Posts Tagged ‘Philosophy in Popular Culture’

V For Villain

November 2, 2015

The next essay in “Supervillains and Philosophy” is “V for Villain” by Robert Arp. Framing this all around “V for Vendetta”, Arp examines the issue of using people, as the villains and even the hero in the work constantly do. This will, of course, immediately run up against Kant’s maxim of treating people not merely as means, but always also as ends in themselves. By that standard, even the hero V is acting immorally, and we’d be acting immoral if we did so even if using those people resulted in better actions, which would be one of the main clashes between Utilitarianism and Kantianism, and also one of the main criticisms of Utilitarianism (that it would allow you to use someone merely to provide the most utility).

But this always raises the question of what happens if the person chooses to be used? What if they are perfectly willing to be used and are fully aware of what is going on, and thus choose it themselves? As Arp points out, to use them violates at least a strict reading of Kant’s principle, but to deny them the ability to choose to be used seems to violate it as well, as you end up using them as a means to fulfilling your own morality. How can we resolve this?

I think most of the controversy over this ignores the part where Kant says that the imperative applies to yourself as well. You are not allowed to use yourself merely as a means, but must also always treat yourself as an end in itself as well. This is what’s behind his rather infamous proscription against masturbation, as you use yourself merely as a means to your own sexual gratification. While that’s debatable, it’s clear that the choice to be used can only be a valid moral choice for Kant if the person isn’t even treating themself as a means to some other end, but also as an end in themselves. There’s a lot more to work out here wrt what counts as a valid end, but this ought to eliminate a lot of the cases where we immediately think that someone is consciously choosing to be used; they are, but they are still treating themselves as a means, and so even though you would be acting properly moral to accept their choice, they are acting immorally in making the choice.

Ultimately, we need to treat others as independent moral agents, but we also have to think of ourselves that way as well. While most of the focus of morality is in not using others, we do have to remember that we ought not use ourselves either.


Governing Gotham

October 28, 2015

The next essay in “Batman and Philosophy” is “Governing Gotham” by Tony Spanakos. This essay examines the relationship between Batman and the law, as (mostly) exemplified through the relationship between Batman and Jim Gordon. Spanakos references Hobbes and Max Weber on the side of “The state must have a monopoly on the use of violence” and Nietzsche on the side that the state is not necessarily a force for good on the other. Spanakos also compares Batman to figures like “The Reaper” and Anarky to establish Batman as a figure poised between a couple of extremes, which provides insight into why Batman cannot kill.

The overall idea is this: the role of the state is to provide basic protections for its citizens. Gotham, however, in all its forms is a city that cannot provide that most basic of protections, the protection of their physical well-being. Batman is born from a Gotham that allows Thomas and Martha Wayne to be killed by some punk with a gun. This forces Bruce Wayne to acknowledge that the state can no longer protect its citizens in that very basic sense, and so he becomes Batman in order to do so. In short, society is broken, and no one can rely on the law and the state to provide its most basic guarantee, as Gordon also must acknowledge when he joins the force.

The Reaper and Anarky, however, also see that Gotham is broken and that someone other than the state has to provide what it can and will not. But there is a contrast between them and Batman. Batman does not set himself up to supplant the state and the state’s role, but instead simply to supplement it; Batman works to restore the state to a condition where it can function properly. Batman does not set himself up as judge, jury and executioner, and in fact refuses to do anything to give that impression. The others take the role of protector completely onto themselves, deciding who the villains are and how they are to be punished. They take on the role of determining how society ought to be and what it ought to become, and literally become judge, jury and executioner. They supplant the law, while Batman merely works outside of the law … or, rather, outside of its mechanisms.

This is why Batman has to, at the end of the day, turn all of those villains he stops over to the authorities if he can do so. If he didn’t, he wouldn’t be working in any way with the existing authorities, but instead would be a law unto himself. While he breaks the laws that he needs to in order to provide that basic guarantee of safety, all of this is seen as upholding the basic social contract that the state provides to its citizens. You can argue that in cases like the Joker where the state isn’t even capable of judging or holding them Batman can argue that he’s just continuing on in the role of doing for the state what the state cannot do for itself (but has promised to do), but this would be a little specious and, more importantly, would be cutting the state out of the business entirely, risking Batman becoming the state himself. After all, what laws will people follow: the laws on the books, or the ones that are actually enforced?

