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Re. The Dark Knight, AKA Everybody Hates Stage 6 Morality:

Way too much stuff was exploding or being ridiculous during the movie itself so I had to reconstruct what it was trying to do afterwards. Basically, a utilitarian moralist (Batman) came to realize that despite the short term effectiveness of his good-doing efforts they were having a bad effect on others, who couldn't handle utilitarianism conceptually and were reacting to the challenge of seeing it work by stereotyping it harmfully and then acting on those wrongful beliefs.

The important initial examples of how people got it wrong:

1. The copycats: the ends only justify the means if they're reached, and the copycats don't realize they lack the skills to reach the ends Batman, an obsessed kung fu master billionaire with a shattered personal life, can.

2. The mob: used to a justice-based status quo where loopholes or shadow areas created by rigorous application of the law, they were thrown for a loop by Batman, but came to assume his utilitarianism could be subdued by their killing enough people--Batman's undermining the rule of law making them throw out the few rules they played by as well (hence unleashing the Joker). All you have to do to neutralize someone acting for the greatest good of the greatest number, they reasoned, was threaten the worst harm to everybody. Batman would have to capitulate according to his own principles, thereby restoring the rule of law and in turn its protective shadow over organize crime.

The movie refused to go in the direction of Batman simply destroying the mob--which could have led to further reprisals, with surviving mob members just killing anyone they saw or poisoning the water supply or something. All of which may be a bit closer to the actual terrorist/counterterrorist dynamic of recent years (summer blockbusters are getting increasingly terrorism, Iraq & 9/11-obsessed--you'd think escapism would be preferred?), well treated in Munich.

Instead, Batman's rule of never killing is emphasized. Perhaps he's seen Munich, and has adopted this principle of justice for utilitarian reasons. At any rate, the thing that goes wrong with the Mob's plan is that Batman ultimately refuses to give in, and the fire they set to compel him to gets out of their control and threatens their own interests as well (the money-burning scene). He is another misunderstander of Batman:

3. The Joker: feels indebted to Batman for proving that the rule of law doesn't work, but is convinced Batman's way can't hold things together either, and that therefore, since no ethical approach is waterproof, none should be attempted. The Joker speaks of killing as the only way to honestly know them--he feels mass killings will lead to chaos which will lead to fear, which is presumably the reaction of honesty to the truth of the human situation that he wants to see. He breaks people to prove to them that they are breakable and therefore ought to be broken. (This is too close to the Judge: the Nolan brothers owe Cormac McCarthy a lot of money (also William Styron).) His misunderstanding of Batman's utilitarianism consists in his assumption that it has something to do with purity: Batman doesn't have a defined idea of the good so much as a native sense of which direction it's in, and therefore can always fight for more of it (though, as we'll see, Batman accepts that the human imaginative attachment to purity, and the consequent need to banish impurities, is a necessary resource for securing a good society). The people on the boats have no idea what they're doing, but they can't abide the idea of killing people. Morality's basis is a human allergy to evil, which the Joker and the Burmese bandit simply don't have--and therefore apparently are confused and provoked to see others have.

With his no killing rule, they almost get Batman to reveal himself and thus abandon his power. Harvey Dent stops it from happening. Dent is the representative of justice but, exactly like the copycats, sees and envies the effectiveness of Batmanian utilitarianism. The movie insists that only Batman himself, and perhaps his employees like Gordon and whoever Morgan Freeman was playing, has the proper knowledge to work toward the good outside of a framework of principle. When Dent tries to go out of bounds, he's immediately inclined to torture (bad torture, in the movie's terms, i.e. leading someone to think he'd die if he didn't talk, as compared to Batman beating the Joker to a pulp to get information but scrupulously informing him he wouldn't kill him)--and perhaps even to kill. The implication is that no one can actually embody justice consistently--and yet if you're not Batman it's crucial to try, and therefore crucial to believe that someone can (more money for McCarthy, this time for the Cities epilogue?). Batman does his best to keep Dent on the right track--w/ advice, funding etc., but Dent continues to aspire to assessment of utility. He lies about being Batman without knowing all the angles of where that will go. Batman is unable to protect him. Dent survives but loses internal locus of control, assumes the universe is unjust and cannot be fought, his coin becomes emblematic of an essential randomness he feels he must extend and prove to others (eleven dollars owed for No Country now). The Joker desired to create chaos and has done so rather literally.

