Archive for January, 2020

Adam Lee’s Universal Utilitarianism (Part 4)

January 31, 2020

So, carrying on from last time’s criticisms of the competition, this time we’ll start looking at Adam Lee’s alternative by outlining what a good secular morality should look like. You’d think it would have made more sense to do this before attempting to criticize the competition so that he could use those considerations against them, but okay.

Lee’s first consideration is what he calls the pragmatic principle:

One such principle, whose relevance and utility will here be taken as axiomatic, is pragmatism – the criterion of what works. For a proposed moral code to be acceptable, it must be possible to implement it, it must be possible for people to follow it, and it must be possible to live by it for extended periods of time. This rules out ethical systems that are internally inconsistent, that are impossible to realistically obey, and that have ultimately self-destructive effects on a person or society that abides by them.

Well, I think this can mostly be subsumed under “Ought implies can”, although the last one isn’t entirely uncontroversial. It’s entirely reasonable to think that a proper morality could, indeed, demand that someone or a society self-destruct rather than act immorally, such as, say, foregoing genocide even if that will mean that their society will be wiped out. That shouldn’t be inevitable, though, so it probably still works.

Things get more complicated when Lee tries to give examples of them, however:

For example, the pragmatic principle would lead us to reject a moral system that instructs its adherents, “Thou shalt not kill”, and then commands them to kill those who believe in a different god than they do, on the grounds of inconsistency; one or the other of these commandments would have to be removed from the book that contains them to produce a viable moral system.

This is obviously a potshot at Christianity, but it doesn’t work as an example because what you have is a universal rule that then admits to exceptions. Ultimately, Christian morality — as Lee will explore later when he tries to separate his view from theistic moral views — has as its ultimate basis the will of God. Thus, “Thou shalt not kill” is always “Thou shalt not kill unless God wills that you should”, which eliminates the inconsistency. Yes, at a shallow level the two commands need to be reconciled, but all moral systems — including Lee’s — start from a general and universal moral principle that is then used to derive the more specific rules. The logical contradiction one could only involve two conflicting principles being derived from the universal one in a way that they can’t be reconciled by appealing to the universal principle. “Thou shalt not kill” is not one of those cases.

Likewise, this principle removes from consideration systems such as communism, which pays all people the same amount and then expects them all to labor their hardest to benefit society. It is unrealistic to expect such a system to work as long as human nature remains unchanged.

Well, Marxism doesn’t actually advocate for that. It instead advocates that people will contribute to society what they can and receive back what they need (“From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs”). So people don’t get paid the same amount. Lee can argue that he’s talking about Communism and not Marxism, as Communism is what was actually tried in the real world … but then real world Communism didn’t pay everyone the same amount either. He’d also be confusing — as he often does — the political system of Communism with the moral system of Marxism. Political systems and moral systems are often related, but they aren’t the same thing.

So, returning to the Marxist line, Marxists accept that people right now don’t naturally think in those terms, but as I recall don’t consider their views to be against human nature itself. They would argue, I think, that if humans were properly socialized and educated, they would then accept such a system and work properly in it. If Lee still wants to maintain his claim that their view isn’t pragmatic, he’d have to show that it really is completely and totally against unchangeable human nature to act as the Marxists say we should act. This would be a monumental task, as it is easy to imagine that socialized into such a system, most people, at least, would accept and follow it, and it isn’t likely that fewer people would cheat than those who cheat in the current system, or that Lee expects to cheat under his.

Note, though, that one of the main objections to Marxism — even from me — is that people won’t act that way, and so my chiding Lee for stating it here might seem hypocritical or, rather, hypercritical. However, those complaints are generally raised as problems for Marxism, demanding an answer on how Marxism will address it. Lee here treats the counter as a violation of a strict principle: Marxism cannot be a valid moral system because it absolutely conflicts with unchangeable human nature. Note that eventually most of the criticisms of Marxism of this sort end up saying that you’d have to take too extreme measures to brainwash people into accepting it, not that it cannot be done, while Lee’s argument here insists that it cannot be done.

This raises an issue for his own moral system, as it had better be fairly intuitive and natural for us to act on it, or else he will leave himself vulnerable to the same objection that he raises against Marxism here.

Finally, the pragmatic principle leads us to reject any moral code that proposes, for example, the legalization of murder or theft. Any society that tried this would soon collapse into chaos.

There’s actually a confusion here that comes up in discussions of prostitution as well: the difference between decriminalization and legalization, although neither are really appropriate for a discussion of morality. Anyway, the difference is that the former simply makes it no longer illegal, while the latter regulates it in the same way as anything else is regulated. From the moral perspective, what this would mean is that for the former murder and theft would be, at a minimum, considered to no longer be immoral, while in the latter it would be allowed under specific circumstances. If we had a society that did that, it actually isn’t clear that society would collapse into chaos, because there are other mechanisms — like laws, for example — that could preserve society without having to appeal to the morality — or lack thereof — of the act, which is something that relativists and error theorists would also appeal to to show that their views won’t destroy society. And unless one takes the pedantic notion of claiming that any moral (or legal) killing doesn’t count as murder, then we allow killing and taking someone’s possessions right now under certain circumstances and call it moral, and society hasn’t collapsed yet. But perhaps a better example of the world Lee imagines is the one in “The Status Civilization”, a world of criminals who embrace evil and oppose good. But even they highly legalize murder, allowing it only under certain conditions and with a number of restrictions on how it can work. So this doesn’t even seem to work either: a society could consider murder and theft not immoral and yet still survive. Thus, none of his examples of what the pragmatic principle would rule out would actually be necessarily ruled out by it, making it more a list of things Lee doesn’t like or doesn’t want to see than the universal principle that he wants and needs it to be.

In reference to these last two points, we see that the pragmatic principle, far from being a strictly negative criterion, actually does positively inform the construction of an objective ethical code in two ways. Such a code, if it is to live up to the pragmatic principle, must establish some form of justice, in which people are treated in ways corresponding to their actions, and, if it is to be used to build a society in addition to guiding the actions of individuals, it must mandate some form of authority, in which some force can restrain or overrule the actions of individuals. Moral systems lacking these cannot expect to flourish or build a stable society.

I think a bigger concern here would be that moral systems without those things wouldn’t count as moral systems at all. Any moral system is going to have to define what people deserve and have a right to ask for and demand and receive, and is going to have to establish some sort of authority as to why people should follow it. Lee, however, seems to have a very specific view in mind, where essentially we have things like a judiciary and a government that lay down laws and punish people who break them. But that’s a legal system, not a moral one. Moral systems, in and of themselves, are about each of our behaviours as individuals, about how we should act even — and perhaps especially — when no one is watching and no one can punish us if we act immorally. A society could indeed flourish without the need for the authority that Lee demands if, say, everyone was brainwashed at birth to be incapable of acting immorally (as many atheists suggest God should have actually done if He wanted us to be moral). So it doesn’t seem like the pragmatic principle is doing anything here that the concept of morality isn’t already doing, as we can work out all the issues and ideas just by considering morality and without ever appealing to “No stable society if we don’t”, and we can use non-moral means to provide a stable society if morality doesn’t. So far, then, there doesn’t seem to be a lot that the pragmatic principle is doing for objective morality.

Further examination of the criterion that a moral code be realistic and possible to follow leads to the conclusion that such a code must be flexible but not too flexible. A moral code that is too flexible, such as relativism, is no moral code at all …

Which, since moral relativism is in fact not a moral code in the way Lee uses the term here, is not anything that would concern them …

…while one that is completely inflexible and never allows mitigating factors to be taken into account, such as the categorical imperative, cannot realistically and fairly deal with the enormous subtlety and variety of the many moral dilemmas in which human beings find themselves.

But since the Categorical Imperative does allow mitigating factors to be taken into account if such things can be universalized, that’s not really an objection to that view either. So we seem to be returning to, at best, the idea of “Ought implies can”, which is clearly not the same thing as the “pragmatic principle” that Lee advocates for.

The pragmatic principle, when consistently applied, sweeps the field clean of some failed ethical theories and provides several signposts pointing the way toward a true objective morality.

As shown, it doesn’t, and Lee’s attempts here seem to only seem reasonable if we apply the principle inconsistently. But “Ought implies can” still seems to be the better principle here.

Next, he moves on to talk about what he calls “moral Popperianism”:

It has long been known that no catalog of facts about the world, no matter how complete, can ever by itself furnish us with a moral system. There must also be some decision made of what to value which can never be derived from mere knowledge of those facts.

Here, Lee makes what is a common mistake among atheists trying their hands at morality: talking about oughts as being merely statements of value and so ultimately justified by what we actually value (as we shall see when I look into his actual moral system). Oughts are, in general, not defined as that which I or humanity values, but are things we value because of their oughtness, or rather normative value. So while you can’t move from an is to an ought, you can’t move from a value to an ought directly either. In a sense, anything you currently value is an is statement, and you’d still need to justify why you ought to value that. Any statement that says that you ought to value X is indeed an ought statement that you could never justify with a claim that you do indeed value it. Thus, it is perfectly reasonable for me to declare that you ought to value being moral even if you don’t, and even if no one else — even myself — doesn’t, as long as I justify that ought statement.

