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» Hatrack River Writers Workshop » Forums » Open Discussions About Writing » What ever happened to evil? (Page 1)

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Author Topic: What ever happened to evil?
Grand Admiral
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After reading through an issue of Asimov's I couldn't help but notice that in every story I read, there wasn't a single villain that played any sort of important roll what so ever in the plot. They were hardly even present half the time, and when they were, they just sort of arbitrarily showed up at the end and got shot. Even than the villains were massive groups, I can't recall a single individuals name; they were all just faceless shells of evil belonging to some terrifying army no body cares about, at least not me. I know there are many different types of conflicts a character can face, however shouldn't the frequency of main villain based problems be at least somewhat higher than it is at the moment? Do people just no longer even care about their evil main villains any more? Or it is I merely haven't read enough and theres actually a massive mound of evil tyrants I just didn't notice before?

[This message has been edited by Grand Admiral (edited October 24, 2006).]


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trousercuit
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Your average moustache-twiddling villains are generally looked down upon nowadays.

See how I did that? I downplayed the idea by associating them with moustache-twiddling. That's something you'll usually see as a response to this kind of question, by people who are abso-100%-lutely certain there is no such thing as pure evil.

And then there'll be the philosophical discussion: what is evil, anyway? Is there really such a thing? If there is, what does it consist of? Surely Ted Bundy and Jeffrey Dahmer and Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold and Microsoft are evil... what's the common thread? Is there one, or is "evil" just an illusion - a classification we give to people and entities that simply do icky things for reasons we can't fathom or generally don't like to think about?

Regardless of all this projected discussion, I'm going to stick by one of my previous pronouncements on the subject: The modern reader doesn't want to cheer when your villain meets his sticky end, he'd rather weep like a milksop because your villain was only a victim of his mother's ghastly haircuts.

Okay, not really. Just make your villain interesting and internally consistent enough, and you can pretty much do what you please. I think the current trend away from purely evil villains has to do with how the average writer fancies himself as too nuanced to believe in such a thing - always justified by saying that the reader couldn't believe it, but that's just a projection IMNSHO. Voldemort demonstrates otherwise. (As an aside: he's a spot-on clinical psychopath. With a wand.)


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rstegman
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One type of evil that is commonly imaged is like Sadam Hussan. Neighbors and family members report neighbors and family members. The criminals suddenly dissappear and are tortured to death for pleasure. The population is just trying to survive, don't dare do anything that might displease the leader, and even then, they fail. The leader might take pleasure in the suffering of their prisoners.
These usually are taken out only after their nations have collpased. they are not personally involved in the battles.

Now it is common for many of the Evil leaders in stories to be personally involved in the evil activities, leading a small band to harrass and enforce the collections of "taxes." Most stories is like the sharriff gone bad or the industry head in the small town. Of course, they are right there to be isolated and eventually killed by the hero. Of course, A general at the head of an army would fit this kind of leader.

The kind of Evil I personally like is where he appears to be so wonderful a person, a politician who appears to be for the poor and desolate. He has a wonderful smile friendly disposition, likely immaculately clean with every hair in place. In public, he is likeable.
In the background though, he is actually giving orders to his minions to cause the problems he appears to be trying to solve. His cruelty might show to close minions like punishing them for having a smudge on their pristine white suits.
Because he is using politics to do what others would do personally, he would be more difficult to pin down and defeat. Any of his enemies would appear to be horrible people.
Of course, I would have the good guy looking like a down-and-out punker who has no class.

Sorry for the rambling.


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Robert Nowall
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Well, I generally write to the notion that no one, even the ostensible villain, thinks they're evil in their own minds. However disgusting that others may find it, they don't think they're doing wrong---they may be aware others think so, but, deep down, they don't or can't believe that.

As for what evil is or isn't...right now in the world, there's a lot of talk about "moral relativism," the concept that what somebody does is "no better or worse" than what somebody else does or has done. That's why you see [insert your own group] claim that they do [this disgusting act] because of [somebody else's disgusting act somewhere in the past]. (Say, Islamic terrorists claim they're trying to destroy the United States because the Crusaders tried to throw them out of the Holy Land centuries before the United States was founded.)

You can get away with just about anything if you claim you're doing it because somebody once did something.


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Alethea Kontis
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I'm still mad that when they reintroduced Strawberry Shortcake, they completely left out The Peculiar Purple Pieman of Porcupine Peak and Sour Grapes. That's like taking the Evil Queen out of Snow White, or Gargamel out of the Smurfs.

What's the point of the story now?


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Inkwell
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Moral relativism...ugh. I'm sorry, but the argument insisting that there absolutely are no absolutes is far too ridiculous (not to mention paradoxical) for my taste. I'd much rather live with at least some ethical parameters in place, rather than cast myself to the winds and drift wherever the hell the politics are more convenient. Again, I say ugh.

Ironically, villains who espouse moral relativism generally seem more villanous to me.

Sorry 'bout the soapbox ranting...I don't know what came over me. Or perhaps I do, and I am just being coy about it. In any case, one of my favorite villains of the past twelve years or so was Darken Rahl, from Terry Goodkind's Sword of Truth series. The anti-archetypal wardrobe (he always wore white) and physical appearance (supposedly, a 'beautiful' man) of that character alone tickled my literary fancy. Too bad [SPOILER WARNING]
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he's killed off in the first book, and...um...again in the second. Seriously, the guy gave me chills, yet I couldn't help but be drawn to the passages in which he was featured. Probably that 'rubber-necking' syndrome many people seem to subconsciously suffer from...humans are morbidly fascinated by the perverse, simply because most of us make the deliberate choice to avoid perversity (in the violent sense of the term) as a psychological impossibility. I dunno.


Inkwell
-----------------
"The difference between a writer and someone who says they want to write is merely the width of a postage stamp."
-Anonymous

[This message has been edited by Inkwell (edited October 25, 2006).]


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oliverhouse
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quote:
Ironically, villains who espouse moral relativism generally seem more villanous to me.

