Does Kant Argue that Keeping a Secret Identity is Immoral?

April 9, 2021

So in digging up and digging through my books on “Philosophy in Popular Culture”, I came across a book written by Mark D. White called “Batman and Ethics” where he makes an overall argument about Batman’s ethics in a book-length examination.  I must have bought this while browsing at some point — either in person or online — but never really got around to reading it until now.  Anyway, I don’t really agree with his argument and so am going to examine the book itself in some detail later, but he did raise an interesting issue.  In examining Batman’s potential deontological leanings — he himself thinks that Batman’s main mission is driven by Utilitarianism — he talks about Kant’s argument against lying and then questions whether by that it would be moral for Batman to lie to protect his secret identity.  After all, Utilitarians can justify it on the basis of the harm it would do to his loved ones, but Kantians would not be allowed to make that move.  So does Kant’s universal prohibition on lying also prohibit lying to protect a secret identity?

Now, White starts by arguing that the reason that Kant would prohibit it is because it would be treating others as means instead of also as ends, but that of course was not the most famous, at least, argument that Kant made about prohibiting lying, which is that it fails the universalizability portion of the Categorical Imperative:  you cannot will that it become a universal principle without it becoming self-defeating.  White does address this later, but I’m going to start with this one and then examine the “means and not as ends” examination later because, again, this one is the more famous and important argument against lying from Kant.

So, why can’t we universalize lying?  Well, the main reason we’d have to lie is to make it so that the person or people that we tell the lie to will believe that something is true when, in reality, it’s false.  So imagine that we made it so that it was a universal duty to lie.  Well, no one would believe us when we told them things, at which point lying was self-defeating, as we would be unable to convince anyone that something that was false was really true.  Thus, that rule is self-defeating:  as soon as we made it, it would defeat the purpose of making it in the first place.

Now, as I and a fellow student when I was taking some graduate courses noted while waiting for class to start, the main criticism of Kant specifically and deontology in general is that it makes these set universal rules and there can never be any exceptions to it, but the universalizability constraint in Kant never actually says that.  If we couldn’t universalize the overarching rule but could universalize an exception to the rule, then it seems to me that that would be allowed.  So to take a trivial and probably non-moral example, take this example from the Order of the Stick.  Because they are selling most of not all of their potions for less than they cost, they are going to go out of business, because even though the low prices can increase their business they won’t make any money on what they sell.  So you can’t make a general rule to see all your potions (or other products) at below cost to drive traffic because that would defeat the purpose in the first place:  to get more customers so that you’ll make more money.  All that getting more customers in that case will do is drive you out of business all the faster.  However, you could make a universal rule to sell some popular potions at below cost in order to drive traffic to the store presuming that while they come to your store for the cheap prices on those “staples” they will just do all of their shopping there and so you will indeed make more money overall.  So that’s an example where you can have an overarching rule that can’t be universalized but we can universalize an exception to that rule.

So the biggest example used against Kant is in general the murder/Nazi one, which is the same counter in a different context.  If you were hiding some Jews from the Nazis and the Nazis come and ask you if they are there, the argument is that Kant would say that it would be morally wrong to lie to them — because lying is always morally wrong — but this doesn’t seem to make sense.  So let’s try to universalize the exception:  “Lie when the Nazis come and ask you if you are hiding Jews”.  And when we do, we realize that the exception can’t be universalized either.  The point of lying to the Nazi is so that they will think that the Jews aren’t there and so won’t search the house and find them.  However, if it became known and a universal law to lie to the Nazis in that case they wouldn’t believe you.  They’d know that someone answering that they weren’t there was either telling the truth and they weren’t there, or was lying and they were there.  So in general they’d search the house anyway, which would mean that the lying wouldn’t achieve the goal it was intended to achieve.  So it would still be self-defeating to do so, and so would be more reasonably morally wrong by Kant.

So, then, let’s return to the question of a secret identity.  Could we universalize the exception “Lie to protect your secret identity”?  Well, if someone asks you if you are really Batman, what is the result if you say “No” if it is known that it is a universal law to lie about your secret identity?  As with the above, they won’t believe you.  But what they won’t know is whether you are indeed that superhero, or whether you are telling them the truth that you aren’t.  Which means that they will get no confirmation or denial from you on that, and so will have to rely on their own investigations and their own feelings to decide if they think you are that hero or not.  So if all it is is asking for a confirmation, it looks like it can be done without being self-defeating, because all it does is make it so that you don’t confirm it.  And in this case not answering at all could be a confirmation, as my first manager once said that if he knew that a rumour was false he would say that it was but if it was true he couldn’t confirm it, which would mean that if you could get him to neither confirm or deny a rumour it meant that it was true.

Okay, but what about active deception, such as having someone else dress up in the costume while the secret identity is in public?  Well, it’s clear that this can be universalized in the exact same way, because the worst case of making it a universal law is that people can’t trust whether that sighting is indeed proof that their theory is wrong.  So it would pass the universalizable criteria.  But it does seem like it risks treating that person as a means to an end and not as an end in themselves, as you would be using them to disprove a theory about who your secret identity is.  This is especially the case if they are a reporter or something and are likely to spread the message that you are clearly not your secret identity.  So let’s look at whether doing that would be treating that person as merely a means and not as an end in themselves.

Now, first, for anyone other than a villain it can be said that they are merely using you as a means to an end — at a minimum, to their own knowledge — and not as an end in yourself (obviously, it can be said for villains as well but most villains are not going to have a problem with being accused of acting immorally).  So those people may not be acting morally to start with.  After all, if they don’t really need to know it, then why are they so adamant in trying to find that out?  They should expect that if they needed to know your secret identity, you would tell them, so they can have no good reason for digging that out.  So in keeping something from them that they don’t need to know, even through deception, we merely preserve our own moral autonomy and our own privacy, and stop them from violating our own moral rights.  In short, we would simply be refusing to allow them to treat us as merely a means to their ends.  But this is, of course, predicated on the second part of the principle, that they can rely on us to tell them if they need to know.  If they did need to know and we refused to tell them just to preserve our secret, then we could be accused of using them as merely a means to protect our own secret.  So if a hero will tell the people who need to know — and Clark Kent in Smallville is probably the ur-example of someone who wouldn’t, in general — but keep it from and even actively deceive those who don’t need to know, then it doesn’t look like they would be treating them as merely a means and not as an end in themselves.  And we can obviously make a universal law of “Keep from others by any reasonable means your secret identity unless they need to know” without it becoming self-defeating.

So I don’t think that Kant would oppose keeping a secret identity or even lying or deceiving to protect it, or at least not from his basic principles.  It would take a far more detailed philosophical argument than the ones I’ve examined here to make that work.  So if Batman wants to be a Kantian, he’s probably all right on that score.  Of course, he’s almost certainly not a Kantian …

Thoughts on “Trick ‘r Treat”

April 8, 2021

“Trick ‘r Treat” is a horror movie that I’ve had sitting in my closet for years, from even before the blog existed.  I was browsing in HMV and picked up a couple of things to buy, and this movie was at the front for a very discounted price that the clerk was more than happy to draw my attention to.  It sounded interesting and I recognized Anna Paquin, so I figured I’d give it a try.  And then never actually got around to watching it.  Since for the past few months I’ve been on a push to work through the various movies I’ve bought and haven’t watched — especially for the horror movies while I could start to see the end of the stacks — I decided to finally sit down at watch it.

This movie is another horror anthology, with a set of stories all set around Hallowe’en in a small American town.  While the box itself tries to set it up around Anna Paquin’s character as she moves through the town and is seemingly stalked by a killer, in reality the stories aren’t particularly connected at all.  For the most part, the connections are all coincidental, which is actually not a bad thing, as it lets each story stand on its own.  The most direct connection is that the aforementioned serial killer who stalks Anna Paquin’s character ends up getting his comeuppance because it turns out that she and her friends are all werewolves hunting for victims, and he becomes one.  We also see a group of kids trying to find a bus where the driver killed a bunch of kids on Hallowe’en long ago, and there is a connection to an old man who happened to be the bus driver and gets his own comeuppance.  At the beginning and the end we see a young couple where the woman is not in the mood for Hallowe’en and gets killed for it, which brings the night and movie to a close.

The movie is actually fairly good.  Since each segment is loosely related but separate, we simply follow through each group as they go along in the town and hit their own story.  This allows the movie the freedom to insert a bunch of different sorts of horror without having to explain why each is happening or link them to each other (having to link them together was a big flaw in “Portals”).  We just have a strange town where strange things happen.  That’s it.

