Posts Tagged ‘Philosophy in Popular Culture’

“Send in the Clones: The Ethics of Future Wars”

May 3, 2021

The next essay in “Star Wars and Philosophy” is “Send in the Clones:  The Ethics of Future Wars” by Richard Hanley.  This essay is attempting to show that a) cloning is not inherently wrong and also b) that using clones as the primary army in a war is probably a good thing as well.  I’m not going to get into the ethics of cloning because Hanley doesn’t really consider the strongest arguments against that (reducing it to a “yuck” factor with minimal additional examination) and I think the issue is probably more complicated than can be covered in an essay like this one.  Instead, I’ll cover one very suspect argument about whether there can be a victim is something is modified before it exists and then make a general comment rising from the essay about the ethics of using clones as an army.

So, first, the suspect argument.  Hanley describes a case where there we find a genetic defect and correct it so that where a child would have been produced that would have only had one arm, it now is produced that has two arms.  Using an idea of genetic identity — our identity is determined by our genes — he argues that the only possible victim in the process would be the one-armed child, but since that child doesn’t exist and the two-armed child does, and the two-armed child was in no way harmed by the procedure, then there was no harm done and the procedure is moral.  So far so good.  But he then tries to use it to argue that if a similar procedure was done to instead of producing a child with two arms a child was produced with no arms, the same reasoning would apply.  The two-armed child that now has no arms would clearly be a victim, but that child never existed, and so cannot be a victim.  And if the armless child’s life could be fulfilling and worth living, then that child can’t be a victim, because it wouldn’t have existed otherwise, so it wasn’t harmed either as on the whole it existing is better for it even without having arms.

Obviously, this is a very controversial move, and here’s why.  While one can argue that the fully two-armed child never existed and so can’t be a victim, it doesn’t work to say that the armless child isn’t one.  In the first case, the procedure was undertaken to produce the child in a more, perhaps, perfect state, or at least a more capable one, and so a less disadvantaged one.  So we can assume in that argument that the intent of that was to make the child’s life easier or better as opposed to the case that would have occurred without intervention.  Thus, we could expect the child to be grateful for the interference once they understand all the reasons for it.  In the second case, though, the child would be being deliberately made less capable and so more disadvantaged.  So the base intent here is to make the child’s life worse.  If there aren’t any other factors in play, then the child, when it understands the reasons for doing that, will rightly not be grateful but instead will be angry and bitter towards the people who undertook that procedure.  The key factor here is that their life is worse off after our action than it was if we had not acted, and that then makes them a victim of our actions.  The fact that they may still have an overall worthwhile life doesn’t outweigh the fact that they would have had a better life — even by your own analysis when performing the procedure — if you had done nothing.  Even if you have your own reasons for preferring that, and even if you wouldn’t have created the child if you couldn’t perform the procedure to leave it armless, the child is still a victim because you created them but deliberately did so in an imperfect manner that leaves them less capable than they could have been.

Hanley tries to use this to argue that we could create clones with diminished autonomy, and if we did that we could then use that diminished autonomy to get them to fight our wars for us.  As seen above, that probably wouldn’t be ethical if we could give them full autonomy.  But this highlights the issue with a clone army.  If we produced clones with full autonomy, we would have to give them the ability to choose whether or not they wanted to fight in the army.  Assuming that without conditioning them towards wanting to fight they would choose to fight about as often as everyone else, what would we do with the large number of clones that were left over?  We couldn’t just kill them, but they’d be more people who’d need jobs and resources.  But if they aren’t given full autonomy, then we’d be producing what should count — even to Hanley — as full human beings for the sole purpose of dying in wars, and they wouldn’t even get the choice of whether to do so or not.  That doesn’t seem morally right either, even if deliberately stunting their autonomy was moral as Hanley tries to argue.

So while Hanley at the end thinks that fighting wars with clones might be the best alternative, to me it’s clear that fighting wars with willing volunteers is the best alternative, especially since if everyone is forced to do that they would in general have to get some sort of willing compliance from a sufficient percentage of their population to start a war.  We don’t want to be in a case where it really is a simple matter of production rather than of support that is necessary before someone can start a war.