But while it is true that moral directives cannot be derived from the bare facts of the external world, they are still based on those facts, and therein lies the key. The crucial point of the principle which I call moral Popperianism is this: any ethical directive based on a false factual statement is wrong. In other words, descriptive statements cannot confirm prescriptive statements, but can disprove them. Ethical directives based on claims of fact that are not known to be false, but that lack sufficient evidentiary support, should be held in abeyance until that claim is either decisively confirmed or decisively refuted.

Lee is trying to build this from Popper’s idea of falsification … but it doesn’t really seem to follow from it, since that’s about not considering a proposition unless you can see how it might be falsified, and Lee here is not in any way justifying moral principles on whether they can be falsified. This, then, is a much more simple and standard principle that says that you shouldn’t take moral actions based on false facts. This is something that generally follows from the universal principles of most moral systems. For consequentialist systems, if you know that you’re acting on false facts you’re going to at a minimum end up with consequences you didn’t expect and likely don’t want. For intentionalist ones, if you know that the situation is not how it would have to be to achieve your believed intentions, then you cannot have the intentions that you claim to have but instead must have other ones, or else invalidly and irrationally intend something that you cannot actually intend to happen as you know it won’t happen. Utilitarians will argue that you can’t maximize utility if the real facts that you know say that something else would happen. Kantians would argue that such a principle cannot be universalized. Virtue theorists are almost certainly going to claim that ignoring the actual facts in a situation can’t be a Virtue and is almost certainly a Vice. And so on. We already know that actions in specific cases cannot be based on false facts, or at least can’t be based on false facts when the moral agent is aware that they’re false. So what can Lee mean here by the grand name of “moral Popperianism”? Let’s look at his examples to find out:

For example, any moral system that proposes unequal treatment of people based on immutable characteristics such as race and gender is wrong and should be discarded, based on scientific findings that all human beings are fundamentally the same at the genetic and cognitive levels.

This would only be true if the principle is “We should treat these people differently because they have differences in their genetic and cognitive levels”, which then would probably be generalized to the more proper general principle of “Treat people according to their genetic and cognitive levels where appropriate”, which then when applied, once we know that everyone is fundamentally the same at the genetic and cognitive levels, would have us treat everyone the same. But note that nothing at the moral level was impacted by this. The principle didn’t change, just how we applied it to the world based on our knowledge. That puts this securely in the realm of the simple and standard principle discussed above.

On the other hand, if a moral system justified treating, say, women differently from men as a moral absolute, then these facts would be irrelevant to that. You could argue until you’re blue in the face that men and women are the same genetically and cognitively and it wouldn’t matter, because that’s not what the morality is based on. So you can’t refute a moral principle based on simple facts, but only on what justifies that moral principle. Almost all of the time, any attempt to argue against a moral assessment by appealing to false facts is going to result in changing the action, not the principle that justifies that action, and will usually only work because the moral principle justifies the action based on considerations of those sorts of facts. About the only clear exception I can think of is Divine Command Theory, and that’s only because the fact that would be relevant is “God exists”. This would mean this could apply to Lee positing an atheistic theory, but moral philosophy is going to want more than that, and Lee is doing moral philosophy here, at least if he wants anyone to take his objective morality seriously.

Any moral system that proposes that a human being should be sacrificed to the gods each night to ensure that the sun rises again the next morning can be (and have been) decisively refuted by performing the obvious test.

Well, again, the main moral principle wouldn’t be that specific action, but justified by religious demands or pragmatic/consequentialist ones — we ought to try to avoid the sun not coming up because that’s a bad thing — and so again fits into the less dramatic principle outlined above. As an aside, if the sun not coming up also meant the end of the world, would it ever be morally justified under any reasonable moral view to try not doing it just to see what would happen? I’d be really interested, actually, in Lee using his Universal Utilitarianism to justify that …

Anyway, I’ve already talked about the God one, so let’s move on to the last comment on this:

Of course, some good ethical directives heretofore have been couched in terms of unproven factual statements, such as the claim that we should love others because God wants us to. This does not mean that these directives must be discarded; it simply means that they should be reformulated in terms of valid evidentiary groundings.

Here is where you could actually be using facts to impact the moral principle, but it fails because Lee here talks about “valid evidentiary groundings” but seems to assume that “Love others” is still a valid and good ethical directive. He can’t justify that with a valid evidentiary grounding as that would be appealing to facts which would be appealing to ises which Lee himself denies is valid. So he’d need to do it another way. Sure, he couldn’t base it on anything that wasn’t factual — like, say, that we all just naturally want to do that since we obviously don’t — but he’d still need to actually justify the moral statement. Thus, we’re right back into the simple principle stated above about applying moral principles, not determining them. And Lee seemed to claim that this was important in determining them.

Lee finally gets around to stating flat-out what the main principle of morality is, although he’s hinted at it already:

The answer to this should, I hope, be obvious: the goal of morality is to ensure happiness. All people want to be happy, and everything else which they desire is ultimately just a means to that end. The means by which people seek happiness are so varied that any other attempt at generalization would be futile, but the desire for happiness is the one true universal which unites all these disparate paths.

In reading and thinking about this, I had a realization about these sorts of arguments that is a better counter than the ones I normally use (although I think them still valid). The issue is that people like Lee and Richard Carrier take the very simple line that our desires are determined and justified by what makes us happy, and so everything we desire is aimed at producing happiness. The problem with this is that often this is backwards. I don’t possess and achieve desires because they make me happy, but instead am made happy by achieving my desires. If I want something, and I achieve that desire, then it makes my happy, but that doesn’t mean that I did some sort of rational assessment or calculation of my future happiness to form that desire. If I want a drink of water and then go and get one, that would definitely make me happier, but I didn’t go and get that drink of water because I reasoned that it would make me happy to do so, but instead because I was thirsty or wanted to get a drink so that I wouldn’t be later when I couldn’t get a drink or, well, any number of reasons. I don’t try to achieve many of my desires because it will make me happy to do so, but rather achieve my desires for other reasons which results in my being happy because I’m achieving desires.

This also would apply to the case raised against Carrier about wanting to help your mother. You don’t do that because you calculate that it will make you happy, but for other reasons — you think it is your duty, you’re grateful for what she does for you, etc, etc — and then once you satisfy that desire it makes you happy. It would be true that taking that action is what would make you happiest based on the desires you have, but that’s not why you have the desire and so, ultimately, not why you take the action. Carrier’s view insists on working out some kind of calculation to be properly rational, but that would leave out why we have the desires we do and give us no reasonable way to replace them, as what makes us happy in Carrier’s sense has to be individual and so justified personally to us based on the desires we actually have.

This, I think, reveals an equivocation between two meanings of “happiness” that we also saw in the discussions of eudaimonia. Eudaimonia maps best to something like personal satisfaction with one’s life, and it’s clear that achieving our desires — whatever they are — gives us that sort of happiness. Thus, we can have a moral system that forces us to make great sacrifices and yet maintain personal satisfaction if we have a strong desire to act morally. The second other meaning is more hedonistic, and applies to pain and pleasure. This is the one that most Utilitarians use, and we do naturally attempt to avoid pain and seek out pleasure, which justifies their universal approach. However, we can be satisfied with our lives without them, and in fact much of the time what we feel are moral obligations require us to accept pain or forego pleasure to achieve nothing more than personal satisfaction. Those who use the hedonistic idea of happiness always struggle to justify those cases, being forced to find a rationale that says that the person will either avoid pain or get more pleasure later if they do, which often is a dubious one at best. But when we accept that moral people will get more personal satisfaction out of their lives from acting morally even if it means they need to give up some hedonistic pleasures, then these problems can be avoided.

(Of course, people will argue that there is no reason for us to desire to be moral in the first place, but that’s a discussion for another time).

Some ethical systems attempt to camouflage the point where they switch from “is” language to “ought” language. I will not do this, but rather state it plainly: in general, people ought to be happy. I hold this proposition to be axiomatic and foundational, and I further hold that any ethical system that has as its highest aim something other than producing happiness is completely missing the point.

If he’s holding it as axiomatic, then it seems like he’s assuming it and not justifying it. Thus, anyone who doesn’t accept his view will simply deny the axiom and no more can be said, and so his moral view won’t be justified. This would include Kantians and Stoics would, again, don’t reject the idea of people being happy but merely don’t see it as justifying any moral statement. So he can hold that any ethical system that doesn’t agree with him is just missing the point, but since they’d simply return the same counter to him that’s not going to get us very far. It doesn’t even work against the theistic moralities he wants to separate morality from, as they’d simply argue that the highest aim of morality is doing God’s will and Lee is completely missing the point of morality. So this argument isn’t doing anything except defining Lee’s morality.

Also, he never justifies the more from is to ought, and does state it as being axiomatic. Trying to move from is language to ought language in this way is merely asserting what he thinks the ought should be, and so can be simply reduced to, again, him stating what he thinks the base principle of morality should be. As anyone who argues for objective morality knows, you still have to justify that.