I don't think it's ironic at all. Once you espouse moral relativism, you can espouse literally any moral position at all, whether it's objectively evil or not. That makes it possible for a character (or a real-life person) to believe or do _anything_ and still feel justified.

I think that moral relativism causes evil in real life; it's therefore a tool to make someone realistically evil in fiction.


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wetwilly
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I think that moral relativism causes retardation in real life.
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Lynda
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My daughter has a BS in Research Psychology, and a Master's in Criminal Justice. I proofread various papers for her at times when she was in school, but the one that stuck with me was her study of serial killers. They have a particular psychology that begins as children with the torture and killing of small animals (cats, dogs, etc.). They move on from there in a consistant enough way that it is a recognized pattern of behavior. I'm using that kind of psychology for my villains, showing that they were noticeably warped from early childhood. These guys weren't MADE this way, most of them were BORN this way (in real life, they had kind and loving parents whose other children turned out just fine, for instance).

Finding a way to make my villains "sympathetic" as is the "common wisdom" for writers these days is VERY hard, because I know from the research I've read that this type of person doesn't have many redeeming qualities, except for the ones who were handsome (Ted Bundy, Jeffrey Dahlmer). Even Lord Voldemort was a handsome young man, but became twisted and horrible because of the things he did to himself to ensure his power and dominion over life itself.

Are good looks enough to make someone a sympathetic character? Not to people with even half a brain, IMO, but then again, Dahlmer had a *fan club* while he was on trial for *eating* people. Go figure.

To answer the original question about whatever happened to "evil" villains, Voldemort's pretty darned evil -- SCARY evil, with no redeeming features (except when he was young and handsome, but good looks aren't enough of a redeeming feature IMO). I think those writers who aren't writing "evil" villains may be buying into the "political correctness" crap where you can't say bad things about anyone even if they're true. I'll stick with the psychology of bad people - that's reality. The more reality you can put in fantasy characters, the more the readers will believe them, IMO.

Lynda


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kings_falcon
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Evil is as evil does. So what if the bad guy has justifications for why he does what he does? Torturing helpless (add noun of your choice) is still evil regardless of the motivation.

The villan, like everyone else, in the story has to have a reason for existing and for being part of the events. I don't think he has to be "sympathetic" in terms of you have to like him but that the character has to be 3 dimensional. The days of black facial hair and accessories signaling the "bad guy" are over. Voldemort, borrowing someone else's example, is evil and he shows us this by what he does: he kiss unicorns so he can live forever, kills his parents, etc. Just because he's handsome doesn't effect the fact that he's evil.


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franc li
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quote:
but the argument insisting that there absolutely are no absolutes

"Only the Sith deal in absolutes!"

quote:
Well, I generally write to the notion that no one, even the ostensible villain, thinks they're evil in their own minds.

Not that he is mightier than you, but OSC said every character, even the villain, is the hero of their own story. There is a slight difference there.

For instance, Ted Bundy might have known what he was doing was evil, but also feel he was doing a heroic job of keeping his numbers relatively low.


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Avatar300
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All openly sadistic, murderous villains resemble one another, each ambiguously evil villain is evil in his own way.

quote:
"Only the Sith deal in absolutes!"

Well, the Sith were cooler anyway.


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wetwilly
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quote:
Are good looks enough to make someone a sympathetic character? Not to people with even half a brain, IMO, but then again, Dahlmer had a *fan club* while he was on trial for *eating* people. Go figure.


I don't think they were his fans because he was good-looking. I think they were his fans because they thought murdering people was cool. Or because they wanted to piss their parents off. Whatever the reason, it was his actual evilness (or would you just say "his evil?") that made them join/start the fan club.

Why anybody would be a fan of that kind of evil is another interesting question. I can't figure it out, except it's probably similar to the way I usually think the bad guy is the cool one in books and movies. Evil IS certainly interesting, but I can't figure out why there would be an attraction to it. It's...well, EVIL. Why are the Sith cooler than the Jedi? I don't know. Most people are able to keep their interest in evil limited to fiction, though (I think). It's just a little disturbing to me when people take that same interest in evil and apply it to real life. Serial killers in movies: kind of interesting in a sick way. Serial killers in real life: it's pretty sick (if you ask me) to join their fan clubs.

Anyone have any thoughts on why evil is attractive (in fiction to most of us and in real life to some)?

As a side note, if you haven't seen it, "Natural Born Killers" is an interesting (albeit VERY VIOLENT--be warned) movie on the topic.

[This message has been edited by wetwilly (edited October 25, 2006).]


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wbriggs
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I'm no moral relativist, and I like having stories where the good and bad are all muddled around in the same characters, because it's interesting. You can still have lots of moral conflict without any 100% bad or 100% good characters. Maybe more.
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Survivor
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I remember telling a story about a certain person's encounter with an utterly alien morality not too long ago. As I recall, the story ended with the suggestion that a baby would make a fine dinner.

I don't think that those we regard as truly evil inhabit the same moral universe we inhabit, that's all. In ancient literature, you often find certain animals characterized as being virtual embodiments of evil because they'll kill and eat human babies given the opportunity. As our understanding of the natural world and our philosophy evolved, I think that most people began to understand that those animals simply didn't understand that there was anything wrong with eating babies, anymore than most of us think it abhorrent to eat eggs. Of course, many of those animals understand that it is dangerous to try and steal human babies, just as you might understand (if you ever worked on a farm) that collecting eggs often involves getting pecked by angry chickens (which is more serious than you'd think if you haven't experienced it), just as gathering blackberries involves the rise of thorns and prickles. But we don't feel that it is wrong to take the blackberries just because we get occasional scratches doing so. To a child, who has a primative and rather ego-centric view of the world, it is the blackberry bush which is being bad because it scratches.