If I have any criticism, it’s that the movie is very set on giving characters their comeuppance except for when it comes to Anna Paquin’s werewolves.  Sure, her victim was actually the serial killer and completely deserved it, but they pick up some guys who were filming a news story in the town and so surely only wanted to party with some hot chicks.  So the serial killer gets his comeuppance, and the bus driver gets his, but the werewolves instead are cheerfully heading out of town with the implication that Anna Paquin’s character made her first kill — the analogy is to losing her virginity until the, ahem, climax — despite the fact that they quite likely killed innocent people for their own personal pleasure (since Anna Paquin’s character had been implied to be holding off on making her first kill, they don’t seem to need to kill to survive).  The contrast in treatment is noticeable and annoying.

Still, the movie is actually pretty good.  It moves fairly well and does an anthology of unrelated stories in a way that doesn’t require it to have a fully explained link between them while at the same time reminding us that, yes, they are in fact linked.  I am putting this movie in my closet of movies that I plan to rewatch at some point.

“New Jedi Order” and the Legends Characters

April 7, 2021

So one thing that I’ve always talked about when I’ve talked about “New Jedi Order” is that it had a rather unique structure from most big joined series, and from the other two Star Wars Legends Mega Series.  In a lot of ways, it’s similar to the Marvel Cinematic Universe or to major comic events like Civil War, in that what we have is one overarching story, but the overall story is told piece-by-piece in loosely related works with perhaps a few works that are designated to carry most of the plot load but are meant to be supported and enhanced by the other works.  In taking the two examples above, the MCU works are meant to be more separate with the Avengers movies being the ones to drive the story, while in Civil War again the mainline Civil War works are driving the story but the ones that tie into the main work are perhaps more important to it than, say, something like “Ant-Man”.

Now, if you are trying to make a consistent set story out of this, then you of course take the risk that these individual works won’t be consistent with the main works.  At the very least, there’s a risk that they won’t have the right tone, but they could also mess up characterizations as well as the plot.  One of the main issues with the first Civil War event, for example, was that some of the writers were anti-registration and so wrote their issues from that perspective, making it seem harsher than it was intended to be and overall clashing with the main writers who always knew that registration would win and so wanted it to seem far more reasonable.  This then had an impact on the characterizations as well as the plot points related to registration, and had an impact on the overall tone of the series.  What was worse was that your view of registration, then, might greatly depend on which books you read, since you didn’t need to read all of them and comic readers do have a tendency to follow certain groups/heroes and not read everything (and speaking as someone who knows, it was prohibitively expensive and took forever to collect all of the books in the event, especially since some of them weren’t really relevant to the overall series at all).  That being said, splitting it out like that is a good way to include as many heroes and characters as possible in the event without having to follow all of them in detail in the main work.

And this was what “New Jedi Order” was trying and needed to do.  The Star Wars EU at the time had a number of characters and series, including comics, books and video games.  “New Jedi Order” was an attempt — at least at some level — to bring all of these together into one solidified universe.  But as you might guess, trying to do this was fraught with peril.  After all, with such a diverse set of characters and origins it was entirely likely that some of the people that they were trying to entice into reading the series didn’t know some of the characters that they were going to be using.  Even worse, some of those people might know about those characters and dislike them.  So you didn’t want to make those characters be too prominent in the story in case it would turn off some of those people.  But by the same token, you don’t want to make them too minor either because for some people those were their favourite characters and they wouldn’t be happy if it seemed like they were being given short-shrift in the overall story.

Hence, the comic-style structure where the series has a couple of bigger mainline works that drive the plot with duologies and trilogies that focus on specific characters and the situations for them.  What’s interesting, at least to me, about the series is that until about the end you didn’t really need to read any of the books — even the mainline ones — to know what’s going on.  For the longest time, I didn’t have “Vector Prime”, the first book in the series and the one where Chewbacca dies, and yet I knew what was going on, roughly who the Vong were, who Danni was, and how Chewbacca died.  The crucial thing here was indeed to build it so that if you skipped one of those other works you’d still know what was going on, through explicit summaries and through the words and actions of the other characters.  To tie this back to the point above, it was important because if you didn’t like a certain character or certain situation, then you could ignore that part of the series and instead focus on what you did like.  Since the list of mainline works is pretty short (depending on how you could it’s at most about 5 out of around 18 or so) reading only them wouldn’t be all that great a work, but arguably you could and would understand the details of the series.

A really good example of this is actually Michael Stackpole’s contribution, starring Corran Horn and taking off from his X-Wing novels and “I, Jedi”.  Now, I really did like Corran Horn and Stackpole’s works, so I was going to be one of those who was interested in his series.  But what’s important here is that he makes Horn and another character he invented — Elegos A’Kla — key to events in the overall series and at that time and so giving them important things to do while nevertheless making it so that they can be completely sidelined later.  So he gives them their prominent roles in his works while not making it so that future writers had to include them.  Elegos becomes the first envoy to the Vong and through him we learn a bit about them, more than we had up until that point.  And then he’s killed by them, at least in part due to political issues, to demonstrate even more about them.  This carries over to Horn, as he gets involved in discovering a potential biological weapon to use against them and then defending the planet that produces it.  He challenges the military leader to a duel to demonstrate his and their idea of honour … and then when he wins the second-in-command follows other orders and poisons the planet anyway, showing their dishonour.  The dramatic repercussions of this is the lose of another planet — and since it’s Ithor, one that was fairly well known in the EU — and setting the grounds for the biological weapon that plays a major roll in later parts, so Horn’s part was important and prominent.

But after that series, which was one of the earliest ones, Stackpole was clever in ensuring that his characters could be used or not as later writers saw fit.  If a later writer wanted someone taking on Elegos’ traditional role, his daughter stepped into it and so could fill in as appropriate.  Or she could be ignored like so many of the strictly political characters from the EU.  As for Horn himself, Stackpole wrote that many people were blaming him for the loss of Ithor, which made him a political liability.  While that might seem a bit unrealistic for someone who did what he did, the entire plot of the series was tied into a notion that there was growing distrust between the ordinary people and the Jedi, spurred on at various levels by the politicians, some of whom were distrustful and opposed to the Jedi themselves, and some of whom were simply following whatever opinion seemed most popular at the time.  This also involved groups of people called the “Peace Brigade” who for various reasons were willing to work with the Vong to get them what they wanted, including people for sacrifices and the Jedi itself.  The Vong encouraged this and often used political methods to drive the wedge between those groups.  So given that context, that the people might be willing to blame Horn for the loss isn’t all that unreasonable.

So what Stackpole did at the end of his series was basically this:  had Horn note that his presence was not exactly going to make people more co-operative with the Jedi and so it wasn’t really to their benefit to have him play a prominent role in their actions, but then to also note that if he was needed he’d be there.  This meant that any author who wanted to ignore him had a perfectly good way to do so — and, in fact, I think it was in “Star By Star” that Troy Denning only mentions them in passing as running away from a Jedi-hunting creature and not having been heard from since — while any author that wanted to use him was free to do so, as Greg Keyes did using him to advance the Anakin/Tahiri arcs by having them hide out on the “Errant Venture” which is exactly where Corran was.  So Corran could come out of hiding and run missions as needed but also stay hidden as needed as well, providing the maximum freedom for later authors.

“Agents of Chaos” by James Luceno is an example of the “more detail” kind of idea, as it follows Han Solo after the loss of Chewbacca.  Obviously, Han needed to process that death which was going to be deeper felt for him than for pretty much every character, but some of the audience might not be interested in following that journey.  So this isn’t a matter of keeping a character out of the mainline stories — Han was going to be prominent in them no matter what happened — but instead of giving the character space to work through their issues without cluttering any of the other works.  So Han can go off on his own and be bitter and resolve his issues and then return to prominence in the mainline series with it mostly resolved with only a few references needed to get us up to speed on what happened.  And it also introduces a character in Droma and a race in the Ryn that would play a role later in the series, but that would get neatly out of the way in all of the other series when required.

How the series treated Wedge Antilles is pretty much precisely this sort of thing.  Wedge was a supporting character in the movies and was also prominent in Aaron Allston’s EU works, so he couldn’t be ignored.  But he was made a General commanding a fleet, which allows the writers to get him out of the way since he has to be locked in place with a fleet, and doing military things instead of running off on missions.  So when Allston wanted to use him, all he needed to do was place him at the centre of a specific and important military battle and develop a very interesting duology around that, while for the others if they didn’t want to focus on him they could put him in the same category as Garm Bel Iblis as one military leader among many and mostly ignore him.