This is why Gordon can work with Batman: Batman is not outside the law, but is rather an adjunct to it. Like other heroic vigilantes — the A-Team might be the best example — he is there for people to turn to when, for some reason, the state cannot help you … but they aren’t there to do what the state can do, and should only get involved, again, when no one else can help. The Reaper and Anarky both went out and stopped whatever offended them; Batman stops only what needs to be stopped, and only to the extent of stopping them and apprehending them. What happens after is not Batman’s responsibility … and is not something that Batman can enforce without risking becoming “Emperor Batman”.

Action Man or Dreamy Detective

October 14, 2015

The next essay in “Sherlock Holmes and Philosophy” is “Action Man or Dreamy Detective” by Sami Paavola and Lauri Jarvilehto, and has to win for the most abstract title of a chapter ever because the essay itself is about Holmes’ ability to reason and what that conforms to, which doesn’t really have all that much to do with the title. The essay looks at two of Charles Peirce’s ideas on reasoning, but I’m only going to look at the first of them, which is abduction. They claim that Holmes uses abduction as opposed to either deduction or induction, and define them all thusly:

Deduction, the pattern of reasoning by clarifying logical necessities.

Induction, reasoning on the basis of what “actually is”.

Abduction, the main kind of reasoning we use for coming up with new ideas.

The first thing we can see from these definitions is that, well, they’re all pretty much useless, except for maybe the one for deduction. The other two seem more like a definition someone would espouse if they wanted to denigrate deduction … which fits in with this essay. After all, deduction clarifies “logical necessities”, but according to the other definitions it wouldn’t focus on what “actually is” — as that’s induction — and wouldn’t be what we’d use for coming up with new ideas, as that’s abduction. Both of those definitions talk much about what they can do or are used for — implicitly saying why they’re superior to deduction — but neither of them give any clarity on what that sort of reasoning actually is. So let’s redefine them:

Deduction: the form of reasoning that proceeds from premises to a conclusion following standard logical operations.

Induction: the form of reasoning that proceeds from instances and generalizes to propositions outside of the direct scope of the available data.

This leaves abduction, so let me try to summarize it as best I can from what they seem to say about it:

Abduction: the form of reasoning that proceeds from hypotheses about the given data through testing the hypotheses to see if they hold.

So, given this, does Holmes use deduction, induction, or abduction?

Holmes doesn’t really generalize outside of the data he has. Even in their example of Holmes’ assessment of Watson when they first meet, he takes things that he knows and applies them to Watson, and so instead of moving from specific instances to the general he moves from the general to the specific instance. Thus, he’s not using induction.

So, given that, I think the key to determining which he does is to ask: does Holmes form hypotheses that he then tests to see if they are accurate, or does he just operate on the data he has and sees what follows from it? Note that gathering more data — ie going back to look at the scene again, or even going to the scene — wouldn’t count in favour of abduction, because in all forms of reasoning discovering that you need more data and even what specific data you need is a key part of it; none of them must draw conclusions from insufficient data. So let’s look at the reasoning they summarized from “Silver Blaze”:

Did the dog bark? No. Why does a watchdog not back in the middle of the night, if something odd is happening? Because whatever was happening in the night-time, the perpetrator must have been someone the dog knew well enough not to be disturbed by him.

So, for this to count as abductive, Holmes would have had to come up with that hypothesis and then go out to test it, to make sure that the reasoning held. Holmes usually doesn’t do that. Also, it would have to be expressed, as the authors put it, in maybes and mights, but in the quote provided — and in general — Holmes never thinks of things that way. In fact, his main catchphrase aims more at certainty than at maybes: When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, no matter how improbable, must be the truth. This even strike at the Bayesian interpretation of abduction because Holmes makes it clear that he doesn’t care about probabilities if it’s the only explanation left. So it really looks like Holmes uses deduction, not abduction.

They even themselves hint at this by talking about the analytic/synthetic distinction, and claiming that Holmes’ approach is analytic. Analytic reasoning is deductive, synthetic reasoning would fit in with their definition of inductive. Neither, as it turns out, fit either their or my definitions of abductive. Well, abductive reasoning would be a form of synthetic reasoning, which doesn’t help their case at all.