The problem is that most of us can't get over this same kind of naivete when it comes to villians who are outwardly human. We tend to assume that they think about morality the same way we do, that they are seeing things from our point of view and hurting us deliberately. Whereas it is far more usual for the person who injures us to be acting without any consideration of our feelings at all. It's even a common accusation, "you didn't think about what you were doing to me!" The interesting thing is that it is based firmly on the idea that other people should judge their own actions primarily in terms of how they will affect us, rather than them.

The thing that makes most villians "evil" is that they don't think about us, whoever "we" happen to be. It might very well be because they are thinking of someone else, like their own families or friends. Ted Bundy didn't think about the suffering of his victims, he thought only of the feelings of power and fulfilment that he got from killing and getting away with it. He knew that what he was doing was viewed as evil by society, but he rejected that definition of "evil". He didn't see any reason that he should let the desires of other people stand in the way of what he wanted.

The same thing was true of the Nazies when they were exterminating various people. They knew perfectly well that those people didn't want to be exterminated, that's why there was so much elaborate deception and all the camps were guarded by guys with machine guns and stuff. But they weren't doing it because of what the Jews and gypsies and handicapped wanted or didn't want. They were doing it because they wanted a pure society with no Jews, gypsies, or handicapped.

Did it become a struggle for many Nazies to suppress their natural feeling of empathy for the people they murdered? Of course. A lot of them went more than a little batty, quite a few ended up letting people slip through the cracks whenever they could. Most of them weren't heroes by any stretch of the imaginiation, they just had moments of weakness and failed in their duty to Hitler. Many of them died firmly believing that killing Jews was right and letting Jews escape was wrong.

This isn't an issue of moral relativism. Just because someone, somewhere, happens to believe something very firmly, that doesn't mean that the converse cannot be the objective truth. A lot of people used to believe the Earth was flat. Most people today essentially believe that space-time is "flat" simply because they can't understand how it is possible for it to be curved. That doesn't mean that the Earth was ever flat, or that it wasn't always pretty much spherical. It doesn't mean that gravity and electro-magnetism are illusions. It simply means that it is possible for a lot of people to be totally mistaken about the true nature of the world in which they live.

Being a villian isn't about lacking empathy, because most villians in the history of the world have had normal empathy, just mostly for themselves and their own family and friends. Being a villian is about having a different moral vision of the world, whether or not that vision is objectively wrong. Take a moment to consider that you, each of you and all of you collectively, are the villian of someone else's story. Not just someone but many other people. You are really the villian of those stories, you are doing things for reasons that do not matter to the heroes of those stories, and you are injuring the causes about which they care deeply, by your actions or perhaps by your mere existence.

In the end, the question of moral relativism is utterly irrelevant. Even if there is an objective right and wrong, it is possible for people to disagree about what is objectively right and wrong. Even if there isn't, that doesn't change the fact that someone who wants something that directly infringes on your own ideas of what is right is a villian from your perspective, and if you try to stop them you become a villian from theirs. The existence of moral absolutes cannot produce total agreement about morality. The abscense of moral absolutes cannot remove conflict arising from different ideas about morality.

Moral relativism happens to be false, and thus those who follow it end up constructing moralities that are inherently flawed and incompatable with correct morality. So it's a good trait for villians, but in the end it isn't a very important trait. It's just as effective to have your villians believe something else that is fundamentally silly, like that the Earth is flat or that the world is in danger from dihydrous monoxide. The important thing is that the villians have some goal that impinges on what the rest of us would consider good. Our view of them as villians is dependent on the fact that we don't share their view of the world, and neither us nor they are willing to change views.


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oliverhouse
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I don't disagree much with your argument, but as you know, it depends for its force on the fact that moral relativism is false. Moral relativism is a particular type of objectively wrong moral system: one that claims that no moral system is more objectively right than any other. You're basically saying that there are other objectively wrong moral systems, and we can disagree about which ones are closer to the truth and to what degree. No argument there.

Having said that, I think moral relativism is a useful type of false moral system for a character because so many real people are influenced by it. That's not to say that most people would _claim_ to be moral relativists. Most probably haven't thought it through. That doesn't change the influence, though: most people haven't thought through the self-contradictions of Logical Positivism (a philosophy of science popular in the early 20th century), but they're heavily influenced by its remnants in the modern mindset. Same with moral relativism in moral theory and "indifferentism" in religion (i.e., the notion that all religions have an equal intellectual standing, once accidentally but concisely put to me as the notion that "religion is a journey, and the only way you can go wrong is by telling someone that they're going wrong").

Regards,
Oliver


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Survivor
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I don't know that I make any argument based on whether moral relativism is false. I'm speaking of practicalities, not absolutes. Note that an important feature of moral relativism as a practical philosophy is the condemnation of...um, condemnation

In simpler terms, a moral relativist, eschewing any transcendent basis for "good" and "evil" has only succeeded in reducing the concepts to meaning "things I happen to like" and "things I happen to dislike". This generally means that a moral relativists practical morality will seem a bit more overtly selfish, which is good for making a villian because it narrows the range of people who will agree with the morality of the moral relativist.

Now, most moral relativists (true moral relativists, that is) will simply adopt whatever moral stance is most convenient for them at any given point in time. If a person truly has no convictions, there is no bar to pretending agreement with whatever morality will exact the greatest penalty on dissent or provide the greatest rewards for acquiescence. Generally this means adopting the local moral majority position, though often it means being a quisling to an oppressed/threatened majority.

The key thing is that, when a moral relativist villian is confronted, that villian has a plausible argument as to why the clearly evil things he is doing are not evil from his perspective. The argument is based on a false premise, but it's a premise, granted as part of the act of arguing the issue at all. Since the disagreement about morality cannot be settled by argument, then it comes down to force (or at least the plausible threat of force). Which is the basis of most stories where you have a villian. It's fine to have the hero win by moral suasion every now and then, but if you do it all or even most of the time, the audience starts getting bored.

Anyway, you don't have to believe that moral relativism is false to have a moral relativist as your villian. If two moral relativists have a conflict of personal interests, then that conflict assumes the character of a fight over good and evil for both of them. After all, each only means "what I happen to like/dislike" by "good/evil", and there are two distinct "I"s in play here. Of course the rest of us will regard both of them as villians, but an audience of moral relativists can line up behind one or the other of the contestents based on their personal sympathies.