Yes, there were some inconsistencies — mostly around how much of a religious fanatic some of the Vong leaders were — but for the most part this worked out pretty well.  And while I just started re-reading “Legacy of the Force”, it avoided some of the problems with that series, as a number of the writers in that one placed constraints on the other authors by introducing and playing with their own favoured characters.  Most people are aware of the issues that seemed to arise from Karen Traviss wanting to use Boba Fett and the Mandalorians and so make them an important part of the story even when they may not fit that well, but for me the most annoying one is Denning seemingly wanting to use Alema Rar who I found to be an annoying character (I’d say the same about Lumina, but she was at least a more important part of the overall story, which I am likely to address when I dive into that series in more detail later).  This format allows a sandbox for each author to play with without forcing them to make everyone else play in that sandbox as well, which makes for a very interesting structure.  It’s probably for this reason that “New Jedi Order” is my favourite of the three Megaseries, despite its issues (and length, which is one of its issues).

Thoughts on “Shazam!”

April 6, 2021

While browsing in my local Walmart, I managed to get both of the recent “Captain Marvel” movies:  the one from Marvel and this one from DC.  The movie is not named “Captain Marvel” and they don’t mention the name at all in the movie as far as I can recall, but we know that it isn’t “Shazam!” because if that was the case then any time that he introduced himself he’d change back.  So what we have is the anonymous superhero whose name is probably Captain Marvel but that might get confused with the Marvel one and cause things like legal issues that they wanted to avoid at least until they saw if there was any profit to be made from the character.

I was hesitant to watch or look for this movie.  First, my only actual exposure to the character was one episode of Justice League Unlimited, a couple of scenes in some of the DC crossovers I had, and a story in a think a general “Legion of Superheroes” digest I had.  So he wasn’t one of my favourite characters.  Second, in general I’m not a huge DC fan, pretty much limited to Legion of Superheroes, Teen Titans and Batman as the ones that I recalled and collected (except for their animated series, which I’m a big fan of).  Third, while I had watched a lot of the movies, the Snyderverse versions were not ones that I had much interest in because I had heard that they were overly dark, and I had even passed for the most part on Christian Bale’s Batman movies.  Fourth, ironically what I heard about this movie was that it was pretty light and funny, and while that would appeal to me more than the darker movies it wasn’t really what I was looking for either.

But it’s amazing how much more appealing a movie can be when it’s cheap.

And after watching it, it isn’t all that light a movie.  Yes, there is quite a bit of humour in it, as you’d expect from a movie where a young kid ends up getting superpowers and has to learn how to use them, and of course uses them in a manner consistent with how a kid would look at being a superhero.  But there are a lot of more serious issues underlying the movie, starting from the fact that Billy Batson had essentially — and literally — lost his mother and was trying to find her, and moving through the serious parental issues of the villain, the issues with the foster family that Billy is placed with, the bullying issues and the like that his closest friend in that family is dealing with, the fact that the oldest girl has the opportunity to go to school but doesn’t want to lead her family, coupled with Billy having to learn what it really means to be a hero.  What is nice about the movie is that, in general, the funny and the serious work well together and don’t get in each others’ way overmuch.  We don’t generally get huge mood swings or mood whiplash moving from the funny to the serious and back again, which allows us to stay in the movie and just follow it along through its running time.

However, my overall impression while watching the movie was that it was too long.  Yet, it was just over two hours, which isn’t that long for a superhero movie.  But on reflection I think the main issue is not that the movie is too long, but that it seems to insert a lot of its plot and character moments in at odd times, times that we notice.  As noted above, there are actually a lot of plot and character points in this movie.  For the most part, they are all properly developed and properly paid off (Mary’s issues with leaving her family are the exception as it isn’t really resolved and isn’t even mentioned in the end family scene which is where we would have expected it to be).  But because there are so many of them, they often have to make huge shifts from what was happening to resolve them.  For example, at one point Billy and the family member who is supporting him as a superhero and teaching him, at least, what it means to be a superhero are fighting with each other over him admonishing Billy to not use the Captain Marvel powers for Billy’s own self-interest but then asking Billy to use it to help him become popular, and right after they have their big fight that we know they will have to resolve fairly soon the movie stops to have the hacker in the family find Billy’s mother so that he can run off and talk to her, discovering that she actually pretty much willingly abandoned him when he wandered off at the amusement park, considering it a relief because she wasn’t really ready for a child.  The scene works — and was to be expected, as I was wondering why she couldn’t find him if someone took him to the police and lost and found — and is developed properly, but it really feels like the movie was not quite stopped but redirected to resolve this point when the natural flow of the movie would have been to start moving towards resolving their conflict.  So it really feels like the movie felt that it needed to deal with this now before the climax rather than something that flowed organically from the rest of the plot, which I think made it seem like the movie was moving slower than it should have been.

Another example of this is the climax.  When the power gets shared and they create the Marvel Family, the movie should have simply flowed into and through the final battle.  But there were issues with the bullies to deal with, as well as Billy having to deal with the villain and a few other things, which made the climax seem drawn out.  Yes, everything was set up properly and concluded in a reasonably satisfying way, but because the time had to be made to deal with all of those issues at that time the flow seems off, and the movie seems to stop at times to fit that in.

It’s also a bit of an interesting move to not make Billy Batson the real chosen one of Shazam! here.  Shazam first tries to recruit the main villain, but finds that he can’t resist the temptations of the vices that he’s trying to contain.  He keeps trying to find someone who can do that, but keeps failing.  Finally, the main villain finds a way into his lair and takes the vices out, and so without any kind of proper way to test and with failing power he finally just picks Billy and gives it to him.  Which makes Billy a bit of an odd choice, because at that point Billy isn’t all that pure, and is instead a bit of a delinquent and prankster.  This shifts from what was at least my understanding of the original work, where Billy was chosen for his qualities which would explain why a child ended up with that much power.  So that’s odd, but it doesn’t really matter all that much to the movie, other than to Billy having a bit of a crisis of confidence when the main villain attacks and he finally realizes that this is serious, and so has to finally develop into the hero that he was at least supposed to be.  But he doesn’t start as any kind of hero.

The villain is also far more serious than the Dr. Sivana I vaguely remember, being pretty competent and completely and totally evil.  He has a serious reason for his villainy and is consumed by revenge for various reasons, and is pursuing the power of Shazam for those precise reasons.  I think a villain who could have added more humour might have been a good thing here, but it works out reasonably well and definitely means that the movie can’t be a simple jokefest.

Other than my nebulous feelings about the length of the movie, “Shazam!” isn’t a bad movie.  I think it is a bit overstuffed which is its biggest failing, but it doesn’t fall apart into confusion like some other overstuffed movies.  The humour and serious parts mix pretty well.  I think I might watch this movie again at some point.

Mojo’s Tribe Has Spoken

April 5, 2021

So the next essay in “Supervillains in Philosophy” is “Mojo’s Tribe Has Spoken” by J.J. Sylvia IV and Sean Walters.  In this essay, they explore the X-Men villain Mojo, the extradimensional TV producer who constantly kidnaps members of the X-Men to film them fighting various fights so that he can display them to the audience of his dimension and so retain his leadership of it.   In essence, he’s the ur-example of the corrupt TV executive, willing to do anything to anyone as long as he gets increased ratings.

Their first point of interest is Mojo potentially being able to justify his actions using Utilitarianism.  He can try to argue that while his shows do cause the X-Men to suffer, they cause the people in his dimension lots of pleasure, and so all of their pleasure outweighs the suffering of the X-Men, and so what he is doing is actually morally right.  This is, of course, a rather common criticism of Utilitarianism, that it allows the pleasure of the majority to cause great suffering for the minority.  The authors do bring up Mill’s extension of arguing that it is not just quantity of pleasure but quality of pleasure that matters, and the pleasures denied the X-Men would seem to be of a higher quality than the pleasures of those who are merely watching it.  Obviously, this defense has been pretty controversial as well, since it requires that the Utilitarian define how to determine what are the higher and lower quality pleasures.  The authors do work through an idea that perhaps those in Mojo’s dimension can no longer experience the higher pleasures, but that if they tried them maybe they’d like them, and talks about how tying desires into the morality like Utilitarianism does can make it seem subjectivist instead of objectivist.

I am not a fan of Utilitarianism precisely because it is vulnerable to these sorts of criticisms.  It seems to me to be difficult to to avoid sacrificing the few or the one for the many without making it so that people are able to put themselves first in ways that Utilitarianism was built to prevent.  For the quality of pleasures argument, even here Utilitarianism needs to justify it on the basis of being a deeper or more fulfilling pleasure, while those who appeal to that sort of thing like Kant and Greek philosophers like the Stoics and Aristotle have the better argument that they are indeed higher and more fulfilling even if they don’t happen to be things you really like.  But what Utilitarianism really needs is what those systems already have:  an ability to say that something is just plain unacceptable no matter how good the consequences of doing it are, meaning that while they don’t have to completely ignore consequences they need to insist that at least sometimes the consequences do not matter at all … which is something that consequentialist philosophies absolutely cannot do.