I think the confusion here is the idea that deduction can only work on things that are true by definition. But deduction isn’t that way, really. Deduction simply is proceeding from the premises to a conclusion that follows logically and directly from the premises. So what Holmes does is gather lots and lots of data through his powers of observation and his experiments, and given all of those facts, he simply sees what conclusion necessarily follows given those premises. If he has all of the relevant facts and the conclusion logically follows from the premises — ie if the premises are true the conclusion cannot be false — then he has his answer. No testing required, and no room for maybes.

The problem is that too many people over-emphasize what deduction needs to work, which is that it has to know that the premises are true. Sure, you can establish that if the premises are true the conclusion must be as well, but you have to know that the premises are true before you can say that the conclusion is true. And so you can come up with logically valid arguments that are, in fact, ridiculous. This is what gets people yearning for something like induction or abduction to save the day, demanding that we actually go and look at the world, which they claim deduction can’t do. But is going out to verify the premises testing (and so abduction) or simply gathering more data (and so deduction)? I’d say that, from the perspective of deduction, it’s gathering more data: I need to know this fact, so let me go see if this fact is true. For Holmes, who starts with more facts and usually the facts that he needs, he rarely has to actually go and look to see if his premises are true, and so when he does go out and check things it’s not him forming a hypothesis and then testing it, but him merely going to find out the facts that he’s missing to fill in the blanks in his deduction.

You can decide for yourself in Holmes is a dreamy detective or action man.

Zombies, Blade Runner, and the Mind-Body Problem

October 2, 2015

The next essay in “Zombies, Vampires and Philosophy” is “Zombies, Blade Runner, and the Mind-Body Problem” by Larry Hauser. This essay takes on the sorts of zombies famously used to discuss the mind-body problem, most commonly by David Chalmers. These zombies are creatures that act exactly like us, and are physically exactly like us, and yet they have no mental experiences at all. In other words, they have no qualia at all. So, essentially, they act like they are conscious but actually possess no conscious states at all. They act like they’re in pain, but they aren’t. They act like they love, but they can’t feel love at all. They act in every way like they have the same internal experiences as we do, but they don’t actually have them. The conclusion that is drawn from this is that they aren’t really conscious, and therefore don’t really have mental states, and this is a problem for strictly physical views of mind.

Hauser tries to take this on, but he does it in a fairly standard way. He starts with but moves a bit beyond the standard functionalist reply: if they act like they are in love or are in pain or see things or taste things or whatever, then they really do. He then seems to tie it to a cognitivist view, where he comments that you should not deny their cognitive abilities for those things if, in fact, they can reason out the proper reactions so as to act appropriately to all the inputs. Finally, he seems to make an argument based on Searle that we have to look at it from the perspective of the zombie in order to determine this … but this is what we are denying them by definition. Essentially, we can’t know what their first-person perspective is like, so we can’t know if they are a zombie or not. To take this a step further, if the zombie acts like they have subjective experiences, and even seems to believe that they have subjective experiences, who are we to deny that? At the end, he accepts that they may be missing that, but argues that if they act appropriately what does it matter if they don’t have qualia, for the relatively small number of mental events that absolutely require it?

This is very similar to the argument made by Andrew Brook that I replied to in this essay. Essentially, the argument is that if they have awareness, then that’s good enough for consciousness. If they believe that they feel pain, that’s good enough for us to say that they are in pain. But that essay demonstrates through the examples of someone wearing goggles that filter out colours but where the person can tell what colour things are using a spectrometer that we can be aware of subjective qualities without actually experiencing them. And if we can be aware of those qualities without experiencing them, then we can act as if we had them, even if we didn’t. Thus, we can have a zombie with no subjective experiences at all, but that acts as if it does have them, because, for example, it can know what colour an object is through other means than simple experience. My main theory, then, is that qualia is input level, not representation or belief level; we can form the representations and beliefs in different ways, with qualia being one of them.

So now we can answer Hauser’s last comment: does it matter if a zombie doesn’t gain any beliefs or representations through qualia or subjective experiences at all? In terms of cognitive or psychological abilities, no, probably not. But in terms of consciousness, yes, it really does. And thus when it comes to something like love — Hauser’s Blade Runner example is Rachel — it’s hard to say that someone is really in love with someone if they are only cognitively aware of the state, but don’t feel love at all. Love seems to be something that you actually feel, not something that you merely know. In short, you become aware that you’re in love when you feel that you’re in love, which is true for all emotions: you know that you are angry because you feel angry. You know that you are sad because you feel sad. You don’t look at your life and decide “I’m feeling sad”. You only feel sad when you are, in fact, feeling sad. And this holds for all qualia-essential traits … which are pretty much the ones that relate to actual consciousness. You only see colours when you are seeing colours, not merely by being aware of what colour something is. And so on.

