Why Good Help is Hard to Find

In the second essay in “Supervillains and Philosophy”, Ron Novy examines the relationships and possible relationships between a villain and their henchmen, following it through Prisoner’s Dilemma-type analyses and an examination of whether even romantic relationships between them can work. He talks a bit about the Aristotlean framing of friendship, and various other ideas. And I’m going to ignore all that, and focus on one oversimplified summary of what may be his main point: the idea that because villains and evil people are always focused on their own self-interest, that there can never be true trust between them, and so they can never really be friends. In truth, he uses the idea that villains are always self-interested to demonstrate that they can never put the self-interest of their friend ahead of their own, and so can’t never really be friends the way Aristotle conceives of it, but he also uses this to argue that the henchman will always give the police information about the villain if captured unless there was a direct threat to their life (from the villain) because it is always in their self-interest to do so. And this is what I’m not convinced of.

To understand why, we need to start from Hobbes, my go-to guy every time anyone tries to talk about self-interest. Hobbes believes that we, as humans, are psychologically constrained to always consider our own self-interest, or to be “selfish” in his words. Even supposedly altruistic acts, Hobbes argues, are always taken considering our own self-interest: they make us feel good, they give us standing in the community, and so on and so forth. Hobbes is a Psychological Egoist, in that he thinks that we are just made this way, but not necessarily that that’s a good thing. Someone like Ayn Rand, on the other hand, is in my opinion an Ethical Egoism because she thinks that it is morally right to care about your own self-interest ahead of anything else. Hobbes says we do that; Rand says we ought to do that, even if we don’t. Ironically, Hobbes’ claim is the empirically stronger — it says we can do nothing but — but is the philosophically weaker, as it doesn’t claim this as a normative standard.

Anyway, Hobbes notices something about unvarnished self-interest: it doesn’t lead to a very good life. It leads to what he called the State of Nature, and described as brutish and short. The idea is this: in the State of Nature, everyone has to always look out for their own self-interest, and they can get the things they need or want through their own mechanisms. But no one, on their own, has enough power to actually do that. Someone who is physically stronger than most people can use that physical strength to bully others off of their own resources and take what they need, but even that person can always be outsmarted or, at least, swarmed with numbers. So what you have is everyone, on their own, trying desperately to grab and hold onto what they want and need, in constant competition and constant fear of competition with everyone else. Brutish and short. This is the sort of situation that I think Novy thinks that the villains are in: by rejecting the law, they reduce everything to simple individual self-interest, and so it is literally every person for themselves, and so no trusting relationships can ever form.

Hobbes, however, saw a way out, and it relies on those in the State of Nature realizing that they are indeed in the State of Nature and what causes that. At that point — even on a local level — they can see that they’d all be better off if they didn’t have to do this. So they form what Hobbes calls a Social Contract, where they accept limits on their pursuit of their own self-interest to allow for things like co-operation and for societies. They accept these limits because they know that it is far better for them to live in a Social Contract than live outside of it, and so according to Hobbes they can even accept a sovereign over them with the power to kill them if they break the Social Contract, because even then they’re still better off inside than outside.

There is no reason to think that our villains can’t form a Social Contract among villains. They won’t have a legal sovereign, but they could even have one of those if they needed to. David Eddings in “The Elenium” and “The Tamuli” posits a massive underground government regulating all illegal activities, and it’s done that way locally to ensure that people don’t step on each others’ toes or do things that will bring down too much government action, and across kingdoms to divide up areas so that they don’t have to keep fighting over them. They enforce these dictates exactly as a sovereign would; they kill violators. At any rate, even an informal Social Contract based on ensuring that they can have trustworthy henchmen and don’t fight amongst themselves letting the heroes have easy pickings is something that most intelligent villains ought to be able to see the benefits of immediately (which explains why so many pop culture villains don’t see the benefits of it).

So the henchman who rats out his former boss wouldn’t have to risk death to decide it’s a bad idea; all he’d need to note is that no villain will hire him as anything except dumb muscle if he does, which in some continuities really is a death sentence (think being a henchman for a Wolverine or Punisher villain, for example). Assuming that he thinks he can be more and wants to be more, it’s in his own self-interest to learn how to keep his mouth shut. The same thing, really, applies to any villain who wants anything from any other villain but wants to backstab them; they’d better either be indispensable, not care about dealing with any villains after that, or else just go and join the good guys, because there’s no reason for any villain to trust them ever again after they do that.

Ultimately, villainy may be as close to a State of Nature as we can get, but it can still use the Social Contract angle to get to a state where villains can at least trust villains to not betray because it is in their own self-interest not to do so. All smart villains who are not insane would do this. If there’s any flaw in this, it’s that there are a lot of insane and really stupid villains.

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2 Responses to “Why Good Help is Hard to Find”

  1. Crude Says:

    I suspect that a large wrench is thrown into all the talk about ‘self-interest’ once it’s recognized that we can change, to a degree, what makes us happy.

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