Archive for July, 2020

Colorblind casting

July 31, 2020

So, Jerry Coyne has a post up talking about an article in the NY Times about colorblind casting, which I can’t read because I can’t get free articles and there’s no way I’m subscribing to them, since I don’t even subscribe to newspapers in my own country and so prefer to get my news from more reliable sources, like innuendo and small children. Anyway, all I can do is rely on Jerry Coyne’s references to the article, but for the most part I don’t want to get into her — Maya Phillips — views on why it’s wrong, but instead simply want to focus on my own thoughts on the matter and when it’s a good thing and when it isn’t. Let’s start with the definition, at least summarized by Coyne:

“Colorblind casting” is defined in this New York Times piece by culture critic Maya Phillips as “performers [inhabiting] characters of racial backgrounds that [differ] from their own.”

So let me dispense with the extreme ends that could end up as strawmen. On the one end, we have cases where the script has a loose idea of what race a character is or should be, but when casting don’t find themselves limited to that race because the race of the character doesn’t actually have any bearing on the plot. They may have conceived of the character as being a certain race and even mentioned it in the script, but none of that is important to the plot or characterization and so they are open to the best actor for that role no matter what their race. One typical example might be someone who read for a character where race was a more important factor but who didn’t get in, but in the auditions seemed to have a voice or cadence that really fit the other character, so the powers-that-be decided to give the role to that actor and change the race of the character to fit the actor. This is obviously perfectly acceptable and might even be something that they should do: even if they have an idea of what race the person seems most like to them, open it up to all races and let the best actor win, and then adjust the race accordingly.

On the other end, we’d have the case where a character has a set, defined race in-universe and key plot and characterization points depend on them being that race, and those points cannot be changed. If the character is going to be referred to in-universe as being of a certain race, then I think it completely obvious that casting an actor of a different race for that part isn’t going to work, unless you’re going to try some kind of subversion (like the notes in the original article about “Hamilton” making some of the Founding Fathers black). You can try those sorts of things, but you have to be prepared for it to fall flat. So, no, in general you aren’t going to cast an actor that is at least obviously not of that race (races that are at least superficially similar can work if done properly). This should be uncontroversial.

Or perhaps not:

I’ve never had a problem with people of any race or gender playing anyone, as the whole point of entertainment is to suspend disbelief. Unfortunately, as I already noted, “colorblind casting” used to be “colorblind” just for whites, so that we had whites playing Asians or Arabs (i.e., Alec Guinness in Lawerence of Arabia). This reduces the opportunity for talented actors of color to play roles; it was a form of discrimination.

Now, this really sounds like saying that anyone can play anyone of any race and gender at any time, which is ludicrous. He does soften it later to more closely align with the obvious case I outline above:

One other exception: when race is really important in a role, then one should cast appropriately. For example, Tom Robinson in To Kill a Mockinbird must surely have to be black, for blackness is essential to his role. Likewise, it would be bizarre to cast a black person play, say, David Duke, for in that case it would be very hard to suspend disbelief!

But then he also adds this:

What a can of worms she’s opened here! An act of minstrelsy! Does that mean that blacks playing the Founding Fathers in Hamilton are minstrels? Does this mean, as Bill implies in his piece below, that any non-Jew playing Shylock in Shakespeare is an “act of minstrelsy”?

Well, this section focuses more on “cultural”, but for Jews racially that would fit into my notion of “close enough” above but black people playing people who are defined in-universe as white fits exactly into the sort of thing that I consider obviously wrong and something that we cannot suspend disbelief over. I can see why in “To Kill a Mockingbird” it would obviously be a problem — the work itself makes key plot points out of the race of the character — but don’t necessarily see why casting a black person to play David Duke would be more a violation of suspension of disbelief than doing that for a character that the work constantly refers to them as white or Asian. Coyne here seems to be conflating the two cases above, but ignoring that in the first case above it’s not a white actor playing a black character or a black actor playing a white character, but instead is the writers changing the race of the character to match the race of the actor. So the character changes from a nominally white character to a nominally black character, for example. This, then, wouldn’t be a case of actors playing characters of any race, and so while it’s acceptable, it’s also not what’s happening.

In short, the obvious case is the case where the character is clearly identified as having a certain race. In such a case, you can’t put an actor of a different race in that role unless you are trying to subvert or parody something.

Okay, so what about the less obvious cases? These are all cases where the character originates outside the work itself and where it originated the character has a specific race. Let’s start with the example of historical figures, like Alec Guinness for Lawrence of Arabia. The issue here is that generally the goal for any biopic is to cast actors for at least the main roles that resemble the characters they’re playing as much as possible, because the audience has often seen pictures of them and know what they look like, and if they look too different they won’t be able to suspend disbelief. As noted in the comments, one of the reasons for casting Guinness in the role is that he physically resembled Lawrence of Arabia. But if you swap the race out, there will generally be an obvious disconnect there, and this will be greater the greater the physical difference in races is (again, coming back to the “close enough” angle mentioned above). So, in general, you don’t want to have real, known people played by someone of a different race, because it will be jarring, especially for the primary characters. So you don’t do it unless you want to subvert something (which, as noted above, was indeed the point for “Hamilton”). And you have to be prepared for your subversion to fall flat and the audience to be turned off by the change. Otherwise, you want to keep the races the same.

Okay, so what about the case where the character comes from another media — a book, a comic, a previous TV show, a previous movie, etc, etc — and is being adapted to the screen or as a play. Can you cast actors of different races than the ones that were in the original work? The issue here is that making changes to a work in an adaptation for no reason can annoy the original audience, who are the audience that you are at least counting on to make your work a success. If they dislike it and stay away, then all you’re doing is appealing to the new audience who don’t know the original work and so don’t consider it to be any different from any other new work out there. So do you risk annoying the original audience to cast an actor in a role that originally had a different race? Often, and if done well, there’s no real problem with it. If done poorly, though, it can really kill a work. Remakes often get more forgiveness than adaptations (although Starbuck in the remake of Battlestar Galactica was a prime case where at least the initial introduction was handled badly), but again here it’s going to come down to how important the race of the character was to the character, but with the added criteria of the reason given for making the change. A behind-the-scenes comment that they intended to keep the character as that race but the actor blew them away is likely to be better received than a claim that they needed “diversity”. Fans of a work don’t want to see changes made to it by an adaptation for no reason, but are open to some changes if it makes sense and/or works.

So, the answer about “colorblind” casting is essentially this: you can do it if the characters are written mostly colorblind, but be very careful if they aren’t. And this should pretty much cover off all the objections and defenses of colorblind casting.

