it, starting with the idea that the Sam Raimi version is a far, far better movie.

The big issue with the remake is that it does seem to be a remake, and tries to update the mythos to modern day far more than the previous movie did. So, Peter Parker’s personality changes a bit, and the movie strikes me as trying to make all the people cool. Parker’s more of a semi-slacker than the nerdy sort that he was in the previous movie and in the original comic. His defining characteristic is more his photography than anything academic, and even at the end it’s pointed out that he tends to be late to classes, which was not how you’d see either of the previous Parkers. This personality shift will come into play a bit later when he starts getting into being Spider-man, as because his whole persona smacks of someone awkward but who would be a bit of a snarker if given a chance his wisecracks in battle seem like part of his personality as opposed to wisecracks fired off to hide the fact that he’s really just a scared kid and to give him a confidence boost so that he can carry on, which was an important part of the character. Spider-man is not supposed to be quite that annoying, in my opinion.

The movie also ratchets up the drama quite a bit. In both the comics and in the previous movies, the Parkers were simple, plain, ordinary folk. Peter’s parents were lost in a tragic accident — and everyone knew about the accident — and so his uncle and aunt raised him the best they could. Here, we start with a dramatic scene where his parents have to run away and leave him with his aunt and uncle. They never return, but Peter doesn’t really seem to know why, as when he finds something his father left behind and starts searching for information that they died in a car crash is displayed as if it’s a surprise, and later Peter answers Ben back about why his parents didn’t keep their responsibility to him as if he didn’t really know that they had died. But it is clear that his father, at least, was involved in something big and something extraordinary, and that Ben and May knew a bit about what it was. This leads Peter to try to find out about his father by sneaking into Curt Connors’ lab, and it is during that that he gets his spider bite. The problem with this is that one of the keys to Spider-man is that he is just an ordinary though incredibly bright kid who gains extraordinary powers, and learns that having extraordinary powers gives him extraordinary responsibilities. This ratcheting up of the drama cuts that out and doesn’t really work in and of itself, especially when they try to mix it up with comedy (like Gwen Stacy catching him sneaking in under the name of another intern). No, it would have worked better to have had Peter be interested in the internship, but be curious enough about the experiments to sneak off and take a look. Then pretty much everything else could have proceeded as it did. We really didn’t need to have the thread of his parents and their involvement brought up here, and none of the other versions did that either.

What all of the movies have screwed up, in my opinion, is the moment where Peter Parker doesn’t stop the man who will eventually kill his Uncle Ben. In the original comic — I got a reprint in the special edition DVD of the Raimi version — Peter had relatively unselfish reasons for trying to get the money, but very selfish reasons for not stopping the thief, as he really just didn’t want to get involved. Both movie versions make it so that the person who gets robbed is someone who is basically a jerk, and a jerk to Peter specifically, giving him a reason to decide that the person can be left on his own, or deserves to be robbed. I like it better when Peter has no reason not to stop the thief, but just doesn’t see it as something that he has to do, as it sets up the second part of that better.

But that I can go either way on. The new movie, however, messes up the really critical part: how Peter Parker deals with the person who killed his uncle and discovers that he could have stopped him before he had done that … but decided not to. In both the comics and the previous movie, Peter chases down the person who killed his uncle but doesn’t know who it is, and then when he stops him has a completely shocking moment where he comes to that realization. But in the new movie, Peter discovers it on the same night, and then becomes Spider-man to hunt down that person … and goes through a number of people to get there. It seems a lot like a quest for revenge, and the realization that he has the responsibility to stop criminals like this because they might hurt other innocent people doesn’t seem to come then, but maybe later. But this is the defining moment for Spider-man, and what makes him what he is, and the hero we all love. The death of Uncle Ben is the driving force behind Spider-man, and is what keeps him stopping street crime even where a lot of other superheroes won’t (you don’t see Thor or the Fantastic Four or Iron Man stopping muggers, for example). And that’s all gone in the new movie. It’s fantastically disappointing to me.