In short, this developing ethical system will be a form of utilitarianism.

That’s not an “in short’. There are other moralities that accept that happiness is the basis of morality, such as Egoisms. They also base that on the argument that we all want to be happy. The big leap Lee is going to have to make is to show that we should care about the happiness of others even if it impacts our own happiness. Most Utilitarian views have a difficult time doing this, and Lee’s will be no different.

But to finish off this post, let’s see how Lee sweeps the existing Utilitarian views off the table. We already talked about Act Utilitarianism, so let’s look at Rule Utilitarianism:

Rule utilitarianism is a variant of this ethical system that seems to hold some promise. Rather than judging the utility of each action in isolation, this system asks us to formulate general rules that would promote the greatest overall good if consistently followed, and then live by those rules. Of course, the problem then becomes that a truly universal rule dictating when or when not to perform a given action would have to have an enormous number of exceptions and qualifications, or else it runs the risk of producing poor outcomes on occasion, reducing overall happiness.

Rule Utilitarianism was designed as an way to avoid the issue where you can justify certain actions that we intuitively think are immoral by appealing to a greater utility if you take that action. It does so by instead justifying specific rules on the basis of utility, and saying that the utility of having that as a universal rule outweighs that of any specific cases where breaking the rule might produce more utility. This would seem to avoid the issue that Lee is concerned about and would also justify rights which Lee very much wants to do. Yet Lee criticizes it for the very thing that it uses and needs to use to avoid the negative consequences that Lee wants to avoid. It is difficult to see how you can have a Utilitarian view that allows for rights and universal considerations that doesn’t do so by saying that the benefits of having and following the rights and universal considerations outweigh the benefits of being able to break that rule in those cases where the utility works out to be higher for breaking it. So it’s hard to see how Lee can reject that underlying principle and still justify rights and avoid cases where we do something that we think we shouldn’t in the name of maximizing utility.

Lee thinks he’s found a compromise between Act and Rule Utilitarianism. I’ll look at that one in the next post.

Thoughts on “A Nightmare on Elm Street 5: The Dream Child”

January 30, 2020

Alice is back!

My favourite Final Girl in the entire series returns in this one, graduating from high school and somehow also — oddly for a Final Girl — getting pregnant (so a teen pregnancy), and it is her unborn child that Freddy is trying to use to be able to influence the world. This movie focuses more on Freddy’s mother and uses her as the main component to defeat Freddy this time. Alice is still a character that we can relate to and is sympathetic, and her main struggle her is interesting and aligns with and contrasts well with Freddy’s mother’s arc. And because those two arcs are aligned it avoids the issue in the third movie where what is happening in the dream world is made irrelevant by the real world arc.

The biggest problem with this is that, again, you really need to have watched the previous two movies to get the most out of this one. Unlike the other movies in the series and unlike all of the Friday the 13th movies where you can pretty much jump in anywhere and not be confused, you pretty much have to watch all three of these to get the entire picture. You could watch the third one on its own, but you couldn’t watch four or five without watching the previous movies to get the context.

Still, from my angle I am willing to rewatch the previous two, and Alice is still my favourite of the characters which gives me another reason to watch the movie. So I would rewatch all three of these again.

Final Thoughts on “Elsinore”

January 29, 2020

So, I managed to start my gaming New Year off on a positive note and play and finish “Elsinore”. I restarted the game because it’s difficult to remember where you were after not playing it for a while, and I was also curious if the first playthrough was set or if it was more randomized. I think that I managed to avoid getting killed by the spy the first time, but of course the only way to do that is to get killed by something else first. Anyway, it was a fresh start and I played it for a significant amount of time before choosing an ending.

This seems like a good time to talk about the game in general. The game is a time loop game based on Hamlet. The player plays as Ophelia, who ends up looping the main days of the play over and over again. As the story progresses, the player and Ophelia find out that this is not the first time it has happened. As already stated, the loops will early on end with Ophelia being killed by a spy, and so Ophelia’s first task is to find out who the spy is and stop the spy from killing her, as well as other things like keeping her father alive and potentially saving the kingdom.

The overall mechanics are non-standard, to say the least. There are no real dialogue trees or dialogue options in the game. Instead, as Ophelia finds things out she can “share” them with other characters in the game through the sharing mechanism. So Ophelia can’t ask other characters questions, but some of the things she can “share” end up doing so as questions or requests, which is a bit awkward. However, if you are talking to a person and select something that can be shared with them, at the bottom of the screen it will display what is going to be said. Still, you can only talk about what’s available, but the game is pretty good about letting you share things that you learned in a previous loop even if you aren’t past the point where it would come up in this loop. You also get a Journal that describes what quests you have and what things you know about each character, and a Timeline that shows you where each character is going to be and what events they are going to be part of in this timeline, which gets updated as Ophelia triggers new events and does things that make certain events unlikely. This has one issue that the events listed on the Timeline don’t seem to actually start at that time (usually later) which can be confusing if you don’t follow a character to the event, which can be done through a very helpful “Follow” command which follows them automatically. You can also accelerate time if you want to wait for an event to start.

All of this is at the player’s disposal as Ophelia walks around a relatively open world and interacts with the various characters. The game is essentially broken down into two parts, all of which use the time loop mechanism. The first part is a fairly linear progression, where you have to figure out who the spy is, figure out how to stop them from killing you, interact with the ghost of Hamlet’s father to find out about the main plot, find out about a specific person who can help with the time loops, befriend the spy to get help in stopping the invasion so that you can finally talk to the person and trigger the second part. The second part, oddly, is the part that I said that I wanted in my second post on the game, where you go through and acquire endings that, once the loop starts, you can simply select to end the game. This should be the most fun part of the game, but it runs into a specific problem.

Any work that uses a time loop will invariably express the main character’s absolute frustration with having the loop start over again and again and again. Even this game does that by having Ophelia express that with Hamlet constantly bursting in on her in her room (although she was much more frustrated with that than I was, which as I said when discussing “Corpse Party” can really break immersion). This is especially going to be the case if the person doesn’t really know what they need to do or has loops reset because of stupid mistakes or things that they couldn’t have anticipated. The first part of the game is full of this sort of situation, as the goals are absolutely required to advance the game, there’s almost no freedom in how you achieve those goals, and you often have to use trial and error which can easily lead to ruined loops. So what happened with me, at least, is that I was getting to the “frustrated” point of the game and resorted to a walkthrough to figure out the last parts, and then ended up in the second part which should have been the most fun part … but by then I was too annoyed with the time loop mechanism to really get into it. Especially since just trying to change the play so that it wouldn’t trigger the confrontation with Hamlet caused two events that I didn’t want to happen — Ophelia being deemed insane the first time and the second time, in a new loop, Polonious dying — which only made the frustration worse. I really think it would have been better if they had made the first part shorter. Maybe eliminate the spy portion entirely and just keep the ghost to final person track. That way we would get to the second part faster and thus be less sick of the time loops and more willing to explore to get as many endings as possible, and then selecting the one we most want to see when we’re finally tired of going through the time loops.

This is only made worse by the save system. You get one save file, and it’s entirely driven by auto saving. So you can’t decide to try something out to see what happens and restore a save if it ends up disastrously. No, what you’d have to do is try it and if it doesn’t work out start the loop over again, which is fine if you’re on the first day but quite annoying if you’re on the third. Also, at the end of the game when you pick an ending you get an additional and more detailed scene that describes what happens, but it also destroys your save file and so if you want to go back and get any other endings you’d have to do at least the first part again. Sure, it’d be faster since you’d know what to do but that doesn’t exactly encourage replaying the game while the multiple endings — including a “real” ending — actually does. Like the lengthy first part before we get to the more interesting second part, the game seems to be working against itself on occasions.

And the real ending itself causes some issues, as the game sets up a character that’s supposedly helping you but in the end is portrayed as someone who is somewhat sadistically manipulating things for some evil purpose. Except up to that point it’s clear and made clear that the evil that people have done in the previous loops was indeed of their own volition, and the character is presented as being more like someone who enjoys watching what happens in these cases and testing people than in hurting people. And the true ending is based on opposing that character. And Ophelia herself expresses a strong desire to stop the character from getting the book back and being able to repeat it, which is again a case where she’s feels something that I didn’t, which doesn’t really work. I personally had no desire to deal with the character and more desire to simply end the loops, which would be consistent with time loop stories in general and how this game was written in particular.

I also don’t think the game really benefited by being associated with Hamlet. One main concern when you do this is that you are likely to have a mix of people playing the game, some of which are more or less familiar with Hamlet and those who aren’t. Thus, you need to be able to explain everything in enough detail for those who aren’t familiar with the play while not boring those who are. The game, it seems to me, did this relatively well. However, the flip side of that is that what would be a twist or thrilling reveal for those who don’t know the play isn’t one for those who do. For example, after finding out who the spy was and so managing to survive that (and after that happens, the spy never kills you again) I stopped and thought “I’m going to have to stop the invasion, aren’t I?”, which is indeed what you need to do before you can finish the first part. The invasion would have been a surprise to someone who didn’t know the play. An additional issue here is that you need to make the characters roughly align with their presentations in the play, and if they don’t then it will seem jarring to people who enjoyed the play. Ophelia definitely seemed more grumpy to me than she was in the play, and her relationship with Hamlet seemed more fragmented than it was in the play. Hamlet also seemed more annoying than he was in the play. I also don’t recall the Lady Brit in the play, and so her getting such a prominent role here seemed jarring.

