A Philosopher's Blog

Chaotic Evil

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy by Michael LaBossiere on September 5, 2014

As I have written in two other essays, the Dungeons & Dragons alignment system is surprisingly useful for categorizing people in the real world. In my previous two essays, I looked at lawful evil and neutral evil. This time I will look at chaotic evil.

In the realm of fantasy, players often encounter chaotic evil foes—these include many of the classic enemies ranging from the lowly goblin to the terrifyingly powerful demon lord. Chaotic evil foes are generally good choices for those who write adventures—no matter what alignment the party happens to be, no one has a problem with killing chaotic evil creatures. Most especially other chaotic evil creatures. Fortunately, chaotic evil is not as common in the actual world. In the game system, chaotic evil is defined as follows:

A chaotic evil character is driven entirely by her own anger and needs. She is thoughtless in her actions and acts on whims, regardless of the suffering it causes others.

In many ways, a chaotic evil character is pinned down by her inherent nature to be unpredictable. She is like a spreading fire, a coming storm, an untested sword blade. An extreme chaotic evil character tends to find similarly minded individuals to be with—not out of any need for company, but because there is a familiarity in this chaos, and she relishes the opportunity to be true to her nature with others who share that delight.

The chaotic evil person differs from the lawful evil person in regards to the matter of law. While they are both evil, the lawful evil person is committed to order, tradition and hierarchy. As such, lawful evil types can create, lead and live in organized states (and all states have lawful evil aspects). They can even get along with others—provided that doing so is required for the preservation of order. In contrast, chaotic evil types have no commitment to order, tradition or hierarchy. They can, of course, be compelled to act as if they do. For example, as long as the threat of punishment or death is close at hand, a chaotic evil type will obey those with greater power. Chaotic evil types do like order, tradition and hierarchy in the same way that arsonists like things that burn—without these things, the chaotic evil type would have that much less to destroy.

Lawful evil types do often find chaotic evil types useful for specific tasks, although those wise about evil are aware of the dangers of using such tools. For example, a well-organized terrorist group will tend to be lawful evil in regards to its leadership. However, such a group will find many uses for the chaotic evil types. A lawful evil type is generally not likely to strap on an explosive vest and run into a crowd, but a chaotic evil person might very well consider this to be a good way to go out. Lawful evil types also sometimes need people to create chaos so that they can then impose more order—the chaotic evil are just the people to bring in. But, as noted, the chaotic evil can get out of hand—they are not constrained by order or even rational selfishness. This is why the smart lawful evil types do their best to see to it that the chaotic evil types do not outlive their usefulness.

The chaotic evil person differs from the neutral evil person in regards to the matter of chaos. While the chaotic evil and neutral evil are both selfish and care nothing for others, the neutral evil person tends to be more rational and calculating in her selfishness. A neutral evil person can have excellent self-control and conceal her true nature in order to achieve her selfish and evil ends. Chaotic evil types lack that self-control and find it hard to conceal their true nature—that takes a discipline that the chaotic, by their nature, lack. The neutral evil see society as having instrumental value for them—but their selfishness means that they will take actions that can destroy society. The chaotic evil see no value in society other than as presenting a target rich environment for their evil. In our world, chaotic evil types tend to be those who commit horrific crimes or acts of terror.

While chaotic evil types are chaotic and evil, they often take up the mantle of some cause and purport to be acting for some greater good. However, their actions disprove their claims about their alleged commitment to anything good. They typically take up a religious or political cause to assuage whatever shreds of conscience they might still retain—or do so as part of their chaotic game.

In an orderly society that does not need the chaotic evil, smarter chaotic evil types try to hide from the authorities—though their nature drives them to commit crimes. Those that are less clever commit their misdeeds and are quickly caught. The cleverer might never be caught and become legends. Fortunately for the chaotic evil (and unfortunately for everyone else), they have plenty of opportunities to act on their alignment. There are always organizations that are happy to have them and there are always conflict areas where they can act in accord with their true natures—often with the support and blessings of the authority. In the end, though many are willing to make use of their morality, no one really wants the chaotic evil around.

 

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Lawful Evil

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on August 12, 2013
Book cover, Dungeon Masters Guide by Gary Gyga...

 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

While I am a professional philosopher, my view of ethics was significantly shaped by the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons alignment system. This role-playing game provided players with a choice between the alignments: neutral, lawful neutral, chaotic neutral, neutral good, neutral evil, lawful good, lawful evil, chaotic good or chaotic evil. The player’s choice of alignment determined how she would (or at least should) play her character. As might be imagined, morality tends to be a significant part of fantasy role-playing games. After all, the fantasy genre has traditionally been about the epic battle between good and evil (or law and chaos).