“Bargaining with Eternity and Numbering One’s Days: Medicine, Nietzsche and Doctor Strange”

April 19, 2021

So, while browsing online for things, I came across the book “Doctor Strange and Philosophy” edited by Mark D. White which, in the tradition of all of the other “Philosophy and Pop Culture” works, uses aspects of mostly the Doctor Strange movie to discuss philosophical issues.  So I get to start here with the first essay in this collection, which is “Bargaining with Eternity and Numbering One’s Days: Medicine, Nietzsche and Doctor Strange” by George A. Dunn.  Basically, in this essay Dunn examines the Western medical approach and materialistic approach of reducing physical bodies mechanistically to the status of machines and then trying to deal with them as if they were machines to simply be “fixed”, tying it directly to the notion of control.  If bodies are machines, then we can control them, and so we can make them do what we want them to, and so anything that they do that’s out of our control is a failure that we need to overcome.  Dunn traces this tradition back from Strange himself — who, to be fair, is much more arrogant about it — to Descartes and Francis Bacon who at a minimum treated the body that way (Descartes clearly did not think of the mind or soul that way, and it is likely that his view of the body is in part what drove his rejection of the idea that the mind can be reduced to body).  Dunn compares this to the Eastern ideas expressed in the movie as well as to Nietzsche’s own criticisms of the idea, where he at a minimum believed that adversity was necessary to make something worthwhile out of people (the old “it builds character” argument) but might go so far as to demand that we consider suffering good in and of itself, a beautiful part of life — according to one rhapsodic passage that Dunn quotes — that we need to learn to love and not seek to avoid.

People following my posts in general should see the link to the Problem of Evil, at least as interpreted in the modern sense as the Problem of Suffering.  So while I don’t think that we should love suffering, I do think that in order to develop we need there to be adversity and that will cause some suffering.  As someone Stoic-leaning, then, I don’t see suffering as being inherently bad or something to be avoided or railed against.  One could indeed try to reduce unnecessary suffering, but that would be a practical consideration and not a moral one.  But then when it comes to medicine it can indeed be argued that that is a practical rather than a moral field and so trying to eliminate all the suffering it possibly can is the right approach for medicine.  We might not want to import that attitude into every aspect of our daily lives — and the criticisms of Eastern philosophies about the West being overly materialistic are really about importing that as an overall moral standard for all — but in medicine it seems a not unreasonable approach.

But the most interesting point in the essay is Nietzsche’s view or thought experiment of the “eternal return”, where someone is told by a demon that they will be required to live this very life out over and over again.  Now, at first I didn’t get the thought experiment and thought that it was basically a “Groundhog Day” loop, except over a longer scale, but where you can do different things and make some changes, at which point I thought that everyone would leap at the chance, even if they had experienced suffering during it.  But then I realized that the life was going to be exactly the same, which means that we would, in fact, make the exact same mistakes.  This would be a more challenging scenario, as we have all done things in our past that we would like to change and that we regret.  Could you live your life again knowing that it was all going to turn out the same?  Now if you remembered your previous lives, this could indeed be torture, as you would see your mistakes coming and be powerless to change that.  This would probably make for a good concept for Hell, come to think of it.  But if we take that obvious torment out of the picture and instead posit that the demon says that you will relive your life to infinity but won’t remember it, then whether or not this is torment depends on how satisfied you are with this life, which ties into one of my own main principles.  If you are trying to happy, then you might look back on all the times you failed to achieve that and lament being damned to a life where you can’t ever improve it.  But if you strive for contentment then you can look back on your life and be content with it, warts and, more importantly, mistakes and all.  So the more you accept that life isn’t perfect, the more willing you will be to accept the demon’s words as at least neutral and not the curse you might think it to be.

Now, Nietzsche thinks that you should be able to do this after your “loneliest loneliness”, which for many people will be difficult for emotional reasons.  But I think that most people should be able to look back on their lives and find the good things and the bad things and, hopefully, note that the good outweighs the bad and that reliving it would not be horrible torment.  It’s an interesting way to make that point and to get people to look at the bulk of their lives and not the most dramatic mistakes and sufferings that they’ve experienced.

Save Vs Death: A Reflection on the Lifecycle of PCs

April 12, 2021

The next essay in “Dungeons & Dragons and Philosophy” is “Save Vs Death:  A Reflection on the Lifecycle of PCs” by Christopher Robichaud.  In it, he takes on the advice on death given by Socrates and argues that what you can learn about life and death from Dungeons & Dragons is far more useful and meaningful, which is obviously something that it would be rather difficult to pull off.  Let’s see how he does it.