That's the point of my argument, it doesn't make any difference whether you believe in moral relativism or not, it doesn't even make a difference whether moral relativism is objectively true. Moral relativism can abolish transcendent, universalist moralities as being invalid, it cannot eliminate the conflicts between personal interests that are the real cause of almost all antagonisms. A moral relativist ends up seeing most other people as villians, and that would remain true even if all those other people were also moral relativists.


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franc li
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I don't know, at one point I thought I had worked out that the difference between liberals and conservatives was that conservatives believed in treating family like family, neighbor like neighbor, and compatriot like compatriot. Liberals believe in treating everyone like family, or of possible, like self. On the one hand, Conservatives were un-Christian. On the other hand, the liberal's concept of familial attachment is without meaning because it is not boundaried to family. But in the end no one agreed with my definition.
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wetwilly
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Yes, franc li, I also disagree. I'm not sure the difference between parties has anything to do with that. Actually, I'm not sure there is a difference between the parties anymore.
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Ray
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The difference between the two parties is about how much control the federal government should have over the nation, beginning from the time it began. The Federalists (today, the Democrats) favor more federal control, while the Anti-Federalists (Republicans) favor less. Most of the issues that crop up between the two (i.e. gun control, abortion, free market, etc.) are more modern issues that really revolve around how much control they want the government to have.
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trousercuit
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Where did this politics stuff come from all-of-the-sudden-like?
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oliverhouse
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Survivor, I didn't read your original post as well as I should have. After reading the second, and re-reading the first, I retract the statement that your argument depends for its force on the fact that moral relativism is false.

I think we agree on this: From the perspective of a writer creating characters, all that matters is that the characters hold conflicting moral beliefs -- either conflicting with each other, or conflicting with the (likely) reader. Moral relativism is one convenient moral system to use to create a fairly realistic conflict of that sort.

There are other things I might find interesting to explore, discuss, and argue, but they'd quickly go off-topic and I probably couldn't devote the necessary time to them.

Thanks for the thoughtfulness you applied to your posts.

Regards,
Oliver


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Ray
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quote:
Where did this politics stuff come from all-of-the-sudden-like?

No idea, but it was the only thing I could respond to with complete certainty.


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rstegman
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Why someone is thought of as evil, has a lot to do with the politics of the people involved.
The problem with moral relativism is that It believes that all moral concepts are equal. moral relativists think that, the group that believes they will go to heaven if they die while killing the enemy and will strap bombs to children and the retarted, is exactly equally moral to the person who charishes life and cares for the poor and the helpless.
Moral relativists do not understand right from wrong.
Many stories have that influential person who turns out to be helping the enemy take over their country. this person might be an important counciler to the king, bidding him to be cautious. When you get down to this, these kind of character tends to be practicing a form of moral relativism.

One fun exercize is to create your most evil antagonist. Then write something from their point of view so that, while the reader might not agree with what they are doing, or accept what they are doing, at least they can understand why they are doing it and possibly understand that it has to be done that way.

the characters I have always loved was like Darth Vadar in STAR WARS or Kladis in FLASH GORDON. they were not pure evil. Kladis was more like someone who loved their job and was good at it, and never considered the results. He was a connosuer of torture.
Darth Vadar had poor management techniques, but he was good at the methods he used.
In both those movies, they were the only well rounded characters.


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oliverhouse
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quote:
Moral relativists do not understand right from wrong.

More specifically, they think that there's no objective basis by which right acts can be distinguished from wrong acts. You can use the words, but you're either speaking gibberish or you're just talking about your personal preferences.


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franc li
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quote:
Most of the issues that crop up between the two (i.e. gun control, abortion, free market, etc.) are more modern issues that really revolve around how much control they want the government to have.

So why do the same people who favor control of guns tend not to favor control of abortion, and vice versa? Well, anyway, insofar as politics came up, it was getting at whether there is anything deeper than evil to understand or if evil is just evil. I actually favor the idea the evil is selfishness. The degree to which loving family, friends, compatriots comes into the picture seemed relevant to me. But I guess in addition to whom you love and how you love them, there is why you love them.


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Kathleen Dalton Woodbury
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Enough with the politics, please.
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Survivor
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That's a pretty straighforward "conservative" vs "progressive" issue. Conservatives like to interpret the Constitution according to the original meaning, progressives like to assign a "futuristic" (since nobody really can know what is "futuristic") meaning.

For me, bad guys fall into two rough camps. There are stupid people who are my enemies mainly because they haven't thought carefully about how to achieve their underlying goals. With such a "villian" it is plausible that I could pursuade them to become my ally. Then there are people who really want something fundamentally incompatable with my own fundamental desires (meaning those goals that I am not willing to compromise for any reason). I might trick such a person into a sort of friendship, but ultimately this must end in betrayal because that person is genuinely evil from my own point of view and I am genuinely evil from that person's point of view.

Now the villians who have mistaken beliefs about reality tend to belong to the first catagory, but many actually belong to the second. I find that a good few people who have a mistaken belief about reality hold such beliefs not because they lack access to evidence that proves those beliefs false but because those beliefs justify the actions they sincerely desire to pursue. However, it is not normally possible to distinguish between these two sorts of villians because most people believe things that are "plausible". Thus, your failure to pursuade such a person might be because of a lack of forensic skill or available evidence, not because that person is determined to resist pursuasion. It usually isn't possible to back your enemies into a position where they cannot continue to argue their own position (at least, it isn't normally possible for humans). And even if you can, it may simply be that your opponents have adapted to their poor argumentative skills by relying on methods other than argument as a means of determining truth (for instance: reliance on an authority figures).

