Diana’s Naivety in “Wonder Woman” Is Our Own

This post originally appeared on The Latest.

One of the reasons I like the 2017 film “Wonder Woman” is that the protagonist’s struggles to understand the nature of good, evil and humanity reflect a common problem humanity has in understanding itself. Unfortunately, the point may be missed because the character seems much more naïve than we are. Psychologists have shown that we can be similarly naïve in a more subtle way. (Contains mild spoilers.)

At the beginning of Wonder Woman, it’s easy to see Diana, the protagonist, has a very naïve view of humanity. She believes the story that humans were created to be good and were corrupted by Ares, the god of war. When she hears of the horrors of the First World War, she expects that finding and destroying Ares would make it all stop instantly; the people would come back to their senses and stop doing such monstrous things. It’s easy to guess that, whatever the role of Ares may be, she’s in for a rude surprise.

When Diana finally encounters Ares, the Lasso of Truth can’t stop him from saying things about humanity that she finds hard to deny. They are certainly not good beings whose minds were taken over by an evil god. He has given them some ideas, but ultimately, they have chosen for themselves.

Ares believes that humans are destructive creatures who should be purged from the face of the Earth. Diana set out with the belief that humans were inherently good and Ares was the source of evil, but after seeing the truth about humanity, she finds that her way of thinking inevitably leads her to dark places – all too close to Ares for comfort.

Both characters share an underlying assumption: Beings who are good do good things, and only evil beings do evil things. In reality, it’s mostly not about being inherently good or evil, but about being inherently limited.

Diana’s journey prepares her to see both sides of things. She travels with people of the sort she’d consider dishonorable – a spy, a con-man, a sniper, a smuggler – and sees how they’re each trying to get by in a world that leaves little option to be perfectly good. Especially without superpowers.

Cynical as we may be, we have some of the naivety Diana starts out with. In his brilliant and startling book Evil, psychologist Roy Baumeister argues that we have an unrealistic tendency to suppose that, when someone does something that harms us, they must be driven by malicious motives that we ourselves could never share. He calls this the “myth of pure evil”, and it’s also related to the fundamental attribution error and banality of evil.

It’s no wonder, then, that we seek to answer the question of where evil comes from as if it’s an active power. But we don’t need a literal or metaphorical Satan when we have a world full of people with partly conflicting interests, who frequently don’t understand what harms another person or don’t care as much as they should.

Some of the greatest evil stems from the illusion that one is fighting evil, like Ares in the movie, or terrorists who think they’re Luke Skywalker and “enemy” civilians are the Death Star. Even when we don’t actively set out to harm others like that, if we want to avoid ever committing evil ourselves, we must see through the illusion that it’s a force outside of us.

 

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The Strict Imaginary Line Between Humans and (Other) Animals

This post originally appeared on The Latest. See also here for a longer discussion of the same topic.

It seems that humanity is slowly moving towards the collective realization that animals of other species have moral worth – that they are not objects to be treated however we wish. There’s still a long way to go. We may talk the talk, but as long as things like factory farming exist, those words look pretty empty.

It’s unsurprising that philosophers may be found at the forefront of the battle for animal rights, since their job is to question that which is taken for granted. Nevertheless, even philosophers have often reinforced the assumption that “humans” and “animals” are two strictly separated groups.

There are two basic meanings of the word “animal.” There’s one that makes perfect biological sense: “animal” is coextensive with the biological kingdom Animalia. Then there’s the other one, far more commonly used: “animal” means everything in the kingdom Animalia except for humans.

Whichever definition we use, there’s an enormous diversity of differences on every scale among animals. Each difference also tends to appear on a spectrum, so intelligence, for example, ranges from minimal to great through all the steps in between.

In spite of all this, there’s a tendency to make generalizations that leave humans on one side and all other animals on the other. These are not automatically false, since humans do have some unique features (or features that are farther along a spectrum than those of any other animal, as with some kinds of intelligence), but they should be made with caution instead of assuming they are a safe bet. Besides, there are probably other species that also have their own unique features, but we don’t put them on the same kind of pedestal.

Sometimes, when making generalizations about other animals, people will really be talking about humans. Say someone is writing an introduction to an anthropological text and wants to make a point about how it’s part of human nature to think about the past and look forward to the future. They might start this point by saying “Humans, unlike animals…”

Now, since thinking of the past and future is a trait related to high intelligence, it might well be true that humans are rare if not unique among animals to have this trait. But why does an anthropologist with no background in animal psychology potentially falsify their own claim about humans by bringing in other animals? We seem to use non-human animals as a negative mirror reflecting what we think of ourselves.