So, the purported good zombies that Hauser talks about don’t provide any protection from the bad zombies of Chalmers and Searle, because their goal was to get at consciousness, and Hauser’s good zombies still aren’t conscious, and it still matters whether or not they’re really conscious. Thus, the zombies still eat brains … at least, the brains of those who are not, in fact, conscious or experiencing at all.

The Moral Quandary of “Tuvix”

September 28, 2015

So, as SF Debris returns to new videos in October, I found myself pondering a commentary on an older video, that of the Voyager episode “Tuvix”. Now, I’ve only ever seen anything from this episode through Chuck’s review, and can’t even watch it again to refresh my memory, but I was thinking a bit about it and want to highlight its moral quandary, and how that moral quandary would be solved by the three main ethical views: Deontological, Consequentialist, and Virtue Theory.

So, let me summarize the episode. Due to a transporter accident, the characters Tuvok and Neelix are merged — along with, it seems, a plant — into an entirely new being, with a completely new and different personality and mentality from the other two. Tuvix thinks of himself as a completely separate person, not as merely an amalgam of Tuvok and Neelix. Eventually, they discover a way to use the transporter to separate Tuvix back into Tuvok and Neelix. Tuvix doesn’t want to undergo the procedure, arguing, essentially, that the procedure is nothing more than killing him. He appeals to the rest of the crew to help him avoid the procedure, but no one helps. Eventually, they get him down to Sick Bay, where the Doctor refuses to perform the procedure as doing so would be a violation of his oath as a doctor. Janeway performs the procedure herself, with Tuvok and Neelix restored and Tuvix eliminated.

Chuck, in his review, definitely took Janeway to task for this, if I recall correctly, taking the side of Tuvix, and arguing that this was, essentially, the murder of a sentient person. However, that interpretation is valid only if one considers that Tuvok and Neelix were, in fact, actually dead. If not, then we have to consider their wishes and situation as well, and things get far more complicated. For example, while the Doctor might be said to have a duty to do no harm to Tuvix, what duty does the Doctor have to Tuvok and Neelix? Does he have a duty to cure their condition? What demand can they make on him as his patients as well? After all, again, they aren’t really dead; they in some sense exist in Tuvix. So you can’t consider Tuvix merely a separate entity, but instead as a separate entity formed from two other entities. Given that, the interests of Tuvix have to be considered, certainly, but so do the interests of Tuvok and Neelix.

Given this, let’s look at how the various moral theories might approach this question, from the perspective of both the Doctor and Janeway:

Deontological: Many deontological theories are based around duty, and the context of the decision make it easy to evaluate this from the context of what each has a duty to do. As a doctor, the Doctor has a duty to do no harm to any of his patients, so he can’t sacrifice one of them to save two others. He can perform triage in situations of limited resources, and one can argue that this is indeed one of those cases: given the resources the Doctor has, he can either save Tuvix or save Tuvok and Neelix, but not all of them. However, this would be rather shaky, as the Doctor would have to take a direct action against Tuvix to save Tuvok and Neelix, as opposed to simply not taking time or resources. It is reasonable to suggest that taking a direct action to sacrifice the life of one patient for that of two others — essentially, directly killing one to save two — is a violation of his medical ethics, as no one would expect, say, that a doctor letting someone die so that they could use their organs to save other people would be acting in line with medical ethics. So it is reasonable to think that, here, the Doctor’s decision is the one that he is indeed compelled to make by his medical ethics.

But does that make it inherently wrong for Janeway to do it? I think that many people over-interpret the universality of deontological ethics. Just because one person would be, under a deontological view, morally constrained from taking an action, that doesn’t mean that everyone is, therefore, also so constrained. If I’ve taken an oath against committing violence, then I can’t morally take any violent action because that would violate my oath. Someone who had not taken such an oath would, however, to be able to take violent actions — if moral otherwise — because they wouldn’t have an oath stopping them from doing that. Here, the Doctor’s oath as a doctor constrains him from performing the procedure on Tuvix … but Janeway has taken no such oath.