Let's deescalate the tension by choosing an amusing real-life example. Most people refuse to believe that the idea of space aliens visiting Earth can be taken seriously. It doesn't matter how much evidence is presented to make the case, because they rely on authoritative statements by the Air-Force, NASA, and other government sources to tell them whether that evidence is "credible". This is despite the fact that all the "authoritative" sources involved have admitted lying about real events in the past when they believed those events to be evidence of extraterrestrial activity. Of course, most of the "authorities" are themselves relying on the unquestioned assumption that there isn't any credible evidence for extraterrestrial activity. Even if you are an authority, if you say that something is credible evidence of extraterrestrial activity, then you'll cease to be an authority on the basis of that alone.

As fiction writers, we don't care that very few people really believe in extraterrestrials. But suppose we did, for some reason or other. Suppose it were vitally important to convince everyone that ET's were a real issue. All the people who absolutely refuse to believe in extraterrestrials would be our enemies. It wouldn't matter that most of them are just believing whatever the authorities tell them. Our only resort would be to attempt a "practical" contest, pit our strength against our enemies. This might take the form of a violent overthrow of the government, or possibly use of extraterrestrial technology to out-compete our stodgy foes, gaining the upper hand through (relatively) peaceful means. At some point, we'll probably have to fight against a genuine adversary, someone who knows that extraterrestrials are real and is determined to suppress that information. But we'll have a hard time knowing that unless we're told. It's not clear to me why our real enemy would ever reveal that information.


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oliverhouse
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quote:
So why do the same people who favor control of guns tend not to favor control of abortion, and vice versa?

Don't worry, I won't write about the actual politics related to this question; but the question itself perfectly exemplifies the things we should ask in character development.

A glib answer might be "because they're stupid" or "because they have a knee-jerk belief in some authority". But glib answers don't make for interesting characters. If you can discover why an intelligent person can hold a position that seems contradictory to you, and _at least_ make it plausible on the surface, you've got the viewpoint of a character who could be a "villain" in your story, but not a villain in his own perspective. Suddenly she's plausible, tangible, _real_. Fiction can show us things that we might never learn in a lecture or a newspaper clipping, in part because we can see believable characters who believe things we would normally find unbelievable.

And who knows? You might just learn enough to change your mind, too.

Regards,
Oliver


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oliverhouse
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It occurs to me how old this advice is: it was the primary method of argumentation of the Scholastics (or "Schoolmen") of the Middle Ages, of whom St. Thomas Aquinas is probably the most well-known. If you couldn't articulate your opponent's position effectively, your argument was considered illegitimate -- no matter how well you framed your own position.
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franc li
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I did learn something interesting last time I read Speaker for the Dead. The first 4 or 5 times I read it, I thought the message was that no action is evil if you really understand it. But this time I noticed the critical phrase about how you can't hate someone, though you may still fear them. Extending the cosmology of the Enderverse, you actually can't do anything about an enemy you hate because until you love them you can't destroy them. Or something.

By the point is not that nothing is actually evil, it is that acts appear differently depending on your relationship to the act. There is a semantic theory called Theta grid that works well with certain words (my notation is rusty but I hope it's clear):

die : [[object][death]]
kill : [[agent] [death] [object]]
murder: [[agent] [death] [object] [motive]]
assasinate:[[agent] [death] [object] [[motive] [cause]]]

It is very exciting with respect to that one series of words. But if you look at a language like Arabic, it kind of breaks down because they do that with every verb. So the grammatical pattern does not link to the meaning nearly so well.

I do believe in motivational relativism, where a person's intent behind an action can change after the fact. But it goes part and parcel with a cosmology that contains a supreme being, whose relation to our actions ends the relativism.


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arriki
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it kind of breaks down because they do that with every verb


They kind of do what with every verb. Sorry, I'm being dense, but I would like to understand the die kill etc. and what you meant.


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Survivor
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She's talking about a theory of language that breaks down the semantic meaning of a particular word into components so that you can compare synonyms a little more accuractly.

At the first level, "die" is intransitive (requiring only the "object", grammatically the subject in this case) and "kill" is transitive (implying both an "agent"/subject and an "object"/object). The Theta grid extends this fairly basic division by allowing any verb to be given a boolean value for a larger set of relational semantic components.

Thus "murder" is not merely transitive, but also has the property of assigning intention (motive) to the verb. "Assasinate" assigns intention and something we might call "motive", "intent" or reason (cause). That last sentance highlights one of the great imponderables of Linguistics generally...at what point does the study of language become impossible for those who actually use language?

Anyway, the point about Arabic is that it has a regular format for giving the basic noun many of these properties. To illustrate, imagine that we changed an intransitive verb into a transitive verb by adding "nock" to the end of the verb. Thus "lie down" would become "lienock (someone) down" rather than "lay (someone) down". And "die" would become "dienock" rather than "kill".

Now imagine that we had several other modifiers to add to indicate whether the laying was done on purpose, or in a particular manner (politely, with consent, violently, etc.), or for social, political, or personal reasons (this is the situation that actually pertains with several languages, Arabic is one of them).

If you have regular ways of modifying verbs in this manner, you can use the word meaning "assasinate" even if nobody has ever imagined the concept before, because the constructed word can easily be decoded as "intentionally cause to die for political reasons". You can say that in any language, whether or not the culture is aware of the finished concept.

Of course, a complex regular verb usually degenerates over time to have a shorter or simpler pronounciation in common usage, so complex regularity of verb modifiers doesn't destroy the usefulness of Theta grid analysis, it just makes it more difficult to carry out because you have to investigate the informal language rather than being able to simply analyze the formal language.


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Survivor
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Oh, and that took us almost totally off-topic somehow.

The point that you can still believe someone is evil despite understanding their motives because "evil" is a matter of perspective is pretty similar to the point I was making. My point is a little different because I don't buy the idea that "evil" is entirely a matter of perspective. After all, I do evil things all the time, and it isn't like the fact that I'm the one doing them keeps me from being able to see that they're evil. If we could use a less charged term like "disgusting", then I could illustrate without...well, I'll let you judge.