Ethical drive without an ethical basis drives people mad: into denying the existence or appropriateness of ethical drive, into arbitrary manufactured ethical bases--defending which kills access to logic and undermines or compromises the very impulse toward the good that the manufactured principles were intended to protect. We don't see the dark side of "order" in this movie, except for how its blind spots permit the existence of crime, predominantly because the movie's about what happens when old orders decay. Batman ultimately decides to restore the old one with a lie, by propping up a false, deceased messiah. The audience is supposed to admire him for not caring if he's hated and hunted and not question the various fairly infuriating implications of the nobody-can-take-the-truth message. Batman's setting up a "white knight" who holds to ideals of justice, but is himself being set up as the only human capable of the total altruism and omniscience (his magic magic eyes) required to make utilitarianism viable.

Because the reason thoroughgoing utilitarianism is infuriating is that it has to rebase itself at every point--there are no rules of conduct except those dictated by the situation, which means you always have to understand every situation, or somehow understand how much of each one you don't understand (which would require understanding that portion!). Batman accepts Morgan Freeman's skepticism that even he should pretend to be able to handle that kind of role, which is ultimately why he's trying to pass the torch to Dent, alive or dead. There's also a human cost he's tired of paying. The mastery of every context is only possible if one stops being a person (in comicbookland, and simply doesn't happen outside it).

Why aren't ad hoc guesses and skepticism good enough? Because we're in comicworld here and the stakes are unreasonably high. Evil's flowing in all over. Implication being that that's happening now, as the relentlessly highlighted, if inexact, parallels are intended to suggest. I think my main problem with the idea content here is pretty close to my issue with Pan's Labyrinth. Not everything is wired to explode, and not enough things are exploding to justify our treating everything as though it were, even though we don't know which things are wired--and yes, some are wired.

I should post some of my Julius Caesar essay from a year or two ago. Shakespeare's dazzling with all of this, with more.
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(Got into that last topic because I was considering vegetarianism, not going out and committing murder and/or suicide.)

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Killing is wrong, but why? If pain is why, then painless killing is fine. But the thought of being killed painlessly is not much better than the thought of being killed painfully. Do I not want you to kill me, painlessly, in my sleep tonight because the prospect of being dead so soon is itself a kind of pain? If so, then it isn't wrong for you to kill me painlessly in my sleep so long as I have no inkling that you're going to do it.

I guess the wrong can be in your, the aspiring murderer's, own mind: it proves to you, not intellectually but physically, that such an occurrence is possible, which renders you yourself less secure. And that may be why others object to it: the discovery that this can be done makes the discoverer feel less safe, makes them feel the pain of thorough insecurity. But that's only a problem for those who know about the killing: if the killer successfully keeps the secret and stands to gain enough by my death that her own increased sense of personal fragility is compensated for, then there is, thus far, no objection.

But do I myself object to this? I'm actually not sure--thinking about the act of your killing a me who isn't me is hard. I have a hard time avoiding the different, definitely painful inkling that you're killing the me that is me; and I also feel less secure even pondering the subject, because it makes me overaware of my own fragility: that pain again.

So it might be okay for you to kill me totally painlessly, but it's painful to me to admit the fact--therefore I deny the fact and also dodge the issue. Murder stays in the "wrong" category by a sort of default: to realize it might not be wrong is correct, but the realization is itself a wrong to the realizer. So the issue's not existential, but one of pain. But if we have laws against murder because it induces mortality fears, should we have laws against anything that makes one feel painfully mortal? Is posting this livejournal entry where someone might read it worse than slapping that someone? I guess free speech issues kick in here. And also social issues--a society is composed of individual assenters, and you can't assent to the society if you're dead. The government preserves you because it needs to preserve itself. But mathwise, what's a little leakage here and there? But if certain principles fail, that can lead to a lot of leakage, to positive feedback--and the more things leak, the less secure people feel, and that may make them erratic assenters.

Or am I missing several thousand other obvious dimensions?