So we need to consider what Janeway is morally bound to do under a deontological view, and I think here it also returns to duty. Janeway has also made an oath, and it’s an oath to protect her crew. While you can question how well she did at that throughout the series, morally she is bound to protect the well-being of her view. Tuvix may be considered a member of her crew, but Tuvok certainly is and Neelix has more of a claim on that than Tuvix does. Even if she considers them all equal, she has to consider that performing the procedure will be sacrificing one of her crew to save two others, which is something that starship captains have to accept: sending a crew member off to die to save others, if there is no other option, which there isn’t here. And that’s if she even considers that Tuvix really is a distinct individual, as opposed to merely an amalgam of Tuvok and Neelix. In that case, she’d have no duty to save Tuvix and every obligation to save Tuvok and Neelix. So I think that, under deotological ethics, it is reasonable to say that she is morally obligated to perform the procedure. Only a very strong rule against killing — like the Doctor’s medical ethics — could change that.

Consequentialism: While things are probably more complicated, this comes down to the idea that you can sacrifice one person to save two. Under almost all views, this would result in better consequences if we are judging the morality of the action by its consequences. You can make a case for the Doctor that doctors having a strong proscription against sacrificing their patients is overall better even if there are cases where it isn’t, due to the above example of sacrificing a patient to harvest their organs, but there doesn’t seem to be even that argument for Janeway. This is one of the reasons why consequentialist theories can actually seem heartless and downright evil, at times, as they can only justify individual autonomy by appealing to the consequences of having it, not to something inherent to either the moral view or to the individual themselves.

Virtue Ethics: The most relevant virtue here, for Janeway and the Doctor, is probably also duty, and the oaths they’ve taken. As such, this probably works out the same as it does for deontological views. The difference is that, under this view, it is them as persons that is evaluated here; they act as only they can given the people they are and the commitments they’ve made, and aren’t just following the rules. If Janeway is a proper starship captain, she performs the procedure; if the Doctor is a proper doctor, he refuses. You might be able to appeal to other virtues like, say, compassion … but as soon as you start considering Tuvok and Neelix themselves in the mix and stop thinking of them as dead, they deserve compassion just as much as Tuvix does, which means that it doesn’t help (Virtue Theory does not, generally, merely sum the impacted people). Duty, however, seems to work out reasonably well.

So, contra Chuck, I think that the Doctor acted properly, as did Janeway. It’s only if you think of Tuvok and Neelix as dead or otherwise unworthy of consideration that it becomes clear that performing the procedure is morally wrong. Once their interests are considered, things get more complicated, but ultimately at the end of it all performing the procedure is probably the more reasonable option for most people.

Gothic Anxiety

September 18, 2015

The next essay in “Battlestar Galactica and Philosophy” is “Gothic Anxiety” … no, really, it’s not an essay from “Batman and Philosophy”, but is from “Battlestar Galactica and Philosophy”. It’s essentially uncredited, and covers off a trope used frequently in, at least, Gothic Horror: the idea of double selves, specifically doubles and dopplegangers.

The relation to the reimagined “Battlestar Galactica” series should be obvious, since it seems to contain both. You have doubles specifically when it comes to the various human Cylon models, and internal dopplegangers play a large role in Gaius Baltar and Caprica Six’s story arcs. The essay does a reasonable examination of those cases, but I think doesn’t really explain why these things are commonly used as horror tropes, per Jekyll and Hyde and variations on that theme.

For doubles, the fear is, I think, fairly obvious. There’s a fear of them taking over your life, as also seen in movies like “Single White Female” … and then killing you off so that they can live it. There are concerns about an evil twin using your face to commit evil and letting you take the blame for it. There’s also the fear of having to fight someone who pretty much has exactly your skills and abilities to stop them from doing evil, to you and to those you love.

There is a bit of this in the doppleganger as well, as there is the fear that you have this personality inside you who is not you, who might be literally trying to take over your life, through taking over your body. But I think that there’s another big fear, which is the fear that the doppleganger isn’t some foreign personality that has infected you and is trying to take over, but is, in fact, really you. A part of you that you don’t like. A part of you that you repress. A part of you that might, in fact, actually be you. Maybe that personality is who you really are, and the person you are now is the facade over top of that. That fear, the fear that you aren’t who you think you are, or that you are in fact capable of the evil that that personality is committing, drives a lot of the horror of that scenario, it seems to me.