Thoughts on “Dreamkatcher”

July 30, 2020

I’ve watched and at least somewhat enjoyed the “Silent Hill” movie. “Dreamkatcher” stars the star of that movie — Radha Mitchell — and it had a somewhat interesting premise — a child has dreams of his dead mother that might be causing him to be possessed by an evil spirit — and so I thought I’d give it a try. But the movie commits one of the cardinal sins of horror movies: failing to make sense.

And that’s the sad thing, because the early parts of the movie are actually all right. There’s an introductory scene with the woman who was the boy’s mother being killed by a possessed child, and then we return to that remote cottage with the boy, his father, and his father’s fiance. The fiance is trying to bond with the boy, but he’s resistant. Soon after, he finds the talisman and it causes the dreams and him to act creepier and creepier at the instigation of what is at least an image of his mother. Due to other circumstances, the father had to go away for a while, so it’s the boy and the stepmother that he doesn’t really like, and he seems to be setting up events and the like to harm her.

Now, that’s all right and works relatively well. The problem is that the ending is both confusing and contradictory, and also doesn’t really reveal what actually happened at the end. The father returns and takes the boy out to chop firewood, which results in the boy killing him. The problem here is that the entire premise was that the boy cared for his father and resented the intrusion of his fiance into their life. This is even what the mother, in the dreams, was using against him. So why did he suddenly kill his father? If there had been an actual falling out or resentment there, it would have worked, but otherwise it’s just puzzling. On top of that, the mother kept using the fiance’s attempts to replace her as a reason for the boy to go after the fiance, but at the end the fiance saves herself by … saying that she just wanted to be his mommy. Huh? That’s exactly what the boy didn’t want according to the entire rest of the movie. So the movie arranges for the father to be killed by the boy when the boy didn’t want to kill him and saves the fiance even though the boy throughout the entire movie had been being groomed to kill her for the very reason that she supposedly uses to convince him otherwise. This makes no sense.

But wait, it gets worse. The movie implies that what she did there freed him from his possession. We then see her running to bury the dreamkatcher that was responsible for the possession. We then see the boy walking along the side of the road without her being anywhere near, and a police officer stops to ask him if he’s okay. He says that he’s tired, which was the phrase he used to indicate that he was possessed. We then see some children playing in he woods and finding the dreamkatcher. End movie.

So, what happened to the fiance? She lived, presumably, but didn’t stay with the boy that she said that she wanted to be a mommy to? Is the kid still possessed? At least the ending where the kids find the dreamkatcher is clear enough, but it’s disconnected from the rest of the movie. We never do find out what the demon’s goal is or why it does what it does, but the final scene doesn’t add to that and depends on us knowing what the goal is for it to have its weight, and what we would really want to know is what happened to the main characters, not get a set-up for a sequel. It really does seem like they went for the open-ended ending to hopefully get a sequel and ruined the ending in doing so.

The movie was tolerable until the ending, at which point it became absolutely nonsensical. I can’t imagine watching this movie again.

Sports Update

July 29, 2020

So, F1 and baseball are back, hockey is coming back, and curling is done until next year. Let me comment on a couple of things related to sports.

I am incredibly disappointed in the Canadian sports networks and how they reacted to the cancellations caused by the epidemic. Sure, they were probably the entertainment networks the most impacted by it — network TV will be hit in September/October when they don’t have new shows and seasons to show — but their handling of it was fairly poor. In March when things were up in the air, we could forgive them being caught flat-footed, but once it was clear that things weren’t going to start up again quickly it should have been clear what they needed to do. They should have been able to figure out what they had in their libraries and what people might want to watch, and then plan out what to show when. Both of them were showing classic games of various sports, but inconsistently and sometimes repeating the same games in the same timeslot with a short turnaround. TSN tried to have curling on the weekends but even when they advertised it as such couldn’t keep that running consistently. Sportsnet seemed to pretty much have random scheduling. And the worst thing about it is that with more people working from home and having to stay home, what they really wanted and needed was for things to be scheduled. Yes, sports fans are usually used to having the schedules change from week to week, but at this time if they were going to watch sports they were going to have to know when things were on and plan for it, to take time out of their day to watch it or decide what to watch when they got home from work (for those who were working outside of the home) or whatever. And not only were things inconsistent, at least one of the channels was lying to me, as what my on-cable guide said was on wasn’t what was on at least a couple of times. I’m not sure why they dropped the ball so badly, but they really did, making them mostly more frustrating to watch than fun (which is what drove me to rewatch “Dark Shadows” and “Smallville” instead of using the sports channels for noise while working). Then again, the massive amounts of games even in the afternoons for the returning sports might make up for it (if they do manage to finish and don’t have to shut down again).

Also, baseball is going with having a runner start on second base in extra innings this season. I think it was Jeff Blair who commented that baseball was the only sport where the fans complained about overtime, to which my reaction was “Who?!?”. For me, extra innings is when baseball is at its best, because baseball, for me, is primarily a suspense sport and it’s one of the few sports where you can really win a game with one swing of a bat with little to no preamble. So in extra innings — and especially in the bottom of the innings — you’re hanging on every pitch because, as Benjamin Sisko said, you can’t know what will happen until the pitch is thrown. I love extra innings. They’re the only parts of a baseball game where I really pay attention, precisely because of that. So I’m wondering who those people are who hate them. Probably just the media who don’t want the games to drag on so that they miss their deadlines (one channel showed the two very long extra innings games of the Blue Jays from the past couple of years, which were pretty much classic games because of their length).

So I don’t think it needed a change, and I don’t like the change. Sure, you can argue that starting a player at second makes things even more suspenseful because even a single could score the game winning run, but perhaps I’m just a purist because I think it unnecessary. And, of course, it will make the games end with less extra innings which, again, is the only part of the game that I absolutely and unconditionally love. With all of the idiotic changes baseball is making I’d wonder if they were going to change themselves so that I wouldn’t watch it anymore except that it’s still going to be a great sport to have on as noise which is mostly what I use it for anyway, so no matter what it does it’s unlikely to change that.

So, anyway, a couple of comments on sports ahead of my watching it in earnest again.

Thoughts on “Pretty Little Liars” (End Season 5)

July 28, 2020

So, two more seasons in from last time, I thought it would be a good idea to write about my impressions of the next two seasons. This probably makes this show the one I’ve commented on the most in the middle of watching it. Sure, other shows might have gotten more entries, but if they did they were longer series as well. This one is relatively short, but it really packs in the content in its seasons, which seems to be its greatest strength. This has also led to the oddity that despite the fact that I’m watching it in the evenings I rarely if ever doze off while watching it, and remember that I fall asleep during James Bond movies. I also am having a hard time reading while watching it, which is a sign of both a show I like and a show that has a lot of things going on in it. I’ve tried to read at times but noticed that I kept missing things, like jokes or encounters that are somewhat important. Even getting up to get a drink has had me rewinding the scene to watch because it was either good or important. So lots of things are happening which generally keeps me interested (although since each disk is often five episodes long sometimes I can get restless as well).