The more interesting comment is about the audience itself, and the impact of those sorts of shows on the audiences and participants.  While Mojo produces the shows, he can always argue that he’s just giving the audience what they want to see, and what they want to see is violence and destruction and all of those “bad” things.  In this way, he offloads at least some of the blame for that to the audience and away from himself.  He’s merely providing the audience with what they want, and if he didn’t do it, someone else would.  The authors link this to reality TV shows in our world and note that the shows themselves ramp up the conflict and embarrassment at times precisely to appeal to the audience, and to give them what they seem to want … regardless of the consequences of those who are participating in the show.

However, there are some gentler reality-type shows.  The authors talk about how the shows ramp up the stress in order to generate conflict, but shows like “Canada’s Worst Driver” admit that they ramp up the stress, but not to generate conflict, but instead to put people in situations far more extreme than they ever will be in so that they can learn the skills they need for the situations that they will be in.  The goal is to take a varied group of bad drivers — some because they lack the skills, some because they have skills but a bad attitude — and make them better drivers.  While it has never happened, I’m sure that the host of the show, at least, would absolutely love it if everyone made a perfect final drive and they had to consider that they were all rehabilitated (since he is the “examiner” on the final drive and, well, doesn’t want to die [grin]).  And while there is conflict because few of them actually think that they are bad drivers, the point is to make them see that they are bad drivers and understand their own flaws.  One contestant was a good driver who just drove too fast, and the week he was sent home he was sent home at least in part because on one challenge he technically failed it because he didn’t hit the minimum speed required to pass it.  So he had learned what he needed to learn:  that speed is not necessarily safe.  This is the whole point of the show: to make them better.  When they did their season bringing back some of the worst drivers, in the very first episode they showed that this is what they cared about.  First, one of the worst drivers who had come back had had her husband retire since her appearance on the show and so had pretty much stopped driving, so they sent her home because what she learned on the show really wouldn’t matter to her.  I’m sure she would have made some embarrassing mistakes in the show, but that’s not what they were after.  And while they don’t normally let more than one person go in an episode, they sent the worst driver from the very first season home because he had improved so much that he clearly didn’t deserve to be there.  They could have technically kept in and followed their own rules, but it wouldn’t have helped him anywhere near as much as confirmed that he had improved enough to go home.

And over the seasons, they also had a number of heartwarming moments.  One of the most memorable was when they told the drivers that riding a bike was good practice for driving, and one of them said that he had never learned to ride a bike (and clearly wanted to), the host took the time to teach him how to ride a bike.  In general, if the drivers are willing to accept their mistakes and are willing to learn, the hosts and judges are more than willing to go the extra mile with them.  And in that season with the worst drivers, one of them had had to go off her medication because she could no longer afford it and was basically breaking down pretty much every episode, and what they did when they realized that was pull her off of the cameras for a session with the therapist on the show (who is one of the judges and instructors) and then sent her away from the show with references so that she could get the help they needed.  They could have made hay out of her breakdown, but instead decided that being on the show wasn’t helping and that they didn’t want to exploit her in the hopes of getting some “great” scenes.

The other examples I have of “gentler” reality shows are also Canadian ones, starting with “Over the Rainbow” and continuing through “The Great Canadian Baking Show”.  While most of these competition shows seem to be very competitive with all of the contestants being very unfriendly and unhappy when they don’t get the marks they feel they deserve or don’t advance as far as they think they should (especially if others they think are worse move on), what I liked about both of these shows is that the contestants seemed to be willing to help each other and were happy for those who won or did well and genuinely sad to see them go.  So while the authors in the essay talk about reality shows selecting contestants to generate conflict, these shows didn’t seem to.  Nor did they set up situations to generate conflict.  They challenged them, but mostly in ways for them to individually show what they could do and to express themselves.  This let them all feel like they weren’t set up to fail, had done the best they could, and that it just wasn’t enough.  So there was no reason to feel anger at those that they didn’t think deserved it as much as they did, and so they could quite often feel just honoured to be there.

So, how does this apply to the overall point of the essay and this post?  These are gentler reality shows, moving in the opposite direction of many others that seemed to be ramping up conflict and aiming at emotional breakdowns.  And they were, as far as I can tell, relatively successful.  People still watch them, and at least for the baking show ones enough to get multiple seasons.  So while many network execs try to double-down on the more extreme and probably harmful aspects of these shows, could these sorts of shows draw an audience by doing the exact opposite?

Mojo would protest if challenged to create “gentler” shows that the audience doesn’t want that, and so if he does that his ratings will drop.  But people can only watch what’s available, and so might simply choose the “best” out of the options they are presented.  Every single “innovative” show or game or music or video game started by doing something that wasn’t being done, and arguing that people would watch it or play it or listen to it if only it was available to them.  Mojo can claim that the people won’t watch the other shows, but in general he doesn’t know that because he won’t try that, and so ends up in an escalating war with his rivals for the most extreme forms of the show to avoid boring the audience … which is something we also see with network executives in our world.

Mojo and the executives will, of course, point out that while that might be true, they can’t really take the risk.  For Mojo, guessing wrong will end his rule which will almost certainly end him.  And for the network executives, while a network can survive a couple of flops too many will put a network in really, really bad shape … and will certainly cost them their jobs and reputations.  So it’s easy to say that they should do these new things, but a lot harder to get them to actually do it and justify that to them, so they end up copying what everyone else is doing that has worked in the past.  Of course, new things still happen when someone decides that the risk is worth it, and if the risk pays off then everyone copies that.  And so on and so forth.

Mojo is deliberately designed to be an exaggeration of TV networks and reality TV, so it’s no surprise that a lot of what we see in his stories maps quite well to the same issues we see in those fields itself … and so his challenges are merely an exaggeration of the challenges faced there as well.

Does Christianity Not Care About Others?

April 2, 2021

I had originally been planning to talk about something else today, but my growing dissatisfaction with that idea and my ability to express it properly left me open to an alternative … and then Adam Lee provided it in a recent post by, essentially, arguing that at least some parts of Christianity explicitly do not care about others, but only about themselves.  This, of course, will come as a great surprise to most Christians, certainly, given how Christ’s message is quite explicit about caring about others and doing unto them what you would want done unto yourself.  In fact, one consistent criticism of Christians is that they don’t seem to take the admonishments to give all their money away to the poor seriously and so violate Christian principles by not caring about others enough.  So Lee is really going to need to make a really good argument here to pull that off.

Right from the start, the big problem he has is that what spawned this argument was not any explicit argument or discussion about helping others, but was the fact that someone — Erick Erickson — decided to criticize wokeness, something that Christians and assorted others have indeed been talking about for some time.  Lee’s description of the situation is pure rhetoric:

To distract from real issues of justice, the devotees of this right-wing religion are stirring up fear of imaginary boogeymen, like “wokeness”. This term originally signified awareness of racial-justice issues, but – like “political correctness” in the 90s – it’s become a meaningless snarl word for anything and everything that conservatives hate. Another of these right-wing scarecrows is “cancel culture”, which has come to stand for the idea that anyone should face any consequences for expressing abhorrent opinions.

From the start, a lot of people on the left are concerned about “cancel culture”, which is not so much that anyone should face any consequences for expressing abhorrent opinions but more the concern that people are facing a) incredibly serious consequences, like losing jobs and their actual incomes for b) expressing ideas that some very vocal progressives find abhorrent.  And the reason concern there, from my perspective, is that those who advocate for cancelling are pretty vague on what ideas and opinions really count as so abhorrent to justify very harsh and the harshest consequences that are being called for.  Sure, we might think it reasonable to censor people who are explicitly calling for a group to be eliminated, but when the canceling might be extended to people who simply question the policies they are advocating for — because that counts as “eliminating” the group — then maybe things are going too far.  And ultimately, as we look at “wokeness” and “political correctness” we can see the same path:  it starts from something that at least could be reasonable but then expands to things that, at the very least, look silly, and instead of recognizing those appearances and at a minimum defining a set philosophy that can show how those things aren’t silly, they double down on them and attack those who disagree not for being wrong, but for being bigots.  And we cancel bigots, don’t ya know?