While my training in philosophy has provided me with a robust set of ethical theories ranging from moral absolutism to moral nihilism, I still find the AD&D alignment system rather useful for describing people and their actions. In my own case, I find the alignment system a handy organizer. In terms of speaking with other gamers, it is a handy way to get across my view of an actual person. For example, if I say “what he did was chaotic neutral at best” a fellow gamer knows just what that means. Or should.

One interesting aspect of the alignment system is that it applies to organizations and not just individuals.  This, interestingly enough, includes entire nations. While an entire nation will generally not be monolithic in its alignment (after all, evil nations have their plucky rebels and good nations have their malign plotters), a country can be described generally in terms of one of the alignments. In the fantasy settings of role-playing games, this alignment is usually set by the rulers. For example, a country ruled by a council of evil necromancers would be evil. As another example, a country ruled by a paladin queen would be good. Real life countries follow the same model. That is, the effective alignment of the country is set by the alignment of those in power. To use the obvious example, during WWII not all Germans were evil, but Germany acted as a rather evil nation. To be fair, most nations tend to be evil and, more specifically, lawful evil.

Pathfinder, which is a current variant of Dungeons & Dragons, defines the alignment of lawful evil in the following way:

 

A lawful evil villain methodically takes what he wants within the limits of his code of conduct without regard for whom it hurts. He cares about tradition, loyalty, and order, but not about freedom, dignity, or life. He plays by the rules but without mercy or compassion. He is comfortable in a hierarchy and would like to rule, but is willing to serve. He condemns others not according to their actions but according to race, religion, homeland, or social rank. He is loath to break laws or promises.

This reluctance comes partly from his nature and partly because he depends on order to protect himself from those who oppose him on moral grounds. Some lawful evil villains have particular taboos, such as not killing in cold blood (but having underlings do it) or not letting children come to harm (if it can be helped). They imagine that these compunctions put them above unprincipled villains.

Some lawful evil people and creatures commit themselves to evil with a zeal like that of a crusader committed to good. Beyond being willing to hurt others for their own ends, they take pleasure in spreading evil as an end unto itself. They may also see doing evil as part of a duty to an evil deity or master.

Lawful evil represents methodical, intentional, and organized evil.

 

This definition nicely captures the behavior of most countries in terms of how they operate (or desire to operate). In regards to the lawful aspect of the alignment, it is obvious that a country would tend to be lawful. That is, they have a set of laws aimed at creating order and expect the citizens to be loyal to the rulers. Appeals to the value of tradition, be they religious or social, are commonly used to persuade the citizens to maintain the existing order. Hierarchy is, of course, essential to the state as is a willingness on the part of the citizens to follow the laws.

Anarchists and other thinkers have argued that the state is essentially evil—interestingly enough because the state is supposed to be opposed to freedom and dignity. While it could be argued that evil is not a necessary quality of a state, the rulers of states always seem quite ready to restrict freedom in order to maintain security and order. There is also the obvious fact that the rulers of states generally act to take or do what they wish, albeit within the limits of the rules (even if they must create new rules and laws to allow this behavior—note how the Obama administration carefully argues that drone strikes and Prism are both legal).

As the description notes, some lawful evil people (and nations) profess to have a better sort of morality and use this to claim that they are good people, especially when engaged in activities that are rather clearly not good at all. Interestingly enough, the lawful evil type tends to avail herself of utilitarianism. The idea is rather straightforward: a person can claim that the seemingly evil acts being committed (like drone assassinations, domestic spying, enhanced interrogation, denying women rights, allowing pollution, and so on) are not evil because they serve the greater good. Or, rather, the greater good as they see it. Perhaps they truly believe they are on the side of the angels even while they are using the devil’s tools.

 

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Mental Illness or Evil?

Posted in Ethics, Law, Medicine/Health, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on December 21, 2012
1212mentalhealth-RW

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When a person does terrible things that seem utterly senseless, like murder children, there is sometimes a division in the assessment of the person. Some people will take the view that the person is mentally ill on the grounds that a normal, sane person would not do something so terrible and senseless. Others take the view that the person is evil on the grounds that a normal, non-evil person would not do something so terrible and senseless. Both of these views express an attempt to explain and understand what occurred. As might be imagined, the distinction between being evil and being mentally ill is a matter of significant concern.

One key point of concern is the matter of responsibility and the correct way to respond to a person who has done something terrible. If a person acts from mental illness rather than evil, then it seems somewhat reasonable to regard them as not being accountable for the action (at least to the degree the person is ill). After all, if something terrible occurs because a person suffers from a physical illness, the person is generally not held accountable (there are, obviously, exceptions). For example, my running friend Jay told me about a situation in which a person driving on his street had an unexpected seizure. Oddly, the person’s foot stomped down on the gas pedal and the car rocketed down the street, smashing into another car and coming to a stop in someone’s back yard. The car could have easily plowed over my friend, injuring or killing him. However, since the person was not physically in control of his actions (and he had no reason to think he would have a seizure) he was not held morally accountable. That is, he did nothing wrong. If a person had intentionally tried to murder my friend with his car, then that would be seen as an evil action. Unless, perhaps, the driver was mentally ill in a way that disabled him in a way comparable to a stroke. In that case, the driver might be as “innocent” as the stroke victim.

