Tuesday, November 10, 2015

The bad-guy dilemmas

When I was a kid, I gave a lot of thought to what it means to be a bad guy.  Every show had at least one, but I couldn't understand how that would be.  After all, doesn't everyone want to be good?  My biggest question was this: do bad guys know they're bad?  If they do, why don't they change and become good?  And if they don't know they're bad, how do I know I'm not one?  Also, how come the good guys always win despite being handicapped by stricter rules?

There are actually a lot of important questions raised by bad guys -- that is, the ethics of fighting.  You want always to be sure you're on the good-guy side.

The first answer I have worked out is that bad guys fall into two categories.  The first are the bad guys who are truly immoral -- they make bad choices that you or I would hopefully never make.  They are accustomed to ignoring their consciences, or they have none, and so they do things which would be considered wrong by any rational moral standard.  Most likely they are aware that other people would consider their actions wrong; but even if so, they probably have some sort of excuse for why they think their actions are necessary.  It's important to remember that evil is never undiluted -- it is quite possible that a bad guy  enjoys mass-murdering innocents and also is devoted to his family.  After all, evil is a lack of goodness, which we can't live without -- to even survive as a human being, we need some level of goodness, or some person with whom we share kindness.  Those who lack that are going to have a hard time being successful even as bad guys.

The other type is "bad guys" who aren't actually bad, just on another team, so to speak.  As kids, we're accustomed to thinking of the New York Yankees as "bad guys," because we want to beat them, but they're not actually bad.  This is intensified by the way humans naturally separate others into in-groups and out-groups.  A fellow nation might have strong in-group morality and be, in general, very admirable, but hate your guts.  In that case it's still reasonable to fight them, because they'll destroy them if you don't, but at the same time they're not really bad in the same way that the first type are bad.

So you could have a situation where you think you're good and the other side is bad, but they think the same about you.  After all, you're trying to destroy them too!  The best moral systems should have ways of preventing this -- in fact, that's a lot of the point of morality, finding ways to make sure we don't spend our time on destroying one another when we could be working together.  This will benefit all of us.  So there are the Just War Theory, the Non-Aggression Principle, and the Roman's rule never to start a war.  However, these seem to be broken often.  No one wants to bind themselves to never fire the first shot, because they want to strike out pre-emptively and gain an advantage.  Or, like the Romans did, they try to make it look like they're fighting a defensive war when they aren't.  If you break these codes, no matter how noble your reasons are otherwise -- guess what, you're the bad guys.

There we see the first Good-Guy Handicap: if you are evil, you don't need to give the other team the benefit of the doubt; but if you're good, you have to give them a chance, which they might take advantage of.  But it's best for everyone if you do it -- it can prevent needless conflicts.  Like all challenging moral decisions, it has the potential to cost you, but it benefits everyone.

The second Good-Guy Handicap is mercy.  According to the superhero code, you can kill your enemy while fighting with him, but when you have him subdued you have to put him in jail instead.  Then the Joker escapes from jail and starts killing again, obviously, which we all could have predicted and boy doesn't it stink to be the good guys?

This is why Catholic morality is finer tuned than the superhero code.  It leaves room for killing someone who won't stop being a danger -- in short, it allows the death penalty.  I'm not a huge believer in it, but the Joker is an obvious exception.  So is Magneto.  But other than those cases, I think the law of mercy is a good thing too.  You don't want to waste the life of someone who might be valuable to your side later.  So you use the amount of force it takes to subdue the person -- it would be foolish not to -- but no more.  It shouldn't be too much of a handicap.

The third Good-Guy Handicap is liberty.  This is important anytime the conflict is fought by teams or nations.  A democratic country isn't quite as efficient at fighting the enemy as a totalitarian one, because some people don't want to fight and are going to have to be forced to do it.  And an anarchist paradise would fare the worst, because there is no method at all to force anyone to defend the nation at all, or even to pay others to.  You can sit comfortably back of the front lines and let other people do it for you, and according to the Non-Aggression Principle, everyone has to let you do it!  This is my main reason for saying that some form of government is always going to be necessary.

But still, it seems like the Rebels are always at a disadvantage against Darth Vader, and England against the Nazis, because they don't have the advantage of total power over their own people.  Surely North Korea puts more of its effort toward its military than South Korea does, so won't North Korea surely win?