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What should others think? What I think. No, what I should think.
What should I think? What others think. No, what others should think.
What should be thought? Good thoughts. No, the best thoughts.
What thoughts are best? The ones that make one happiest. No, the ones that make others happiest. But for other ones than I, I am an other. So, the ones that make all happiest.
How can the thought of one make all happy? By leading to actions that make all happy.
What thoughts lead to actions that make all happy? Persuasive thoughts.
What persuades? Hearing what one wants to hear, or, having heard, is glad to have not missed hearing.
The thoughts that persuade one to make all happy are the thoughts that make one happy.

Here was a schism.

I: Any thought that makes me happy makes me make you happy. I'm thinking about killing you, and you're welcome. (Some trust the I to never say this.)

Me: Any thought that makes me make you happy makes me happy. I will die to suit your whim, and be so gratified. (Some trust that this will not be asked of Me.)
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But of course Clockwork's argument is that you can't remake people. You can control them externally to some extent, you can drive them mad, kill them. But deep change is impossible because we don't understand ourselves well enough; and, were it found possible, it would be undesireable (compared to imprisonment, say) because it maims the human mystery in the subject, at a level comparable to the worst they could have done to the human mystery in their victims. "Every Harlot was a Virgin once/Nor shalt thou ever change Kate into Nan." Burgess makes an effort to see as Kates the rapists who made a wreck of his life. And perhaps he joins Blake in recognizing an innocence in evil itself. "The Son of Morn in weary Night's decline."

Obviously I'm having trouble rationalizing the humanist outlook lately but the alternatives seem to me to make far less sense. One of Wordsworth's best earlier poems, The Old Cumberland Beggar, can't quite find a basis for finding individual human life valuable as such either, but I think it means to. The beggar in question is to be kept out of the workhouse because he binds the community together by awakening sympathy and charitable urges. A bit like Wordsworth's Nature of later poems, he's an unwitting pedagogue. I think Wordsworth argues his social value so pressingly because he doesn't know how to argue his real belief, or anyway real wish: that there's value in and to itself for this infinitely reduced life. Or maybe he's being subtle and showing it, through the man's actions in the awesome opening and closing passages. And the sympathy business...maybe the point there is that the cottagers he passes are awakened out of mere social values and into human ones. Still, I think the poem at least wavers. Resolution and Independence, his famous masterpiece of a few years on, has Wordsworth finding--and conveying--an ultimate consolation in how much remains in the life of another barely subsisting ancient man. But what's left of the earlier man, presumably older still, is perhaps mere motion and sensation and "animal tranquility".

Our sense of what's good in us that isn't itself us, or at any rate that might be outlived by our bodies, seems like a kind of social value, to me; or at any rate seems similarly arbitrary, next to the deeper value, the question of the existence of a deeper value. Political reforms, joys of sport and art, sexual success are all just fuel for a preexisting flame. Or at any rate a "prior" flame, as many nowadays hold that social values light it, that narcissism (or what you will) is taught.

This one is falling through my fingers again. Kafka: "There are questions we could never get over if we were not delivered from them by the operation of nature."
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Teacher's convinced Burgess argues freedom is more important than happiness; I maintain A Clockwork Orange deliberately dodges this argument, perhaps because it doesn't know how to make it, perhaps because it's busy with another (integrity as a precondition of happiness). Teacher usefully hypothesizes an unwritten novel where instead of the "Ludovico technique"--the nightmarish Skinnerian eye stuff from the movie--society reforms the criminal via entirely successful brainwashing, changing his will, giving him new sources of happiness. Don't we still recoil? Yes but can we defend why? Totalitarian systems are hated because they make people unhappy. They're indifferent to all values but social values, and uncaringly byproduce confusion and pain while promoting these. But if one wasn't? Suppose a system knew us well enough and gave enough of a damn about us (if only because it saw our happiness as essential for its own perpetuation) to ensure our private happiness, while still corralling us down its own channels for its own purposes: something like the Grand Inquisitor or Brave New World situations. Maximum apparent happiness, minimal suffering. What's the case against?

Case 1 is that if people are sheep the system must somehow self-correct, and systems don't do that so well: see Kafka's Penal Colony.

But suppose this system somehow knew its business, run by wily Inquisitors or Alpha-plusses who genuinely gave a damn about the flock.