So it should be clear that Lee’s definitions here are entirely self-serving.  He is defining the terms based on what works for him, while ignoring what anyone else might have to say or think on the matter, and then classifying all opposition as right-wing bigots because they happen to disagree.  This is indeed quite common as any group that argues for something even remotely right-wing adjacent — no matter how liberal they are of have been — gets classified as “right-wing”.  They can’t simply disagree, they must be shifting to the right, as evidenced by this post by P.Z. Myers where he essentially does that to Glenn Greenwald.  They use ideas about the internal states of people to define their positions, but then define those internal states entirely based on assertions based from their own worldviews and not the worldviews of the people disagreeing with them.  I cannot find a better example of how attempting to rely on empathy is actually a terrible way to do things, because this is precisely when empathy fails:  when someone else has a worldview radically different from yours.  They can’t understand those worldviews, don’t think they should need to try, and so end up simply classifying them as “evil”, and cannot even conceive that they could possibly be wrong.  It is literally equivalent to the child who can’t conceive that the child has information that a person does not, and so that the person will look in the wrong place for the toy that has been moved.  For them, they can’t conceive that someone might have different information than them and so might come to a different conclusion than them, so their disagreement on wokeness or progressiveness must be due to underlying bigotry or deliberate obtuseness.  They can’t conceive that the other person might simply be using that information to come to the wrong conclusion.  That they might be using that information to come to the right conclusion is an idea that they can’t even begin to entertain.

But back to the comment that Lee is going to reply to:

To understand cancel culture, understand this — Christian eschatology says you gain your salvation through a direct relationship with Christ, regardless of others. Secular eschatology says the woke can’t inherit the earth so long as the non-woke are still around and not silenced.
Lee’s first point talks about how Erickson used the wrong word in talking about eschatology there (Lee says he should have used soteriology instead) which is a meaningless point, and his second point is that Christianity has not exactly been known as a bastion of free speech, suppressing speech that disagreed with it, which is a fair point (but one that I don’t think addresses Erickson’s point, which I’ll get into later).  So the first two points are basically throwaway points.  The big key point that Lee wants to address is this:

But the third thing I have to point out, and the real reason I wanted to write this post, is this short but telling phrase:

Christian eschatology says you gain your salvation through a direct relationship with Christ, regardless of others

The only thing this can mean is that Christianity – at least in Erickson’s vision – is a religion for people who care only about themselves. All you have to do is say the magic words, and you’ve fulfilled the requirements that God set out. Securing your salvation is a solely individual matter and requires no consideration or concern for other people.

Wait, what?  That’s the only thing it can mean?  As opposed to the more obvious interpretation that you will gain your salvation as a Christian if you are a proper Christian whether or not anyone else is a proper Christian?  In fact, by Christianity it’s actually probably easier to gain your own salvation if no one else is a Christian because you will be given loads and loads of opportunities to show that you will maintain and stick to your Christian beliefs regardless of what pressures exist for you to abandon.  Erickson contrasts this with wokeness in the sense, it seems to me, that the woke don’t feel that they’ve attained their goals — here referred to as “salvation” — until everyone agrees with them or is woke as well.  In addition, Christians accept that as long as they have a relationship with God that counts whether or not they are openly expressing it, in this case proselytizing about it.  They don’t need to stand on the public square and declare themselves to God, nor do they need to openly condemn others who are falling short or badger them into proselytizing with them.  While they may do that, they don’t need to in order to be Christians.  In fact, some of the most effective Christians at expressing that worldview are the people who just quietly live in their faith and act according to it (who are referred to by people like Lee, in general, as being people who are just generally good people and who don’t get that from their religion).  For the woke, however, being silent about wokeness isn’t enough.  If you don’t call out or condemn others for not being woke and don’t demonstrate your wokeness, then you are falling short of the woke ideal.  You can’t simply not discriminate or be a bigot yourself, you must condemn those who do strongly and cancel those who the call goes out to cancel or else at best you aren’t an ally and at worst a hidden bigot yourself.  So that’s the distinction that Erickson, I believe, is trying to make here.

And in essence this follows, I think, quite reasonably from the atheistic strain of progressivism.  For those who are religious, as Lee will note, this world is not as important as the next world, so it is more important to develop a close relationship with God than to make this world a paradise.  For atheistic progressives, however, this is the only world we have, and so we must make this one as close to a paradise as we can.  People who are not willing to work to make it that way, then, are impeding the goal the progressives have and that they think everyone should have (again, which is common to Christians as well, except that it’s a different goal) and so they know that they cannot achieve their goal without everyone working for it.  I think the more extreme reactions are based on frustration and suspicion.  Frustration that a lot of people seem to be willing to stand by and do nothing or let others carry the burden, in a way that often means that the burden is too great for those who are left and so their measures fail.  Suspicion that they are only playing lip service or are even deliberately working against them in order to maintain their own positions (this is a charge often explicitly leveled against any kind of privileged progressive who doesn’t seem to work hard enough on progressive issues).  So they insist that the collective must act here because without that they will not get the world they want, and as this is the only world they have it really is the case that the others are ruining it for “everyone”, meaning them.

Now, progressives could have a similar individualistic notion to Christianity as expressed by Erickson, by adopting more of a Virtue Ethics approach instead of what looks like the Utilitarian one they advocate for.  They could strive to eliminate bias and bigotry from themselves first and then just go out and act accordingly, and at most “proselytize” in the sense of asking everyone to examine themselves and do the same.  And I do thing that some progressives do have this attitude of trying to improve themselves first and foremost and at least hoping that if most people do this then the problems will go away.  I believe that they are most often referred to by the more socially-oriented progressives as “part of the problem”.

So, no, that actually isn’t all that could mean.  And from there, Lee goes on to engage in even more … creative interpretation:

In fact, to judge from his phrasing, you should distrust anyone who claims that religion asks anything more of you. Anyone who tells you that you have a duty to repair injustice, to overthrow oppressive systems, to help the poor and downtrodden, to show generosity to the needy, to welcome the stranger, to expose the mighty who’ve abused their power… all those ideas are “woke”, anti-Christian, and to be rejected.

Later, Lee will point out that there are a number of Bible passages that contradict that very idea and promote all the things that Lee claims Erickson is clearly rejecting.  All from one quote that is clearly referring to how one does not need other people to be saved in order to gain salvation under Christianity but that under the woke ideology if not everyone is saved then no one is saved.  From this, he concludes that Erickson is really saying that no Christian should ever help anyone else and that it’s unChristian to do so.  That’s some pretty creative interpretation right there.

Lee goes on to call out other Christians for saying the same thing:

If it were only Erickson who thought this way, I wouldn’t have bothered to write this post. But this ideology isn’t just increasingly common, it’s the dominant strain of thought among the religious right.

For instance, this site (which attacks “social justice”, another conservative boogeyman) says, “The biblical exhortations to care for the poor are more individual than societal.” This site adds that the only legitimate role of a pastor is to preach “individual sin and salvation” rather than to criticize “supposedly structural racism”.

The first quote is calling for Christians to give individually rather than to insist that society do so, which doesn’t make the case that we shouldn’t care about others (and, in fact, expresses the exact opposite).  The second quote fits into what I talked about above, where it could be calling for individuals to not be racist instead of taking on the supposed societal and governmental racism (which Lee should approve of as it would require talking about political systems and he’s all about separation of Church and State).  None of these mean that they don’t think that the people, as individuals, shouldn’t care about others or about these issues.  They just say that the duty of religion is to the individual and not to the overall system per se.  Or, in essence, that their moral view is a Virtue Theory.  Well, colour me shocked

And next, of course, is where Lee refutes his own point by pointing all the cases where Christianity, in fact, insists that individuals indeed should care about others:

Now, you could say – and I have – that the Bible itself refutes this idea. In passages like Matthew chapter 25, the Parable of the Sheep and Goats, Jesus states that helping others isn’t an optional extra but a requirement for salvation (“as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me”). Another famous passage, from James chapter 2, says that faith without good works has no power to save anyone.

So Lee here must be going after conservative Christians who disagree with Social Justice ways of going about this, specifically through services provided by the government.  But he doesn’t have a general argument that he can make here to do so, and the quotes he provides don’t work to establish that.  So all he ends up doing here is insisting that because they don’t want to help people the way he wants to help people, then they must not want to help people at all.  This, of course, ties right back into my earlier point about empathy and how it fails.  The thing is, he could make an argument that his way is the best way to do it and so that if they oppose it without, at least, showing a more effective way of doing it then they would be in effect violating their own religious principles and so should at least take a good long look at themselves to see how they can resolve this issue (especially since for many of them they probably could be even individually doing more than they do).  But this would not allow him to claim that they don’t care about others and would require him to engage directly with their worldview, and that’s something that people relying on empathy have a difficult time doing.

Then he says something so ludicrous that my reaction to it was a main impetus for my writing this post:

However, Christianity the belief system can’t be separated from those who practice it. Even if the Bible were the best book ever written, if millions of people have cited it as justification for acts of horror and bloodshed, we’d logically have to conclude that the Bible promotes evil. It would be absurd to argue that we should ignore the belief system as it’s actually practiced in favor of some purely theoretical version.