There seem to be at least two ways that a mentally ill person might be absolved of moral responsibility (at least to the degree she is mentally ill).

First, the person might be suffering from what could be classified as perceptual and interpretative disorders. That is, they have mental defects that cause them to perceive and interpret reality incorrectly.  For example, a person suffering from extreme paranoia might think that my friend Jay intends to steal his brain, even Jay has no such intention. In such a case, it seems reasonable to not regard the person as evil if he tries to harm Jay—after all, he is acting in what he thinks is legitimate self-defense rather than from a wicked motivation. In contrast, someone who wanted to kill Jay to rob his house or just for fun would be acting in an evil way. Put in general terms, mental conditions that distort a person’s perception and interpretation of reality might lead him to engage in acts of wrongful violence even though his moral reasoning might remain normal.  Following Thomas Aquinas, it seems sensible to consider that such people might be following their conscience as best they can, only they have distorted information to work with in their decision making process and this distortion results from mental illness.

Second, the person might be suffering from what could be regarded as a disorder of judgment. That is, the person’s ability to engage in reasoning is damaged or defective due to a mental illness. The person might (or might not) have correct information to work with, but the processing is defective in a way that causes a person to make judgments that would be regarded as evil if made by a “normal” person. For example, a person might infer from the fact that someone is wearing a blue hat that the person should be killed.

One obvious point of concern is that “normal” people are generally bad at reasoning and commit fallacies with alarming regularity. As such, there would be a need to sort out the sort of reasoning that is merely bad reasoning from reasoning that would count as being mentally ill. One point worth considering is that bad reasoning could be fixed by education whereas a mental illness would not be fixed by learning, for example, logic.

A second obvious point of concern is discerning between mental illness as a cause of such judgments and evil as a cause of such judgments. After all, evil people can be seen as having a distorted sense of judgment in regards to value. In fact, some philosophers (such as Kant and Socrates) regard evil as a mental defect or a form of irrationality. This has some intuitive appeal—after all, people who do terrible and senseless things would certainly seem to have something wrong with them. Whether this is a moral wrongness or health wrongness is, of course, the big question here.

One of the main reasons to try to sort out the difference is figuring out whether a person should be treated (cured) or punished (which might also cure the person). As noted above, a person who did something terrible because of mental illness would (to a degree) not be accountable for the act and hence should not be punished (or the punishment should be duly tempered). For some it is tempting to claim that the choice of evil is an illusion because there is no actual free choice (that is, we do what we do because of the biochemical and electrical workings of the bodies that are us). As such, people should not be punished, rather they should be repaired. Of course, there is a certain irony in such advice: if we do not have choice, then advising us to not punish makes no sense since we will just do what we do. Of course, the person advising against punishment would presumably have no choice but to give such advice.

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Descartes First Meditation

Posted in Epistemology, Metaphysics by Michael LaBossiere on December 27, 2009

Descartes begins his project with the decision to sweep away all his dubious beliefs and build a new groundwork for the sciences. Unlike the previous questionable foundation, the new foundation is intended to indubitable. In order to reach his goal, he intends to reject any belief that is not completely reliable.

Realizing that an attempt to examine every belief would be an impossible task, he elects to instead examine the foundational beliefs on the supposition that if they fall, all the rest will fall with them.

After settling on his methodology, he turns to the senses. Though he once trusted them, he realizes they can deceive. Following his method, he decides to no longer put faith in them.

He pauses for a moment and considers that although the senses might deceive in certain cases, to deny their general evidence would be rather insane. But, as he notes, he has dreamed that he was awake when he was actually asleep-so he could be sleeping now and thus be deceived. He considers that perhaps the dream world is not as vivid as the world he experiences when he is ‘awake’ and hence distinguishable, but then realizes that there is no sure standard to distinguish the ‘real’ world from the ‘dream’ world. Thus, he decides to assume that though he thinks he is awake, he is instead dreaming.

Though well on his skeptical journey, Descartes pauses again. He considers that what he experiences in his dreams are like paintings of things such as satyrs: even if the composite beings are unreal, surely the simpler parts, like the head and legs, are real things. Further, even if the being is a complete fiction, at least the colors that compose it must be real. By analogy, he considers that the same is true of the ‘real’ world and hence the general things, such as body, extension, shape, quantity, number, and spatial location, must be real. Because of this view, he considers the sciences that deal with complex entities, such as physics and medical science, lack certainty. In contrast, since the mathematical sciences are not concerned with matters of existence, he considers them as certain-at least in some respects. After all, he reasons, whether he is awake or slumbering, adding two and three yields five and squares are four sided figures. At this point it seems as if Descartes’ project has come to and end-he considers that mathematical sciences cannot be doubted. However, this is not the case-he takes his project to another level by considering God and the evil ‘demon.’

