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.

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.

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.

Body in a vat

I recently watched a bit of a documentary describing hypothetical technological possibilities for immortality. It introduced a project someone was working on to completely model a brain in an electronic system, which could be seen as a way of reproducing a person’s self or somesuch in the machine.

When I thought about some of the problems with this idea, it occurred to me that some of them would also appear in the thought experiment of a brain in a vat: someone thinks they are living in the world and interacting with it, but they are really just a brain in a vat being simulated so as to experience an elaborate virtual reality. The idea of immortality by copying your brain is a bit like this scenario, because the only part of the person that is preserved is the brain — not the rest of the body. Well, for the brain in a vat to experience things like a human being, its body would have to be simulated as well, because the brain doesn’t just receive input and give input directly from and to the world without the rest of the body. So really, if you wanted to build such a system, you’d probably want to keep the person’s whole body, kind of like in The Matrix. (Except that in The Matrix, it was obviously thought enough to interface with the brain only, as the people who were unplugged but connected to the Matrix voluntarily only used the one plug at the back of their heads. Still, at least the body was there.)

I suppose this was supposed to be longer, but I don’t see that it needs anything added, as long as I don’t mind it being a fragment.

All in the mind? The argument for idealism in Biocentrism

I reviewed the book Biocentrism: How Life and Consciousness Are the Keys to Understanding theBiocentrism Idealism True Nature of the Universe By Robert Lanza and Bob Berman earlier, and I was rather critical about it. I also promised to look more closely at the argument of the book that “external” reality depends on the mind to exist. Here I will do that, focusing mainly the “philosophical” beginning of the argument and much less on the quantum mechanical part.

The argument is began in chapter 3, “The Sound of a Falling Tree”. Readers familiar with such things may already see where this is going.

“If a tree falls in the forest, and there’s no-one there to hear it, does it make a sound?”

Lanza (he’s the main author and I take the voice of the book to be his) comments that most people will automatically think that of course it does make a sound, but he contends that this is not what science says about the matter. He goes through what he thinks science does say. There’s nothing particularly new here, at least to me. When the tree falls down, it creates disturbances in the air, and these cause our experience of sound if we’re around to hear it. If we’re not, there’s just the disturbances in the air. Continue reading

Review: What Does a Martian Look Like? by Jack Cohen and Ian Stewart

what-does-a-martian-look-likeCreatures… that are born pregnant; with twenty different sexes; that eat their own children; that can survive without water for a quarter of a billion years. Absurd? Not at all.

These are creatures alive on planet Earth. And they show us just how different alien life could be from anything we know.

What does a Martian Look Like? The Science of Extraterrestrial Life (also known in other editions as Evolving the Alien) sets out to do something seemingly impossible: to scientifically describe something we have never seen. The question it asks is what we can know about extraterrestrial life. Of course, we have never found any of that. And yet, Jack Cohen and Ian Stewart also argue against imagining it will be just like life on Earth. Continue reading