below good and evil

November 11, 2008
Something I've been thinking about lately (and I know it's a bit ridiculous to be tackling this kind of profound in a lunchtime blogpost--) is a variant on the old Question of Evil-- I've expressed a belief that hardly anyone is the Bad Guy of their own story.

EB (despite the joking "Evil" part of this site's nickname for him, but I don't think he puts the Evil into EB anymore than I put the jerk into kirkjerk) disagrees. I don't want to try and fully represent his viewpoint here, but I think it's safe to say that he feels people know the difference between Good and Evil and sometimes will choose the latter.

But the important thing to note in my formulation is "their own story". Within a person's value system there are different, sometimes competing priorities -- some with moral weights attached -- and within that system, almost no one will choose "to do evil". However, from a viewpoint outside of that system (including ones that might include moral standards that are well-nigh universal) those priorities and actions might be evil to the point of reprehensible villainy.

(Of course, guilt and self-recrimination exist, and are important tools in bringing our value system into better alignment with the more Universal principles. But they too exist not in "the story" of that moment, but rather a crucial postlude, or perhaps some "sequel" -- out of the "value system" of that moment. So someone might recognize themselves as having done evil, but that is dependent on a sense of continuity of self which most people take for granted but I believe isn't the experiential space we can actually live in.)

This is some of the weirdness of a "postmodern" age. But I think postmodernism, with its hallmark lack of a universal set of standards might just be an inevitable byproduct of a culture realizing that hey, there are other, long-standing cultures around with worldviews around that agree with ours on many points but disagree on many others. (This sense of inevitability of a postmodern-ish outlook, as a result of a kind of birth of metacultural thinking, is postmodernism's view of itself. Metapostmodernism?)

Most traditional religion says that there is indeed a set of universal standards, generally from something "outside the system", often literally supernatural, though in some more recent viewpoints, "merely" transcendent and emergent.

My feeling is you kind of got to play it as a game of statistics and common sense. What do traditions agree on? What makes sense? A kind of enlightened Golden Rule, Do Unto Others As You'd Have Them Do Unto You, but with an enhanced view of the "Tragedy of the Commons". Maybe Kant's Categorical Imperative, "Act only according to that maxim whereby you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law", is a bit more complete.

There is the Utilitarian view that we should maximize happiness for as many people as possible. There's a counterview that argues of course not, because if 3/4 of the people can be really happy at the cost of 1/4 of the people, that's morally unacceptable. But I wonder if that could be tweaked with the addition of a constant, call it "S", for "screw factor", that you multiply the amount of unhappiness a decision would cause. So the formula is
(how much happiness) * (# of happy people) - S * (how much unhappiness) * (# of unhappy people)
See? Simple math. If the value is positive, do it, if negative, refrain.

Quotes of the Moment
There is a right and a wrong in the universe and that distinction is not hard to make.
Mark Waid, in the comic "The Kingdom"
(he's making an homage to a very similar expression by Elliot S! Maggin in the novel "Superman: Last Son of Krypton".)

It is absurd to divide people into good & bad. People are either charming or tedious.
Oscar Wilde.
Whew! Which viewpoint to adopt... personally I think our country gets into trouble when it embraces the first one. One man's evil guerilla terrorist is another's freedom fighter...

Plea of the Moment

--Keith Olbermann with a moving explanation of why California's Prop 8 is just terrible, terrible, terrible. I'd say that Prop 8 IS evil for the reasons he eloquently explains. FoSO is encouraging people to LA Gay + Lesbian Center to overturn this. I was on the fence but after this video I sent $100.
And now I see "Madonna's IQ = 140". That much smarter than Obama, who knew? Thanks annoying Web Ads!
Always feel like a bit of a chump when it seems like every other company has a least the subway's not crowded.
I love all the little streets with names like "Public Alley 438" around my office.
Wow, the Boston Salvation Army has thw red kettles out already? Probably a symptom of the rough times- a lot of food+shelter places taxed.
A big feature on screenshots of both Windows Vista and Google Android is a big old analog clock. That's not just retro, it's meta-retro.
Maybe when I'm trying to use music to focus, it would be better to stick with my smaller "Psyched" playlist; faster, fewer=less distracting?