While Descartes believes in God, he does not know whether God is causing him to perceive a world that, in fact, does not exist. He also considers that given the fact that other people are self-deceptive in matters they believe they know extremely well, he could also be mistaken when doing math or geometry.

He pauses for a moment and reflects that since God is alleged to be good, perhaps He does not want Descartes to be deceived. But he rejects this-after all, if a good God allows him to be deceived sometimes, then a good God could allow him to be deceived all the time-and he is deceived at least some of the time.

In the face of this difficulty, he decides that he will reject any claim that is not certain. By doing this, he hopes to make it possible to create a foundation of certainty for the sciences. Ironically, to reach this goal he must consider a situation of the most extreme skepticism.

For the sake of his project, he decides to consider the possibility that he is the victim of an evil ‘demon’ who has ‘created’ an illusory world to deceive him. Though Descartes decides to regard himself as lacking a physical body, he does draw a limit to the power of the demon. Though the demon is supposed to be very powerful and deceitful, it cannot force Descartes to believe-he retains the ability to suspend judgment even in the world of illusion.

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Responding to the Cheater

Posted in Relationships/Dating by Michael LaBossiere on December 21, 2009

If you determine that your partner has been cheating on you, there arises the question of how to respond to this revelation. The following are some suggestions.

Get Tested

It is an extremely good idea to get tested for sexually transmitted diseases. While people often worry they will be ridiculed or humiliated, this is almost certainly not the case. Health care professionals are trained to be professional about such matters and often tend to be sympathetic towards people who have been betrayed by their partners.

Even if you and your partner practiced safe sex, it is still a good idea to get tested. Even with due precautions it is still possible to become infected. You owe it to yourself and any future partners to be sure that you are not infected.

Forgiveness?

Some people believe that a cheater will always be a cheater and hence can never be trusted. While some people might be incorrigible cheaters, it seems unlikely that every cheat is beyond redemption and incapable of changing their ways. After all, people do change in the face of experience and some people do change for the better. Think of wrongs that you have committed in the past and ask yourself if you have been able to become a better person and not repeat your mistakes. Think of wrongs that you have done that you hope will be forgiven or, even better, wrongs that have been forgiven. If you can think of such things, then you might be able to forgive the cheat.

If you think that forgiving the cheat is about doing something for them, keep in mind that such forgiveness is mainly for your benefit. Bearing a grudge and refusing to forgive a person can wear on you-causing stress and perhaps even making you a worse person. This is not to say that the cheater should be pardoned completely, just that letting the anger go can be good for the heart and the soul. Holding onto the anger can have terrible effect on your next relationship by impairing your ability to trust others.

Because of the possibility of forgiveness, reconciliation can sometimes occur. Sometimes the person who has been betrayed is able to forgive the cheater and the relationship can be restored to a semblance of its previous state. Some people do learn and are able to change from a cheater to a loyal partner. While this can happen, it is a good idea to be wary of people who merely pretend to be reformed cheaters. While people can and do change, people also tend to stick with established patterns of behavior.

Revenge?

When you are wronged it is natural to want to wrong the person who harmed you in return. On one hand, there are good reasons to punish the cheater. On the other hand, there are good reasons not to do so.

One reason to punish a cheater is the psychological need for revenge. You might, it could be reasoned, feel better after punishing the person and thus be better able to move on. Of course, not everyone has this need and it can be argued that this need shows a character defect. However, the need is understandable. One reason not to punish for revenge is that doing so can make you a worse person-a vengeful human being.

A second reason to punish the cheater is that they deserve punishment. Some might argue that punishing the cheater is like punishing a criminal-the punishment is needed to set things right. This has a certain appeal. After all, we do owe others for the good they do us, so it would seem (by analogy) that we owe them bad for the evil they do us. Of course, doing wrong for wrong seems to merely double the wrong being done, thus providing a reason not to do this.

A third reason to punish the cheater is to deter them from doing it again. As philosophers such as Hobbes and Glaucon (in Plato’s Republic) have argued, if people can commit their misdeeds without fear of punishment, then they will continue to commit those misdeeds. But, if they are punished, then they will be much less inclined to commit their injustices in the future. One reason not to do this is that it is not clear that cheaters will learn to be more loyal from being punished.

If you decide that the cheater needs to be punished, then there is the question of the nature of the punishment. Before considering what action to take, it is very important to be aware that law enforcement officials generally do not consider cheating to justify taking action against a person.

