Spider-Man and Philosophy: “My Name Is Peter Parker”

This is another examination of Kantian deontology versus utilitarian consequentialism that does not understand even the basic premise of utilitarian consequentialism. Christ, what is it with these philosophy essays that the basic idea of “judge an action by its outcomes” is so goddamn difficult to grasp?

In this case, the failure is an inability to understand (or acknowledge) human ability to recognize and exploit patterns. Specifically, the argument is made that since consequences are unpredictable, you can’t use them as a guide to making ethical decisions. This is dumb. Just because you cannot flawlessly predict the future doesn’t mean you can’t make educated guesses, and then update your model of reality to account for new evidence when one of your predictions turns out wrong. The heart of consequentialism is not “always do what brings the best consequences,” it’s “do what brings the best consequences to the best of your ability.” Consequentialism doesn’t consider it wrong to ever do something that accidentally leads to poor consequences, rather, consequentialism considers it wrong to give up on predicting consequences because it’s hard.

The essay also uses the comics Civil War to frame this discussion, which is great in general, except we’re specifically talking about Spider-Man, which means this is actually a discussion about One More Day, in which Marvel Satan offers to undo an action that Spider-Man has taken in exchange for dissolving his marriage to Mary Jane. Not the relationship they had, just the legal marriage. The essay tries to frame this as “Peter Parker has to give up the love of his life to reverse the damage to his friends and family caused by unmasking himself,” but what actually happens is that some legal documents were destroyed and in exchange Spidey got his secret identity back. All the actual adventures Spidey had that were in any way affected by his relationship with MJ happened exactly the same, they just happened to not be married. A marriage is just a commitment to behave in a certain manner. If two people behave in that manner anyway without having technically made the commitment, nothing has changed!

But also this essay makes the same mistake that every criticism of utilitiarianism I have ever encountered makes: It uses the consequences of actions to claim that measuring morality by the consequences of actions is wrong. This is self-contradicting! Look at this:

Peter begins to doubt his deontological convictions— obeying the law is usually right, but not always.25 When Peter learns more about Tony’s activities implementing registration—such as the negative zone prison for antiregistration heroes, as well as the windfall profits Tony makes from no-bid contracts to build it—his doubts are confirmed.26 The death of Goliath at the hands of the clone of Thor (“Clor”) that Tony and Hank Pym develop is the last straw. At the funeral for the fallen hero, Reed notices Peter, MJ, and May hunched together and asks Leonard Samson, “Is it just me or is Peter Parker acting very, very suspiciously?”27

Spidey initially thought he was doing the right thing, but then the consequences of his actions convince him otherwise. The side he’s supporting builds a negative zone prison for anti-registration heroes and kills one of their enemies, and this convinces Peter that he’s taken the wrong side. This is consequentialism! Peter changes sides because he re-evaluates his model of reality: He no longer trusts that Tony Stark is doing the right thing.

The essay tries to frame this as Spidey acting with disregard for the consequences of his actions, but it only lists personal consequences: It puts Aunt May and MJ at risk, because the pro-registration side knows who they are and where they live and could have them arrested as accomplices, and since everyone now knows who he is, it would require Peter Parker to pretty much give up being Peter Parker because he’s now an outlaw. But consequentialism isn’t about personal consequences. It’s about all the consequences. This essay delivers an impassioned critique of Randian self-interest and tells us that it’s basically the same as consequentialism and hopes that the reader doesn’t know enough about philosophy to notice – and since this is a pop-philosophy book, they might be right!

A Visit To A Bookstore

I visited a bookstore recently, while wandering the half-dead mall for twenty minutes waiting for a movie to start. It was the same location as a bookstore I had visited as a child and teenager some 10-15 years ago, but that bookstore had closed down, and a new one had since come to replace it. Apparently the interim owners didn’t even take down the shelves, because the shelves themselves were all in the exact same position as I remember, just the self-help books were in the old sci-fi/fantasy section I had always haunted, and sci-fi/fantasy was now closer to the middle rather than the back. I can’t even remember what books used to be in that section, which shows how much impression they left.