As far as moral value goes, there are two main schools of thought. One is that a thing has moral value as long as it has interests, is capable of pleasure and pain and so on; if something can be hurt, you shouldn’t hurt it. The other is that for your interests to count, you have to belong to some kind of an exclusive club, usually excluding non-human animals. I think drawing such lines between humans and animals is only a little less monstrous than drawing them between humans.

What Are We Looking for When Looking for Alien Life?

This post originally appeared on The Latest.

How exactly did life emerge here on Earth? Is there life anywhere else? If there is, how common is it? What kind of conditions make life possible at all? Can it only exist on a planet? An Earth-like planet?

We know much about life on Earth as it is now, and quite a few things about its past, so scientists have been able to make many educated guesses about what is possible for life to be like elsewhere. Nevertheless, we’re stuck in a difficult position where we’re missing the most important element for drawing scientific conclusions: empirical observations to test theories against.

So far, we have discovered no life out there in space. Claims of extraterrestrial life forms observed visiting us are, unfortunately, quite implausible; they can only teach us things about human psychology. (To anyone who sees reason to think otherwise, I apologize for making such a strong claim without arguing for it. I obviously have no space here to explain why this is my – and scientists’ – considered view.) All we have is the one case of life on this planet, and even here, we have a very clouded view of how exactly it began.

When looking for exoplanets that might harbor life, it makes sense to look for Earth-like conditions – to start with. We know for sure that such conditions can support life.

Yet, we mustn’t confuse this fact with the idea that life could possibly arise and thrive only in these conditions. The idea that life would have to be exactly as life is here is very interestingly criticized by biologist Jack Cohen and mathematician Ian Stewart in their book about the subject. (See also here for my review of it.)

Life on Earth evolved to thrive in the conditions that exist here. At the same time, it altered those conditions. The abundance of oxygen that allows us to breathe didn’t exist until photosynthesis emerged and that started to free it from carbon dioxide. Perhaps something like this could happen elsewhere, so it makes sense to look for planets with oxygen.

But could life emerge in entirely different kinds of conditions? Life as we know it couldn’t, but we can’t know it’s the only kind of life possible. Life is something that consumes energy to perpetuate itself; perhaps this universal pattern could emerge in something we’d never think of. All it takes for natural selection to develop proto-life into life and simple life into more complex life is the right combination of heritable characteristics, random variability, and non-random selection pressures. In principle, this could be realized by very different physical systems.

Perhaps there could be entirely foreign forms of life existing on a gas giant, or the surface of a neutron star. Of course, at this point, we simply can’t know. Science can never go out on pure extrapolation, and for all that observations show us so far, there might only be life in one place in the universe.

A Very Strange Way of Thinking About Rights

This post originally appeared on The Latest.

There seem to be two ways in which people think about rights.

First, the good way: People have various rights, they’re the same for everyone, and in any given situation, you have to balance off the rights of different people against each other.

Then there’s the other way. It works like this: YOU have rights. So do people whose side you’re on. So whenever you want to do something or stop someone else from doing something, you find the rights that could somehow be seen as supporting whatever you want.

I see this coming up again and again – mostly in American news, but that’s probably just because I read so much of them.

Here’s how it works.

Suppose someone boycotts YOU because you publicly said something they are very opposed to? Censorship! Violation of freedom of speech!

But suppose YOU wanted to stop supporting someone who said something you think was very wrong — but someone told you that you can’t. Might you start getting some thoughts about how it’s your money and you can use it as you please? Or about how you should be allowed to stand up for your principles?

Suppose someone bans YOU from an online platform they’re hosting? Censorship! Violation of freedom of speech!

Now suppose YOU are hosting the online platform, and you want to ban someone for the things they say. Might you start to have some thoughts about how you own the platform and you have the right to decide whom you let use it to gain visibility for their ideas?

There’s been discussion about whether conservative Christians should be allowed to, for example, refuse to provide services for a gay wedding ceremony because it contradicts their beliefs. What if someone used the same law to discriminate against them for being, say, conservative Christians? I doubt someone who feels oppressed by “Happy holidays” would think that’s just fine.

And, of course, whenever it’s your ideological or political opponent doing any of this, we’re heading straight towards a Fascist and/or Communist dictatorship. If it’s someone on your side, then great! About time!

There’s another thing behind this attitude besides self-centeredness. It’s the sense that the opinions you defend are right, and those of your opponents aren’t, and of course, evident truths and dangerous nonsense shouldn’t be treated equally. But outside of scientific or legal questions, we can’t appoint some authority to determine what’s right and then restrict people’s rights based on whether they hold the right opinions. Everyone must have the right to express their opinions, not just those whom you deem to have the right opinions. Everyone must have freedom of religion, not just those who belong to the “right” religion.