People often entertain the idea of doing physical harm to the cheater or his/her property. For example, every time cheating is discussed in my ethics classes someone (for some reason it is always a woman…) brings up keying the cheater’s car. Laying aside the immorality of such deeds, harming a person or his/her property is generally illegal and doing so can end with criminal prosecution. In the past, courts were often lenient in such cases-even acquitting men who killed their spouses for cheating. However, those days seem to have fortunately passed and vengeance for cheating is much less well regarded in the courts. While fantasizing about torching the cheater’s prized Trans Am can have some psychological benefit, actually doing so would probably result in a law suit or even jail time.

People sometimes entertain the idea of exposing the cheater to the world thus shaming them and warning others. Of course, doing so will also reveal to the world that you have been cheated on and might cause you some embarrassment.

Some people say that the cheater is punished by not having them as a partner anymore. While this does reveal a certain degree of arrogance, it is certainly a peaceful and legal approach. Of course, the cheater might or might not consider this a punishment-they might simply move on to a new relationship (or, more likely, relationships) without any suffering on their part.

Perhaps the best way to “punish” the cheater is to move on and create a loyal, healthy and loving relationship with another person. A true cheater will never be able to have such a relationship and although the cheater might believe s/he is happy, this is almost certainly self delusion. In a sense, by denying themselves loyal and healthy relationships, the cheaters are punishing themselves.

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Darwin & Cameron

Posted in Religion, Science by Michael LaBossiere on November 22, 2009
Charles Darwin, photographed by Julia Margaret...

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Kirk Cameron, formerly of Growing Pains, has lent his skills to the defense of creationism against Darwinism. He is currently involved in handing out a version of Darwin’s book with a new introduction. Not surprisingly, the introduction is highly critical of Darwin.

While there are some reasonable criticisms of evolution and it is quite possible to give reasonable arguments in favor of teleology (see, for example, Plato, Aristotle, and Aquinas), this introduction seems to focus primarily on ad homimen attacks against Darwin. To be specific, the main criticisms seem to be allegations that Darwin’s theory influenced Hitler, that Darwin was a racist and that Darwin was a misogynist.

The logical response to these charges is quite easy: even if these claims were true, they have no bearing whatsoever on the correctness or incorrectness of Darwin’s claims. After all, these are mere ad homimen attacks.

To see that this sort of reasoning is flawed, simply consider this: Adolf Hitler believed that 2+2=4. Obviously the fact that Hitler was a wicked man has no bearing on the truth of that view. Likewise, even racists believe that fire burns and to say that this makes the claim about fire untrue is obviously false.

To use another example, it has been argued that Hitler was influenced by Christianity. However, it would be a logical error to infer that Christianity is flawed because a wicked person was influenced by it (or believed in it).

Interestingly enough, certain atheists attack religions in the same manner that Darwin is being attacked here: by noting that people who did terrible things were Christians/influenced by Christianity (such as the impact of Christian antisemitism on the Holocaust). Obviously, this sort of tactic is based on a fallacy whether it is used against Darwin’s theory or against a religious view.

 

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Limits

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on June 1, 2009
Aftermath of the September 11 attacks
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When people are critical of using certain methods against terror suspects, one reply is that to accept limits on our actions will make us unsafe. This is because accepting limits will impede our chances of winning and if we do not win, then the terrorists will harm us.

The usual justification for this is that we do not want to be harmed and we want to win. Of course, the terrorists can say the same thing-they also want to avoid harm and achieve victory. They can, of course, help themselves to the same argument used above. After all, if doing whatever it takes to win is morally acceptable, then the terrorists are acting in ways that are morally acceptable. They are just doing what they think it will take to win.

To argue that our side should win, we need something that distinguishes us from the terrorists. We could just be pragmatic and say that we should win because it is us and we are not them. They can, of course, say the same. In this case, both sides are morally equally and whoever wins, wins. If we take this approach, we have to lay aside all moral language when trying to justify what we do or why we should win. After all, such moral talk would be meaningless.

However, few people want to take this approach. Rather, it is common for the defenders of the “do whatever it takes to win” approach to argue that we are justified in acting without moral limits on the basis of (ironically enough) moral grounds.  For example, Ralph Peters argues that we should do whatever it takes to win because an American victory would be better for the world. It is also common to present the view that we are morally superior to the terrorists we fight and being better than them justifies the claim that we should win rather than them.

This approach creates what seems to be a bit of a problem: how do we reconcile rejecting moral limits on our actions with the claim that we are morally correct?

The stock approach is the ends justify the means. The usual line is that since our goals are noble and good, we are morally justified in accepting any means to achieve those goals. This view is, of course, a utilitarian approach. The main worry here is that the actions we take to achieve our goals might morally outweigh our goals. In other words, the moral evil generated by our means might exceed the good of achieving are goals.

This can be illustrated using a simple economic analogy. If achieving a goal generates $500, then it is profitable if we spend $499.99 or less in achieving the goal. If our goal is profit, then any means that bring us to our goal for $499.99 or less would be acceptable. Obviously, the less the means cost, the better.