Well, the big problem is that he focuses strongly on Socrates’ view that the really important things in life are the things of the mind or soul and not of the body, and so that we should minimize our focus on the material things and instead focus on the higher things.  From this, Socrates argues at his death — since he believes that he has a soul that will survive death — that he will finally achieve what he’s wanted all along:  the ability to perceive and experience the greater pleasures of the soul without the interference of the body.  Now, I haven’t studied Socrates in detail nor that specific speech of his, but in my opinion Socrates’ first idea is right:  the body can be a distraction from more important or valuable things.  But I wouldn’t agree that we should give them all up or seek to eliminate them.  The base pleasures are, nonetheless, pleasures and there are a number of times in our daily lives where we have the time and possibly even the need to engage in them.  There’s no shame in, for example, preferring to eat tasty food rather than plain food since we need to eat food to survive and that little pleasure can be good for us.  So I don’t seek to eliminate the body entirely, but instead of eliminate its undue influence on us.  So don’t avoid tasty food, but also don’t give up the higher pleasures in order to seek out the lower ones, no matter how tempting that may be.

But does Robichaud offer us anything else?  His main lessons to take from D&D all revolve around how the luck of the dice determine our fate.  First, he talks about how we get attached to our characters but that at any time they could die because of a bad roll, so we need to accept attachment but be prepared to give them up if their time has come.  The second is that our abilities are determined in a lot of ways by luck, so we shouldn’t be too proud of them nor should we think that we really earn what we gain using them, since we aren’t responsible for them.  For the second, he ties it into a fairly standard social justice line about thinking that the money we earn from our labour is what we ourselves have earned, when in reality luck played a very large roll in our being able to achieve that.  And yet the problem there is that it conflates two different meanings of earned.  If I work writing computer software and earn my money doing that, there is a sense where someone can point to my abilities and all sorts of other things and say that luck played a large role in getting me there and so I didn’t really “earn” it.  But when it comes to things like taxation and the like the fact remains this:  I did the work for that amount of time and it was deemed to be worth that much of a salary, and so no matter how I got there I definitely earned my pay.  If I was standing around somewhere and someone came up, needed someone to do something, and offered me pay to do the job, that pay would be the result of luck as well, and the person who was delayed getting there who could have done it as well as me could indeed say that it was only luck that got me that pay.  And yet, I did the work anyway, and so no one else would have a claim that I didn’t earn the pay I made through my labour.

That’s actually the problem with Robichaud’s claim there.  He ties it to labour, not to abilities, but we always do earn the pay we get from our labour, and our abilities help us get into the position to be able to earn from our labour.  So we do have a right to the fruits of our labour, because that its indeed the one thing that we actually always do for ourselves, and to tax that or claim that for others on the basis that we didn’t earn it is always false.  Positions in society that make it easier for us to generate money from our labour come from luck, perhaps, but not the actual fruits of our direct labour.

So I don’t find Robichaud’s alternatives all that profound, and even find them to be in general a bit debatable.  Perhaps Socrates has more to say than Robichaud allows.

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 …

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.

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.

The Case of the Dangerous Detective

March 22, 2021

The next essay in “Sherlock Holmes and Philosophy” is “The Case of the Dangerous Detective” by Ronald S. Green and D.E. Wittkower.  It is essentially a dialogue where they ask why detectives might be considered dangerous, starting from Holmes and working their way through gumshoes and film noir detectives.  They then relate them to people like Socrates who were considered dangerous because their ideas challenged the basic ideas underpinning the societies and so they were a threat to the established order, both in the sense that they challenged those who were in power and in the sense that they risked overturning the basic beliefs that kept the society running.  They finish comparing them to some Asian traditions that have similar themes of overturning the basic ideas and beliefs of a society.

However, I find it quite strange that they used Holmes as an example here.  To the audience, Holmes is not at all a dangerous figure.  We are in no way frightened of him or his view of deduction, and in fact we very much admire him even if we cannot be like him ourselves.  Moreover, he doesn’t actually pose any threat to the established order of his time.  He works closely with the authorities and his reaction to them is not one of cynicism about how they are too corrupt, but instead of exasperation over how stupid and unobservant they are.  Ultimately, Holmes is a case where the authorities need and rely on him, and through both him and Mycroft they maintain the established order by doing the things that the authorities need doing but can’t do themselves.  So rather than subverting or challenging the established order, Holmes instead supports and maintains it.