Ultimately, I think it would have worked better for them to have invented a new setting and used that for their story. That way, they could insert things like spies and other components without it seeming contrived, and also could have set precisely the relationships and personalities they wanted without anyone ever complaining that it’s not like the characters as they were in the play. Even if the inspiration was tightly tied to the Hamlet tragedy, they could have easily simply lifted the story and used it in their new setting, and to avoid accusations of copying lampshaded their inspiration. But the game doesn’t really gain anything from being in the actual Hamlet story and it causes issues that I don’t think they managed to overcome.

Also, in line with how I first became aware of the game, I don’t think that the frustrations with the game expressed there are about players wanting to be puppet masters, but are instead about how the internal states can be odd and how events can have very unexpected consequences. For the former, if you say something to someone that devastates them, they become shattered and won’t talk to you. This is fine. Except that they’ll go through and continue on with the events you’ve already triggered. So you can shatter Hamlet and have him still go and look for Laertes’ lost lute, which makes no sense. If they’re willing to do that, they should be willing to talk to you. And if you accidentally choose the option that shatters them before selecting another option that you wanted to do at that time, then it’s time to reset the loop. For the latter, I once changed the play-within-the-play to describe my situation, and this got everyone to consider Ophelia insane with no way to debate it, even though it was just fantastical. As I posited, if people were complaining it was probably because things didn’t make sense, not because they thought that they’d be puppet masters.

That being said, there are some good things about the game. The ending that I did watch, while a bit overly dramatic, was fairly well done nonetheless. And there were some great scenes in it and some wonderful situations that it would have been nice to explore and see where it finally ends up. Unfortunately, these are else secondary to the main plot, which isn’t as interesting as they are, although it is serviceable. I still just wish that the first part was shorter so that we could focus more on getting the various endings, and that they were easier to experience in general.

I should also make a note about how the Social Justice aspects work in this game, because they are there. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are lesbian lovers, Ophelia and Laertes make comments about being outcasts because of the colour of their skin, and a character is revealed to be transsexual. However, these are mainly things that you can uncover but aren’t front and centre the entire time, and at least one of them has a major impact on the story and so isn’t just a toss in. So I didn’t mind it that much.

So, after all of that, I’m sure everyone is wondering what my overall impression of the game was. I find the game … mostly meh. There are some really good scenes, but the time loop mechanism ended up annoying me and the lengthy first part ruins what should be the far superior second part. I really think that they were far too ambitious for what they were able to achieve, as evidenced by it taking three more years than they had planned and some of their mechanisms and stories and plots not quite working. I don’t regret playing it once but can’t imagine wanting to go through all of that again to play it again. If you like time loop plots and so have more patience with them and their foibles than I do, you might want to pick up this game if you can get it for a reasonable price. Ultimately, it’s not a disaster, but not a classic either.

Since I played the game over a few nights, I took down some notes on it, and I’ll add them here. They may contain spoilers.

After one (re)play (two iterations):

The spy murder seems to be scripted to occur at a certain time or point in the narrative, not in a location. Thus, it’s probably possible to die to something else in the prologue, although it would be hard to do. It would be cool, though.

I was working through the second time with a very interesting alternate history: Gertrude kills herself, Hamlet kills Claudius and is in line to be king, Polonius was spared, and Ophelia and Hamlet reunite. Hamlet was facing some personal crises about whether or not he was ready to be king. And then the spy killed me. This follows up on the flaw from my previous run, where I would have liked to be able to see the alternate endings and paths but the game prompts me to restart if it considers my move a failure. Here, an interesting exploration of an alternative Hamlet story is cut off by the spy plot, which I had tried to resolve but it seems there’s more that I need to do here. Sure, if it had been that easy to get to the end it would have been disappointing, but I’m interested in the Hamlet part, not the spy part, but it seems like the spy part — especially as it hints at Ophelia being incredibly important or some reason — is the most involved and detailed and tricky part of the entire game. But then this looping story becomes more of a spy mystery than an alternate Hamlet, and so they didn’t need to shoehorn it into Hamlet at all, and it would have avoided the issue. As it is, if you like the Hamlet stuff then the spy subplot literally seems like something tossed in to complicate matters and keep the game going, while if you really like the spy subplot idea then the extra Hamlet stuff is at best neutral and at worst overly complicated as it has to align with the play enough to appease the first group.

It is definitely the case that you have to fail some rounds to get information that you can use it later ones. I just gained the ability to alter the play and I suspect it will be crucial in solving the spy mystery, but you can only do that after seeing a play once, and can’t insert anything into a play that has already run. I also suspect that I will need to tell Hamlet about his mother’s affair so that he will take me to the ghost so that I can talk to his father about his having done time loops before.

The king having done time loops before and, presumably, having broken one — so that he could be murdered — means that we are going to need a good explanation for why this happens and why it went from the king to Ophelia after he broke it the first time. We could get away without one in Happy Death Day because it was all about Tre’s character growth, but having it move from one person to another makes it a plot point, and the plot point must be resolved.

Ophelia says that she wants a happy ending, implying that the loop can’t stop until she gets one, which is disappointing.

After four or five iterations:

There seems to be an overall plot here, which is then in a bit of tension with the open world aspects of the game. I triggered the ghost plot, which then means that I have to get some papers from Polonious, which is encouraged by the playwright. But Polonious burns them if you ask about them, so I think I need to get him killed to get the key to read them. So that’s a plot to follow. But so far what’s best is a number of seemingly unrelated scenes: Polonious with Ophelia’s mother, the lute search, the Queen’s death, one from my first playthrough with Guildenstern, etc, etc. These you can only find by exploring open world, which you won’t want to do every time because while they are effective they’re long and take place at times when other things are happening. So you might trigger it once but then not follow it up. If they’re important, then you will have to find them to end the game. If they aren’t but you want to do them in the ending loop, then you’ll need to remember them. I’m caught between wanting to explore and wanting to follow the plot, which isn’t great.

Also, if the ghost plot doesn’t help me solve the spy plot, then I still have to solve that one. But if it does then the hints in the spy plot aren’t accurate. Anyway, my suspicions for the spy right now are Lady Brit, Laertes, and perhaps one of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.

The original post I wrote that got me following this talked about players not liking it that the characters had their own internal lives. I think now that the complaint is that you can tell them things that upset or shatter them and then you can’t interact with them anymore (so you have to be careful what you do in what order). Since this kinda makes sense, I don’t mind it, but the problem is that this only impacts their interactions with you. They do everything else as normal. So a shattered Hamlet will still go on a hunt for a lost lute, and an upset and potentially despairing Queen will still make light conversation at the dinner table with Hamlet, as long as the events are triggered before you make them upset. This seems inconsistent, and is probably what some of the players were grumbling about.

Third play session:

I had to resort to a walkthrough to get the notes, but that’s not really an issue because I lasted far longer than I would have otherwise. I also managed to figure out who the spy was: Lady Brit. It being Laertes would have been more interesting. Now I need to figure out how to get her to trust me so that she’ll stop the invasion so that I can go talk to someone who was around before and get an evil book from her that will let me complete the main plot, and there are a number of different endings that I can get. I’ll probably resort to some sort of walkthrough for getting the book, and might just go with whatever ending I happen to get at that point, although the default one is boring and annoying.

I don’t think the mix of open world and linear plot works very well in this game. By this point in the time loops, I really needed to get certain specific things done and it seems like there’s only one or maybe two ways to actually do that, but it isn’t always clear what you need to do. As an example, to get the notes you need to get them from Polonious but he always burns them before you can despite the fact that he talked to me at one point about giving me a key in case he died. The way to resolve it was at least to tell the right person and have him killed. There may be other ways to get him killed, but the obvious one would be to let him die as per normal and then take it, but that’s too late. But it isn’t clear if his burning it is a set time or if it is triggered by actions, meaning that I tried to make that part happen as normal — and it usually didn’t — to get the notes and only resorted to the walkthrough which had the convoluted and strange solution that isn’t at all obvious (the death is accidental, and you’d probably never think to tell that to that character anyway). The problem is not so much with the convoluted paths, but more that those paths are the requirements to advance the story and get an ending.

Once you figure out who the spy is, they will never threaten you again. This is convenient, but breaks the narrative.

After the end:

There are a number of cases where the world breaks because of something that didn’t make sense, which is far more annoying when you’re heading towards an ending. I wanted to change the play to avoid the confrontation, but changing it to being about a time loop gets
Ophelia judged mad despite none of them thinking that beforehand, and changing it to mock Polonious ended up with him committing suicide somehow (I still don’t know why). Getting someone killed also triggers the war again which leads to a specific ending. While unintended consequences are indeed the norm for this sort of game, things did often need to be clearer.