(As an aside, this was originally a book series, and I decided to pick up all of them to read, mostly to see how the books and the TV show differ and how the books themselves work and to be able to comment on that. Fortunately, hockey season is supposedly restarting soon — which is why I put a bit of a push on finishing the show — which will give me plenty of time to read).

The biggest flaw in the show is how they deal with open antagonists. All of them are annoying and come across as a lot less competent than they are portrayed to be. When things shake out, that’s probably reasonable, but in the moment all it does is make them really, really annoying. The counter to that is Mona, who is always portrayed as being hyper-competent but as an antagonist is mostly annoying and never seems as smart as she’s supposed to be (so the protagonists fall into her traps by being stupid rather than by her being clever). She works so much better when she’s at least nominally on the side of the protagonists instead of working against them. The show is fairly good at keeping the shady antagonist shady and competent, but when they bring them into the light and force them to work openly things tend to fall apart. Since the show is far more focused on the hidden threat, that’s not really an issue. But it does get really annoying when the threat is more active.

And at the end of Season 5 we actually have a dramatic shift in the show, where at least the current A actually captures the girls for some unknown purpose. This is an interesting move to make, and while it does escalate things it also provides something new. The only issue I have with it right now is that it might be difficult to tie this person into the overall plot. So, in short, I’m wondering if they can pull it off without it coming across as a gimmick and so mostly irrelevant to the overall story. Still, it’s a decent if overly dramatic cliffhanger.

The police are utter idiots throughout the entire series so far. And less because they are mistaken or wrong about most things, but that they are so aggressively hostile about it. The latest is Tanner, who expresses utterly idiotic and meaningless things with an air of hostile certainty so we feel no sympathy for her at all. It’s not even so much that she’s antagonistic, but that she’s uselessly antagonistic. If her blunt style occasionally turned up something useful, then we could find her character less of a waste. Or if she was constantly causing issues for the protagonists like Wilden was, then that would be better as well. But her scenes amount to nothing more than her busting someone’s chops over something when she has no idea what’s going on but is completely convinced that she knows everything. If she was even sympathetic to the girls but being forced into those conclusions — like her partner might have been — then that would be interesting. But as it is she’s a waste of scenes.

One of the issues with the show is that I think that it would have reduced the cries of “Just tell your parents/the police!” if more emphasis had been placed on the protagonists being more rats in a maze than with the more hostile revenge-type plots that it focused on. If A rewarded them or even hid their secrets when they obeyed but revealed secrets or hurt them or other people if they disobeyed, it would have given them a reason to go along with A and a real feeling of fear when they either tried to disobey or even went snooping around to try to figure out who A was. With the secrets and the blackmail, they would have wanted to try to find A to end it, but would have had to be secretive about it because bad things happen when they weren’t. There were cases of this — Hanna being asked to do bad things to get the money her mother stole back — but not enough to lampshade it in the later seasons. This might have interfered with the revenge motive that they played up, but it would have made things seem like less of an Idiot Plot.

I also think that they needed a chessmaster on their side, someone who could plot moves and while not match A step-for-step could at least set things in motion that could give A a challenge. I said at the beginning that they were going to need wins, and the show never really provided them because most of the characters weren’t at all able to provide them. The closest to that sort of character was Spencer, and she’s too smart for her own good and so can’t pull it off. This is one reason why Mona works well when she’s working with them because she can step into that sort of character while still being fallible enough to let A stay a bit ahead of them.

Personally, I think the character should have been Spencer’s boyfriend, because Toby, in my view, doesn’t quite work for Spencer. He’s good as someone who is — at least in later seasons — less intense and more laid-back than her, but he can’t really keep up with her intellectually (although there was a hint that he might become that in an early scene where he beats her at Scrabble) and she needs someone who can beat her at her own game but whom she can beat as well, but also someone who takes life less seriously and so can dampen down her intensity and get her to stop pushing at times. I don’t mind the character himself, but just think that he’s not really a good fit for her and that he could have been replaced with someone who could play more of a direct role in helping them, thus giving at least the three boyfriends a role that they could swap in and out as necessary (Hanna’s Caleb having the hacking skills, Aria’s Ezra having the research and research abilities, and Spencer’s boyfriend having planning skills that they needed). Caleb and Ezra have skills and are still mostly superfluous, but Toby is pretty much completely superfluous.

I still like Hanna the best. She gets a lot of the storylines and most of the worst ones, and Ashley Benson does a great job portraying the emotions needed to pull them off, in my opinion. I’m not sure if that was the plan for the character from the start or if the performance sold it, but she both gets dumped on a lot and also manages to portray that the best out of all of them. Emily is getting better as a character as she is getting more aggressive herself, but all of her storylines are still boring, and I’m puzzled as to why. My guesses are either that they didn’t want to take the risk of unintended consequences with the gay storylines, or else they thought that the gay storylines would be dramatic enough on their own and so didn’t really need to be interesting. It’s gotten to the point where I grimace whenever a scene starts with one of her personal storylines, and that’s not something I experience for pretty much anything else in the show, which hurts her character and is a bit sad.

I’m writing this a bit ahead, so by the time this goes up I should be on Season 7, and so almost to the end. So far, I’m really liking the show. Let’s see if the last couple of seasons screw that up.

Moral Overdetermination?

July 27, 2020

So, one other point in Baron’s work on Kant is a concern about overdetermination. Basically, this is the case where someone takes an action both because it is the thing that they most want to do and because it’s the thing that they are morally obligated to do, leading to two sufficient causes for the action, one moral and one amoral. For most moral systems, this isn’t much of a problem and such cases themselves aren’t that interesting, as the more meaningful cases are the ones where what someone wants to do and what is morally obligated are in conflict. But it’s potentially a bigger problem for Kant because he seems to insist that the only time one can consider oneself moral is if one acts purely for moral motivations. So in a case where someone is motivated equally by pragmatics (what you want and/or what most benefits you) and by morality, it would seem that Kant would have to say that they aren’t acting morally. While that’s not necessarily problematic, there are a number of these cases and if someone tried to condition their wants and pragmatic wants to conform to morality they would ironically end up not being moral anymore, which seems rather strange. So there might be some issues here.