Noir detectives and gumshoes, however, are a better example of that sort of thing and so do mostly exist in a more cynical world where the authorities are instead corrupt.   The gumshoe is well aware that the authorities are corrupt, but is in general driven mostly if not entirely by self-interest.  How they end up challenging the authorities is in general not from any real desire to overturn this corrupt world — since at a minimum they think it impossible for them to really impact it — but they get drawn into the conspiracy in general when they try to solve a murder that is itself connected to the conspiracy (the board game “Android” explicitly embodies this in its mechanics, as any piece of evidence can be placed on the conspiracy or on the murder, and players get points for solving the murder and for linking to the conspiracy and having accrued elements that can be impacted by or impact that conspiracy).  Usually, they find that the corruption is much deeper than even they thought it was which forces them into taking a stand and actions that they wouldn’t normally take.

So what is the same between gumshoes and Holmes is that in some sense both of them are independent operators, taking on cases for their own reasons and not out of any real sense of loyalty to the state or to the authorities.  But gumshoes are entirely self-interested and want to stay completely out of things, while if Holmes believed things were as corrupt as they generally are in film noir he’d take steps to correct it.  Another important difference is that Holmes would be able to ferret out any such conspiracies if he put his mind to it because of how intelligent and observant he is.  So in Holmes stories he is free to have the authorities be “stupid” in the sense that they are at most as intelligent as we are and are far less intelligent than Holmes because he can be superior to them without being any kind of threat to them.  However, in film noir that won’t work.  We need the conspiracy to be at least as smart as if not smarter than the detective because we have to be able to believe that the conspiracy is capable of building such a conspiracy that needs lots of effort and even luck to unravel and that seems impossible to deal with.  While having the power certainly contributes to its success, it can’t be just that they have the power and other people don’t.  They have to be smarter than most of their opponents and so better able to hide what is going on, and often the detectives don’t start to unravel it because they are so much smarter than those running it but instead because the powers-that-be either push things too far or get unlucky when trying to do something that they need to do in order to maintain the conspiracy.  Thus, the detectives are usually not geniuses, and often only solve things through dogged determination rather than through brilliant deductions.

Ultimately, though, what makes them the threat they are is that they ultimately don’t care about the established order, at least not at first.  They don’t benefit from the conspiracy and so have no interest in maintaining it.  This also aligns them with loose cannon detectives in that they are not only outside of the established authority, but are often actively opposed to it.  In D&D terms, they are ultimately entirely Chaotic in outlook and approach.  Compare this to Holmes who morally and in terms of thinking is far more Lawful, even though at times he will bend the laws and rules if he thinks it appropriate.  This is another reason why gumshoes and even loose cannon detectives would fit as being a threat to the establishment, as they don’t care about it and have no interest at all in maintaining it.

However, what we see in such works is that while in general they are considered “dangerous” to the authorities, the audience themselves don’t in general consider them at all dangerous.  We, instead, actually cheer for them.  For gumshoes, that’s because they are opposing corrupt authorities.  For loose cannon detectives, it’s because they are breaking the rules in order to do what needs to be done and get justice.  In essence, they are a threat to authority in a world where either the authorities are corrupt or where the laws are being abused by those who are evil or corrupt, and so the fact that they as individuals are standing up on their own and opposing that is something that the audience wants to see.  But then, we’re an individualistic society, and so are more willing to see an individual triumphing over a corrupt or unconsciously oppressive society as a necessary victory.  If we lived in a society more like the Cardassians from Star Trek our views of them might well change, as we saw when Garak compared literature with Bashir in Deep Space 9.  A society where we are expected to subordinate the individual to the society will be far more skeptical of individuals who “play by their own rules”, because the rules will be there to benefit everyone and those who want to question that will risk tearing down that which allows for the benefits that society grants them.  In a noir world, there may be benefits to the individuals in society but that come at a great cost, but a more communitarian society likely will tend to present the individuals as those who want to cost others for their own shallow personal gain.  So the gunshoes would be a threat to both the established order and the audience in that case.

Holmes, as a detective, isn’t dangerous to either the audience or the established order.  Gumshoes are a threat to the established order but not usually to the audience itself.  The philosophers and the like Green and Wittkower compare them to are perceived as being dangerous to both, mostly because the authority is not seen as overtly corrupt and the benefits of breaking down the established order do not seem to outweigh the benefits.  Ironically, while in fiction we are more individualistic in reality we seem to be more communitarian, unwilling to challenge the established order and risk losing its benefits.  And perhaps that is why our more individualistic society enjoys that so much in its fiction, where that can happen in a way where we, ourselves, are not at all threatened by it, and where the “danger” is not at all our own.