Last night I was watching a show and there was a scene where a bloodthirsty, crazed, totally evil character was licking his razor sharp knife that he always carries around with him. As it just so happens, at that very moment I happened to be licking tasty blood off of my razor-sharp knife that I always carry around with me.

Now, I'm aware that licking tasty blood off my pet knife is disgusting (not evil...I don't think). Nothing about my mental makeup prevents me from thinking it disgusting even while doing it. I was watching a show where a very similar behavior was presented as archtypically disturbing, and the significance wasn't lost on me. It didn't keep me from licking my knife when I got tasty blood on it.

For me, evil doesn't seem like a matter of perspective, but simply of what you happen to believe "good" and "evil" mean. That certainly can be affected by your perspective, but it isn't a matter of perspective in and of itself.


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hoptoad
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what is perspective?
what is a matter of perspective?

If everyone, except one person, in the world had been turned into a vampire, and the last natural human was a vampire-hunter, would he be just considered evil or would he really be so?


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quantumphotonkid
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I just recently finished a philosophy paper in which I outlined my fundamental believe, known as Apathyism. Basically it's the idea that if you can't know the answer to something then the answer doesn't really matter.

So for me its less a matter of perspective and more a matter of knowledge. I think it's generally impossible to take an action and definitively say "this is good" because you never know what unexpected stuff could occur. So IMO since you can't really know what's good and what's evil then the difinitive truth (if one exists) doesn't really matter, as your action is necessarily independant of the truth.

That said, it terms of literature I'd like to see a story where the villain wins in the end, though I doubt it'd sell well. Maybe something told simultaneously from both the hero and the villains viewpoints so you're torn between who to vote for. As for absolute villains, I find that pure characters are generally boring cliche's. A purely evil villain doesn't have enough internal conflict for me, and there's not really a whole lot of room for them to evolve throughout the story.


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rstegman
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Once you dehumanize the opponant, you can do anything to them. Children's stories humanize all sorts of things, including Volkswagons (Saw bits of several Herby stories this weekend). While you think of them as humans, you don't dare destroy them. Dehumanize them and you suddenly have beef steaks or Nazi gas ovens. It is common for invading forces to consider the general population to be possessions, lower creatures, to be treated as the masters wish.

The question of guns and abortions, one might say that the elite do not want as many lower creatures so they come up with a way to reduce their population growth, and they definately don't want them to resist their treatment so they disarm them.. If you look through history and around the world, this is always true. Disarm the population and one can do anything one wants with them. Governments fear a population that can resist. The first thing a government does is disarm the population.

We would consider as evil, the treatement of an unarmed, dehumanized population by their elite masters. We consider them human so we feel for them.


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trousercuit
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quantumphotonkid:

quote:
So for me its less a matter of perspective and more a matter of knowledge. I think it's generally impossible to take an action and definitively say "this is good" because you never know what unexpected stuff could occur.

You must have a tough time getting up in the morning.

Would you entertain the idea of acting to maximize utility given a subjective probability distribution over courses of action?


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franc li
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quote:
If everyone, except one person, in the world had been turned into a vampire, and the last natural human was a vampire-hunter, would he be just considered evil or would he really be so?

Well, there was one person believed by many to be not fallen and black-hearted like the rest of mankind. Some people thought him evil enough to kill. Some people decided he was something special. The whole point of non-relative morality is that it doesn't matter how many people disagree, or even if no-one disagrees.

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Survivor
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A matter of perspective is something that is non-subjectively dependent on your point of view. The simplest example would be the occlusion angle of a percieved object--how large it appears. This is a mathmatically determinable property dependent on the position from which the occlusion is measured.

On the other hand, an estimate of the actual size of the object, while it can be impacted by the position from which the estimate is attempted, is not a matter of perspective. If the estimate is wildly different from the actual size, then the estimate is incorrect.

Note that both these properties are actual properties, even though one is a matter of perspective. If I could move this a little towards the subject of good and evil, "friend" and "enemy" are both actual properties of other people that are matters of individual perspective. You might be mistaken about which persons are your real enemies and which are your real friends, but that doesn't change the fact that some people are really your friends and other people are really your enemies. Which people are "friends" and which "enemies" is inherently a matter of perspective, though (the only exception would be a person who is an enemy to everyone, which may not even be possible for a human).

Considering our vampire hunting friend, we can assume that he is a friend to himself, even if he is an enemy to everyone else. For the vampires, the situation is more difficult. If the supply of vampires exceeds the supply of humans by that degree, than almost all of them have to be enemies to each other as well as to the remaining human. Not only that, but each individual is faced with a "save it for later or eat it now" dilemma even if all the other competitors are vanquished. Of course a human can land in such a situation too, it just isn't survivable

The concept that the ends will necessarilly end up outweighing the means is inherently flawed. When you consider the long term implications of any act, the most important long term implication of that act will always be the fact of having performed it. Arguments about acts not being inherently right or wrong generally place artificial constraints on what may be considered an act, such as excluding mental and perceptual acts like "paying attention" "listening" "planning" and so forth. But when you exclude such actions from being considered, you destroy the entire basis of argument itself, since your argument depends on other people listening, contemplating, and accepting your argument. If you exclude those actions from being considered, then what is the point in making an argument at all?

quote:
We would consider as evil, the treatement of an unarmed, dehumanized population by their elite masters. We consider them human so we feel for them.

Putting the inherent bias of this statement aside, consider that, "Children's stories humanize all sorts of things, including Volkswagons." This still makes evil a subjective perception (though not a matter of perspective, since the children do not have to be Volkswagons themselves to think this way).

Still, this is getting closer to the issue of what makes something objectively good or evil. Even though the judgement is still subjective, the subjectivity is mainly tied to beliefs about reality which could be objectively verified. In other words, if you were able to present enough evidence that Volkswagons were sentient creatures capable of moral decision, then it would make sense to believe it as an objective fact. Conversely, if you were to present enough evidence that humans were deterministic mechanisms incapable of free will, then it would make sense to believe that as an objective fact. Of course, once you believed either (or both) of those as objective fact, you would be under the burden of acting accordingly.