But what I want to attack about the concept is whether or not such events ever actually happen. Is it ever the case that we’re motivated equally by pragmatic concerns and by moral concerns? It’s clearly insufficient to argue that someone is equally motivated by pragmatics and by morality if we can determine that for that person the action is morally correct and that it would benefit them the most. Just because it would benefit them or would be morally correct doesn’t mean that they’d be motivated to do it. So the next step up is to argue that if the other motivation wasn’t present that they’d still be motivated by the other one to take that action. The easiest way to do that is to remove one of the motivations and see if the person would or would be expected to take the action anyway. One way to do that is to ask whether they’d still take the action if the action was itself immoral. Baron herself notes that if that was the case, there’d be no problem calling the person immoral, or at least not properly motivated by morality. The reason is that it becomes clear that there is a primary and overwhelming motivation, and that motivation is their own interests and wants, not morality. So we don’t really have a case where the two of them equally motivate the person to take the action, but instead a case where wants rule over morals. And such a person is clearly not a moral person.

The interesting case, though, is the case where all we do is make the action morally neutral, so not an issue for morality at all. If the action is morally neutral, would they still do it because they want to do it? And if they didn’t want to do it but still thought that it was morally obligatory, would they do it based entirely on the fact that it was morally obligatory? We can certainly see that this is precisely how an intelligent and rational person will act: if the choice is morally neutral, they will go with their own benefit or personal desire, but if the choice is morally obligated, they will go with what is moral. And so a moral person will definitely be able to be moral in such a situation. So if we can’t be moral in such a situation, then it looks like we would have eliminated the paradigmatic example of a moral person.

But we still need to answer the question of whether the person in question would actually be equally motivated by morality and pragmatics. Psychologically, this seems unlikely. In general, just by nature we would tend towards giving one or the other primacy. So we’d either figure out what what morally obligatory and then decide or see if we wanted to do it, or in most cases for most people determine what it is you want to do and then check to see if it’s morally acceptable. Either way, we’d have a primary motivation with the other one being a check or secondary selection process to see if or how it conforms to the other, where moral concerns as a secondary motivation is more of a check and pragmatic concerns are more of a way to decide between multiple equally moral actions. A perfectly moral person would determine what is morally obligated first and only once that’s determined look at what they want to do from those options, and a decently moral person will decide what they want to do and then determine if it’s morally acceptable, and change their action accordingly. So in most cases there will still be a primary motivation, and we won’t be equally motivated by what we want to do and what we believe it is moral to do.

Thus, in almost all cases, we won’t have a case of actual overdetermination. Each person will have a primary motivation that they are acting on and a secondary motivation that at best acts as a filter. In those cases, however, it will be hard for any external agent — and, at times, even for the agent themselves — to determine which of the two motivations is the primary one. This is why I find cases where someone brags about how they only want to act in moral ways to be less indicative of moral character than the cases where they clearly want to act immorally. In the former cases, they could easily be making what they want to do their primary motivation and might not even be letting morality be a check on it, but what they want to do happens to align with morality and so they can pretend — even to themselves — that morality is their motivation. But for someone who want to act immorally but choose not to is clearly a case where being moral trumps what they want to do, making for a moral person.

So I don’t think overdetermination is a real problem because I don’t think it actually happens. And when it does, as long as one will never choose to do what they want even if they think it immoral then we don’t have to worry about the purity of their motives.

Capitalism and Using Money as Punishment

July 24, 2020

So, on a post at “A Tippling Philosopher” talking about cancel culture, one commenter interpreted my arguments talking about it not being reasonable to deprive someone of their livelihood as being a standard capitalist talking point and turned me immediately into a right-winger and staunch capitalist and tried to argue against that in a comment, saying this:

Two: this is how the market works. This is literally how capitalism functions. If you don’t like a product, either because of the views associated with it or otherwise, you do not have to buy that product. And if you share your opinions – you know, like the first amendment says you can – and other people agree, and they decide not to buy that product, then for once in its damned life, the market is working exactly as it should.

If you want to sell a product to a population who don’t like ‮selohssa‬‎, don’t be a f******* ‮elohssa‬‎. Few things in life are this simple. “Know your target audience” is the 1st rule of effectively selling anything.

So once again: your problem is with the free market, and what you’re calling “cancel culture” is better called “capitalism.”

Now, I disagreed with that. I didn’t see using money as a way to push someone into changing their values or expressing their values just because you had money and didn’t like those values as being consistent with capitalism. Surely under capitalism we shouldn’t be using our money to influence things that aren’t actually part of the transaction. Yes, potentially we can offer people money to act in certain ways, but we shouldn’t be threatening to withhold a livelihood from someone because of values they hold or things they believe and will say that we happen to not like.

Except that I had a nagging worry, and that nagging worry was a post that I made here a couple of weeks ago that said that we aren’t limited under capitalism to valuing money, but can and must vote for our values with our dollars. Isn’t that what the commenter is saying, that we should vote for our values with our dollars, and so refuse to give our money to people who have values that are incompatible with ours?

The issue is this, I think, and why I think that that sort of cancel culture is completely unacceptable: there’s a difference between allowing your values to determine what you purchase and using your money as a weapon to get people to live, act and believe the way you want them to. If I look at a company and say that I don’t like how they treat their employees and/or their customers and note that I don’t want to see businesses be run that way, there is a strong connection between the business transaction itself and my application of my money and my values. I don’t think that business transactions should be run that way. That’s clearly not how cancel culture works, as the things they express are always unrelated to the transaction. Most people aren’t claiming that Harry Potter is transphobic, but that Rowling is transphobic and that’s why they don’t want to buy her things anymore (aside from those who use the idiotic justification that they didn’t like her stuff anyway). So it’s driven by things completely outside of the transaction, and my comment was about things that are part of the transaction, even if they only underpinned it and could be mostly ignored in order to get a cheaper price.

But I don’t even think that the values themselves can’t influence your decision. After all, if a work expresses values that you disagree with it is perfectly in line with capitalism to decide that you wouldn’t like a work and so not purchase it. By the same token, if someone is greatly repelled by what they consider to be transphobic comments and so every time they try to read something by Rowling they are reminded of them and it makes them dislike the work, then it’s perfectly reasonable for them to decide not to consume it. No form of capitalism can work if it makes you purchase something that you can’t use for the purpose that you’d want to buy it or it forces you to not buy something that you really do want to use and is compatible with all of your other relevant values. But I’m willing to go even farther. I’m willing to say, in line with my previous post, that if you think that a work expresses values that you don’t want to see in society you can decide to refuse to purchase it and even promote that it has those values to people who think similarly to you precisely because you don’t want to see works promoting those values in society. People can indeed vote with their dollars to show their support or lack of support for certain specific values.