But the thing that really stood out to me wasn’t that the position of the shelves hadn’t changed. It was that the books hadn’t changed. Besides being on different shelves, it was basically the same selection as I remember, with an occasional smattering of “newer” titles that were all at least five years old. But mostly the Star Wars section was still stocked with Karen Traviss and Timothy Zahn and a few decrepit leftovers from the WEG roleplaying game, and the fantasy section still had a bunch of old books from the 60s-80s including – and bear in mind this is in a small town in hyper-conservative, “porn is a mental health crisis” Utah – several Gor books. The only thing that had changed is that now the Star Wars and Dragonlance books which had once had that new book stiffness and smell are now nearly as worn as the pastiches from 1978. Turns out once a book is one year old, it will – barring heavy use – remain in about the same condition for decades until it begins to fall apart completely. And also that this bookstore apparently deals exclusively in books from four or five years ago.

Maybe it’s specifically a used bookstore, and they just didn’t advertise that at all?

Spider-Man and Philosophy: What Price Atonement?

The fundamental premise of the first bit of this essay is an exploration of the concept of “infinite debt” in Christian ethics, i.e. the idea that because God created everything, everyone who exists owes everything they have to God, which means every transgression against God cannot ever be repaid because everything was owed to God in the first place. This whole line of argument begs an important question: Why should gifts indebt someone to someone else? And also: Why is the arguer so eager to provide justification for any amount of heinous acts committed in the name of a nominally benevolent God? Someone with a relentlessly transactional approach to morality could reasonably come to the whole “infinite debt” conclusion without propping up authoritarianism in the name of God, but in practice most Christians end up in one of two categories (three, if we count the “I only go on Easter and Christmas” types whose beliefs impact their actions so little that they’re basically atheists anyway): The “what would Jesus do” types who use God as an example to live up to, and the ones who imagine God as their personal attack dog, allowing them to get the last word in every argument by subjecting everyone who makes them angry to a thousand years of torment. If someone starts expounding upon how you are infinitely in God’s debt, it’s pretty good odds you’re talking to the second type.

A related concept is the idea that only God, who did not owe anything to himself, could incarnate and build up goodwill with which to pay the debt on behalf of humanity. This is dumb. If God can repay the debt to himself on behalf of other people, he can also just forgive the debt.

Kierkegaard makes this point, the next section of the essay explains, that it seems weird to ascribe ethics based entirely on accounting to an allegedly omnibenevolent God, that it is utterly bizarre that the Christian God, of all people, should be so stringently opposed to the concept of forgiving debts.

The essay then wanders through a few more ethical frameworks for Christianity: Being a good Christian means helping other people, love one another and all that. But then aren’t we all destined to fail, even if we have the preternatural ability to always choose correctly? Sooner or later we’re gonna have to pick between helping one person and helping another, and then we’ve failed to help someone no matter what we do. Maybe being a good Christian is fulfilling Christian morals, but apparently true selflessness requires suffering and being generous simply because you like helping people doesn’t count for some reason.

But mostly there’s a lot of gobbledygook that’s trying way too hard to be profound. Like this:

Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (1770–1831) called the kind of infinity we are dealing with here a bad infinity (schlechte Unendlichkeit), one that is characterized by everlasting lack, rather like the line that can be extended indefinitely, yet never finds completion anywhere. Against this bad infinite, Hegel set the true infinite, which signifies a fullness of being, of which God as described by Anselm forms the exemplar.11 Such a superior kind of infinity is like the circle, ever complete in itself, and it is toward this sort of fulfillment that we should strive.

Now, in context, this paragraph makes sense. But in context, this paragraph is also irrelevant and can be cut from the essay completely with no consequences. As far as I can tell, Taneli Kukkonen just wanted to talk about lines and circles for a bit. The essay relies a lot on use of metaphor in place of argument, saying X is like Y, and then founding the next two pages of discussion on the assumption that this is true without ever bothering to justify the metaphor. In the end, this essay is terribly concerned with sounding profound and not so concerned with communicating ideas, and the further into its length it goes, the more it disappears up its own ass and comes unmoored from the more salient points being made by the philosophers its quoting. Anselm’s “infinite debt” might be a bad idea, but at least it is an idea, clearly stated.

Kickstarters Are Still Hard

I was able to keep content up while running this latest Kickstarter, and I still plan to keep it going while fulfilling that Kickstarter, but naturally fulfillment of obligations people paid for takes priority over a thing I promised a non-specific audience I’d try to do for free. Getting all the backer content finished is taking a little longer than expected, so I’m prioritizing that in order to keep my deadlines. This might cause the blog to miss some posts over the next week or two, but hopefully won’t cause it to go completely fallow.

Ophiuchus 2: Undercover

When you sorted the namus.gov list by date, April 24th took up eight pages. It was nearly as much as the rest of the database put together. And this was after there’d been nearly a month to sort through all the stray children found in the rubble and shepherded into refugee camps. And to identify bodies.