As the essay points out, Baltar and Six’s cases are not like that. They are more complementary, providing help and benefit and supplementing their own abilities. They may, in fact, reflect ignored or buried parts of their personalities — assuming, of course, that they aren’t actually angels — but those personalities are benign and helpful. They bring good aspects of their personalities forward, generally, and reveal things that they need to worry about. The competing doppleganger is not of that sort. It either competes with the main personality, or brings forward aspects of their personality that they don’t want to face, live with, or even have. Even if they are what’s necessary, they do what the main personality doesn’t want to do, at a minimum. And that is frightening on a number of levels, from losing control to understanding that that person is who you really are.

Superhero Identity: Case Studies in the Avengers

September 2, 2015

The fourth essay in “The Avengers and Philosophy” is “Superhero Identity: Case Studies in the Avengers” by Stephen M. Nelson, and it examines the deep question of superhero identity: what does it mean to say that a particular hero is, in fact, that hero, especially in light of other people who take up that superhero identity, and heroes to take on multiple different identities? Captain America, for example, has been the superhero identity of Steve Rogers, Bucky Barnes, and John Walker, and the Iron Man armour has been worn by at least Tony Stark and James Rhodes. On the other hand, Hank Pym has been Ant-Man, Yellow Jacket, Goliath, Giant-Man, Wasp and even was a hero for a while under his own unadorned name (at the founding of the West Coast Avengers). So, how do we determine the unique identity of a hero. Which of the Captain Americas is the real Captain America … or all they all the real Captain America? And which superhero is Hank Pym really?

Unfortunately for Nelson, comic books and comic book fans have, er, kinda already answered that question. If you look at those lovely “Marvel Universe” type books that profile all the heroes, they end to divide up their heroes into their, er, incarnations (perhaps of immortality), by describing them as, for example “Iron Man (1)” and “Iron Man (2)”. It always been clear, then, that in comics the identity of a superhero depends critically on both the superhero name and the person adopting that name. For example, Laura Kinney is going to take on the Wolverine superhero name after Secret Wars, but she is definitely not going to be the same Wolverine that they just killed off nor the same Wolverine as “Old Man Logan”. In a sense, they are all Wolverines, but they are not the same Wolverine, because the people underneath the masks are different.

Which, then, lets us get much faster to Nelson’s final point: about adopting the mantle of a superhero. Nelson points out that actually taking on the mantle of that hero — as opposed to being a different hero with the same name — has to follow some sort of process that confers legitimacy on the adoption of the mantle. So, for John Walker, it was the government doing it who, presumably, had the right to confer the mantle of the symbol they created on whomever they wanted (although some definitely might have protested that the mantle belonged to Steve Rogers, not the government). For Iron Man, it was conferred on James Rhodes by the original Iron Man himself. For Laura Kinney and Bucky Barnes, their relationship as the protege of the original hero conferred legitimacy. For Old Man Logan, he just is a version of Wolverine, like the past X-Men are, and so what we have are alternate versions of the same mantle. But the FF’s Human Torch is not the same Human Torch that fought in WWII, and so they are two completely different and unrelated heroes with the same name and similar if not identical powers. While Nelson points out that continuity of body or mind isn’t relevant here, continuity of mantle is, and the Human Torch mantle has no continuity, while in all of the other cases there is continuity there.

So, then, what makes it reasonable to claim that John Walker is Captain America and not just another hero with the same name: the continuity of the mantle that he then picks up. This is why Laura Kinney will reasonably be taking up the actual Wolverine mantle, even if (or rather, likely when the original returns) while Johnny Storm never took up the mantle of the original Human Torch.

With Great Power Comes Great Responsibility

August 28, 2015

The fourth essay in “Spider-man and Philosophy” is “With Great Power Comes Great Responsibility” by Adam Barkman, which examines issues around the Problem of Evil and responsibility, and even how it is that God can forgive us. Without getting into much detail, it explains reasonably how God forcing people to love Him and be friends with him and never reject him is a logical contradiction for a God that wants people to be free, and also talks about how we need forgiveness and needed Jesus’s sacrifice to wipe out the injustice that we, as fallible humans, must commit (and can never atone for), goes through the various arguments to support natural evil (including the angels and demons one, which he puts far more reasonably than most atheist criticism concedes), and describes the Thomist conception of God pretty well.