To be honest, I think I just realized how this one statement captures the entire woke mindset:  if being a progressive and adopting that belief system doesn’t make you a perfect person, then something must be terribly wrong.  It can’t be an error in the belief system, so it must be that those progressives who fail to live up to that didn’t really adopt that belief system.  Because of course anyone who adopts a belief system will practice it properly, free from error and free from other influences that might cause them to err.

Christianity, ironically, is actually less perfectionist than this.  It accepts that we all sin, and that we won’t practice it perfectly.  It accepts that people may get things in the Bible wrong, sometimes in ways that cause great evil.  It accepts that people can use the Bible to also justify great evil.  As Shakespeare put it in “The Merchant of Venice”:

“The devil can cite Scripture for his purpose.
An evil soul producing holy witness
Is like a villain with a smiling cheek,
A goodly apple rotten at the heart.
O, what a goodly outside falsehood hath!”

But Lee insists that if a book can produce evil from those whom he himself here admits are misinterpreting it, then it must also be evil.  So if people misinterpret Darwin’s work and get to eugenics, that should completely invalidate evolution, right?  Or at least Darwin’s work, with is the foundation for it, no?  See, the issue here is that Lee isn’t arguing that the views actually do follow from the Bible, like so many other atheists do.  Here, he is conceding from the start that the Bible isn’t expressing that.  He isn’t arguing that it should be less ambiguous to not allow for such errors, given that it’s supposedly the Word of God.  No, his explicit argument is that if someone can misconstrue a belief system so that it leads to evil then the belief system itself is evil.  That … does not seem like a well-motivated argument …

He then tries to move on to show that the supposed attitude of not caring at all about others — by reducing actions to the individual level instead of the societal level — is a common thread in Christianity and even that it is supported by the Bbile:

For obvious reasons, the Christian slave owners of the antebellum era preached that Christianity tells us how to get to heaven, but says nothing about conditions in this world. They taught, as many Christians through history have taught, that this life is just a brief blip before another existence of infinitely greater importance. Salvation is the only thing that matters, and therefore suffering and injustice should be endured, not resisted. (And, to be fair, the Bible supports this idea as well.)

So, let’s look at the two Bible quotes.  The first one is Matthew 5:39, which is basically this (including 38):

“You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also.

So this one is an admonishment against the retributive system of morality of the Old Testament.  While there can be a lot of interpretations here, speaking from the perspective of moral philosophy this probably links up to the idea of not responding to evil with evil lest you become evil yourself.  It does, of course, say in general that you should endure suffering and injustice, but doesn’t insist that you shouldn’t do anything to alleviate suffering in others.  Especially since it leads into the later admonishment to love your enemies as opposed to hating them (Matthew 5:43).  So this doesn’t support Lee’s contention, especially in light of other parables such as “The Good Samaritan”.

The next one is actually even more clear that it isn’t saying what Lee thinks it does.  It’s Ephesians 6:5-8:

Slaves, obey your earthly masters with respect and fear, and with sincerity of heart, just as you would obey Christ. Obey them not only to win their favor when their eye is on you, but as slaves of Christ, doing the will of God from your heart. Serve wholeheartedly, as if you were serving the Lord, not people, because you know that the Lord will reward each one for whatever good they do, whether they are slave or free.

What this says is pretty much in the last line:  do good and obey because everyone will be rewarded for doing good, regardless of their position, so act according to that.  Lee could use this to argue that Christianity doesn’t argue against overturning the unjust practice of slavery and so by that insists that one should not oppose an unjust society, but Mark 12:17 is probably a better example of that:

Then Jesus said to them, “Give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s.” And they were amazed at him.

As it would suggest that they shouldn’t oppose taxation of a purported oppressor.  But it of course can also be interpreted as acting secularly when that is what is required and religiously when that is required, which then wouldn’t preclude toppling unjust regimes as appropriate.  So Lee would have to establish that doing good as per Christianity could never involve opposing injustice at the societal level, and he hasn’t done that … and his quotes don’t do that either.

This idea survived the destruction of slavery, and it’s been used ever since to defend bigotry, plutocracy, and unjust hierarchy. Even if white male evangelicals have all the power and all the wealth, that’s unimportant in the grand scheme of things. The poor and the meek should keep their heads down, concentrate only on their own souls, and accept the world as it is without seeking to change it.

I’m not sure how this links to the quotes that started this, and since Christianity is actually pretty strong on the idea that being poor and being meek is more godly and so those leaders shouldn’t be seeking it, it’s a rather odd statement to make … but it fits with Lee’s overall view of Social Justice and privilege, which explains why he said and focused on it without, you know, establishing that anyone, in fact, actually believes that.  It is, of course, not unreasonable to think that Christianity is advocating that where you are on that scale of power and wealth isn’t all that important to whether or not you are good or a good Christian, and Lee could call out a number of Christian leaders for seeming to seek power and wealth more than godliness, but he almost presents it as a conspiracy theory here where all of the Christian leaders interpret the Bible in ways to justify their own wealth and power and to deny it to their followers.  It is … unlikely that this is widespread, and the simplest answer is more that they are hypocrites that are at worst taking advantage of those common beliefs rather than building the entire theology around it.  And note again that we are quite far afield from where he started.

Fortunately, it’s not hard to recognize this self-serving propaganda for what it is. It’s a last-ditch effort to defend privilege by those who have no better argument than the naked assertion of “God said so.” Nonbelievers and progressive religious people both have solid grounds to reject this idea, and we can both agree that real justice requires a transformation of society, not just of individuals.

So, riddle me this, then:  if we did indeed properly transform individuals, would the society not follow the individuals, especially in a democratic society?  If Lee had shown that the Bible was indeed actually saying that we shouldn’t transform society at all or in those ways, then he’d have a point.  But he didn’t.  All Erickson has done is note that for Christianity we don’t need society to be transformed for our own salvation, whereas for the “woke” society’s transformation must follow our own transformation or else it was, presumably, all for nought.  We cannot be saved under the woke ideology unless society is fully transformed.  That makes the salvation of the woke dependent on the salvation of everyone else.  No wonder they are so bitter that so many people are not as woke as they are.

Thoughts on “Anne”

April 1, 2021

I think I was fooled with this movie by thinking that it had something to do with the “Conjuring” series, mainly associated with the later “Annabelle” movies that focused more specifically on the specific dolls that were associated with the first movie.  Then again, after watching “The Conjuring” I haven’t watched anything else in that series, so that really shouldn’t have driven me to actually watch this movie.

The basic premise of this movie is that a mentally disturbed woman lives alone in a house with a bunch of dolls, watching a kind of self-affirmation show that she really likes.  Some strange things start happening, and things keep getting stranger.  We see a strange man show up around the house who turns out to be her son, and then the main character — Anne, natch — gets injured and needs a nurse, the house gets sold, and we eventually discover that Anne had died quite some time ago and that the son is the one with the mental illness, and that he’s been fantasizing that the women who has now moved into the house is Anne’s nurse and so has been harassing the new owner.

This movie doesn’t really work as horror.  Yes, there are some creepy scenes, but for the most part all we see is Anne going out her daily business while some creepy things happen.  So any possible horror is smothered under the intense boredom of the movie.  There are long stretches where nothing at all happens.  If the character of Anne was compelling or did compelling things, that might be interesting, but she doesn’t and so it isn’t.  It’s not creepy enough to really build suspense and too dull to keep our interest.

Now, the movie didn’t have to really do full-on horror.  It could have done something like “The Dark Stranger” and been more an examination of the mental illness itself examined through a horror lens.  Except that it doesn’t do that either, possibly because that wouldn’t have been boring.  We don’t really find out anything about her mental illness, nor do we really see anything that relates to it, nor does the plot or characterization make it a key component.  Plus, it pulls the rug out from under any such an examination with the twist that the son was in fact the one whose mental illness was being shown as far as we can tell.  And since he’s not a focus character, we don’t get any sense of his mental illness.  It could be the case that both of them had a mental illness, but the movie doesn’t really do anything to establish that.

And all of this makes the twist utterly pointless, useless and nonsensical.  The movie in no way shows that the son had any mental illness at all (other than, perhaps, that the other son was going to sell the house, but that is presented as them going to move her to a home).  Since the movie is shown from Anne’s perspective, even the nurse is shown as, well, being a nurse and there is no indication that anything is wrong (other than perhaps that the nurse might not be treating Anne that well, although that is presented as trying to push Anne to do more for herself).  So the entire movie is spent examining what really seems like and really would have to be Anne’s delusions, and then at the end it tries to convince us that the delusions are the son’s … even when he wasn’t present.  So the twist makes no sense because the movie does nothing to set it up, and so it seems to come out of nowhere and, again, because it wasn’t set up at all in the movie it doesn’t even seem clever or cool.  It’s a twist for the sake of a twist, in a movie where that sort of twist didn’t actually make sense.