So if I’m willing to go that far, then why am I opposed to “cancel culture”? Because in the previous example, what we’re doing is judging the works for their content, and the content that contains their value is just as much something that we can assess for our tastes as much as quality or story or characterization or anything else in it. It’s no different to say that you don’t want to support a product that promotes values you dislike and don’t want to be common than it is to say that you don’t want to support a work because you don’t want to, say, see all science fiction movies become cheesy and schlocky summer blockbusters. We do get to attempt to discredit works for their content. What we don’t get to do is discredit people for things they believe and we don’t, especially with direct threats to their livelihood. We can make a work fail because we don’t like the values it expresses, but we can’t make a person fail because of the values they express (within reason, of course).

And that’s why I feel that cancel culture, rather than being a prime example of the market, is actually completely incompatible with capitalism. Capitalism is a system where the only support that someone has or can expect is what they can produce by the fruits of their own labour. This means that we have to be careful about restricting how people can produce money from their labour (which could drive a lot of the concerns about government regulation) because any time we prevent people from using their labour in the manner that best suits them we limit how far they can progress in society, potentially even to the point where they cannot survive in it at all (or at least would be left in grinding poverty). Of course, supply and demand insists that we are indeed free to consider our own notions and values in determining, as no one has the right to demand that we give them money just because they need it. They still have to earn their money, even if we have to be careful about how we limit their ability to earn it. But at the end of the day, depriving them of their ability to earn their money is a radical step that we can generally only counter with a note that their product itself doesn’t suit our needs. It is too strong a punishment in capitalism to deprive them of their livelihood, so we can never do it as a punishment.

And cancel culture is precisely using money as a weapon as a way to threaten to deprive them of their livelihood if they don’t act the way you want them to. That’s the whole point: you deprive them of a job, a salary, a career because they express values you don’t agree with and won’t change their values and apologize profusely for their sins. At this point, we are far beyond the transaction and far away from the product or service not suiting your needs. You are doing it precisely to punish, hurt and threaten them and compel them to the “proper” behavior. And while even in capitalism social punishments can be more or less acceptable in shaping society to the way you want it to be, depriving someone of their livelihood is far to strong a punishment to do that job. It’s the nuclear armageddon option, even more extreme that a nuclear option. Capitalism cannot survive if we can deprive people of their livelihoods for no other reason than as that we want to use that a social punishment and a threat to get them to do what we want. No one’s livelihood could ever be safe, and the capitalistic relationships could never be the same.

So, no, cancel culture does not come from and is not a proper expression of capitalism. It is, in fact, completely inconsistent with it, because it means that your livelihood depends on conforming precisely to a set of social norms. It’s not the market voting with its dollars for what it wants to see. It’s people suborning the market to force others to behave the way they want them to. And at that point, capital has no meaning.

Thoughts on “In Dreams”

July 23, 2020

“In Dreams” is an older horror movie — from 1998 — that stars at least now notable actors Annette Bening and Robert Downey Jr. And for the most part, it would have been a mostly inoffensive and even mildly entertaining outing except for the ending, which is what I’m going to talk about the most, well, at the end.

Anyway, the basic plot is that the lead character is a woman who has some psychic abilities who ends up with a psychic connection to a person who is kidnapping and killing children, and who eventually does that to her own child. She ends up locked in an asylum for reacting to the connection and that death, at which point she discovers that he was in there as well, and follows his trail to him and his latest victim, where he reveals that what he really wants is to create the family that he never had, as he spent his time chained up, so much so that when they flooded the old town he was, as far as we know, left behind there to drown but managed to escape. When she arrives, this is his chance to have that family, if he can avoid ruining it.

One of the worst parts of the movie is that they have to somehow get her to be considered to be insane so that she can follow the trail from the asylum, but the things she does aren’t really bad enough to get her committed to an asylum. The movie also has to have her daughter and husband be killed to set things up for the ending, which makes it a real downer even taking the ending into account. All of those bad things happen for no real purpose in the movie other than for things that could have happened otherwise.

But the ending is the worst, and smacks to me of either Executive Meddling or Focus Group Ending, because the movie feels like it has two endings and the one that it actually ends on isn’t consistent with the rest of the movie and ruins the theme of the “first” ending. The main character escapes and frees the little girl he has captive, but they fight on the top of a dam and the police arrive and both topple over. The main character while struggling in the water sees a vision of her daughter and they embrace. Immediately after, we see the trial of the killer which reveals that the main character is dead, and they go to lock him in an insane asylum for life which he responds to with a cocky “I can live with that”, but once he is locked into his room the main character and her daughter seemingly start haunting him, which is where the movie ends.

The problems with this are manifold. First, while the first ending was bittersweet it was a reasonably good ending, as she would be reunited with her daughter in the afterlife. Spending long years tormenting the killer isn’t anywhere near as good an afterlife. Second, it conflicts with how much time the movie spent making him sympathetic. As far as we know, he never intended to kill anyone and is definitely clearly insane from the abuse he suffered. Even the cocky answer is out-of-character for him, at least how he was portrayed towards the end. Third, the ending feels tacked on, as again the first ending is pretty much reasonably complete and there was no reason for us to think that he survived if she didn’t, so it could have ended with us thinking him dead as well and her just moving on to the afterlife. We didn’t need to see his trial, and that only exists to explain and lead into the scene where he is haunted.

That’s why I blame it on the executives or the focus groups, because it seems tacked on and likely is a reaction to comments that the main villain who killed kids shouldn’t have gotten off that easy. But the movie tries to make us feel sorry for him and mostly succeeds, so we aren’t that likely to feel negatively disposed enough towards him to want him to live out the rest of his life locked in a room and tormented by ghosts whose entire goal in life will be tormenting him, even if we were willing to accept that doing that would be a good afterlife for them. So ultimately it’s an ending that’s inconsistent with tone of the rest of the movie and derails the characters to make it all work. That makes it a bad and tacked on ending.

Even without the ending problems, I likely wouldn’t have watched this movie again. With the ending problems, I certainly won’t watch it again.

Thoughts on “Jennifer’s Body”

July 22, 2020

Last week I talked about “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” because it was linked to “Jennifer’s Body” in this article, and I wanted to talk about both. The summary of “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” is probably that it had a useful and potentially interesting concept but that it’s poor reception came about because the execution was poor. This post will see if we can say the same for “Jennifer’s Body”, with me addressing a few specific things about it from the article.

The big difference here is that while either the subversion where the typical damsel in distress is instead the hero or the question of how being chosen by destiny could impact someone who starts from a state where they aren’t at all suited to doing that are interesting — if not unique — concepts that you could do a lot with, I’m not sure what concept “Jennifer’s Body” is trying for here. From the article it could be something like this:

“From the outset, I always felt like this is a horror movie about toxic friendships between girls. And on a larger scale, it’s about how these alliances between girls get distorted and corrupted by the patriarchy,” Kusama said. “We were just completely aligned by those kinds of ideas.”