In the case of a moral goal, the same logic applies. If reaching our goal (beating Al Qaeda, for example) would generate 500 Good Points (just to make up an imaginary measure), any means that reached that goal for 499.99  or less Evil points would be acceptable. Naturally, reaching it with less Evil Points would be better because we’d end up with more Good.

So, if we argue that our side should win because we are in the right or because  our victory would be a moral good, then we would need to avoid generating too much evil. Otherwise, we would be taking actions that would undercut our justification and prevent us from achieving our stated goal.

A variant on this is the view that if we are good, then we can do whatever it takes to win. A variant on the above argument counters this: if we do enough evil, then we are no longer good. This is because being good means that you do good rather than evil.

So, we have to accept some limits. If we do not, then it would be a matter of luck that we would win and still be good or achieve a greater good. By luck, I mean that we would win before we had done enough evil to make us evil or outweigh the good of achieving our goals.

Naturally, some might reply that we must do what it takes to stay save, because survival is what matters.

That is, of course, a practical approach.  One moral reply is that given by Socrates in the Apology. Another moral reply is that, as noted above, if we take survival to justify our actions, then the terrorists can take the same option. As they see it, they need to kill us to survive. In this case, we’d need to lay aside the moral talk and be honest about it. We have no justification beyond wanting to live-just the same as them. We just happen to be us. Of course, if we take this approach to ethics, it would apply across the board. In short, we’d be embracing egoism. Or, if we wanted to toss ethics altogether, we could be moral nihilists.

My view is this: Americans, as a whole, are better than Al Qaeda and their fellows. This is because our general goals are morally superior and we generally accept moral limits that they reject They, for example, intentionally murder children and non-combatants. We, in contrast, put ourselves at risk to avoid hurting civilians. We think women are people and deserve full rights. They do not. When we do wrong, we take ourselves to task for it. They behead journalists. See the difference between good and evil?

Moral battles are not won by being evil.  They are won by being good and defeating evil.

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Why Be Good? III

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy by Michael LaBossiere on May 24, 2009
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As mentioned in a previous post, philosophers seem to assume that an answer is needed to the question of why one should be good. This seems to be based on the assumption that people need to be motivated to be good and hence default to evil or at least to being non-good. As a change of pace, I thought I’d turn this question around and ask “why be evil?”

So, how about a case for being evil…

First, if you ask people what they want, the most common answers, at least in my experience, involve material things-money, jobs, power, cars and so on. Of course, this is based on my experience, which might be unusual. Hence, there is a need for a broader base of evidence. This brings me to a second category of evidence-the media.

A quick glance at the leading magazines of today clearly shows what people prefer. Business magazines, such as Business Week, extort the value of wealth and success in business. Celebrity magazines, such as People glory in the fame and wealth of the stars. Turning to television, channels such as VH1 and MTV show the houses, cars, fame and wealth of celebrities and, of course, these things are all held up as being of great value. Many of the music videos, a defining art form of the 21st century, present the glory of wealth, fame and power. Given that art tends to reflect the values of a culture, it seems evident that wealth, fame and power are valued and preferred in this culture. If additional evidence is needed, a survey of the rest of the media will reveal that the general glorification of wealth, success and material goods is common. Thus it may be safely concluded that the media provides ample evidence that material success is preferable.

Third, there is the fact that many people pursue material goods at the expense of non-material goods. For example, people are willing to engage in degrading activities for material gain or fame. Reality television shows such as Fear Factor, Flavor of Love, the various versions of Survivor and similar shows make this quite evident. Magazines such as Maxim, Playboy, Playgirl, Penthouse and Hustler also make it clear that people are willing to engage in degrading behavior for the sake of money and fame. As another example, people are willing to sacrifice their physical and mental health in order to acquire money. In Japan, for example, people have been known to work themselves to death. In the United States, people are willing to work long hours and focus on their careers at the expense of their personal relationships in order to achieve material success. As a final example, people are quite willing to engage in immoral behavior for material success. People lie, cheat, steal and murder in order to gain material goods. Dictators throughout history ranging from Caesar through Hussein have been willing to employ the most terrible methods to secure their material power. These facts indicate that people greatly value material goods and, given the above argument, it would follow that these goods are preferable.

Fourth, people are willing to risk punishment in order to acquire material goods. Prisons are full of people, ranging from former corporate officers to petty thieves, who committed crimes in the attempt to make material gains or in search of material pleasures. Given that people will risk terrible punishments in order to gain material goods, it seems reasonable to believe that these goods are preferable.

Overall, given the arguments presented above, it seems eminently reasonable to accept that material goods are what people prefer and hence are preferable. What remains is showing how being unjust enables one to better acquire such goods. If it can, then that provides a rational motivation to be evil.