But what I want to focus on is, essentially, what’s described in the title, and the idea that with great power comes great responsibility. Barkman points out that being a superhero isn’t a great and wonderful “gift”, because it comes with a great responsibility to use that power to help others. He talks about the Widow’s Mite and points out that she was expected to give less because she had less, and that the rich people were expected to give more because they could. By the same token, Peter Parker is expected and has a responsibility to help others because he has the power to do so, and that power, in and of itself, confers the responsibility to help others. Which is all pretty reasonable except …

… why, then, doesn’t it apply to an omnipotent God? God has the power to end all suffering. Since Peter Parker is expected to intervene in the free choices of the villains and stop them from hurting people, and since that supposedly follows from his just having that power, then why isn’t God expected to save people as well? If Peter Parker is expected to save children from burning buildings because he can, then why isn’t God expected to save every child from a burning building? If you start from “With great power comes great responsibility”, you can’t even argue that God needs to allow people like Peter Parker to act justly, because God could save every child that Peter Parker doesn’t … and, by having that power, is obligated to do so.

Thus, by tying responsibility to power in the way that Barkman does, he pretty much makes the argument for the Problem of Evil, no matter how hard he tries to explain it away. He can’t use the argument of it being demons doing it of their own free will, because Peter Parker is expected to stop villains and even demons from hurting others even though it interferes with their free will. And if Peter Parker — or we — are expected to help those being tormented by natural evil because we have the power to do so then God, having that much more power, ought to be expected to do that as well. There’s no way out for God if you argue that with great power comes great responsibility to use that power to prevent suffering … because God, having the greatest power, would then have the greatest responsibility.

The Wrath of Nietzsche

August 5, 2015

The next essay in “Star Trek and Philosophy” is “The Wrath of Nietzsche” by Shai Biderman and William J. Devlin. This essay is a little meandering, stopping at notions of revenge and at Nietzsche and the Overman to finally, essentially, seemingly conclude that Khan from “The Wrath of Khan” was destroyed by his desire for revenge. But what’s interesting in this essay is the seeming sympathy for Khan that you find in it:

Since we may sympathize with Khan’s anger and with his desire to destroy the arrogant and self-centered Kirk, it doesn’t take a stretch of the imagination to see Khan as the protagonist of the work …

But in order to see Khan as the protagonist of the work, we’d have to see it as a tragedy, as a work where the protagonist was foiled in his projects either by his own failings or by the whims of fate. Given that Khan was destroyed by seeking vengeance far after it became productive to do so, the former might be reasonable … but, then, the only reason that this would be a tragedy is that, at the end, Kirk survives, although wounded and diminished by the loss of Spock. Khan sacrificing himself to destroy Kirk would be heroic; his sacrificing himself and failing would be tragic.

They comment that in order for the sympathetic Khan to work “… we have to be convinced that his feelings of vengeance are not only genuine, but also productive“. I disagree. I think that in order for Khan to be sympathetic, we have to feel that his pursuit of vengeance is either just — at which point he’s the protagonist in a tragedy — or that he has been just pushed too far by circumstances and is acting in a manner that is unjust and irrational, but one that we could see ourselves doing in their place. In short, there but for the grace of God go we. If we see it as the former, then he’s the protagonist — if one who might be too obsessed with vengeance, or who is straddling and even wandering over the line between justice and vengeance. If we see it as the latter, he’s a sympathetic antagonist; he’s wrong, but we can understand why he’s wrong.

Despite what the essay hints, there’s no reason to see Khan’s vengeance as justice. The claims that Kirk should have checked up on someone who tried to kill him and take over his ship and who seemed excited over the prospect of surviving or not based on his own abilities, when it wasn’t even Kirk’s job are completely unjustified. Khan can find no one to blame but the whims of fate, and being unsatisfied with that answer, and being unable to even blame himself, blames Kirk. So Khan cannot be the protagonist seeking a just revenge and ending with a tragic outcome, having sacrificed everything for a justice that, in the end, he was denied. However, given what he went through, and the loss of his wife, we can see this not as someone grasping towards a rational but ultimately wrong conclusion, or someone simply blinded by hate for Kirk, but instead as someone driven mad by the combination of helplessness, disaster, and his own hubris and belief of himself as the superior and even destined man. Destiny favours the bold, and Khan was the boldest of all, and yet destiny crushed him and his dreams, leaving only vengeance to drive him forward. Given this, we can sympathize with Khan because we can’t be sure that in the same circumstances we wouldn’t do the exact same thing, and let our anger and thirst for vengeance become our only motivation so that when alternatives present themselves we cannot see them through the forest of our anger and thirst for vengeance. It is reasonable for Khan to be devastated by what happened, and from there his actions are not reasonable, but are understandable. So we can, indeed, wish better for Khan than what he got, while understanding that, in the end, it could end no other way.