You might be wrong, of course. That's why we should constantly evaluate and test the assumptions that form the basis of our moral decisions. Thus far, I have seen far more evidence that humans are (however distastful) moral agents possessing free will than I have seen to the contrary. I've also noticed that when a Volkswagon seems to be expressing something like volition, it is usually a result of an identifiable external agent (usually human). So while I like Volkswagons and might save one even if it meant betraying my (foolish human) comrade, I would understand full well that this was an evil action. Not that knowing it was evil would keep me from doing it. By the way, if we're out on some important mission that requires the destruction of a Volkswagon, please disregard that last statement


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quantumphotonkid
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quote:
You must have a tough time getting up in the morning.


Yes, but for an entirely different reason that has more to do with staying up too late and less to do with being an Apathyist.

quote:
Would you entertain the idea of acting to maximize utility given a subjective probability distribution over courses of action?

Uh...sure? I'm not really sure what you mean by "maximize utility," but in a general sense I tend to base my decisions on a comparison between expected and desired results.

Survivor, you have some very long posts. That said,

quote:
The concept that the ends will necessarilly end up outweighing the means is inherently flawed.

I see this assertion as the result of a common misconception of "the ends." To me, the ends is EVERYTHING that can claim the means as a cause (even if it also has other causes). Anyone who says "this is right because..." will ultimately refer to an end (pleases authority, abides by moral code, gets the job done, etc. All things that result from the action or that the action DOES), and thus the only way to justify the means is in reference to the ends.

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trousercuit
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That particular imprecision has always bothered me about criticisms to "the ends justify the means."

The problem with defending the statement is that it's so loaded now, that when people invoke it as a motivation, it's usually meant to connote a few specific ends, not all of them.


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franc li
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Who originally said "he who has an adequate 'why' can bear almost any 'how." - was it Goethe? If it was Nietsche, I don't think they would have been quoting it in the multi-level marketing meetings. I think Viktor Frankl quoted Goethe and it entered the self-improvement lit that way.

Well, I think there is a difference between that and "the ends justify the means." Insofar as enduring something unpleasant is different from justifying something repellant.

P.S. I saw a "Disney Villains" picture book in the Juvenile section of the library the other day.

[This message has been edited by franc li (edited October 31, 2006).]


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Survivor
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I don't make a distinction between "ends" and "means" in the first place.

The most certain effects of any action will be the effects most directly linked in causality. In other words, if you balance the possible ends by their probability of actually coming about, you'll see that the action itself (along with actions leading up to it) are among the most important "ends" of that action. This may relate to what tc said about "probability distribution".

In other words, while you can't know all the possible effects of any action, you can know the most likely and immediate effects of that action, because those effects are often an implicit part of the action itself. Take the example of murder. There is one certain outcome of committing a murder...you'll become a murderer. Whether that's a good thing or not depends on what you mean by "murder", but it is the one absolutely certain outcome of the act of murder.

Thus, it has to be given serious consideration in contemplating whether murder is good. All the less likely possible outcomes have to be judged for their likelyhood as well as for their importance.

You might say that everything in life is a gamble anyway...but does that make is smart to jump off a building because you might discover that you can fly? Learning to fly is a big benefit, but it appears to have a very low probability of occurring and the penalty for failure is extreme. You might bet your life on a 50/50 of learning to fly, but would you really bet it on the trillion to one or worse odds that are more consistent with the evidence we have?

Unless you're willing to say that the odds don't make a difference, then Apathyism is meaningless. You don't know the highly unlikely results of any act...but in ordinary decision making you discount those probable outcomes anyway because they are unlikely (i.e. you don't know what will happen). Why is your moral decision making allowed to balanced certain outcomes against highly improbable outcomes? The only reason is because it frees you from having to judge the morality of your own actions.

If you really believe in Apathyism, then go ahead and jump off a tall building. You don't know that you'll die, and you can imagine a great benefit happening as a result.


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oliverhouse
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quantumphotonkid,

quote:
So IMO since you can't really know what's good and what's evil then the difinitive truth (if one exists) doesn't really matter, as your action is necessarily independant of the truth.

Read a lot of 20th century philosophy of science and you find the same problems in scientific knowledge as well. You're essentially providing the skeptic's position for moral truths, but those same issues arise for any knowledge (for examples and detailed discussions, read philosophers David Hume and Karl Popper). The problem with the skeptic's position is that it confuses two different issues: that you can't have perfect and infallible knowledge of truth (which appears to be true), and that your knowledge does not in any way correlate to the truth (which appears to be false).

In other words: we may never be right about everything, but that doesn't mean we're never right about anything. Thus our actions aren't independent of the truth.

People have no problem seeing this in science, but have a harder time seeing it in morality; but it's nonetheless true.

With respect to "utility", if you're really interested you should start with John Stewart Mill's Utilitarianism. It's available on my Web site in PDF and HTML formats. This work was an attempt to define a secular moral system. I think it works as a description IF there are already moral standards in place. It's circular, it fails to take into account the utility of spirituality, and it fails to define what "utility" can actually mean. But for all that, it's an interesting document by a thoughtful man.

Regards,
Oliver

[This message has been edited by oliverhouse (edited October 31, 2006).]


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Doc Brown
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Despite oliverhouse's excellent description, it is apparent that no one here understands moral relativism. Not even oliverhouse.

That is too bad because the concept has given us some of the most compelling fiction on the last century. I believe that a prime example is Sartre's No Exit. In that story the devil is a valet who serves the humans in Hell. He never does anything that appears evil at all. It is the human characters who torment each other for all eternity with hurtful words and actions. This torment is relative to each character, i.e. what hurts Garcin would not bother Estelle. Check it out. It's good fiction.

Moral relativists hold that morality is subjective, determined by man and not by God or nature. Thus you can never build a "moralometer" machine that objectively measures good and evil.

People the world over object to moral relativism because it defies almost all religions. Moral relativism does not deny the existence of God, but it does claim that God, if He exists, has no say in what is good and what is evil. This responsibility rests on the shoulders of man.