Also, the actors don’t strike me as being as good as the previous ones. Emma Stone pulls off a credible Gwen Stacy, and Andrew Garfield is okay for the Peter Parker that they’re trying to make him out to be, but I don’t like that Peter Parker so that hurts him. But particularly noticeable are Aunt May and Uncle Ben. Rosemary Harris played a far more Aunt May like Aunt May while still keeping a fire that Sally Field never seems to pull off, and Martin Sheen’s Uncle Ben is a bit meh. Considering how important these characters should be to the mythos, it’s a little disappointing.

That being said, it gets one compliment. Someone once defended the awkward romantic lines in the Star Wars prequels by arguing that normal teenage interactions sound just that awkward. In this movie, there’s a lovely awkward romantic interaction between Gwen Stacy and Peter Parker that makes it clear that that was done intentionally to reflect that, demonstrating why that’s not a credible excuse for the Star Wars movies.

So, that’s it for “The Amazing Spider-man”. Now to “Black Swan”. All I really knew about this movie was that it had rave reviews for both the movie and the actresses, and yes that Natalie Portman and Mila Kunis had a make-out scene. I sat down to watch it, and it was okay, but what really struck me about it is this: although there are a number of possible interpretations, the most obvious one is a disappointing one, which is that Mina is someone who had a pre-existing mental problem and snapped under the high pressure of being the lead in a ballet. This is brought out because, well, the movie tells us that she had issues with scratching herself before this and so we know that she had some problems. Additionally, while what Lily and Thomas were doing was tough, it’s pretty much expected for such a competitive field. So what we don’t get is an impression that this was someone just like everyone else who was driven to this by those around her, but someone who was fragile who broke. It’s still a tragedy, of course, but because we cannot think “There but for the grace of God go us” it’s not as much of a one.

And the issue with the multiple interpretations is that they aren’t all that credible. The problem is that if you want to do multiple interpretations, it seems to me that the best way to do it is to film or create scenes that can in and of themselves be taken in different ways. “Black Swan” doesn’t do that, but instead seems to try to mix and match scenes that imply different things. This is bad enough, but when you add in that for a good portion of the movie Mina is hallucinating we aren’t even really sure if those scenes are real. For example, you can think that Mina’s mother was domineering and driving her to have a ballet career that her mother had to give up when she had her … except that there’s only one real scene where her mother acts strongly controlling, and that was after Mina had started slipping again. Is Thomas someone who decides on the interests of the company primarily through his pants? Is he pushing her to break her, or to make the ballet a success? For the most part, we don’t really know, but not because of any real ambiguity, but because it seems that the movie itself can’t present a clear view of the characters. Add in that the presentation of the characters is fairly shallow, and we don’t really get a clear idea of what’s going on or who the characters are, even Mina herself. And that’s part of the problem with presenting different impressions by using different scenes; in those cases, it’s too easy to claim that the ambiguity is due to a failure in the script and not due to a deliberate insertion.

Perhaps the movie is meant to mirror the plot of “Swan Lake”. There are certainly enough indications of that in the movie. But not being a big fan of ballet, I don’t know the details of the plot, but only what the movie tells me. And from what the movie tells me, it doesn’t fit. Where is Mina’s prince? It doesn’t seem to be Thomas; she doesn’t seem that interested in him (and does seem more interested in Lily). Sure, it might be her breaking out of herself and breaking her curse in death, but that’s a bit more of a stretch than I’d like to make in a movie. And if we take this interpretation, then is her death a tragedy or a blessing? She seems to think that she had a perfect performance, which she mentions that she wanted. And part of the issue with the movie is that at the end we have a couple of threads that are introduced when there can’t be a reaction to them (that one and the “Little Princess” line) that harken back nicely to things that happened previously but go unremarked. So based on what the movie tells me, I don’t buy it.

So, a bit disappointing, but then again I’m probably not the intended audience for that movie. That being said, I did love the line after Mina tells Lily about their “lovemaking” and Lily’s last line is “Was I good?”. You have to see that in context to see why I liked it so much.

I don’t really regret watching either of these movies, but I likely won’t want to buy either, and certainly would have enjoyed watching episodes of Star Trek:TOS more.