Zombies, Rest and Motion: Spinoza and the Speed of Undeath

March 15, 2021

So the next essay in “Zombies, Vampires and Philosophy” is “Zombies, Rest and Motion:  Spinoza and the Speed of Undeath” by K. Silem Mohammad.  This essay compares zombies from the voodoo tradition to the early Romero version to the more modern and more chemical zombies and discusses how they differ in terms of motion.  While the title and some of the comments talk about speed, for the most part the big difference is about volition:  how much will and planning and even somewhat intelligence does the zombie have?  The voodoo zombies are pretty much completely under the control of someone else and so have no volition of their own.  Early Romero zombies have volition and aren’t under anyone else’s control, but can only react on the basis of simple and basic instincts, which means that they can be rather easily out thought.  The more modern ones seem to retain more of their intelligence, and so are more of a threat.  The real examination, then, is about why zombies are creepy to us, analyzed through Spinoza’s philosophy, which I’m not going to touch on much here.

However, what is interesting from this essay is Spinoza’s take on the mind-body problem.  Mohammad says that zombies are creepy because from Spinoza we think that a human being is a combination of a mind and a body, and classic zombies, at least, are a body without a mind.  Mohammad contrasts this with ghosts, which are obviously a mind without a body, and so notes that what makes them creepy is the fact that they are incomplete human beings.  Zombies, in one sense, would be creepier because they in all cases lose most of our higher functions, either completely or because those functions have been taken over by someone else and suppressed.

But this, then, clashes with Mohammad’s analysis.  We can certainly find other reasons to find zombies creepy then having to appeal to this essence that is lost.  For voodoo zombies, having our own will completely subordinated to that of another is creepy in and of itself, and in fact far more creepy if the mind is still present.  For classic zombies, imagining us as those could be creepy, but more because of the things we would possibly do (such as indiscriminately slaughtering our friends and loved ones), but we obviously also have the fear of the threat that zombies present to us.  And I think that this better explains ghosts — at least the more intelligent ones — because we aren’t particularly concerned about seeing a mind without a body, but more the threat that the ghosts represent:  without a physical body, they may be able to hurt us but we may not be able to hurt them.  Zombies are an overwhelming threat, but we can at least fight them.  In general, we don’t have a good way to fight ghosts other than to solve their problems or run away from them.  We also can imagine ourselves trapped in a location — the typical haunted house scenario — until we resolve our issues that are causing us an incredibly amount of sadness and trauma, which is why we can’t move on.

So I think that we intuitively reject Spinoza’s solution to the mind-body problem.  We do not see mind and body as two parts of the same essence, and get creeped out when they are separated.  Instead, we see mind and body as separable and what creeps us out are the consequences of that separation.  On top of that, we can see from comparing zombies and ghosts that what creeps us out more is losing the mind part of the equation.  Voodoo zombies on their own are horrifying, but ghosts need something else to make them horrifying, usually by posing a direct threat to us.  This, then, explains at least the intuitive appeal for Cartesian Dualism for me, as it places front and centre the most important aspect of us but also notes that, yes, in general we have a body associated with us as well.

I Frak, Therefore I Am

March 8, 2021

So it has been … almost a year since the last time I picked up an essay in the Philosophy in Popular Culture series.  I guess that’s pretty much par for the course.  And long time readers will know that when this series returns it usually means that I’m looking for something more philosophical to talk about that also takes a bit less time to do, unlike the longer examinations like the examination of “The Unnecessary Science” or my examination of Bob Seidensticker’s Silver Bullets.  And, yeah, that’s part of the reason to return to this series.  But another reason is that I had planned to go through these a year ago and stopped because other things kept getting in the way, and since I had been putting out two philosophical posts a week lately it occurred to me that I might be able to turn one of those posts over to Philosophy in Popular Culture while still leaving room for other, more detailed posts.  So it would let me actually continue this series without losing any of the other things I wanted to talk about.  Sold!

Also, it is interesting that I end up returning with “Battlestar Galactica and Philosophy”, since it is almost certain that having to address something in that book is what blocked me the last time, as the essays in that series have been … underwhelming, to say the least.  I skip essays in that book pretty consistently because it seemed to focus on post-modern analysis which is both not my forte and not something that I’m at all interested in.  So I tend to find them uninteresting at best and totally, uselessly wrong at worst.  It doesn’t help that a lot of them focus on very modern issues that I find shallow at best.