Consider, if you will, two people who are each starting their own software companies. One, Bad Bill is unjust. The other, Sweet Polly is just. Now, imagine a situation in which both Bill and Polly stumble across a lost laptop at a technology expo. This laptop of course, contains key trade secrets of another competing company. Polly will, of course, return the laptop to the rightful owners and will not look at any of the details- the information does not belong to her. Bill will, of course, examine the secrets and thus gain an edge on the competition. This will increase his immediate chance of success over the competition.

Now imagine what will happen if Sweet Polly continues along the path of justice.  She will never take unfair advantage of her competition, she will never exploit unjust loopholes in the tax laws, and she will never put people out of work just to gain a boost to the value of her company’s stock. She will always offer the best products she can provide at a fair price.
In direct contrast, if Bad Bill follows his path of injustice, he will use every advantage he can gain to defeat his competition and maximize his profits. He will gladly exploit any tax loophole in order to minimize his expenses. He will put people out of work in order to boost the value of the company stock. His main concern will be getting as much as possible for his products and he will make them only good enough that they can be sold.

Given these approaches and the history of business in America, it is most likely that Sweet Polly’s company will fail. The best she can hope for is being a very, very small fish in a vast corporate ocean. In stark contrast, Bad Bill’s company will swell with profits and grow to be a dominant corporation.

In the real world, Bad Bill’s unjust approach could lead him to a bad end.  However, even in reality the chance is rather slight-provided that Bill is smart and knows how to buy all the right people.

Naturally, more than a story is needed to make the general point that injustice is superior to justice. Fortunately a more formal argument can be provided.

The advantages of injustice are numerous but can be bundled into one general package: flexibility. Being unjust, the unjust person is not limited by the constraints of morality. If she needs to lie to gain an advantage, she can lie freely. If a bribe would serve her purpose, she can bribe. If a bribe would not suffice and someone needs to have a tragic “accident”, then she can see to it that the “accident” occurs. To use an analogy, the unjust person is like a craftsperson that has just the right tool for every occasion. Just as the well equipped craftsperson has a considerable advantage over a less well equipped crafts person, the unjust person has a considerable advantage over those who accept moral limits on their behavior.

It might be objected that the unjust person does face one major limit-she cannot act justly. While she cannot be truly just, she can, when the need arises, act justly-or at least appear to be acting justly. For example, if building an orphanage in Malaysia would serve her purpose better than exploiting those orphans in her sweat shop, then she would be free to build the orphanage. This broader range of options gives her clear edge-she can do everything the just person can do and much more. With her advantage she can easily get the material goods she craves-after all, she can do whatever it takes to get what she wants.

Turning to the real world, an examination of successful business people and other professionals (such as politicians) shows that being unjust is all but essential to being a success. For example, it is no coincidence that Microsoft is not only a top software company but also often regarded as being one of the most unjust. Now I turn to the just person.

If a person, such as Polly, is just then she must accept the limits of justice. To be specific, insofar as she is acting justly she must not engage in unjust acts. Taking an intuitive view of injustice, unjust acts would involve making use of unfair tactics such as lying, deception, bribes, threats and other such methods. Naturally, being just involves more than just not being unjust. After all, being just is like being healthy. Just as health is more than the absence of illness, being just is more than simply not being unjust. The just person would engage in positive behavior in accord with her justice-telling the truth, doing just deeds and so forth. So, the just person faces two major impediments. First, she cannot avail herself of the tools of injustice. This cuts down on her options and thus would limit her chances of material success. Second, she will be expending effort and resources in being just. These efforts and resources could be used instead to acquire material goods. To use an analogy, if success is like a race, then the just person is like someone who will stop or slow down during the race and help others. Obviously a runner who did this would be at a competitive disadvantage and so it follows that the just person would be at a disadvantage in the race of life.

In light of the above arguments it is evident that the life of evil is the preferable life. That is probably why evil is a growth industry and is always hiring.

No doubt,  many people would read this and say: “Hey, that is not being evil! That is just doing what it takes to be a success!” Or, if you happen to be a Cheney fan : “Hey, that is not evil! That is just doing what it takes to stay safe!” But, consider this:  the most seductive evil of all is the evil that people think is not evil at all.

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Why Be Good? II

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy by Michael LaBossiere on May 20, 2009
In Christianity, Satan is considered the being...
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While I am a philosopher, I am also (obviously enough) a person. While it is tempting to look at philosophical problems from a purely abstract vantage point (that of the academic philosopher) it also seems important to look at them as a person.

One problem I have thought about for quite some time is the question of why I should be good. Of course, this does raise the quetsion of what sort of good I should be. But, I’ll set that aside for now and just pretend that I know what good is so I can focus on why I should (or should not) be good.