“Anne” is incredibly boring, not at all scary, and ends with a nonsensical and uninteresting twist.  This is going in my box of movies to possibly sell at a later date.

Subverting Expectations in “The Last Jedi” and “Star By Star”

March 31, 2021

I’ve been re-reading all of my Legends Star Wars books, and have been working through “New Jedi Order” for a while now, and when writing the last post comparing it to the sequel trilogy I had intended to write about other things about my reactions to the “New Jedi Order”.  First up is yet another comparison to the sequel trilogy, this time specifically to “The Last Jedi” and its attempt to subvert expectations.  This has been a common comment made about the movie, including in an analysis by Shamus Young that I addressed in a discussion of “Knives Out”, which was claimed to be the same sort of subversion.  Here, what I want to do is note that the novel “Star By Star” in “New Jedi Order” was more of a subversion of Star Wars tropes and expectations than “The Last Jedi” was, and it wasn’t even trying to be one as much as “The Last Jedi” supposedly was.

As noted in my own review of “The Last Jedi”, the big issue there was that the movie was too ambiguous to really pull off a real subversion.  While he was indeed probably trying to subvert the typical hero moves with Poe getting chided for his “loose cannon” ways and the heroic mission of Finn and Rose being actually hugely detrimental to the Rebels, as well as Finn being stopped from committing a heroic sacrifice with the movie making that seem like it would have been a waste and so was undesirable.  However, how it was structured certainly made us question whether those who were questioning these tropes and expectations were, in fact, just plain wrong.  While they were chased through hyperspace anyway, having two of those super ships would probably have indeed simply ended up with them destroyed, and the tradeoff between what they lost killing the ship and what they gained by killing it was a tradeoff that most people would at least consider being debatable, and Leia getting that upset with Poe after serving in the Alliance with the irreverent Han Solo seems pretty unreasonable.  Holdo might seem like a commander who more believes in order, but her presentation is of the sort of commander that is too much of a stickler for procedure that has to be worked around, and her plan isn’t all that great a one.  And let’s not even start talking about all the character and plot problems that are introduced by Rose’s actions.  So while Johnson may have been trying to subvert expectations, the ambiguity in “The Last Jedi” pretty much kills our sense of that, which is really bad because most people I think reasonably believe that he really, really did want us to take that from the movie.

Now, “New Jedi Order” had set out to do things a bit differently from the start.  The enemy was not only not an evil Force User or Force Tradition, but instead was an enemy that was cut off from the Force completely.  They weren’t the Empire or anything that came from it.  They also used radically different technologies — biological — and had a strong distaste for most of the things that the Star Wars galaxy most loved, droids in particular.  Additionally, in the very first book “Vector Sigma Prime”, they decided that they wanted to shake things up and kill off a major character who had been a part of the franchise and of Legends to give the sense that anything can happen and anyone can die.  They chose Chewbacca.  And while I didn’t do a lot of research into it from my reading around they deliberately intended to do that again, this time killing off one of the Solo children, and they changed which one it was along the way.  So they were starting from a premise, again, that was trying to surprise the audience and leave them open to the idea that anything could happen (a risky move considering that a number of people were not all that happy with the trope in general and with it’s use in “Vector Prime”).

So the basic idea was this:  the enemy has created a new and terrible beast that can hunt down and kill the Jedi.  They discover, however, that it is being cloned somewhere deep inside enemy territory, and so if they can kill the queen then it will stop the enemy, presumably, from cloning more of them and so the beasts will die off.  Anakin Solo proposes a risky mission that will take them deep inside enemy territory but will have to exclude the more powerful and well-known Jedi like Luke Skywalker and Corran Horn.  So, essentially, it will involve all of the younger Jedi, the children of the main characters and all of the new up-and-coming ones, and thus will essentially be the first official mission of the “New Jedi Order”.  While Han is initially opposed to it, he is eventually persuaded to support it and ends up being the deciding vote to have the mission go ahead.  This is crucial because Chewbacca’s death introduced a couple of character themes related to Han and Anakin.  The first is that Han has had his feeling that he and his family cannot die and so has become overly protective of his family, and here he is voting to send all of his children into danger.  The second is that he at least initially blamed Anakin for Chewbacca’s death and this has created a rift between them.  On top of that, Anakin also through some unique adventures on Yavin gained the ability through his lightsaber to sense the enemy, which no one else can do, giving him a unique insight and perspective on them.  He also has a burgeoning romance with Tahiri who the enemy attempted to shape into becoming one of them and so also has a unique insight into the enemy.  So there are a lot of plotlines here around the character of Anakin, and as Kyp Durron notes once it looks like Anakin will be the future of the Jedi, and so the figurehead for the “New Jedi Order”.  He seems, then, to be an incredibly important character to the series and the future of the Legends works.

So what we’d expect, given the previous Star Wars and Legends works, is that they’d would go out and deal with the threat heroically.  There’d be obstacles, but they’d overcome them.  Perhaps some of the lesser known young Jedi would die.  After their success, Han and Anakin would settle their differences and the attempt would move reveal things that they could use to turn the battle against the enemy and start to build towards the ending.

That’s not what happens.

The mission is brutal.  They are behind the eight-ball from the start and end up realizing just how difficult such a mission would be and ultimately how stupid an idea it probably was.  For the most part, they are just desperately trying to stay alive.  Many of them are killed, and they are not relying on their Force abilities but instead on regular weaponry.  They run into some Dark Side users who help them for a time, but are never converted and instead run out on them with the ship they hoped to escape in.  They actually don’t manage to kill the queen, and it’s only a direct intervention by another character with her own agenda that results in the mission being a success, so while it wasn’t entirely for nothing, it wasn’t a resounding success.  At the end, most of them are dead, all of them are badly injured, Jacen Solo is captured and, most critically, Anakin Solo is dead.

This really does break from expectations.  Anakin Solo was the leader and looked to be stepping out as the leader of the “New Jedi Order”.  He also had an unresolved character arc with Han Solo.  Tahiri also almost kisses him but says that she’ll save it until he comes back, which is a hint that he will come back in Star Wars on par with “I know”.  He also was the only one who had any insight into the enemy, both from his lightsaber and from his experiences with the enemy that led to that.  As it turns out, he was also the focal point for a new religion among the enemy that was the best chance to overthrow the leader and the order and so lead to peace between them.  There were a lot of character and plot points that would suggest that Anakin would live.  Instead, he died, throwing all of that away and all of that into disorder.

I’m not going to claim that “Star By Star” is a true subversion, let alone that it was properly intended as one.  But unlike “The Last Jedi” the expectations are clear and the book does clearly subvert them, generating surprise, at least.  I think that “The Last Jedi” wants to try to subvert the philosophy more than the work itself, but it falters by falling into ambiguity.  It wants to be more a critique of the expectations than a subversion of them, whereas “Star By Star” has a purpose that’s more a desire to surprise the audience and get them wondering what might happen than to critique what the other things have done.  And in doing that, I think it does work better at going against the expectations of the audience and making it clear that things were not going to and didn’t work the way they expected it to.

Thoughts on “Warriors of the Wasteland”

March 30, 2021

So, in that pack of 11 movies that I talked about last time, some of them are more science fiction and some of them are more horror.  I’m working my way through the pack, and so am going to write about the science fiction movies as science fiction and write about the horror movies in my normal horror movie slot.  The second science fiction movie is “Warriors of the Wasteland” which is similar to “Slipstream” but shows how even when you take the basic idea of invent a world and situation that we can explore you can, indeed, still screw it up badly.

The main premise is that there was an I think nuclear war, and this has left society in a more Mad Max-style post-apocalyptic society where they all drive around in various vehicles and kill each other.  The main character is a specific warrior who always wants to travel pretty much alone, and the main villains are a quasi-religious group led by someone who blame humanity for the holocaust and wants to solve the problem by killing all the remaining humans with his band of men, who presumably don’t realize that he’d eventually want to kill them off as well.  The hero has a history with them, and gets involved with them when rescuing a woman from them.  There’s also another warrior who likes to fight wandering around, and a young kid who fixes things and wants to kill things as well.  They all come together with another group who are trying to survive and who are attacked by the main villains.

The big problem with this movie is that there aren’t all that many new and interesting environments to explore, but nothing else really makes sense or is developed properly, nor are the emotional connections made clear.  He picks up the woman, has sex with her, and at least tries to rescue her at the end, but there’s no real reason for him to do so.  He and the warrior have a history and he keeps rejecting help, but there’s no reason for him to do so and rejecting help when going to face a group where he will be outnumbered and where they want to kill him is just plain stupid.  We never really find out what the warrior’s deal is, nor really what the deal is with the kid.  And they introduce a signal that could indicate more survivors and perhaps something that isn’t the simple moving settlements that they’ve seen, but they never actually reveal what that was.  So all the movie can rely on is our interest in the main characters and their conflict, but it’s an underdeveloped conflict and the actors aren’t as good as the ones in “Slipstream”, so they don’t capture our interest with their performances.  Ultimately, there just isn’t anything here to keep our interest, and so it falters as a movie.