This one, by Jennifer Harwood-Smith, looks like it would be one of those sorts of essays.  After all, the title “I Frak, Therefore I Am” immediately brings to mind an attempt to make something really, really important out of sex, which would ignore all of the deeper issues around the events — and even the sex — that would spawn it.  On the one hand, it would make a much bigger deal out of the sex scenes when in general they would be there to provide some titillation to the viewing audience as a cheap selling point, and on the other it would ignore the other emotion contexts that were used to give the sex scenes meaning beyond it just being two people bumping uglies (or smiting evil, as you prefer).  And to be fair she does try to argue that it’s having sex that turns the “skinjob” Cylons more human, which I’ll address later.  But she also ties things to an idea of identity that I also want to challenge.  So let’s begin.

The first thing she does is reference Descartes’ famous maxim but argues that it was overturned by Judith Butler’s idea that our identities are socially and culturally constructed, and Harwood-Smith even goes so far as to suggest that Butler would insist that we don’t have any set identity or set I until culture intervenes and determines that identity.  The theory, as she puts it, is called performativity.  Putting aside that Descartes’ maxim talks about a precondition of experience and so isn’t really talking about identity, the issue is that in addition to society not completely controlling us both general philosophy and even things like feminist philosophy would have to deny that this is true.  From general philosophy, we know that there must be some kind of identity that we have first, some kind of core, that culture can shape and influence.  If we had no core, there’d be nothing to shape or mould, and so the best that could happen is that we would all be the same or, at least, the same as per our cultural influences.  Yes, we all have a wide range of experiences, but many of those experiences are individual and not cultural, and so would have to be impacting a core set of individual attributes and experiences.  Culture can impact how we react to those individual experiences, but ultimately at the end of the day it’s that core identity that determines who we are and what we end up as … even to the extent that we might feel like we would fit better in a different culture than the one we were shaped in.

But feminist philosophy also has to accept that core, because that’s the only way to explain issues with things like the patriarchy.  The patriarchy was a culture where it was assumed that people who had certain characteristics should fill certain roles, and if culture determined our identity and we were lacking a set core for the most part pretty much everyone would fit more or less neatly into those socially-constructed roles and identities.  Instead, what happened was that while many if not most people could at least contort themselves into those identities and roles to life at least mostly satisfying lives, for a significant numbers trying to force themselves into that mould broke them, which spawned the movements to break those restrictive cultural influences.  What happened, then, was that the identity that culture was trying to force on those people clashed so badly with their core identity that the two could not co-exist.  But that requires having a core that precedes culture and that culture can only influence.

I also note that she talks about our collection of identities:

I am obliged (in order to be thorough) to define myself as a sci-fi/fantasy/horror fan, academic, writer, etc (this is without even getting to my politics, gender and nationality).

But to me, none of those things are at all my identities, nor are things that define me.  They are aspects of my personality and facts about me, but if these things changed I wouldn’t change who I am.  After all, I’m a software designer by trade, but if my manager came up to me tomorrow and fired me (hi, Steve!) and I didn’t return to a software design job I would still be me, and that wouldn’t critically change my identity.  It would change a fact about me similar to what books I am currently reading or what clothes I’m wearing.  Yes, I don’t change my job or my fandom as often as I change my clothes or what books I’m reading, but if after my disappointment in the new Star Wars works if I had to say that I wasn’t a Star Wars fan anymore that wouldn’t really change who I, as an individual, actually am.  And we can see this in the interrogations of Sebastien in Babylon 5 demanding of Delenn to say who she is and rejecting lists of family names and jobs and everything else as being, well, culturally constructed and not really representing her, or that core identity, the one that survives all moulding and would be there in any culture.  One of the flaws, I think, of modern movements is the willingness to define themselves by what group they identify with, instead of recognizing that groups change and so are far less relevant and far less useful than they think.  Group affiliations are labels that, ideally, provide some interesting information about me, but they don’t define me nor is it the case that we can move directly from the traits of the group to the traits I will have.  Most importantly, it’s never the case that I should feel that the standard traits assigned to a group are the ones that I, as an individual, should aspire towards.  If I call myself a gamer and yet the defining trait of gamers actually was to go online and abuse people then I certainly shouldn’t aspire to do that as well, but at most should say that maybe I’m not really a gamer.  Group affiliation is just that:  a loose affiliation based on some identifiable shared trait.  But that is derived from my identity, and it is not the case that my identity is determined from those affiliations.