Moral Ambiguity in a Black-and-White Universe

July 10, 2015

Let’s just make this a “Philosophy and Pop Culture” week. Of course, everyone knows what that means, although I had been neglecting that category for a few weeks and so did want to do some posts, and it just ended up being conveniently in a week where I needed a post to round out the week.

Anyway, the next essay in “Star Wars and Philosophy” is “Moral Ambiguity in a Black-and-White Universe” by Richard H. Dees. In it he, well, tries to find moral ambiguity in the generally black-and-white Star Wars universe. Now, of course, the Star Wars EU found this in spades, but he’s relying primarily on the movies here, where it seems the good guys are good, the bad guys are bad, and when they try to introduce moral ambiguity into the universe they generally do it really, really badly (Dees references Anakin from the PT, for example, but even he has to concede that, ultimately, what Anakin does is so horrible that it doesn’t really work).

But what’s interesting here is his attempt to look at characters that represent certain moral codes, and how they aren’t the ones that you think. He uses Han Solo as a prime example of Egoism, and even an only semi-enlightened Egoism. And Lando Calrissian is considered a Utilitarian … mostly for his actions at Cloud City including betraying Han and Leia to Darth Vader, which most — and the movie itself — seem to consider his most morally dubious moments, not his most moral.

Dees gives an interesting argument to suggest that Han Solo is really an Egoist, concerned primarily if not exclusively with his own interest. Sure, he acts that way at the start, but surely saving Luke at the first Death Star, joining the Rebellion, and leading the ground force on Endor are all selfless as opposed to selfish acts, right? Well, Dees accepts that Egoism isn’t just simply caring about one’s direct and immediate interests, but about one’s long-term and indirect interests as well. Much of Han’s purportedly selfless actions are done to protect people that he has come to care about. He returns to the Death Star to save Luke, who it is clear that he is quite fond of, and whose anger and disappointment in him at his leaving clearly hurts Han. He goes back to rescue Leia at Hoth because he cares for her and doesn’t want her to be hurt. He falls in with the Rebellion to be with his friends, and arguably participates in the mission to end the Empire because, again, he wants them to be free. He loans Lando the most important thing in his life — the Falcon — because he wants him to come back safely, and as he says, Lando needs all the help he can get to survive. Han’s arc can be seen as the path from simple Egoism to Enlightened Egoism: Han moves from caring only about himself, to caring for Chewie (seen in the EU), to caring for Luke and Leia, to ultimately to caring about others and about the galaxy as a whole, but it can be argued that at the end of the day it is because those things have become important to him, not because he sees their importance overall.

Lando, on the other hand, is the respectable one. The deal he makes with Vader can be easily seen as him trying to protect his position, and sacrificing his friends to do it. But he is clear that the deal he made is to protect everything that he and the rest of the Bespin citizens have made when he mentions it obliquely to Han and Leia (as he’s leading them to their capture). It can be argued, then, that with Vader having arrived before them and knowing that they were coming there, Lando chose the option that he thought would best protect the most people, and the people of Bespin. Trying to resist then would just get a lot of his people killed and the colony put under Imperial control, which would be terrible for most of the people. When it becomes clear that Vader isn’t going to hold up his end of the bargain, Lando then decides to cut his losses and try to save Han. He then goes to rescue him with the others, and volunteers to lead the mission, presumably on the reasoning that he’s the best suited for the job. In all of this, it can be said that Lando is always looking out for the most happiness for the most people, and if that means that he has to sacrifice a friend — even an estranged one — then that’s what he has to do.

In keeping with the overall theme of the essay, though, these judgements aren’t unquestionable. Han certainly acts Egoistic … but he’s only traveling with Chewie because Han decided to risk his career to save him, and couldn’t bring himself to simply abandon him once he swore the Life Debt to him. And Lando could very well be trying to preserve his own position and power. But that we can consider one of the main heroes Egoistic even in his finest moments and someone who converts from antagonist to hero Utilitarian in what is considered his most dubious moment says a lot about Egoism, Utilitarianism and morality in general.