Rights are not just an excuse for you to demand that everything go your way. Appealing to rights in this way is a travesty, a form of selfishness and a demand for special treatment, not moral or a case of standing up for yourself.

That’s Enough “World of Warcraft” for Me

This post originally appeared on The Latest. See also here for an earlier, longer take on the same topic.

As soon as I heard what the next expansion for World of Warcraft would be about, I got the feeling my days of playing the MMORPG were finally coming to an end. It was something of a relief, to be honest.

I started playing WoW back when there was only one expansion (The Burning Crusade), and a kind of addiction has kept me coming back for more, though I took at least two extended breaks. Battle for Azeroth will be the seventh expansion.

As an MMORPG, WoW is designed to give its players something to do in perpetuity. It cannot be finished; the best you can do is get to the point where you’re killing time within the game while waiting for the next expansion. There’s something perverse about this – it’s not even a great game, yet it’s fairly successfully designed to become a part of your life indefinitely.

As a game, WoW has a lot of things I like, but it’s also got clear flaws. Its addictive, repetitive gameplay counts as both something I like and a clear flaw. It is fairly clear to me that my wanting to go on playing such a game is an acquired preference (as the term goes, adaptive preference) in a mostly negative sense. I want to do it because I have already started doing it, but I would hardly want such a thing on more objective consideration. It wastes too much time, quite frankly.

I am hardly the only one to have noticed the weirdly addictive nature of this game and others like it.

So what about this next expansion? It’s not that the premise sounds truly terrible. (That would describe Mists of Pandaria, the fourth expansion.) Honestly, it’s more about the currently newest expansion, Legion.

I wrote a blog post when Legion was new about how the story should really end there. Very shortly put, Legion was about a fairly final confrontation between the mortal races and the Burning Legion, the major force of evil in the setting. I wrote that after that, there was no sense in continuing the story with something of less importance.

Yet, it doesn’t end there. Instead, what do we get in the next expansion? The different races start fighting each other, again.

I commend Blizzard for introducing a morally gray conflict in WoW, between the Horde and the Alliance, neither of which is really good or evil. It’s just two similar sides who keep coming into conflict due to a lack of mutual understanding and old prejudice. It’s much healthier, in a way, to show something so realistic rather than these endless stories about how your side is good and the other side is utterly evil.

But enough is enough. The story could have finished on a high note, but instead it drags on forever while we go from saving the world to tearing it apart. For me, this seems like the place to stop.

Of course, there’s still World of Warcraft Classic

What Do Opponents of Assisted Suicide Really Value?

This post originally appeared on The Latest. See also here for a longer discussion of the same topic.

One way to frame the question of whether assisted suicide should be allowed is as a dilemma between individual liberty and dignity on one hand and the value of human life on the other. It can be said that individuals should be allowed to make the decision to end their lives when there is no hope of recovery and perhaps little left for them to expect except pain.

Yet, one could also say that every human life should be valued, no less so if the person is old or sick, and thus it is wrong to end a life.

The terms used on both sides of the dilemma seem more or less universal; it may be a more ‘liberal’ position to advocate the possibility of assisted suicide (within limits, of course) and a more ‘conservative’ one to oppose it, but conservatives recognize the value of liberty and liberals recognize the value of life.

However, I think that this apparent universality is an illusion, and those words really hide behind them the kind of difference in moral thinking that is typical between liberal and conservative mindsets.

This difference was clearly brought out in a study conducted in Finland that in my experience seems to exemplify attitudes found elsewhere as well. As mentioned in the news article about Hawaii I am commenting on, a practical risk of allowing assisted suicide is said to be the risk of people being pressured to use it against their real wishes.

However, in a survey asking laymen about their opinions about assisted suicide, not one of those opposed to it gave any such practical reason. Instead, all of the opponents had a religious perspective and talked about things like the value of human life and only God being allowed to end a life. (Source, in Finnish: “Uskonto ja kuoleminen” by Leila Jylhäkannas, in Uskonnon paikka, eds. Outi Fingerroos, Minna Opas and Teemu Taira.)

This brings up the view that a human life is valuable even if it has no obvious value – or even has a negative value – to the person whose life it is. While just about everyone can agree that a person’s life is of great moral importance, not everyone agrees with this more specific view.

A person’s life, it might be said, is obviously valuable if the person is valuable, because everything good the person can ever experience, anything they can ever accomplish in this life, is dependent on their having that life.

If this is your conception of the value of life, it is natural to accept assisted suicide in the case that the life in question can only contain pain. If, on the other hand, life is to be valued regardless, we are talking about a fundamentally different conception of what’s right.

Such hidden differences can make ethical discussion difficult. The best we can do is to evaluate each argument carefully and make sure it is not hiding something else behind it.