She next moves on to talk about how sex makes the skinjob Cylons more human.  Her argument is a weak one, arguing that the ones that we see being more human are the ones who were built for and who have sex (the Sixes, Boomer and Athena, etc).  However, this misses the underlying drive in those scenes because sex wasn’t the aim there.  Boomer was channeling love, not mere sex (and experiencing it from Chief).  Athena was deliberately chosen to attempt love and produce a child.  Caprica Six was upset that they weren’t giving her the chance for a child with Baltar.  While Harwood-Smith says that it’s clear that the skinjob Cylons can reproduce, it actually at the time wasn’t clear that they could.  The entire experiment was to build a real love relationship and see if that could allow them to reproduce, since they thought they should be able to do so but had had no success at all in the past.  So it’s not sex that’s the driving force there, but the emotion of love, both romantic and maternal.  And the idea that love is humanizing is a pretty old one in science fiction.

Finally, she also talks about Baltar and about he found a belief that he was a Cylon desirable, saying that he wanted to be like a machine so that his guilt over inadvertently helping the Cylons destroy the colonies would just go away.  It was the emotionless nature of the machine that he was seeking, but instead the notion that as a Cylon his actions would be justifiable, at least to himself.  Instead of being a traitor either through incompetence or through a subconscious desire to betray humanity, he would instead be a war hero who played a key role in advancing his own cause and the cause of his fellows.  Boomer rejects her Cylon identity because she doesn’t want to be on the side of the Cylons, and so always treats her subordinated identity as something that isn’t her but that can take control at certain times, and thus it’s the subordinated Cylon identity that shot Adama.  So Boomer feels she deserves forgiveness and to be able to align herself with the group that she feels most attached to.  Baltar, on the other hand, feels attached to only one group:  the group that best serves his own interests.  And aligning with the Cylons allows Baltar to see himself as a hero and, more importantly, allows him to align with a group that sees him as a hero as opposed to a group that sees him as a traitor.  No wonder, then, that he’d prefer an identity that allows him to adopt that mindset.

Forgivers Assemble!

May 4, 2020

So the next essay in “The Avengers and Philosophy” is “Forgivers Assemble” by Daniel P. Malloy. This seems to be inspired by a play on words, with the team being named “The Avengers” but having a number of storylines where forgiving is what is happening instead of avenging, particularly the case where the original members all step aside leaving Captain America leading a team of three reformed criminals. Malloy’s essay asks the question of who can forgive them for their crimes and so allow them to change from villains to heroes, making a relatively standard argument that the person wronged is the one who must forgive them, but also arguing for cases where someone can be forgiven by proxy from someone else. All of these considerations are important ones in this new world of public condemnation and apology, as we hear more public demands for apology and more public insistence that the apology must be satisfactory to earn forgiveness. Malloy doesn’t make those arguments, but the idea that only the person who is wronged can forgive the person who committed the wrong is in a similar vein, especially given that Malloy is reluctant to find any case where the person wronged should be obligated to forgive, tying into the argument that if the person wronged decides not to forgive that person, for any reason, then that person is not forgiven and, arguably, cannot be considered redeemed.

For me, it seems that what we are doing here is conflating three very different ideas here, that have three different connotations. The first is the case where someone who has wronged someone else asks that person for forgiveness for their wrong. In this case, clearly forgiveness cannot happen if the person who was wrong doesn’t actually forgive them. But in this case, it does seem that if the person who committed the wrong is genuine in asking for forgiveness and the person wronged believes that they are genuine in asking for forgiveness, then it seems that withholding forgiveness in that case is irrational at best and petulant at worst. This is where I think many of the demands for restitution and the insistence that someone can’t be forgiven unless they can make restitution go wrong. The reason we generally ask for restitution in these cases is that if someone is genuinely sorry for what they did and understand that what they did is wrong, in general they’d want to “make up” for the harm they did, to the extent that they are able. If they didn’t want to make restitution at all, then, we can legitimately doubt whether or not they are genuine in asking for forgiveness. But in cases where that can’t be done we still could come to reasonably believe that they are genuine in asking for forgiveness, and so if that was the case then again withholding it would be irrational at best and petulant at worst.