“I wrote it for girls,” Cody said, bluntly. “If a guy wrote a movie with the line ‘hell is a teenage girl,’ I would reject that. But I’m allowed to say it because I was one. I think the fact that we were a female creative team gave us permission to make observations about some of the more toxic aspects of female friendship.”

But that’s not the same sort of concept, because all it’s saying is the very generic idea that female friendship can be toxic and … it doesn’t even seem to come across in the movie. While it may seem like I’m on a “Pretty Little Liars” kick, referencing it in everything I write, that show does more to show the positives and negatives of female friendship, with the negatives and toxicity aligned mostly with Allison and how she treated her posse. There isn’t really that much of that sort of thing in “Jennifer’s Body”. If they wanted that to be the case, they really needed to make most of Jennifer’s evil really be direct shots at Needy, or else make Jennifer far more anxious to recruit Needy into her evil than she was. You’d have a better shot at saying that it’s really about Needy having to kill her friend after the possession than about the friendship being toxic … and even that doesn’t really fit.

More importantly, imagine a pitch session for the two movies. Buffy: “Imagine a movie where the typical blonde damsel in distress is really the kick-ass hero”. Again, it’s been done, but we know what the movie will be about, even if we don’t know the details. Now imagine “Jennifer’s Body”: “It’s a horror movie about toxic friendships between girls”. Wouldn’t your immediate reaction be “Okay, but what’s it about“? As a concept, if that’s what they’re going for, they were really going to need to do more than that, and one of the failings for me, at least, is that it isn’t clear what the movie is actually supposed to be about.

Part of the issue for me, at least, is that it focuses on Needy when in my opinion it should have focused more on Jennifer. The movie makes Needy the narrator, but then drops that element for the most part early on and only returns to it at the very end … which makes it clear why that was added because it’s needed for that part at the very end. I’ve already commented on how problematic it is to introduce a non-standard element and then drop it. But the issue is that the lore in the film makes it sound like Jennifer was essentially killed and her body completely possessed by a succubus, but her delight at her healing and sometimes at the killing belies that, unless the succubus had never experienced those things before, which we have no idea about because the focus character is Needy and she couldn’t know any of that. But that reveals the lost opportunity here. If it focused on Jennifer, then you could use the — again, not unique — idea that she gains the demonic abilities and they slowly corrupt her. They make her at least want to kill people to maintain her powers, but killing people also feels so good, along with the healing and seeming immorality, so she starts doing it more and more. She could start by trying to share it with Needy but then more and more targeting her as she becomes more and more corrupt, showing a more toxic friendship growing out of it. This would also tie in better to the end because it would give Needy a character point that a sequel or TV series could build on: Needy gains the powers after killing Jennifer and has to struggle with the same temptations that Jennifer did, but as a better and stronger person can resist it, showing that only when she stands on her own can she resist it, and that if Jennifer had treated her as a friend she might have been able to as well. I’m sure that the two women quoted above could have made their “toxic friendships” point work in this concept, and then at least the movie would have had one.

As it is, looking at a movie or TV series continuation I’m not sure what it would be without parachuting a new concept into it. At the end of the movie, Needy discovers that she has demonic powers now and escapes the asylum/jail to get revenge on the people who sacrificed Jennifer to gain power, and does so in a very vicious way. Is Needy expected to go out and keep doing this to other supernaturally evil people? Is she trying to resist the influence of the powers? We have no idea because the movie, again, doesn’t establish anything about the powers or about Needy’s relation to them when she breaks out. Recall that the Buffy TV series pretty much starts from the end of the movie, by exploring the reasonable consequences of that thing happening: Buffy is branded a troublemaker and has to move away, and ends up somewhere where she needs to fight vampires again. Unless they’re going to pull an “Incredible Hulk” move — wandering until she can control the demons inside her, which would have followed nicely on from my concept — it’s hard to see what they would follow on from the movie with.

So, at a minimum, the concept should have been clearer. I also need to address the accusation that the movie was exploitative with the kissing scene between Jennifer and Needy. Before getting into it, let me briefly talk about what it would mean for a scene to be exploitative in this way. To me, it seems that the main thing is that it be gratuitous, which means that it comes up mostly out of nowhere (isn’t properly developed) and also doesn’t actually reveal anything interesting or get used elsewhere in the movie. It isn’t set up beforehand, doesn’t change anything about the movie, and isn’t referred to again. And by that criteria … yeah, the scene is gratuitous and since it’s overly sexy it really does seem to be exploitative (which was probably not intentional). First, the scene isn’t just a kiss. Instead, it’s making out for a while until the scene switches. But, second, it doesn’t actually seem to hit the character point it was supposed to:

To Kusama and Cody, one of the most misunderstood moments in the film was the scene in which Needy and Jennifer make out. Cody included the kiss in her script because she wanted it to be clear that Needy is, on some level, in love with Jennifer. She acknowledged that audiences might be more sophisticated now and able to pick up on the queer subtext “without me dropping an anvil on them.”

Well, the problem is that the scene is so strongly a make out scene that love doesn’t have to be involved at all. It could be just sexual (especially given what Jennifer does in other places). But even worse is the fact that not only does it not really demonstrate that all that well, it doesn’t need to demonstrate it because the movie already did it better earlier. In one of the earliest scenes, Needy is standing beside Jennifer watching the band, Jennifer takes her hand, Needy looks thrilled, then she notices Jennifer drooling over the lead singer, she looks crushed, and drops Jennifer’s hand. This completely establishes that she’s somewhat in love with Jennifer and because the movie stops to show this and directly focuses on it it’s not even subtle or subtext. So all the scene could have done was establish something that the movie had already established. And, finally, it isn’t really important to the movie as a whole. Needy doesn’t really struggle with her feelings for Jennifer, even while killing her. Jennifer doesn’t really taunt her with it (the one taunt that might hint at a gay point is when she’s trying to kill her and comments that while she’d always killed boys before “[she] goes both ways”). So that point isn’t crucial to the plot either. So the kiss mostly comes out of nowhere, reveals something that we already knew, and references a point that doesn’t have much importance to the plot. Again, it’s unintentional, but it does have all the hallmarks of poorly written sexually exploitative scenes.