Case 2 is our alleged existential outcry. We're free and must stay free! I.e. freedom is a categorically greater good than happiness, perhaps so much greater that happiness without freedom simply doesn't count. Free, we choose ways to be and goals at the ends of those ways, goals that make us more free rather than merely more happy.

Freedom as force is as problematical as love as force, morality as force, evil as force etc. We don't fully understand the causes and consequences of some set of similarly-behaving phenomena, so we categorize them as intruders into the large set of things we have a hang of, as supernatural. But they of course aren't supernatural, they're groupings of incomplete information. Cutting them off from their source in the world gives up on them, programmatically neglects new information.

So if what we call freedom is just a shadowy corner of the pool, don't its waters interflow with our others? Can't it be subsumed under "happiness", defined as an experienced state worth retaining?

And if it can, is such a state somehow allergic to external definition in principle?

I don't see why. I think the tendency to see freedom as preconditional of true happiness is a recent development; people at large have had enough dealings with "unenlightened" tyrannies, the kind that couldn't care less if they're happy, to know they'd better hang onto all possible freedoms. Practically, as states and religions and ideologies grow large and mad, unfreedom means unhappiness.

I see some problems with this, and feel even more; among which: does this account for all of our profound unease at the idea of being brainwashed into Eden?

Maybe the key here is the break in continuity brainwashing implies. If happiness is just a trait like any other, there's no more reason to drum up more of it than there is to paint smiley faces on every tree and rock face you're acquainted with. It has to be a need, something toward which you will always quest when given scope. Brainwashing sounds like erasing the quest and putting something else where it was, not like completion. The quester is essentially annihilated. Unless we're advanced Buddhists we're going to tend to not want this for own selves. But for others? If we acknowledge any responsibility for them, is their happiness or present integrity (as a new integrity will be found, in this model) more important? Obviously they'll feel the same tummyache we do at the thought of self-loss, but suppose we don't have to let them know what will happen, as we have perfected a method of drugging and kidnapping subjects, then correcting them through manipulation of their dreams. Or does this make them like the rocks and trees? Perhaps sympathy requires wanting for the sympathized-with exactly what one wants for oneself. This might be the real source of anxiety: social responsibility demands maximizing happiness, but we don't bother to be socially responsible unless we sympathize, in which case there is something else in people we want to preserve that can conflict with that happiness, but only because we need them to be like us; a chain exposing an intolerable egoism inside altruism. Or perhaps we could tolerate this just fine, and the disturbance I'm feeling now is a biological defense mechanism, designed to shake the mind back into safe lies when it gets too close to recognizing the paltriness of what we live for, mere extension.
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I'm having trouble with a basic ethical question I thought I'd answered to my satisfaction.

Why should we care about others? Because it rewards us.
What if we feel it does not? It will nonetheless, perhaps indirectly.
What if we find it does not? You will never find that.
But what if? Then you will care about them because you must.
What if we find we must not? You won't because of who you are.
How do you mean? You're what others are, and know it.
We're exactly what they are? No but close enough, you're far more like than unlike.
But isn't it true that similarity is not identity? It is.
Supposing we should value ourselves primarily for what is exclusive to us, such as our first-person qualities, our feeling pain and pleasure directly?

Can't for the life of me remember how I ever tackled that one. Seems like a mortal blow to pure humanism, to a species-wide "we", or any lesser for that matter. One relying on social ties or even empathetic urges proves fragmentary and ephemeral if they too are.

Perhaps the answer is, humanism should be programmed into institutions that serve humans, but not expected of individuals, except as programmed into them in turn by said institutions for their optimal functioning. But is it humane to cram humanity into those it might not make happier? And why should said institutions serve all humans rather than one or some? Because otherwise conflict might be created? But this is just, what, systems analysis. And there are infinite imaginable equilibria, states of no conflict, short of full value-equality of one individual with another in both law and the individual mind.

Notice humanism as I'm defining it is necessary foundation for a lot of other isms, and perhaps for any sane ethical or political enthusiasm.

I think my old answer had something to do with aesthetics, full sympathy with women and men being a more fertile ground for imaginative development than others. But that's not a contagious principle; the only way you could conduct an ethical argument, if you bought that, would be to say, "No, listen, [murderous dictator], you'll be happier and more yourself if you..."

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