The part at the end where you strive to come up with the various endings so that you can select them and end the game would be the most interesting part, if you hadn’t had to spend hours going through the linear plot to solve the time loop to get it. The game mechanism is exactly the same and about as annoying. That’s why I simply selecting the non-death, non-insane ending I got and went with it.

The endings, or at least that one, aren’t as well-written as some of the scenes in the game. The writing is overwrought and Ophelia talks about the reasons behind the choice despite that not being the reasoning I was using (it wasn’t choosing myself over others, but instead simply choosing to stop trying). This was jarring and a bit annoying.

Quince is informed evil. It would have worked better to make him more neutral, as that would align better with what we know — he doesn’t seem to do anything bad and the only bad effects were from Simona’s actual choice — and also give a reason to try to stop the tests or whatever. As is, either we really should be making every effort to stop him or else we really should simply be trying to make a fate that works, depending on how evil you think he is.

Thoughts on “John Woo’s Once a Thief”

January 28, 2020

So, this was another of the short little series that I had found while sorting through the closet where I keep my DVDs and decided to add the front-end of my TV show watching this year, to finally finish it off and get a sense of accomplishment to start out the new schedule. This was a mostly Canadian show that I had somehow managed to catch either when it came out or in reruns, and it only lasted a season. When I looked it up on Wikipedia, the comment was that it started out with high ratings which dropped off drastically as the season went on, until it was eventually cancelled. I have a theory as to why that happened that I’ll get into later.

The basic premise is that two people who were adopted for various reasons into the Chinese criminal family of the Tangs have fallen in love, and when the real son of the head of the family wants to marry Li An, her lover Mac hatches an insane plan for them to run away together. The plan fails, but Li An manages to get away while she believes that Mac was killed. Eventually, it is revealed that Mac was actually in prison, and a woman who will be known only as the Director comes to offer him a way out if he comes to work for her organization. It turns out that Li An was also recruited into that organization, along with her now-finance Vic. And they are all going to work together as a team.


Anyway, the acting and characters mostly work. Despite not being the focus character, Jennifer Dale’s Director is a pretty meaty role, as she has to come across as tough, sexy, and a bit depraved, which she pulls off quite well. Mac is played by the Ivan Sergei who has done a number of small roles (including a recurring one on “Charmed”), while Nicholas Lea plays Vic (and is probably best known as Krycek on X-Files). They both manage to pull off their roles well, with Mac being the irresponsible and fun one with Vic being the more responsible but staid one. They have plenty of reasons to dislike each other aside from their rivalry over Li An, which is good because that triangle falls out fairly quickly when Li An decides that she doesn’t want to get married.

Sandrine Holt plays Li An and I think she does a decent job with the role, but the major issue is that Li An’s character suffers from having no real defined role. There are hints at roles for the character, but none of them ever pay off. The love triangle with Mac and Vic dies out relatively quickly. Her as someone the Director was grooming to replace her is inconsistently done, especially when Victoria Pratt comes on as Jackie who is a rival for that position and while Li An is properly hostile to her there’s nothing done to show that she’s considering her as a rival for a position that Li An herself is striving for. So that’s not developed enough to anchor her character. What they could have done, if they wanted to drop the love triangle angle, was use that to develop her role on the team. She could have been attracted to Mac’s spontaneity as well as to Vic’s responsibility, which once that angle was dropped she could have parlayed into her role on the team: she likes the excitement of the missions and so is sympathetic to Mac’s attitude, but understands that not going off half-cocked is important to not getting killed. Thus, she would be a bridge on the team between Mac’s view and Vic’s view. However, they didn’t do that, and so all they left for the character was her being excessively competent, which doesn’t really work because there are only two ways for her to be that competent when compared to the other two. The first way is to make the other two less competent, which hurts their characters. The second way is to make her uber-competent, which hurts her character. So that doesn’t work for her either.

The main defining thing about the show, though, is that while the pilot is pretty standard crime action, the show quickly move into being rather bizarre and surreal. One of the funniest moments is fight between Mac and someone else where another fight keeps triggering a change in the music, and then Mac and his opponent change their fight to align with the music. At one point, the Canadian national anthem comes on, and they stop and stand at attention to respect that. It’s pretty well done and ends just as it’s about to wear out its welcome. There are dream sequences and a whole host of odd characters — both criminals and fellow agents — to experience. But I think that this is also responsible for the drop in ratings, as those who were attracted by the standard action will find these sequences too weird to enjoy, and those who might have been attracted by the oddness will have been turned away by how standard it was in the pilot and first few episodes. That being said, I kinda liked the surreal parts.

So, the ultimate assessment: would I watch this again? Which now means “Does it go into my boxes of DVDs that I’m not likely to rewatch any time soon or does it go into my closet with the DVDs that I do think I’ll rewatch again?” And the answer is: it goes into the closet, for two main reasons. The first is that sometimes you do want to watch something that’s just plain goofy, and despite some serious parts it works really well for that. The second is that I think that I want to binge it like “Scream Queens” to really immerse myself in the weirdness in a way that watching two episodes a night for four days a week doesn’t. So, yeah, it’s not the best show, but it’s also not a standard show, and that makes me want to watch it again.

Give Up the Ghost?

January 27, 2020

As I was organizing my books, I came across a book that I had found in a used bookstore but had never really read. It’s called “Give Up the Ghost” and it’s by Victoria Branden, who as far as I can recall isn’t specifically a scientist but has associated with some in examining supernatural phenomena. The point of the book is to demonstrate two things: a) that some phenomena that we consider supernatural really does happen but b) there’s nothing supernatural about it, as it can be explained by strictly natural theories. This is a tall order for a book that’s less than 200 pages long and covers a wide variety of phenomena.

I have a mild interest in paranormal or supernatural phenomena. My current position on it is that I can’t rule out these claims — even to the extent of UFO sightings — but I also have to concede that in a number of cases they can be explained with much more ordinary causes. In theory, what I really should do is investigate some of those claims to see if they are supernatural or not, but in practice I really don’t have the time nor are the questions that important to my life for me to make the effort. So Branden’s main thesis — that there’s enough evidence and repeatable experiments that scientists probably should study them in more detail — is one that I’m interested in. And from dealing with self-proclaimed rationalist naturalists, it’s entirely reasonable to me that so many scientists would insist that those things are simple frauds or delusions without ever bothering to investigate them in any detail.

Branden does give some interesting cases, with the most interesting one being the one that she claims is easily and consistently repeatable of making a table move around the room. One would think that if skeptical scientists wanted to disprove such an example, they’d be falling all over themselves to refute that one. Then again, all I have for that is Branden’s comments and the problem is that while it is quite likely that skeptical scientists would dismiss it without investigating it, it’s also entirely possible that some of them did investigate it and come up with explanations that don’t satisfy Branden. This, I think, highlights an issue with supernatural claims, as what we need is honest investigation but in general both sides have strong commitments that would bias their conclusions, either wanting them to be real phenomena or wanting them to be something other than the odd phenomena that they seem to be.

Branden also comes across as being a bit hypocritical in the book, as she regards the phenomena that she has personally experienced as being definitely the case and chides skeptics for dismissing it out of hand but dismisses out of hand those that she hasn’t experienced, like UFO sightings. So it left me, at least, with the impression that she wasn’t really practicing what she was preaching. Additionally, I found it odd that she would defend ghost sightings as a natural phenomena by relating them to poltergeists and caused by the minds of disturbed teenagers in the house. Essentially, her claim there — which underlies her entire theory — is that it’s not really ghosts but is really telekinesis, which is hardly less supernatural or paranormal.

I think her underlying thesis is basically sound: there’s enough odd phenomena that has reasonable evidence for it that it should be part of some science to figure out if these things have anything in common and what the underlying cause is. After all, we have so many sightings of, say, ghosts and the like that there at least has to be a common psychological consideration there, and dismissing it as simply people dreaming seems to dismiss it too lightly. I’m not as convinced that her theory is correct or is properly evidenced. Ultimately, if these things are natural in nature then we should be able to demonstrate that, and given how common the belief is it would be worthwhile doing, because if naturalists want these beliefs to go away saying “You’re stupid and superstitious to believe in such things!” is not going to cut it.

Adam Lee’s Universal Utilitarianism (Part 3)

January 24, 2020

After examining his criticisms of moral relativism last time, this time I’m going to look at his criticisms of opposing moral systems. Note that he does all of this before deigning to outline his own moral system or the criteria by which we should judge moral systems, which seems a bit backwards.

Anyway, he starts with Objectivism, which he later spent a lot of time examining as he went through “Atlas Shrugged” and “The Fountainhead”. Here is his main criticism of Objectivism in this essay:

However, as should be obvious, the glaring problem with Objectivism is that it fails to accommodate Prisoner’s Dilemma-like situations. If two or more Objectivists were placed in such a situation, each would immediately pick the option that was best for him individually, and the result would be a poor outcome for all. If all the individuals in this situation are rational (and rationality is a key tenet of Objectivism), they would all soon realize that the only realistic way for any of them to attain a good outcome is for each of them to cooperate and pick the less selfish course of action, i.e., to be altruistic. But this is a contradiction with the basic Objectivist tenet of selfish behavior. The fact that the selfish interests of rational individuals very often conflict, and the fact that doing what is best for us individually sometimes requires acting in altruistic ways, cause the entire system of Objectivism to collapse. To find a workable universal moral code, we must look elsewhere.