Okay, so what happens in the case where someone asks for forgiveness and is willing to make restitution, but the person wronged refuses to accept it on the grounds that the person asking for forgiveness won’t give them the restitution that they are asking for. Again, most of the time, at least nowadays, the claim ends up being that the only person who can decide what is the appropriate restitution is the person wrong. The problem is that, again, the point of restitution is to ensure that the person is genuine in accepting that what they did was wrong and wanting forgiveness. From this, the restitution required has to be reasonable and in line with what the offense actually was. This can be determined objectively. At a minimum, we can easily assess whether the restitution demanded is at least reasonable or if the wronged person is demanding too much. Someone who is genuinely sorry for the wrong they’ve committed is in no way obligated to accede to an unreasonable demand for restitution, as that would be the person being wrong taking advantage of them. So if someone asks for forgiveness but finds the demand for restitution too much, that doesn’t mean that they don’t deserve forgiveness. The person demanding that excessive restitution is again either being irrational or petulant, or even worse is trying to take advantage of the other person for their own gain.

The reason we put so much emphasis on what the person who is wronged feels is because the interaction is between the person who has committed the wrong and the person who was wronged. It is tempting, then, to simply allow that person to decide what is reasonable and what isn’t, and most of the time this works because the person wronged is generally not unreasonable. However, the person may be overcome by emotion and so act unreasonably, or they might be calculating in an attempt to use the other person’s guilt and desire for forgiveness for their own benefit. But we can see that in those cases we can call them out on it and say that they are acting unreasonably. So it is indeed the case that someone can deserve forgiveness in the first case even if the person being wronged is withholding it, if that person is withholding it unreasonably.

The second idea of forgiveness is more in line with the Christian idea of forgiveness, and occurs even if the other person cannot or will not ask for forgiveness. This is a concept more along the lines of “letting it go”. You understand that someone has done you wrong, but instead of chewing it over and thinking about how unjust their treatment of you was and looking for a way to pay them back, you instead simply understand that they have done that and move on with your life. This sort of forgiveness doesn’t mean that you have to pretend that it didn’t happen and treat them as if it didn’t. If the issue was that they violated your trust, for example, forgiving them doesn’t mean that you have to grant them the same amount of trust that you did before they violated it. But what you need to do is note it without rancor or emotion, treating it more like a historical fact than an active offense. Too often, if the other person isn’t apologetic for their actions — and even if they are — we get an emotional desire for revenge that impacts us going forward. This idea of forgiveness says that no matter how they feel, these sort of emotions are wrong, and so we should “forgive them their trespasses” so that we can move past it.

The third idea here is redemption. When can someone be considered to be redeemed, as Hawkeye, Scarlet Witch, and Quicksilver were in the Avengers comics? The key thing about redemption is that it’s generally not required for a particular incident. No, someone who gets redeemed is generally someone who has a pattern of doing bad things, so much so that it becomes a character or personality trait for them. Thus, what it means for someone to be redeemed or worthy of redemption is not asking for forgiveness from their victims, nor making restitution for them, but instead for them to overcome the flaws that caused them to commit the actions in the first place. Once they do so and realize that those were flaws, again they will want to seek forgiveness and will want to make restitution, but that’s not required for them to be redeemed. All they need to do is demonstrate that they understand the flaw that caused those actions and have worked to eliminated it.

So Hawkeye, Scarlet Witch and Quicksilver could have at least demonstrated that they deserved a shot at redemption by helping out the heroes and, in some cases, by turning against those evil people they sided with in favour of doing good. This is also a big part of Wonder Man’s origin, working against the Avengers originally but sacrificing his life to save one of them when he realized his error. Once that was done, they were deserving of at least the chance to redeem themselves by continuing to act for good instead of for evil.

There is an interesting note here that with redemption you can’t ever really “make up” for what you did that makes you require redemption. The point of redemption is to prove that you’ve corrected the flaw that led to those actions, not to make up for what you did wrong. A consistent pattern of acting properly — especially in the context of having a strong temptation to act in the old way — is what is necessary to be redeemed. So while we tend to consider redemption to follow from making up for the wrongs one has committed, that’s not what redemption is. That only counts because someone who has truly understood their flaw is going to want to take actions to make up for the actions they took because of it, but if they can’t do that they can prove that they are redeemed by consistently acting in a manner that proves that they have overcome their flaws.

What is important about all of these is that while we tend to insist on restitution for all of them, restitution is not the point of forgiveness in any of these cases. At best, it’s a way to prove that the person’s claims are legitimate and genuine. So when we insist that restitution is required and must be deemed sufficient by the victims, we miss the point of the role of restitution in forgiveness. It’s only a guide, not the be-all-and-end-all of forgiveness. We can indeed forgive someone or claim them redeemed even if no restitution is possible … and the demand for restitution risks us sinking into a morass of anger and revenge instead of moving on. So we must not inflate the importance of restitution. No good can come from that.