And like Buffy, the movie is poorly executed. It often bounces between very dark elements and goofy humour in the same scene. Mood Whiplash isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it can be hard to get a reasonable tone if you keep doing that. And like the make out scene, often things go on too long, especially jokes. The biggest example is when Jennifer was stabbed with a metal pipe and after pulling it out and noticing that it’s bleeding asks Needy if she has a tampon, and when Needy says “No” she replies “Just thought I’d ask”. At this point, we all get the joke and it’s at least mildly funny (your mileage may vary, of course). But then she follows that up with “Thought you might be pluggin'” which … really doesn’t work. It’s more of an insult than simple banter but it’s too mild to work as an insult, and even Needy doesn’t react as if it’s a grave insult. So what does it add? Why would Jennifer think that? If it was to be an insult, it should have been phrased more like one, and if it was just supposed to be a funny line, it was adding a line that isn’t any funnier than what we’d already seen and didn’t fit that well with the rest of the line. And things like this where the movie seems to go at least one step to far are pretty common in the movie. The sex scene while Jennifer is killing someone else also counts as a tonal shift, but that one is at least intentional, if not well done.

And don’t get me started on them showing a rather large occult section when Needy is researching the demon but having her lampshade it being small when her boyfriend asks her about it. Not only is the section probably bigger than the astronomy sections that I’ve seen in small town libraries, this is not something that needed to be lampshaded, as most people would probably go with it (or take it as a sign that the area was chosen because it had had supernatural events before). Meanwhile, they can’t explain whether Jennifer is still running her body or if she’s gone and the demon is the only thing there.

So it deserves its rating, I think, and I think starting from that movie it’s hard for me to see how a TV series could carry on without retconning something (or revealing something early on). And as part of my normal assessment, I don’t think I’ll be watching it again.

Idiot Plots in “Pretty Little Liars”

July 21, 2020

So, as you know I’ve been watching “Pretty Little Liars” (I’m at the end of Season 5), and last week I talked about plot holes and in a comment someone mentioned “Idiot Plot”. So in looking it up on TV Tropes I found the “Pretty Little Liars” section, which said this:

Pretty Little Liars is a big offender on an episode-to-episode basis, but the basic premise is where it has its roots. Four teenage girls in thrall to their older, far more assertive and charismatic Alpha Bitch friend, are pressured into taking part in a nasty prank that goes wrong and results in a student being blinded and another student taking the fall for it. Following the murder of said Alpha Bitch, the four girls are harassed by a blackmailer who seems to know every detail of their personal lives. Rather than going to the police or their parents and exposing their initial culpability in a prank that would have resulted in nothing worse than disciplinary action or possible expulsion from their school, they do just as “A” tells them, the plot snowballing into an increasingly dangerous series of actions that actually could get them landed in jail or even murdered themselves. Even after multiple attempts on their lives and the deaths of several other characters, no one tells anyone anything.

The thing is that while “Pretty Little Liars” does indeed fall into characters acting like idiots at times, it’s generally pretty good at making those moves follow either from the characters themselves or explaining/lampshading it. Part of this is that while it is true that things escalate, the show tends to have the things A does escalate as the secrets they have escalate as well. It’s not perfect at it and things get worse once it gets into the later seasons and the show needs to top the dramatic events it did in previous seasons — which is natural for a show like this and something that I had been worried about, although it actually isn’t that egregious — but for the most part we can accept that these characters in these situations might make that move even though we can see that it’s the wrong one most of the time.

Take the original set-up from the above quote. The event didn’t happen in school, and so the school discipline would have been secondary to the legal consequences of admitting it. The person who took the fall for it actually ended up in juvie (which one might think would have made him ineligible to join the police force later, although many jurisdictions clear juvenile arrests off someone’s record precisely because of the risk of someone doing something stupid as a kid which ends up ruining their life), and there was good reason to think that he didn’t do it intentionally, as the fire was in his space and there was no reason to think that he didn’t like the victim. For the girls, there was a known clash between their leader and the victim which could easily be used to make it seem deliberate, at the time A starts texting them they already would have kept it from the police which would add to it, the person who got the original person to take the fall and knew what secret could be used to keep him in line had disappeared, and for at least three out of the four the scandal itself could have nasty consequences for them (Emily’s parents are very strict, Hanna’s mother is so concerned about image that she sleeps with a detective to bury Hanna’s shoplifting charge, and Spencer is part of the Hastings family who are status-conscious to extremes, which Spencer, at least early in the show, had adopted as well). Given that so far all A had done was leak secrets, there are lots of good reasons for them to try to deal with it themselves. By the time things start to escalate (and they start to suspect that A might have murdered Alison), the detective in charge of the investigation has already made it clear that he thinks that they killed Allison meaning that he likely would use that incident to support that idea, and they have worst secrets that they want to keep quiet (like Aria’s dating a teacher and Hanna’s mother stealing money from the bank where she worked). And when Hanna (wrongly) thinks she knows who A is she is almost killed, which leads to a fear that anyone they tell might get killed as well, especially since A had already proven that they were willing to share their secrets and ruin their lives if they don’t react as A wants (A reveals Aria’s father’s affair to her mother).

As I said, the show was pretty good at ramping up the escalations in A’s demands to go along with the secrets A had on them. The show also had them raise the issue a number of times and had the characters give sometimes good reasons why it’s not really an option. Sometimes the reasons were bad, but they always were in a context where the girls were panicked and so often simply looking for an excuse to not take the risk. This was only heightened by the fact that they didn’t really know who they could trust, and the people that would be most effective in helping them were the ones they could trust the least.
Aria’s mother, for example, was utterly trustworthy but didn’t really have any way to help, so telling her would only put her at risk. Spencer’s mother, on the other hand, as a lawyer would be the most useful, but they suspected that Spencer’s sister Melissa was involved and Spencer’s mother tended to be more interested in protecting Melissa than Spencer, so if something was revealed that implicated Melissa her mother might not be on Spencer’s side. A also kills people on their side but also at one point early on kills someone trying to kill Spencer and so the risk is ambiguous.

So let’s move on to the comment about how no one tells anyone anything. The show is pretty good at, again, shaking this out. At first, the girls keep many secrets from each other because their group had split up and was just coming back together, and so they didn’t really know if they could trust each other. Also, a number of the secrets weren’t theirs or weren’t only theirs to tell. As the show progresses and they rebuild their friendship, they do tend to at least tell their friends almost everything, and if they don’t that often triggers very hurt and hostile reactions from the other girls, to the point where they stop speaking to each other over it. Thus, when it really matters when it happens it’s always called out and, again, often the person didn’t want to tell them because the secret involves someone else who asked them not to say. They also take other people into their confidence, like Emily with Paige and Aria with Ezra and Spencer with Toby (to the point where, as a police officer, he actually wants Spencer to stop telling him these things so that he’s not caught between loyalty to her and his oath to the force) and Hanna with Caleb. For the most part, when they try to keep those secrets in the group of four those other people react badly when they inevitably find out. And part of the reason for not telling the other people things is the risk that if they know too much A will target them, either by ruining their lives or even killing them. And they do at times talk to authorities, but mostly in an oblique way (Aria asking Spencer’s mother for legal advice, for example).