“Matthew Habashy?” he asked.

“Yes, who is this?” came the voice on the other end of the Tracfone. Before picking one up from Wal-Mart today, Ophiuchus hadn’t even known that cell phones came as cheap as $25.

“I’m calling about the FBSA,” Ophiuchus said.

“I think there’s been a mix-up, this isn’t my work number,” Matthew said.

“I know,” Ophiuchus said. At fbsa.gov, the only numbers listed were general contact numbers, not specific agents. At whitepages.com, you could reliably find the address and phone number of anyone over 30 years old with a name and a city of residence. Now he’d confirmed he worked for the FBSA, Ophiuchus knew he had the right Matthew Habashy.

“Who is this?” Matthew asked.

“I’m looking for missing persons abducted out of Galaxy City by the Hellions,” Ophiuchus said.

“Why didn’t you go through the FBSA?” Matthew asked.

“I’m not a hero,” Ophiuchus said.

Matthew was silent a while. “You still haven’t told me who you are.”

“My name is Ophiuchus,” he said, “and I have an interest in the people the Hellions have been abducting.”

“What kind of an interest?” Matthew asked, “are you with Arachnos?”

“No,” Ophiuchus said, “I’m working independently. I can’t give you any more details than that.”

“I don’t work with, ah, independents,” Matthew said, “you’ll have to get in touch-”

“Do you think Dana will still be there when the FBSA gets around to assigning you a super?” Ophiuchus asked.

Matthew was silent again. Finally he asked “how do you know all this?”

Facebook. “That’s not important,” Ophiuchus said, “what matters is what I don’t know. I don’t know why the Hellions are kidnapping people, and I don’t know where they’re taking them. Until I do, I can’t get any of them back. Do you want Dana back?”

“I do,” Matthew said, “what do you need from me?”

Continue reading “Ophiuchus 2: Undercover”

Spider-Man And Philosophy: Does Peter Parker Have A Good Life?

We’re returning to the Pop Culture and Philosophy series for this one, firmly cementing this series as good standbys to bust out whenever I can’t think of what else to read in time to get a post out. This time we’re looking at Spider-Man and Philosophy, whose first essay is given to us by Neil Musset, returning to us from D&D&P, where he wrote a pretty good examination of the philosophy of the origins of evil that was marred by his insistence that the definition of Chaotic Evil given to him by a guy he knew in high school was and should remain absolutely universal no matter how poorly it matched up not to just one, but to every philosophy of the origin of evil he examined. But really, if you’re going to get either the “Philosophy” or the “Dungeons and Dragons” bit wrong in Dungeons and Dragons and Philosophy, you’re better off messing up the latter to get the former right, so while it is flawed, I still think Neil Musset’s previous essay was a good read. Also, I call it “previous,” but Spider-Man and Philosophy was 2012 and D&D&P was 2014, so we’re actually going back in time here.

Neil Musset is taking the same basic strategy here as with D&D&P, in that he examines multiple different philosophical interpretations of some philosophical subject through the lens of Spider-Man. As the title suggests, our philosophical subject this time is what it means to live a good life, and our lens is whether Peter Parker has one.

Philosopher number one is Paul Kurtz, who believes that the ancient Greek dispute between the hedonists – who believed happiness was pleasure – and the eudaemonists – who believed that happiness was excellence – was missing the point, and happiness is actually having both of those things. But Peter Parker is pretty short in the pleasure department, what with his financial troubles, his romantic troubles, his academic troubles, and so on. On Paul Kurtz’s count, Peter Parker isn’t living a good life.

I don’t know why Ayn Rand was included. She’s not generally well regarded in the philosophical community, anyone with the barest knowledge of her ethics knows that Spider-Man stands in more stark opposition to them than perhaps any other similarly popular character, and while you would still want to include her in an absolutely exhaustive analysis of philosophy, I double checked Wikipedia and it turns out there are more than five philosophers in history.

Epictetus is the most famous of the Stoic school of philosophy, whose fundamental belief regarding happiness is that only you can choose whether or not to be happy. Most people who parrot similar phrases today tend to shut up when you ask them whether they think Holocaust victims were just a bunch of whiners, but Epictetus was a slave taken from his homeland and hobbled in captivity, so while he never saw the industrial horrors of modern atrocity, he’s definitely had a legitimately difficult life and isn’t bullshitting when he says he believes that happiness is always a choice that someone makes for themselves. When he says “happiness is something you can choose to feel,” he doesn’t mean that he shouldn’t be held responsible for his actions because his victims are ultimately responsible for the unhappiness he’s caused them, he means that he reminds himself every day that every pleasant thing he has, right down to his friends and family, could perish tomorrow, and ultimately he will be okay with that. Peter Parker, according to Epictetus, chooses unhappiness by wishing for a stable relationship with Mary Jane, wishing to keep his Aunt May safe, and wishing for academic (and perhaps financial) success.