As you might guess, I don’t have any interest in watching this one again.  While it could have used its premise to have the wanderer take on the girl and meet people along with way and then built to a clash with the villains as it did at the end, there’s nothing in the middle to keep our interest and this makes the end clash a bit hollow emotionally.  This could have been better, but unfortunately it doesn’t really end up giving us anything to be interested in.

Should Bruce Wayne Have Become Batman?

March 29, 2021

The next essay in “Batman and Philosophy” is “Should Bruce Wayne Have Become Batman?” by Mahesh Ananth and Ben Dixon.  This essay takes a strong Utilitarian approach focused on that of Peter Singer to criticize Bruce Wayne for using his wealth to buy himself massive training and incredible gadgets to become Batman and protect one city instead of at the very least taking that money and spending it to provide food, water and shelter for the people who are starving.  If we take Singer’s strong take on utilitarian morality, then we should agree that the greater good is better served by that and even by Bruce Wayne giving all all his money than to keep it, and we should probably agree that we should also give away any money that we have that we use to purchase luxuries as well.

While I’m a strong opponent of Utilitarianism in general, here I just want to focus on criticizing Singer’s much stronger take on the issue, and let’s start with that question itself:  should Bruce Wayne have become Batman?

The problem with that take is that the villains that Batman takes on are villains that arguably aren’t really capable of dealing out devastation at the same level as, say, a major famine, they are still villains who, if left to their own devices, will kill thousands if not hundreds of thousands of people in incredibly horrible ways.  The Joker, for one, is a villain who has come up with many, many plans to do just that.  Perhaps those that are more strictly criminal like the Penguin, Two-Face or Killer Croc won’t, but for those who would or could it certainly seems callous and morally suspect to say that stopping them is significantly less of a priority than giving money to charity to help feed starving people (especially since Bruce Wayne does donate to various charities as well).  Stopping such evil people does seem like a worthy goal even if it requires resources that could arguably be spent on other causes that might, in theory, save more people.

But even for the more criminal villains, it seems that the same argument could be used with respect to police forces.  After all, they are paid for using tax revenue by cities and other governments that also do things like provide for the homeless and for those who are struggling in various ways.  One could, then, argue that we should indeed literally defund the police and use its budget to create soup kitchens, provide health care and housing for those who don’t have it.  After all, the lives improved and saved by doing so will almost certainly exceed those that would be killed in various crimes and murders, and those people will be far more destitute and in need of monetary help than those who happen to be mugged or burgled in the crime spree.  But we would, I think, generally intuitively reject such a move, as it seems to be the precise wrong thing to do and would seem to be immoral.  And I think this is for a couple of reasons.

The first is that we see, I think, inherent moral goodness in stopping explicit evil and stopping evil from causing suffering to other people.  While perhaps not all criminals are evil, some clearly are and certainly Batman’s villains are.  So we do think it morally praiseworthy to oppose evil and do think that it’s acceptable to use resources that could, say, feed people in order to do so.  The second reason is that we feel that the government, at least, has a moral obligation to provide protection for people who live under their jurisdiction.  The idea that they would refuse to do so and instead shift all of that budget to providing those other services seems like they are refusing to fulfill one of their moral obligations.  We could also argue that because Batman both can stop these violent criminals and is willing to stop these criminals that he also accrues a moral obligation to do so, despite the insistence that he should use that money for other things.

This leads into the second big issue I have with Singer here, which is the clash between the strong and moderate version of giving in Singer, as outlined by Ananth and Dixon.  The strong version of giving is that one should give until one would cause themselves as much suffering as they would be relieving by giving it to others.  The moderate version is that one should give until one has to sacrifice something morally significant to do so.  Singer doesn’t see any reason to hold the moderate version instead of the strong version, which in general will require almost all people to divest themselves of almost all of their wealth and to forgo almost all of their luxuries — and any luxuries that they might want to provide to their families and friends — in order to relieve poverty, even in far-flung places.  Well, perhaps not so much to relieve poverty because the argument can be made that the level that it would in theory require will leave most people at a level that we would consider poverty.  But I think it is a huge misunderstanding of morality to make such a claim.  If Singer can make a strong moral case that morality will in general demand that strong a sacrifice, then the moderate case and the strong case are the same case.  But if there are situations where someone could have a moral obligation that would require them to give those resources, then it is obvious that that moral obligation would trump anything else Singer would have to say.  So it seems to me, then, that there is no reason to hold the strong version of giving a priori.  Thus, Singer should always start from the moderate version and then show that morality will ultimately at least almost always lead us to the strong version, instead of mostly — at least in the quotes provided by Ananth and Dixon — dismissing the moderate version in favour of the strong one.  The moderate version is the one justified by general morality, while the second one can only ever be justified by specific reasoning.

Of course, it turns out that Singer’s strong version isn’t really workable anyway.  The first major issue is that one of the ways that capitalism makes it so that people have money that they could decide to spend on luxuries but instead should give to various effective charities is because we don’t all have to work simply to the level of subsistence anymore, and so we don’t all have to be involved directly in producing necessities.  So we can in fact make money by doing things that aren’t strictly necessary.  Singer tends to use the example of a movie ticket or DVD as an example of something frivolous, but we can see that such things aren’t actually all that frivolous when we look at all the people that are employed in that industry.  Just watch the end credits of a major blockbuster movie to see all the people that were employed in creating it!  And that doesn’t even take into account the people who are employed directly at the theatre and so are only there because people will buy movie tickets and watch movies.  Singer’s move, then, would risk eliminating the actual economic system that allows people to have money that they have to decide between giving to charity or using to go to the movies, by eliminating all luxury spending and so reducing everyone to only being able to work on producing necessities … leaving no money available to give to charity.

On top of that, there’s an issue that if we did manage to convince everyone to follow Singer’s strong version without destroying the economy, it would be quite likely that there would be enough resources to go around so that everyone could at least get to subsistence level, and so people could, then, return to buying luxuries.  But who would be lucky ones that would be able to do that?  At least some people wouldn’t be able to do so, so how would we decide who are the ones who don’t get to keep some of their money for luxuries?  Or perhaps there wouldn’t be enough money to go around.  Then how do we decide which people don’t get the money to raise them to basis subsistence level?  So either we have to make a tough choice as to who gets advantaged and disadvantaged with a moral system that isn’t properly set up to do that, or else we would all live at a basic subsistence level with is the only way to achieve a moral balance.  That … does not seem particularly inviting.

The issue is that Singer ignores the concept of general versus specific moral obligations.  He’s essentially arguing that we all have a specific moral obligation to help those people because we are capable of doing so, but then once he does that he cannot allow for us to have any other specific moral obligations that would trump that.  It also leads us into the issue that if we don’t need everyone to contribute to help those people then we have no way to determine who should help and who shouldn’t.  Ultimately, then, the issue is that Singer wants to make it so that we all have an individual, specific and personal obligation to do that as opposed to a general obligation that we can fulfill at a societal level.  But the people he is appealing to here don’t have an actual specific moral obligation, and so we can very much get into the situation where we all end up pointing to someone else and saying “You first!”.  Yes, this is problematic — as we see in Bystander Syndrome — but it is how it works when we try to make a specific moral obligation out of a general one:  if we have to potentially sacrifice something then we will be inclined to wait for someone else to do so first than to do it ourselves.  And this is what generates the choices outlined above where we can ask who are the ones who can pursue their luxuries or who are the ones who don’t get subsistence level if things don’t work out equally and universally.  Singer would need to create a real specific moral obligation between each person and some specific person or area to make this all work, and you can’t do that through utilitarianism, especially the strong version of giving that he relies on.

And to return to Batman, Batman has a specific obligation to Gotham City, that he tries to fulfill the best he can.  He prevents crime as Batman, and diverts his resources as necessary to fulfill that obligation.  He gives to charitable causes in Gotham, and diverts his resources as necessary to take care of the poor and needy in Gotham and fulfill that obligation.  And he keeps Wayne Enterprises running to maintain an economy for the city, and maintains his resources to fulfill that obligation.  Given all of this, Bruce Wayne seems to be using his resources in a morally admirable way, fulfilling his specific obligations first and then turning to more general ones like saving the world through the Justice League and helping out those who are suffering in other countries.  Singer et al are going to need a far better argument than they have made in order to show that his decisions are, in fact, not morally admirable.