As was also evident in his series opposing Objectivism and in earlier parts of his essay, there’s a major issue here in the definition of “altruistic”. If they decide that, ultimately, co-operating is in their self-interest and so decide to co-operate on that basis, how can that be meaningfully called “altruistic” as opposed to “selfish”? Lee takes a rather common view of altruism here — popular among those who rely on Dawkins’ evolution-based justification for altruism — of defining altruistic behaviour as any kind of co-operative behaviour, even if it ultimately benefits the individual taking the action. While you can make a case for that in the evolution case because they wouldn’t intend to do it because it benefits them but it would benefit them as a side effect (which is what allows evolution to select for it), here Lee has to be considering a case where they are deliberately selecting the action because of the long term benefits. And that’s not altruistic behaviour.

Rand herself rails against this kind of redefinition of altruism/selfishness, by lamenting in her philosophical writings that the morality of altruism have redefined selfishness as the behaviour of brutes, when selfishness is really just self-interest. While Rand tended to have in mind the idea that those who are selfish are too evil to work with others, here Lee is promoting the idea that they’re too stupid to work with others. But Rand promotes Enlightened Egoism, which actually forces people to work with others if it benefits them and to not sacrifice a greater long term gain for a lesser short term gain. And no Egoism worth discussing will prefer the lesser gain for the greater gain.

Given this, Rand’s Objectivism, based as it is on Enlightened Egoism, should be able to handle Prisoner’s Dilemma-like situations easily. To be fair, the reason why people might not think so is because Game Theorists tend to hide it under the same sort of mistake as Lee does above, arguing that selling out your partner is “selfish” and that co-operating isn’t, even though the only reason to not sell them out is because it benefits you. No Game Theory can ever advocate that you co-operate even if you end up shafted on the deal — for example, if you know that they are going to defect — and Enlightened Egoism will only advocate that you co-operate in those situations where, ultimately, it works out better for you. So they will advocate that you co-operate when it actually benefits you to do so and defect when it actually benefits you to do so, which is precisely the criteria that Game Theory uses to argue for why you should co-operate in those counter-intuitive examples, as it argues that while you’re trying to get the most benefit with your choice you actually won’t. So, no, Objectivism is not in any way oppose to co-operating with others when it benefits you to do so, and it’s only Lee’s incorrect idea of altruism that makes him think that they wouldn’t. So his sole objection to it doesn’t work, because he neither understands it nor what altruism really entails.

Next, he takes on Aristotle’s Virtue Theory, which is very similar to Stoic Virtue Theory, and so is of special interest to me:

While Aristotle’s system has much to recommend it – in particular, its correct identification of happiness as the ultimate good – its major problem is that it does not explain why some traits are virtues and not others. It does not argue that the specific qualities he identifies will lead to happiness rather than others. It also does not adequately support the claim that virtue lies in the middle of a continuum rather than at its extremes – might not extremism in defense of other good traits be a virtue, for example, rather than compromising with evil?

The first thing to note is that Aristotle’s eudaimonia isn’t really happiness as Lee understands it. It’s more “the right way for a human to life” than simply the feeling of happiness or contentment with one’s life which is what both Lee and most Utilitarians use. If the things that normally make us happy turned out to be vicious — vices instead of virtues — pretty much all Virtue Theorists would insist that we should abandon those things and learn to be “happy” with the virtues. They would also state that it’s perfectly possible to achieve eudaimonia even if are missing a number of material pleasures (Aristotle argues that we need at least a basic level of these things to achieve eudaimonia, but a lot less than most hedonistic moralities — like Utilitarianism — would suggest). So it isn’t really the case that Aristotle identified happiness as the ultimate good in the same way as Lee does.

Second, he misunderstands Aristotle’s idea of virtue being in the middle of the continuum. Aristotle’s argument essentially is that you have the virtue, but then you will always have the associated vices at the two extremes. But these extremes are not to be defined strictly in terms of the actions, but are rather the extremes of lack and overabundance. So for Bravery, say, what you would have as the associated vices are Cowardice on the one side and Foolhardiness on the other. So running away from a battle when one had committed to it would be Cowardice, charging out in battle at the first sign of the enemy without any of your fellows would be Foolhardiness, but running out in line with your fellows would be Bravery. But this doesn’t preclude dramatic actions, as charging out at the enemy alone hoping to inspire your fellow soldiers to do the same would be Brave, not Foolhardy. As another example, in the book “I, Jedi” it is noted that the telekinetically weak Halcyons often volunteered to stay behind and die providing a rear guard rather than be a burden to those escaping, which might seem Foolhardy except for that fact. So Lee’s comment about not compromising with evil is in no way something that is required by Aristotle’s view, and so also doesn’t work as a counter.

Lee is also unfair to suggest that Aristotle doesn’t explain why some traits are virtues and not others, as in his works on it he very much attempts to do so. It is fair to say that many are not convinced that he succeeded.

The next system that he examines is Rousseau’s Social Contract:

There is nothing inherently problematic with this idea, but social contract theory cannot provide the foundation for an ethical system, for the following reason: while a state may be needed to enforce morality, it cannot create it. Democracy is the only ethical system of government, but it cannot itself be the way to create ethics – that would imply that what is right and wrong can change with the changing will and cultural mores of the people, which is, as stated above, a conclusion I must reject. Even if we assume for the moment that we have a state whose members have the power to create and enforce laws, we are still left with the question of what laws to create and why. In sum, social contract theory assumes the existence of some underlying morality which the social contract itself does not provide – and thus we must delve deeper to find the true foundation of ethical behavior.

I’m not as familiar with Rousseau as I am with the other systems, but from quickly looking around it seems that the reason that it doesn’t address morality is that it isn’t a moral system, but a political one. Thus, it isn’t surprising that it isn’t a satisfactory moral theory.

Another thing to note is that Lee blithely asserts here that democracy is the only ethical system of government, but I don’t see how, say, a Platonic Philosopher King couldn’t, in theory, be an ethical moral system, while a democracy could easily fall into Tyranny of the Majority and become unethical. More importantly, he says this before actually outlining what the right ethical system is, and so we have no reason to accept that as a statement or argument unless we already believe it. This suggests that a lot of his comments and even criticisms are relying a lot on assumptions that he’s making about what is moral beforehand, which risks assuming his conclusion.

The next one is another one that’s of special interest to me, which is Kant’s Categorical Imperative:

The categorical imperative does correctly sweep the board clear of actions such as lying, stealing and killing which have been generally agreed to be immoral. However, the problem with this moral system is that it is too strict: it rules out as immoral things which rational people can intuitively agree are not immoral at all. For example, take the case of what a person does for a living. According to the categorical imperative, what career should we choose? Clearly, under this principle we cannot rationally choose to be doctors, or lawyers, or computer programmers, or politicians, or artists, or craftsmen, or in fact any other specialized career – because if everyone did the same thing, society would collapse and the openings for these specialized positions would no longer exist. In fact, the only career we could choose according to this system would be the one career that we can without contradiction will to be universal: namely, a subsistence farmer, growing only the necessities of life and making all one’s possessions oneself.

Clearly, this is an error. It is not morally wrong to choose a specialized career. In fact, the division of labor that exists in industrialized societies is the very thing that makes possible scientific research and technological advancement that brings about much overall good, such as cures for diseases and improvements in the length and quality of life. The categorical imperative fails when it comes to the important issue of what we should do for a living.

First, it can easily be countered that the specifics of choosing a career, while it may have moral implications, isn’t really a matter for morality itself. Second, Lee gets the idea about universalizing but misapplies it here. Remember, the Categorical Imperative is about trying to generalize a rule and ensuring that doing so doesn’t make it self-defeating, which means that once universalized it no longer fulfill its purpose. Lee is correct to say that generalizing a rule of “Everyone must become a doctor” or any other specialized career would be self-defeating no matter what the actual purpose of a career is (since obviously not everyone could practice it). But we would also try to generalize the rule of “Everyone should pick the same career” and not that that rule is the one that’s actually self-defeating. Thus, we cannot ever generalize that everyone should pick the same career. But we can generalize the rule with no risk of contradiction that everyone should choose a career that best suits their talents and desires. Thus, that’s the one we’d generalize, which gets us out of the trap of subsistence farming.

If one argues that everyone choosing subsistence farming can also be generalized (which, since we need things to farm that we may not be able to make ourselves, is probably not the case), then we lead into his second argument, about what happens when we have multiple principles that can be generalized:

Another important problem with the categorical imperative is that it offers no advice on what to do when universal laws conflict. Certainly there are situations in which two incompatible actions could both be construed as the right thing to do, and the principle guiding each one could be universalized without contradiction. What, then, do we choose? (A concrete example: You pass a beggar on the street asking for money. One course of action might be to give it to him, on the grounds that this unfortunate is a human being who deserves compassion and assistance. Another might be to not give him anything, on the grounds that the homeless should be encouraged to work for a living rather than ask for handouts. It seems that a society could abide by either of these principles without producing widespread self-contradictory behavior. What would this system advise?)