One way to look at the problem is to see if I have a motivation to be good. Like most people, being harmed by others concerns me and provides some motivation to behave certain ways. So, to avoid being harmed by others I do have a psychological motivation to avoid being bad. Or, more honestly, to avoid being caught.

Of course, this motivation does not really move me. After all, if I accept that I am just good to avoid being punished, then I am motived by fear and that strikes me as a weakness. I would be acting from the motivation of a potential victim and as a pragmatic coward. I would, as Aristotle might say, be ruled by the fear of pain. Staying on the path because I fear that others will whip me like a errant donkey hardly seems like a noble and proper life for a human being. As such, I need a better motivation. Also, honesty compels me to admit that this is also a matter of pride.

I’ve never really tried being truly evil. Really. Of course, if I had, I certainly would not be such a fool as to admit it. But, I have had moral failings. I’ve also done good things. Based on these experiences, I am inclined to agree with Aristotle and Plato: being good is like being healthy-you feel better because you are better. Being bad is like being sick: you feel bad because you are bad. Some of this might be psychological and social conditioning. However, it all cannot be-for in some cases my moral views lead me against what I have been conditioned to accept.

Of course, someone might say that being good because it makes me healthy is just being pragmatic. In a way, that is  a fair charge. The same charge could be leveled against me in regards to physical health: I exercise and try to otherwise take care of myself because doing so makes me fit and healthy. That seems sensible and right. After all, I am choosing what is objectively better for me for the sake of being better. I am choosing what is right because it is right. Or so I hope.

Someone might say that I am just doing what I want to do. However,  I am not just doing what I want to do-I am doing what will actually make me better. To chose what is best because it  is best seems to be a proper choice. Making that choice to avoid being whipped like a donkey is not a proper choice, but an act of fear.

So, what about people who are evil? If they do so because they give in to temptation, then they have not really made a moral choice. They have simply been lured off the path by their weakness. But what about someone who knowingly walks off the path, choosing to be evil? Clearly, they would have made a bad choice (by definition). But, they would be making a choice  and perhaps acting in a way more proper to a human than those who just follow the path out of fear of the whips. These people might be among the most dangerous people of all-they would be hard to deter with punishments or lure with temptations.

But, a clever person might say, do not the people who stay on the path because of the whippings or leave the path due to temptations also make choices? On one hand, the obvious answer is that they do: they chose to be ruled by weakness (cowardice or lust, for example). On the other hand, it could be argued that they are not choosing. Rather, they are being ruled by their weaknesses-it is their fear or desires that drive them on or off the path; not an act of conscious will.

I’m not saying anything original here-just hashing through this problem.

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Why Be Good?

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy by Michael LaBossiere on May 20, 2009

One of the fundamental questions in ethics is “why be good?” This question certainly seems to assume that people need a reason to be good. This would seem to entail that people would prefer not being good. For the most part, philosophers have accepted this assumption and have attempted to give people a reason to be good rather than bad.

The answers given to this question tend to fall into two main camps. The first consists of external motivations to be good. The second consists of internal motivations.

External motivations are, of course, motivations that come from outside the person. The most common of these is the practical answer to the question: be good to avoid being punished. This sort of answer is commonly given in a religious context: people should be good so as to avoid divine punishment (such as hell) and to receive a divine reward (such as heaven). Naturally enough, this motivation need not rest on the divine. After all, people can punish each other.

On the plus side, this answer provides a clear motivation to people. After all, people prefer to avoid being harmed and generally like being rewarded.

On the downside, if someone can (or believes they can) avoid the punishment, then this would not motivate them. Also, if the motivation is based on a religious view, those who do not share that view will not be motivated by this divine threat.

A concern about this motivation is that it is not a moral motivation. Rather, it is a purely pragmatic motivation. It is not based on a commitment to do good but rather a commitment to avoid harm and reap rewards. As such, a person who behaves ethically because of this would seem to be a pragmatic person rather than a good person. After all, if doing evil would enable him to reap rewards and avoid punishment, then he would do evil deeds. This applies, of course, even in the religious context.

Interestingly, those who are good because they believe that God will reward them for being good and send them to hell for being evil are not actually good people. They might do good deeds, but they are not doing these deeds because the deeds are good. Rather, they are doing the deeds because they expect to get a payoff and avoid punishment. If these people are not good, then what are they?

The obvious answer is that they are practical, self-interested and perhaps even selfish. They are not doing what they think is best, but doing what they think is best for them. This is really no different from obeying a tyrant or a gangster out of fear of punishment and hope of reward.

The second camp consists of internal motivations to be good. The usual answer given by philosophers is that doing good will make a person happy. Of course, it might be pointed out that this reason to be good also seems to be self-serving: if a person is good so as to be happy, then her motivation is to be happy. Presumably if being evil made her happier, then she would embrace evil.

The standard counter to this is that happiness depends on being good. For example, Aristotle argued that to be truly happy a person would need to be virtuous.

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