Obviously this concept is appalling to most of the people in the world. As with murder, racism, genocide, cannibalism, and other things that readers find appalling, moral relativism makes excellent fodder for gripping fiction.


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oliverhouse
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Doc Brown, in my defense, in an earlier post I said, "More specifically, [moral relativists] think that there's no objective basis by which right acts can be distinguished from wrong acts."

Also, I don't object to moral relativism because it flies in the face of most religions. I object to it because it's obviously false; or, more precisely, that if it's not false, then everything that I care deeply about is meaningless. It's the same reason I object to the common readings of the statement "true = false".

That is also, generally speaking, my objection to materialistic determinism. It's not that they _couldn't_ be true, it's that if they are I have no reason to _care_.

Having said all, that, I think moral relativism is good fodder for characterization. I think it would be really interesting to create a character who believed in moral relativism and lived according to its consequences: he really believed that, regardless of his particular repugnance, eating a baby is objectively no worse than eating a salad; that torturing someone to death is objectively no worse than gratuitiously giving food to hungry people.

Regards,
Oliver


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Doc Brown
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Oliverhouse, the statement "everything you care deeply about is meaningless" is certainly not the same as "false." That is why I said that you did not understand it.

From my perspective, I can easily make the claim that everything oliverhouse cares deeply about is meaningless. It would be impossible to prove that statement false, but it would be easy to prove that statement appalling.

quote:
I think it would be really interesting to create a character who believed in moral relativism and lived according to its consequences: he really believed that, regardless of his particular repugnance, eating a baby is objectively no worse than eating a salad; that torturing someone to death is objectively no worse than gratuitiously giving food to hungry people.

To write him/her as a true moral relativist, your character would need to make a conscious decision about whether eating babies is good or evil behavior. The decision would need to be completely subjective: the character must believe that it is impossible to use objective tools like observation, experimentation, logic, or mathematics to prove that the decision was right or wrong. Your character would need to believe that the judgment was completely in the hands of mankind with no input from anything outside mankind, whether natural or supernatural.

We see this frequently in tragedies when a character must make an agonizing choice. Typically, a character does not even realize that he/she is guided by moral relativism. Consider Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet. His tormented main characters eschew God, the law, their families, objective logic, and social convention. In the end they make their tragic choices using pure moral relativism. At the moments when they choose suicide, Romeo and Juliet each believe that they are doing the right thing relative to their situation. It's brilliant writing.

[This message has been edited by Doc Brown (edited November 01, 2006).]


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oliverhouse
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I don't want this to degenerate into a philosophy discussion, so this is my last post on this aspect of the discussion.

quote:
the statement "everything you care deeply about is meaningless" is certainly not the same as "false."

I agree; however, scientists use this kind of argument all the time to discount theories that they admit are theoretically true. Perhaps the most common example on the Internet relates to evolution.

A creationist will sometimes say, "God created the world in six days and planted fossils as a test of our faith."

A non-creationist will often respond, "If He completely altered the physical structure of the world simply to test our faith, then I have no idea what He has altered and what He has not in the geological sciences. While I can't deny that your theory is possible, it makes any further inference about history based on geology meaningless." And then he goes on to assume the falsity of the creationist's theory, because it's the only way his science can have any coherence.

My position against moral relativism (and materialistic determinism) is similar to that. I recognize that there may be no objective basis by which we can distinguish right from wrong, but if that's the case then nothing that I think on the topic has any coherence: talk about morality is simple gibberish.

I take some issue with your description of the moral relativist. He would not need to make a _conscious_ decision about what's good and what's evil; he'd only need to believe that when he says "such-and-such an act is evil" he was stating something about _himself_ and his preferences rather than anything about the world as such. He would see his preferences as arbitrary and personal rather than natural and objective. The person who is revolted by baby-eating and yet sees no basis on which he should be revolted is a very conflicted person indeed, and that's why I think it would be interesting to write about him.

All this probably runs counter to your interpretation of R&J:

quote:
His tormented main characters eschew God, the law, their families, objective logic, and social convention. In the end they make their tragic choices using pure moral relativism. At the moments when they choose suicide, Romeo and Juliet each believe that they are doing the right thing relative to their situation.

I'm not sure that "relative to their situation" means anything more than "in their situation." If they think they are doing the right thing relative to their situation, then they are making choices based on what they believe to be right and wrong in that situation. Well, yes, the morality of a particular decision is context-sensitive, even if you are not a relativist.

You tell us all of the things they eschew, but they are led by the rightness of their love for each other -- they adopt this as a guiding principle of their moral theory. It is, in my opinion, a mistake that completely distorts their moral theory and makes it an objectively bad one; but it does not mean that they are moral relativists or that they were guided by relativism. We're now in territory much closer to what Survivor was talking about in an earlier post -- and the fact that the Bard could write wonderful literature based on a non-relativistic but radically distorted and deeply held moral system shows that Survivor was right in that post.

This was fun -- seriously, and yes, I'm a blast at parties -- but I'm done derailing the message board. Please feel free to take the last word.

Regards,
Oliver

[This message has been edited by oliverhouse (edited November 01, 2006).]


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Doc Brown
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quote:
I recognize that there may be no objective basis by which we can distinguish right from wrong, but if that's the case then nothing that I think on the topic has any coherence: talk about morality is simple gibberish.
I expect that a moral relativist would say that it is possible to have a coherent discussion of morality without needing an objective basis. After all, all of the elements that make Apollo 13 a better movie than The Return of the King are purely a matter of subjective taste, yet you and I could have a coherent discussion on that topic without degenerating into gibberish. Could we not also have a subjective discussion on the topic of eating babies vs eating salad?

Aside: I am a life-long confirmed Catholic, not a moral relativist. But I have had lively conversations with a moral relativist and we were perfectly capable of discussing his subjective morality without breaking into gibberish.

[This message has been edited by Doc Brown (edited November 01, 2006).]


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