As we saw above, universal laws are not usually defined at this low a level. Also note that in his example what he’s doing is providing reasons for choosing one action or another, but reasoning out which result would be better is not creating a universal law as it relies on having one already: In giving charity, one should do what actually provides the most benefit for the person receiving the charity. This rule can be generalized without becoming self-defeating, the counter-rule that would say not to do so is not, and it reduces Lee’s example to a discussion of what actually fulfills the conditions of the law and not a clash of universal laws.

There is the potential for being able to universalize two conflicting laws, but in those cases it is likely that the other principles — do not treat people, even yourself, solely as a means to an end, but also always as an end in themselves, as an example — would settle the tie. If it was really the case that there were two principles that could both be universalized and also equally fulfilled the other principles, then I’m not sure it actually matters which one is chosen, so this isn’t an objection that should concern Kantians.

A third problem with the categorical imperative is that it is too strict, in that it encourages us to formulate exceptionless universal laws which take no notice of relevant factors that might make an act wrong in one circumstance but right in another. For example, take the classic case of a person in Nazi Germany sheltering Jewish refugees in his house when a Gestapo officer comes to the door and demands to know if he has seen any Jews lately. Clearly, the moral thing to do here is to lie. But the categorical imperative, in this case, says exactly the opposite – that we should tell the truth! The categorical imperative against lying admits of no exception, no matter the extenuating circumstances. Kant himself said as much: in his essay On a Supposed Right to Tell Lies From Benevolent Motives, he argued that even the protection of innocent lives does not release us from our moral duty to never lie and to immediately disclose the full truth to anyone who asks us any question.

On this point, the categorical imperative is not just wrong, it is abhorrent.

This actually isn’t true, as I noted to another philosophy student at one point to which he agreed: under Kant, you can indeed attempt to generalize exceptions to a universal law as long as those exceptions, when universalized, don’t also turn out to be self-defeating. To use the classic example, you can indeed try to universalize the exception to the law against lying of “You should lie when the murderer asks you where their intended victim is”. The problem is that the reason lying, when universalized, is self-defeating is because the point of lying is to make someone believe that you’re telling them the truth when you aren’t, but if you have a universally known and acted upon rule that says to lie the person you are telling the lie to will not believe you, defeating the purpose of lying. But if we make a universal law out of the exception of lying to the murderer, then the murderer won’t believe us either, and so lying to them is pointless.

The same thing applies to his example of the Nazi. If there was a universal law to lie to the Nazi, the Nazi wouldn’t believe you when you say that you haven’t seen them. In that example, you aren’t forced to answer yes or no, and so can easily take the option of simply saying nothing, which is universalizable: When the Nazi asks you if you’ve seen Jews, never answer. The only people, then, who would answer the Nazi are immoral people by definition, which resolves the moral quandry.

I did find the section that Lee cites, but Kant’s argument is not based on the Categorial Imperative there. Instead, he argues that if you do the moral thing and tell the truth — ie you do what your duty is according to the various moral principles — you aren’t responsible for the consequences, but you are responsible for them if you acted immorally. Essentially, the argument here is that we have a duty to act morally and cannot be blamed for the consequences if we act on that duty, whereas if we act in opposition to that duty then we are. I think that Kant could have put it simpler without appealing to consequences at all by noting that we simply have a duty to act morally and that the consequences of taking moral actions do not change the morality of our actions. At that point, all Lee can do is appeal to consequences determining morality, which Kant and a number of others reject. So he’d need to demonstrate consequentialism first before using this as an objection to Kant, but if he could do that then Kant’s entire moral system is undercut, and so he wouldn’t need to use this objection.

So, no, it’s not abhorrent to suggest that someone should choose to act morally even if someone dies because of it. It’s what we’d expect from a morality. Lee’s difference with Kant is over consequentialism, and that’s not enough to claim that Kant’s view is completely incorrect and abhorrent.

The next one he examines is evolutionary ethics:

… the fatal problem with this ethical system and all others like it is that it commits what is known as the naturalistic fallacy by attempting to derive an “ought” from an “is”. Simply stated, just because something happens in nature does not mean it is right that such a thing should happen. All ethical theories that claim otherwise illicitly leap from noting the occurrence of a fact to attaching a value to that fact. Even versions of evolutionary ethics which hold that cooperation and reciprocal altruism are our species’ nature suffer from this problem. Given the enormous diversity of behavior observed in nature – from selfishness, parasitism and xenophobia to love, altruism and cooperation – any simplistic attempt to derive a moral system from biology is bound to fail, and in any case no moral system can escape the fact that observation of facts alone can never produce an ethical “ought”.

The evolutionary argument is actually that our sense of morality is derived from evolution and that the purpose for which our moral sense was selected for is what justifies morality and, in fact, is the only thing that can. So it’s not about justifying our own behaviour or a notion of our nature, or determining what that is (that’s closer to Virtue Theories, actually). So they don’t have to select all behaviour and can avoid the strict naturalistic fallacy. The problem comes in when they want to either reject something in our moral sense or something that would be justified by the evolutionary purpose of morality. They have no way to do so, and they always do. So, again, Lee’s counter isn’t really one that they would worry about.

The next one he considers is Utilitarianism. Since the title of this post reflects that Lee’s view is a Utilitarian one, it will be interesting to note these for later to see if his view escapes his own criticisms:

Though later modifications may have improved this system, as originally postulated it is not sufficient. For example, act utilitarianism makes no allowance for the concept of human rights – if treating one person or group unfairly would bring happiness to a greater number of others, this system would counsel us to do it. (One example of this might be a government passing a law to censor the speech of a small and unpopular political group.) Also, it judges acts purely according to their consequences, disregarding motive and intent; it holds that pleasure is always valuable even if obtained through evil acts.

Well, first, if Utiltarianism is correct and rights can’t fit into it, then so much the worse for human rights, so this isn’t much of an objection. And there can be no concept of an evil act if it increases utility, and as utility means increasing happiness/pleasure for everyone involved — or, at least, having the average for everyone turn out better than the other options — then it’s hard to see what sort of evil act he’s talking about (the standard argument here is one person getting sufficient pleasure out of hurting others, which is indeed a valid objection). Also in his example of the political group, the same Utilitarian reasoning would also apply to a dangerous political group, and much easier. But, yes, it is a common problem of Utilitarian moral systems that you can justify harms to people if the overall happiness at the end of it is greater. It will be interesting to see if Lee’s approach can actually avoid that.

The last one he talks about is Rawls:

There is much merit in Rawls’ conception of social justice, and its main flaw is not a theoretical but a practical one: his proposal is and forever will be a thought experiment only. There is no way this scenario could ever actually be carried out, and no matter how good a moral system seems in the abstract, it does no good to postulate one not grounded firmly in reality. Morality is inseparably enmeshed with everyday experience, and we need a moral system that recognizes this, one that can be used “on the ground” to serve as a reliable guide to ethical reasoning without removing all the actors to a far-away notional realm. This conception of justice does not help to reach a decision unless we assume that all people act as if they were reasoning from Rawls’ original position, and this is clearly not the case.

It would be trivial to make Rawls’ conception work in reality by saying that we can accept no moral position that we couldn’t accept if we were in the Veil of Ignorance, which avoids his actual objection here beyond the flowery discussion of grounding it in reality. We wouldn’t need to assume that all people will act that way, just that when we are justifying moral principles the justification comes from there. So this isn’t much of an objection to Rawls either.

Next time, we’ll actually get around to seeing what Lee’s proposed solution actually is.

Thoughts on “A Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master”

January 23, 2020

The fourth entry in the Nightmare on Elm Street series is the first entry that follows on directly from the previous movie, which is the first issue with the movie: if you haven’t watched the first movie, a lot of the events in this one won’t make much sense and, importantly, you won’t have the emotional connection to the characters brought over from that one which will really help to make the first part more poignant. Other horror movie sequels have brought along or brought back some characters, but in this one the mechanisms are too tied to the events of the previous movie to work on their own. Basically, the character from the previous movie that brought her friends into the dreams is doing it again, as Freddy is trying to use her to allow himself to continue his murders after having completed his revenge and so having no link to fall back on. Without that mechanism and that connection, her part doesn’t make much sense and as that power gets passed on to the Final Girl, we need to understand it to understand Freddy’s plan and what happens to Alice, the Final Girl, later in the movie.

However, all of that is more than balanced out by the fact that Alice is by far the best Final Girl in the series, so much so that it’s a shame that Nancy gets so much more attention than her. Alice is nice, shy, and pretty. She has serious self-esteem and self-image problems, and a home life that’s pretty dysfunctional. This gives her an interesting relationship with her brother, and a remarkably complex relationship with her somewhat abusive father, who is an alcoholic and gives her and her brother a hard time, but is clearly handling her mother’s death poorly (as they all are) and so is a character that we can feel some sympathy for in the next movie. What makes her interesting, though, beyond the new powers she gains is that she overcomes her timidity and issues as the movie progresses, becoming the first character in either movie series — Friday the 13th or Nightmare on Elm Street — to have actual character growth in the series. And the movie sets this up perfectly, by having her cover up her mirror with photos, having her remove photos of her friends when they die, and finally removing all of them before the final confrontation with Freddy. Thus, she not only overcomes the literal demon, but her inner demons as well, making the final triumph a deeply personal one as well.