On the other hand, Epictetus’ tales of stoically enduring having his leg broken in slavery are of unknown veracity (we know he was hobbled, but accounts differ as to how), whereas Viktor Frankl was verifiably a victim of the Holocaust. Viktor Frankl’s theory of happiness is an expansion upon the Nietzschean theory “he who has a why to live can bear almost any how,” a quote that Viktor Frankl was fond of. To Viktor, meaning is the root of happiness. Suffering with meaning is sacrifice, and makes life richer. Spider-Man is undeniably leading a good life according to Viktor Frankl, because he finds meaning in the good he does. If he didn’t, he would stop. There’s no outside force compelling him to keep going, after all. If he wanted to stop being Spider-Man he could. He’s even tried a couple of times, but he can’t stick to it, because using his powers for good is what gives his life meaning. He feels bad if he doesn’t.

Aquinas took Aristotle’s virtue ethics and swapped in medieval Christian virtues for the ancient Greek ones Aristotle used. Given how medieval Christendom worked out for all involved, you might think the result was pretty barbaric, but the virtues enshrined by medieval Christendom were things like “charity” and “humility.” Feudalism was more responsible for how much the middle ages sucked than Christianity (Renaissance Christianity, on the other hand, was so corrupt that 80s movie villains would find the level of cruel decadence to be distastefully gauche). Because Aristotle’s view is that being virtuous is living a good life, and because Peter’s right in line with the specific list of virtues Aquinas supplied to that system, Aquinas would argue that Peter Parker is indeed leading a good life. Also, Neil Mussett does a whole lot of fanboying over Aquinas in this bit, but it’s not so bad that it makes the philosophy impenetrable, so other than being a little distracting, it doesn’t really impact the experience.

Neil Mussett’s formula for these is really effective and a whole book that just relentlessly drove it into the ground would probably turn out better than FFP and D&D&P did, just because there’s enough philosophers and philosophical questions to ask that you could probably pump out fifteen essays in this format without running out of material. Using a fictional character to examine a bunch of different philosophers’ takes on the same basic question is pretty much exactly what these pop philosophy books should be doing.

Heartbreaker Press Interviews Ed Greenwood

Recently I edited together an interview by Heartbreaker Press with Ed Greenwood. I didn’t really contribute any content to this, just edited out all the filler words and stuff, so this falls more into the category of “posting other people’s stuff because I have no ideas for a Friday article” than “recycling my content from elsewhere into the blog,” but it’s still a pretty good interview. I’d listen to it while playing video games if I hadn’t already heard it five times while removing all the silences.

The Immortality Cure Is Mediocre But Also CJ Olsen Isn’t Being Showered In Success For It So Maybe He Will Actually Improve

Part 1: Sauron’s Princess Saves A Cat
Part 2: Immortal Incest Sauron
Part 3: Dinner With Sauron
Part 4: Escape From Megacity One
Part 5: I Guess We Care About Gregor Now
Part 6: Chase After Chase
Part 7: Desert Snakes
Part 8: History Lesson
Part 9: Love Letter 2: Love Harder
Part 10: Cyborg Rebel Commander
Part 11: Immortality Cured

The Immortality Cure is meant to be the first book in a trilogy of duologies, six books total, each duology taking place in a different era of the same world, with only one common character between them, a secret eternal alchemist. So, CJ Olsen really wants to be Brandon Sandersen (who, if you are not aware, supposedly has a single common character present in all of his books, who is some kind of planeswalker that goes under several different aliases).

And you should not read this planned sprawling epic, because its first book is bad and I see little reason to believe the second book will not also be bad. The book has a prefixation with its female lead’s breasts that I put a moratorium on commenting on early on because of how incessant it was, and while that prefixation waxed and waned, it never went away and several of its most egregious examples show up towards the end of the book, so it’s not a habit the book eventually grows out of, either. The main characters experience no meaningful change except the realization that they want to boink each other, which, devoid of any need to overcome character flaws in order to make that relationship work, isn’t at all compelling. There are some motions in the general direction of a character arc, like female lead Charlotte going from scared of heights at the beginning to flying an airship at the end, but despite the narrative’s insistence, Charlotte shows no sign of becoming generally more assertive and self-confident. Getting over her fear of heights isn’t symbolic of character growth, it’s substituted for character growth.