It’s not perfect. But unlike most of the other cases the show is aware that they need them to do things that we will think and that probably are stupid, so they need to at least find some reason for them to actually do that, and so they rely on character and circumstance to at least make it credible, if not bright. That means that we can get past the characters acting like idiots and get on with the more interesting part of seeing how they get themselves out of the jam they got themselves into.

Supererogatory Acts and the Indifferents

July 20, 2020

So, last week I talked about supererogatory acts and their relation to the abortion debate. But it’s worth taking a look to see how supererogatory acts — acts that we think a good or better person would do but that they aren’t morally obligated to do — could fit into my preferred Stoic view. And it turns out that they raise pretty much the same problem for the Stoics as they do for Kant: if the supererogatory acts follow from virtue, then it would seem that they are morally demanded, but if they don’t, then it’s hard to see how it could possibly be the case that good people will tend to do them, and we can call someone a better person if they are willing to do them. Good people follow virtue, and everything that virtue prefers is morally demanded. How can we have an act that a good person or the best person would do but that isn’t morally demanded?

For the Stoics, what we need to note is that most of the supererogatory acts involve things that the Stoics would consider indifferents. Since the Stoics consider everything up to and including your own life to be an indifferent, this isn’t much of a surprise. However, what’s important about it is to remember that for the Stoics indifferents are neither virtues nor vices. As per Seneca, indifferents aren’t something to avoid and even potentially are something that someone can even seek out, as long as they do so in accordance with virtue and are willing to live without them if virtue or the universe deprives them of them. My own view is that if we apply reason we can see that some indifferents are preferable to others, such as that being alive is, in general, preferable to being dead but being rich — because how can you use wealth if you’re dead? — and so a rational — and thus Stoically-ideal — person will not only act virtuously, but will also act rationally wrt indifferents and when they pursue them and when they don’t pursue them.

By this, then, we can see that since a properly rational and thus properly good Stoic will know the exact relative “value” of the indifferents, and will note that having indifferents is not a bad thing and that achieving them can be at least pragmatically good, they will want to help others who are striving — properly and in accordance with reason — for indifferents to achieve them. They will be even more moved to do so the higher on the scale of indifferents the indifferent they are striving for is. We should want to try to help people avoid dying, for example, or being in extreme poverty, because those are deprivations of an “important” indifferent, one that is greatly limiting to people and one that all rational people will want to maximize if they can do so in accordance with reason. So, naturally, a properly rational person will feel a drive to help people with these, especially the important ones.

But by the same token, a properly rational person can never feel obligated to help others achieve indifferents just for the sake of having them achieve indifferents. The first reason is the reason that these things are indifferents in the first place: no one can guarantee that they are actually able to achieve them. Someone cannot be obligated to help someone become rich, for example, because they cannot guarantee that their actions will provide that. That outcome is not under their control. The second reason is that as all of these are indifferents they actually don’t have proper or real value, and so someone cannot be obligated to sacrifice their indifferents to help someone else achieve theirs. Ultimately, from the perspective of the Stoics, indifferents have no real value and so while that might encourage people to give them up for the indifferents of others, it would be trading something of theirs that has no real value for something of someone else’s that has no real value. As the choice is between things that have no value, virtue makes no strong demands.

So a properly rational person will want to help others to achieve their desired indifferents and will even be willing to sacrifice their own lesser indifferents to help others achieve greater indifferents, but will also realize that there is no moral demand there and so they are not obligated to do so. If they decide that they want to, say, go to the movies instead of giving money to charity, they can do that without guilt because all they are doing is choosing their own indifferents over those of others.

Well, most of the time. There are cases when someone would, in fact, be morally obliged to ensure and protect the indifferents of others under this, when they are in a specific relationship to the person that makes it an obligation and they can do so without unduly sacrificing their own indifferents. There was an example of this that I discussed in my examination of “A Defense of Abortion”. She comments that it would be a supererogatory act for Henry Fonda to come and save her life by placing his cool hand on her fevered brow. I argued that it wouldn’t be and would be morally obligated because he was the only person who could do that and it would cost him extremely little to do. I also argued that if someone was the only person who could donate an organ or give blood to save someone’s life they could be morally obligated to do that as well. While those are both indifferents, rationality would seem to demand that if we are the only person who could do it and the loss is minor that we should sacrifice our indifferents for theirs. If others could do that as well, we have no special burden to do it over them, and so it can be supererogatory; we would like someone to step up and do it, but we can’t point to anyone in the world and say that they are morally obligated to do so. And if we are the only person who can do it but the loss is too expensive, then we can again return to the question of whether we can be obligated to trade our indifferents for theirs. But if we are the only person who can do it and the loss is minor, then we are clearly morally obligated by the virtue of Compassion, I submit, to do so.

There’s another case where we might even be morally obligated to do it even if the loss is extreme: if we had promised to do so and so entered into an agreement to provide it. Even though I’m not required to bankrupt myself to provide material support (food and shelter) for someone, if I entered into an agreement to provide them with food and shelter and circumstances mean that it will be much more expensive than I’d like, I might in that case be morally obligated to bankrupt myself to keep them provided. After all, I agreed to provide them with material support and I can’t simply back out of that agreement when it becomes inconvenient. And since keeping promises and agreements would follow from virtue but my own life is merely an indifferent, I may well be obligated to sacrifice my own life for them if they themselves don’t let me out of the agreement. Even if they are doing so capriciously, I am responsible for my own actions, and not theirs, and so if they demand I live up to my agreement I am required to do so, and am required to do so as a strong moral obligation.

There’s a reason that Stoicism can be a harsh moral system.

The thing is, though, when it comes to supererogatory acts at least my view of Stoicism seems to align with our own intuitions. I’m not required to trade my indifferents for theirs, but a person who can and does do so is a better person than someone who doesn’t. If I have some sort of obligation to them, then I am required to trade my indifferents for theirs. Thus, if I have a specific virtue that pushes the trade, then I’m obligated to do so, but if I don’t, then I am not required to do so. So while Kant’s commitment to duty can get him in trouble wrt supererogatory acts, the Stoic recognition of indifferents gives them a relatively clean and simple out, as long as we treat indifferents not as vices, and neither as virtues themselves. Then there will always be cases where how to handle the interaction of the indifferents of different people will be up to the person who has the choice, and cases where virtue will dictate the only acceptable move.