Beyond that, the movie is a pretty standard Nightmare on Elm Street movie. The plot is a little bit more involved than some of the others, and the method for getting rid of Freddy makes a little more sense and is a little bit better foreshadowed than the others. But, overall, the horror is pretty standard for the series, with the normal puns and ironic deaths prominent.

Other than the fact that I really would have to watch the third one again to rewatch this one, this is one that I would definitely watch again. Fortunately, the third one isn’t bad either, so this is a movie that I would rewatch.

Philosophical Musings Inspired By Kant

January 22, 2020

So, in line with my goal to do more philosophical reading to start the year, I’ve been reading Kant’s “Critique of Pure Reason” that I last read selections of way back in university. And so far I’ve gotten back to the point where he starts to talk about the categories, which are the preconditions of experience.

The main issue Kant is facing here is, I believe, this. He’s examining the issues around our knowledge of the world, and wants to find a balance between the idealists who argue that there may not be a world outside of our ideas of it and the empiricists who want to argue that we get credible knowledge of the world through our senses. The problem with both, in my view, is that neither of them can handle cases of illusions or delusions very well. For idealists, it’s hard to see how our ideas about the world can be mistaken if they are in fact only our ideas of it, and so the idealist is either forced to insist that contradictory evidence doesn’t change their ideas — or that there is one right idea about the world but not one that we have to learn by examining any kind of real world — or else find a way to explain how our ideas can be wrong without there being a real world out there to have wrong ideas about. On the other hand, empiricists have a difficult time with illusions because it suggests that our sense impressions could be giving us incorrect facts about the world. While especially with science there have been a number of ways to try to make those facts at least consistent, it will always raise the question of whether our resolution is reflecting the real world or if they’re just rationalizations and so we can’t trust our senses to be telling us about the real world at all.

This leads to where I am now, with Kant arguing against fundamentalists and skeptics, as he puts it. The former are people who would insist that they have the knowledge and the facts despite any problems that have been raised. The latter are people who insist that given those problems we can’t actually know anything about the real world at all. Kant wants to be able to justify knowledge of the real world and not just assume it, and he thinks that that should be possible.

What’s important up to now in my reading is that he starts from the idea that there are simply some categories that are the preconditions of experience that we require in order for our experiences to be intelligible. As these are the preconditions of experience, we cannot learn them from experience: we can’t have any intelligible experience to learn anything from without already having them in our intellect. The two main categories of these are space and time, as he argues that without them we couldn’t have any understandable experience to learn anything from. But because all experience is filtered through these preconditions, we can’t claim that these categories are in the objects themselves, which he calls the thing-in-itself. So what we have is an appearance of the thing, but not a direct link to the thing itself.

I opined in that class long ago that Kant is probably being too conservative here. In order for our experiences of an object to fit here, there has to be something about the object that lets us unify it into an experience through the categories. So we should be able to claim that while we can’t know exactly what the thing-in-itself is, we know that it cannot have a property that would make it impossible for us to unify it in the way that we just did. Thus, in some sense, it fits into the categories. So all of the objects that we perceive are, in fact, intelligible in that way.

But, then, could there be objects that aren’t intelligible? Well, there could be, but either we would never perceive them — there would be no way for us to get any kind of intelligible unified perception in consciousness, so our minds would simply drop them — or they would seem very weird and/or incomplete to us. So there may be a number of objects out there that we simply never perceive because it is impossible for us to do so.

So then we can ask this question: is it not possible, then, for us to be simply building a consistent world out of a set of unintelligible sensory perceptions that then do not map in any way to the world as it is? I don’t mean something like a Cartesian Demon or a Matrix where we are stuck in an illusion foisted upon us by someone else, but instead with us building a sensible and intelligible world out of an unintelligible one only in our minds. Could this be the case? It seems that it could, but if I was going to argue against that interpretation I’d argue that it would be something that would be so difficult that the edges would show, and our world would look a lot odder than it actually is. We should have all sorts of oddities that we can’t quite resolve and that we’d have to dismiss. This does happen, but no where near as much as it probably should if the world outside was unintelligible. So it’s more likely that either we have a Matrix-style illusion where we are almost certainly cut off from any experiences of the world — or, at least, we don’t use them to build our image of it — or we are getting real experiences of at least more or less intelligible objects and using that to build our perceptions through the categories. And since we don’t seem to be able to change our perceptions as per our desires or even ideas all that often, it’s far more likely that the reason our perceptions don’t align with our ideas or wants is because there’s something else outside that that we are referencing that forces our perceptions into certain forms. So, given this, we’re probably justified in believing that there is an external world with at least intelligible properties that is what we are ultimately experiencing.

Anyway, the big push for this was more to focus on Kant’s moral system given the books I already had on this, but I have always thought that Kant had an interesting idea here, if often a bit esoteric.

Musings on “Jumanji”

January 21, 2020

So, I had decided to watch “Jumanji” in preparation for hopefully watching the first remake on my streaming service the next week. The only problem was that when I went to do the second part it wasn’t there anymore. So I decided to post some musing on “Jumanji” instead. These have to be musings because I fell asleep while watching it and missed the ending, and so can’t really comment on how it all works out. Even though I had watched this movie once before, that was many, many years ago and I can’t really remember the full ending.

The first thing that I noticed is that the movie isn’t really about the adventures in or caused by the board game. Instead, it’s far more a movie about the relationships and personalities of everyone involved, and the board game is just the framing device of that. It starts from the main character’s being bullied and relationship with his parents, into the relationship with the girl next door (which started the bullying and is involved in his getting trapped in the board game to start with) and then in the modern era focuses on their reconnection as well as the aunt taking in her niece and nephew and their issues dealing with the death of their parents. This makes for a more interesting movie, but will bother people who were more interested in the adventure.

While it’s an old movie, the CGI looks pretty good, although the monkeys look a bit off. But one of the issues with the movie is that the events in the board game spread too far and too devastatingly into the town itself. It really makes it seem like the adventure parts should be a bigger deal than they actually are.

Kirsten Dunst was in the movie, and did a really good job. She was indeed a very good child actress.

Flippin to the A Side

January 20, 2020

So, the next curling event is one that always reminds me of this song:

That’s because it’s the one tournament where instead of using a round robin format they use a triple knockout format. What this means is that teams are divided up in three “sides”, A, B and C, where the A side hasn’t lost a game, the B side has lost one game, and the C side has lost two games. The goal, as the commentators put it, is to win three games before you lose three games. The brackets, obviously are what reminds me of that song, but what is interesting about the tournament itself is that some teams will play quite a few more games than others, ranging from, well, 3 to 5 I guess. I found out this week that this is what the format used to be for all the Grand Slam events, and after they all went to a round robin this one went back to this, pretty much just to be different. I’m not really sure which I prefer, but the round robin is a lot easier to follow.

The final itself was the game that was the least interesting to me, as it featured Anna Hasselborg against Min Ji Kim. I’m not terribly fond of Hasselborg, and knew nothing about Kim, so there wasn’t really a team for me to cheer for here. Hasselborg ended up winning the game 7 – 3, which gave her three straight wins on the Grand Slam, matching what Rachel Homan did last year.

Which brings me to the interesting fact that Homan is still struggling, missing the playoffs again after she won her first game and then didn’t win another the entire week, if I recall correctly. This is after winning the Canada Cup going away. There were comments about how having had two of the team have children in the last year might be affecting them, but the problem with that reasoning is that they performed so well at the Canada Cup. Maybe it’s a matter of shifting priorities? The Canada Cup had a much bigger prize — entry into the tournament to choose the Olympians — and maybe they aren’t as concerned about the Grand Slam tournaments as they were for that one.

It was also the first time that the semi-finals did not have a Canadian team, with them all being international teams. This garnered some hand-wringing about whether Canada should be worried about losing its position in curling, but I don’t really see it. Canada might have been dominant in the Grand Slams, but that was because it was Canada’s tournament and a lot of the best international teams wouldn’t come because the travel to Canada was too expensive for them. But when it came to the Worlds Canada was always in the mix but not an automatic winner, as there were always some great European teams to compete with them. About the only thing that’s different now is an influx of Asian teams, who are both now more able to make it out to Canada and have found that there’s a benefit to coming out to Canada, as if they play against the better teams they learn a lot which makes them better. So curling has always been competitive and is only becoming more so, but Canada doesn’t seem to have a dearth of strong even young teams coming out of the ranks. They shouldn’t get complacent, but they aren’t really struggling that much more than they have in the past. Although losing the Continental Cup two years in a row might make them wonder a bit.

The next curling action comes up in February, with the Scotties (the Canadian Women’s Championships).