Archive for January, 2009
This sort of thought experiment is likely only useful to philosophers, researchers, and novelists… but as somebody who fancies himself aspirational to at least two of those titles I think I almost have to comment.
To be truly evil, someone must have sought to do harm by planning to commit some morally wrong action with no prompting from others (whether this person successfully executes his or her plan is beside the point). The evil person must have tried to carry out this plan with the hope of “causing considerable harm to others,” Bringsjord says. Finally, “and most importantly,” he adds, if this evil person were willing to analyze his or her reasons for wanting to commit this morally wrong action, these reasons would either prove to be incoherent, or they would reveal that the evil person knew he or she was doing something wrong and regarded the harm caused as a good thing.
One of the truisms in fiction writing I find most interesting, is that your villains shouldn’t think of themselves as villains. Very rarely do people, no matter how “objectively evil” they seem, really think of themselves as “the bad guy” in a story. This is often culled down to “we’re all the heroes of our own tales” or something of the sort. Part of the way around this (particularly in fiction) is that so few people are willing to analyze their own reasons for doing anything beyond some basic set of political or religious ethics that one can almost ignore this and just paint them as the mustachioed maniacal bad guy.
As a parent I watch a lot of kids movies and read a fair number of kid’s books and it’s particularly noticeable to me when somebody doesn’t fall for this easy out. The one that jumped out at me when I started to think about this was Disney’s Meet the Robinsons of a few years ago. The bad guy has a handle-bar mustache, evil laugh, bad teeth, BO, and wears a bowler hat, as almost stereotypical as they could make him, but then they give him motivation and a reason, and show how he got there (and give him a path back). The Incredibles has Syndrome who is given a real motivation and character development. Princess Mononoke (not exactly a “kids” movie) has several characters that might be described as “bad” along the way, but they all have motivations that aren’t entirely unreasonable. In literature one of my favorite books is Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card and he goes so far as to make the (apparent) antagonists (the “Buggers”) through most of the book become something akin to a secondary protagonist by the end (or at least by the third and fourth books in the series) and does a wonderful job of showing the “humanity” in both the “good” guys and the “bad” guys.
In the realm of philosophy it is easy for us to villainize “the other guy” for their ridiculous religious or political beliefs which are so obviously wrong to us that our opponent must be evil. I think the challenge for us, as reasoned members of civilization, is to recognize the flaws in our own thinking, as well as the flaws in others’ thinking, and attempt to create an exchange of this understanding. This should be much easier to do when we’re talking the difference between a republican and a democrat in the US, than it is between a liberal Christian (or atheist) in the affluent west who wants to “live and let live” and somebody from an impoverished nation where versions of Islam (and other religions) have fostered a hate for outsiders and those unwilling to convert (or even a hatred for those unwilling to hate those who won’t convert), but that doesn’t excuse us from trying.
Three Cups of Tea (which I think I’ve talked about before) is the true story of Greg Mortenson who is approaching this problem in, what I think is, a correct way; by working to educate young children (especially girls) in impoverished areas. By educating the poorest of the poor he’s helping give them a means of improving their life and therefor improving their overall view of life and the rest of the people living it. (I’m not saying violence is never justified as a means of stopping other violence, just that it’s not generally viable as the only “solution” to a problem).
I think the key to remember is that while we can easily say there are evil actions, it is much harder to identify a truly evil person… most of us (”us” being humanity) are trying to do “what is right” by the definitions we have formed, and have been given by the society around us.