Well, it hasn't so far, and there are some good reasons for that.  First is that total power can be as much of a handicap as liberty can -- because you're spending all of your energy forcing your minions to work for you when they don't want to.  You're putting down rebellions left and right.  And second, you never get the heart of people you're forcing to work for you.  The good guys are pouring their all into what they do because they care about what they're fighting for, while the bad guys are slacking off because they don't care, or making nervous mistakes because they're scared of being Force-choked by Vader.

And that's where you see the biggest Good-Guy Advantage: working together.  If you have good morality, you work well with your teammates.  You trust them not to betray you, because you're good guys and you don't lie.  You put your all into the cause, because you're fighting for it voluntarily.  You put yourself in danger to save your captain, because he treats you well and you truly care about him.  Bad guys don't have that.  They never have that.  If they did, they'd be good guys!  And that's why, in books, they're always careful to show our bad guys doing bad things, so that we know they're bad.  It's just that sometimes they don't show the obvious results -- that they will lose because they lack the advantages of morality.

Now, that applies to the truly bad guys.  The other-team type bad guys have all the great morality that we have.  However, it seems that in a case like this, there's a chance for peace.  And that's why we need out-group morality -- that is, a set of moral behaviors for negotiating and respecting the other team, so that they will do the same to us.  We need the Geneva Convention and the laws of war and treaties.  We've reached some great advances in this regard -- at this time in history, the major developed countries of the world are all, if not friendly, at any rate not at war with one another.  It's really important never to treat an other-team enemy like Absolute Evil -- because they really aren't bad and they might come around to your side sometime.  (For instance, bombing Hiroshima was treating the other team like absolute evil -- a huge mistake.)

* * *

Okay, so if this is the way good guys and bad guys work -- why is fiction not more appreciative of these nuances?  It seems that most of the books I read describe the bad guys as at a level of absolute badness that's downright unbelievable.  The bad guys are constantly being gratuitously bad for no reason, and yet this doesn't seem to cost them.  Their minions are often pretty loyal, despite being treated like garbage, and despite busy evenings of torturing kittens, the villain has plenty of time to read up on battle strategy.  And there's no explanation as to why this villain is so bad anyway.  What does he want?

I think that all bad guys need to have a motivation which is believable -- something that they want that's good.  Say, the ancient glory of their nation (requiring, of course, genocide of everybody else) or the triumph of their religion (and conversion by the sword) or perhaps they're overwhelmed by fear and so they're hoping to purchase their safety by conquest.  It's got to be a good enough reason to recruit others to their cause, or else they won't be much of a challenge for the combined power of the good guys to beat.

Second, we need to see from the very beginning that badness is not the equal and opposite of goodness -- it's simply a defect.  Robert Jordan's Wheel of Time series is bugging me about this lately.  The Dark Lord and his minions seem ... kind of good.  I mean, sure, there are random bad bits so that we can believe they're the bad guys, but they cooperate surprisingly well.  The Darkfriends are loyal in part because they have made oaths and keep them.  Also because the Dark Lord offers eternal life, which isn't a bad thing to want.  Meanwhile the good guys can't seem to trust one another -- they're always fighting amongst themselves because they don't know they're on the same side.  That's getting better, now that I'm on book 5, so this isn't a criticism really.  I'm just saying -- it's not believable for badness not to be a handicap, because morality is actually helpful in aiding cooperation.

And third, we need to recognize that in real life, we don't come up against many truly bad guys.  There's the occasional psychopath and even more rarely one who rises to power over others -- your Hitlers and Stalins and so forth.  But in life we are much, much more likely to meet the other-team sort of bad guy.  And if we're trained on a lot of fiction that focuses on absolute evil, we forget how to deal with a garden-variety enemy.

I've been talking to the kids a lot about this lately, because they enjoy a show called DinoTrux.  It's kind of the worst of preschooler television, with annoying music and stupid jokes and so on, but it works pretty well as a moral tale.  Initially all the DinoTrux (trucks in the shape of dinosaurs -- I KNOW)  don't work together and so they live in fear of the bad guy, D-Structs.  A hero character, Ty, gets them to team up, and of course their combined efforts are always enough to beat D-Structs, even after D-Structs gets a henchman whom he constantly bullies.

It's a good jumping-off point to talk about bad guys.  For instance, why doesn't D-Structs ever win?  Because he doesn't have friends to help him.  Why doesn't he have friends?  Because he isn't nice to the other DinoTrux.  What do you think would happen if he tried working together with the others?  They would be nice to him and share their ore with him.  Everyone would have enough and things would be easier if there were no fighting.

We also talk about how the people we meet in real life are not like D-Structs -- they are usually nice people, but maybe scared that we'll be mean to them, so we need to let people know we are friendly.  And if someone is bad, we need to find ways to help them be good, like getting grown-ups involved or staying away from them until they agree to be good.  If we're constantly fighting, we don't accomplish very much.  It's only by working together nicely that we all can get what we need.

These moral lessons are going to be more complicated as the kids grow up, but I do know one thing: I don't want them just watching and reading a bunch of fictional stories and absorbing those moral lessons mindlessly.  We're going to talk things over, compare to real life, and come up with the best moral answers.  Because I want my kids to grow up to be good guys.


SeekingOmniscience said...

I wish there were more stories where the main character (and the reader, who is rooting for the main character) suddenly came to the realization that he / she was actually working for the wrong side. There are almost no stories that have this characteristic, as far as I can tell. Even stories like Ender's Game don't exactly have this realization; just the realization that the other side was okay, and the whole thing was a misunderstanding.

I want to write that, sometime.

Also, I'm very sorry about DinoTrux.

entropy said...

I love this post. You explain it all very well.

Sheila said...

I would argue that Ender really was working for the bad guys. Sure, the fight itself was stupid and a big mistake, but it was definitely morally wrong for them to do what they did.

For another one, have you read Timothy Zahn's Conquerors trilogy? It's really, really good -- the first book from the point of view of the humans, the second from the aliens' perspective, and the third combines both.

And of course there's Avatar. If you like eye candy.

SeekingOmniscience said...

Well, it was wrong for them to do it--but I'm not sure that it would have been wrong, given what they thought about the alien. I.e., if there were a single hive-mind bent on genocide against humans, which killed humans just because, and of which the individual parts were merely the extension of a single consciousness, then it seems like the complete extermination of the single consciousness would be for the same reason that hanging a murderer in the Wild, Wild West is ok.

I did read the Conquerers trilogy! I had forgotten that... that was one of my favorite series in high school. Really enjoyed it a ton. Although it has the same kind of problem Ender does. Ender is about the misunderstanding that occurs because the buggers think that humans cannot possibly be sentient / intelligent beings. And in the Conquerers trilogy, it's a single misunderstanding which occurs because the method that the humans use for communication turns out to hurt the aliens. So there seems to be a misunderstanding of a relatively small number of things--there aren't these enormous walls of politically-convolved interpretation of the opposing side which they have to dig through, which happens in human disagreements.... although, on the other hand, the Conquerers did have to change a bunch of their history. I should go back and reread that.

Avatar... well, I haven't seen it, but I sort of doubt it's going to have the kind of complexity I want.

SeekingOmniscience said...

Also, it only occurred to me years after reading the trilogy that an enormous plotline was an analogy for euthanasia and assisted suicide.

Belfry Bat said...

There's an awful moment in Dr. Zhivago, (... almost the whole thing is awful moments...) after the young doctor has been pressed into service for the Red Army... the unit he's with overpowers a royalist ambush, and only when they get to their beaten enemy line, find the few dozen they've killed are all boys about twelve or thirteen years old.

That might be a case of no good side, though of course anyone who had properly been on the young boys' side would have some moral advantage...


Dr. Who has had a fair sampling of stories where the two "sides" are more-or-less decent, but a few noisy folks on one or both "sides" make trouble. The Hungry Earth (the one actually set in Wales) and its successor come to mind. But maybe those are too simplistic as well?

Sheila said...

That's one of the things I love most about Doctor Who -- it isn't "good guys vs. bad guys," but "how can we fix this situation?" And a lot of times we find that attacking the supposed bad guys would be the absolutely wrong approach, even when they are bad -- take, for instance, The Poison Sky/The Sontaran Strategem, where shooting off nukes is exactly what the enemies want. Yes, it's a bit of a line diagram of morality, being just a TV show, but it does acknowledge the problems of one's own potential to be a bad guy, and how to prevent others from being our enemies when they don't have to be. I consider it excellent moral training for the kids -- although it does have a bit of a copout, that things always turn out well for our heroes, which is not at all a guarantee when you do the right thing.

Did you know that Doctor Who is made by BBC Wales? So I think a lot of the episodes are shot there.

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