The book has some interesting ideas. Its alchemy system isn’t extremely deep, but there are some cool monsters and its one major rule is actually used in the story in a way that could have been interesting had CJ Olsen not forgotten that main villain Harthum disclosed the most important consequence of that system in his very first onpage appearance clear back in act one, thus rendering the entire investigation into alchemy moot, since our protagonist knew the critical information from the start and the rest was window dressing. Airships are fun, so it’s a shame that we leave ours behind almost as soon as the adventure begins.

But the fact that I can’t even mention the good parts without also mentioning how they don’t really get a chance to shine makes it pretty clear that this book isn’t a mixed bag. There are bits of it that could have been part of another, better book, but the book they’re in is pretty dull, and doesn’t know what to do with these interesting elements, which means they don’t get a chance to improve the narrative much at all.

The Immortal Cure: Immortality Cured

Chapter 24

Alright. Final stretch. I missed a day, but once I get out of this book I think I’ll be good.  I’ll admit that part of my problem here is that I have spent a lot of time playing a perfectly legal non-pirate MMORPG, which is making everything seem less engaging than usual, but also part of the problem is that this is not a very interesting book.

Anyway, Alister has realized he loved Charlotte, because apparently he’s real slow on the uptake with regards to his own emotions, and is trying to help her assassinate Harthum? Or is just trying to track her down so he can tell her that he’s in love with her? It’s really not clear what his actual goal is here, and this mainly just feels like the scene from a romcom where the guy tries to reach the girl and profess his love, except the stakes are so much fucking higher that it all comes across like farce. Like, dude, she’s trying to assassinate an evil overlord. How much do you love her really, that getting her to tick a box in your “do you like me?” note is more important than the fact that she is very probably about to die?

Like, look at this:

As he ran back to the airfield, Alister counted the hours on his hands. Four hours to Callan at full speed plus finding a way into the Eternal’s palace. I’m not going to make it, Alister thought and he picked up speed. A small box tucked away in his jacket pocket bumped against his leg with every stride. Inside was Alister’s mother’s necklace. I have to try, he thought to himself. I’ll never forgive myself if I don’t.

Maybe the idea here is that Alister wants to help her save the world, because it never explicitly contradicts that, but the emphasis on the love present he nearly gave her until he found her letter to Jonathon suggests that no, he just wants to propose. Can’t that wait until after the assassination attempt?

Continue reading “The Immortal Cure: Immortality Cured”

The Failure of Game of Thrones

Let’s be topical for once and talk about why Game of Thrones is bad. Now, Game of Thrones has been bad for like four seasons now, and people have been uneasy about it for years. Almost nobody ever wanted to be the one to stand up and say that this show is going off the rails until right near the end, when it dawned on everyone that there wasn’t enough time left to turn this thing around, but people could’ve seen this coming years away, and many of them did. The showrunners didn’t just roll out of bed and decide to phone in the final few episodes. They’ve demonstrated an obsession with the cliffhanger and the twist to the detriment of character motivation since at least Jon’s death (in fairness, GRRM wrote that scene exactly as poorly, trying to have Jon’s death be sudden and shocking instead of letting the tension build properly). They’ve demonstrated a failure to pay attention to details in troop movement and logistics since at least when Dany showed up in Westeros. In terms of writing, once they ran out of material to adapt they always had exactly one thing going for them: They were good at baiting their audience into thinking this was all going somewhere. Like the writers of Lost, their only merit was their ability to make convincing promises. When the story was wrapping up, they had no ability to deliver.

You can even see what they were going for if you look closely. Drogon avenges Danaerys by destroying the Iron Throne, the obsession with which would’ve killed Dany in any scenario, rather than killing Jon, the guy who happened to do the deed in the specific course of events that actually happened. Drogon (somehow) recognizes that it is feudalism that killed Dany, that she succumbed to it when she tried to claim the Iron Throne, a goal that stands in direct contradiction to her nominal desire to “break the wheel,” and Jon was merely a tool in the hands of the system. If it wasn’t him, it would’ve been someone else. It’s a good metaphor, a really well shot scene, and would’ve been a fantastic ending if only the showrunners had bothered with writing the beginning and middle of that story. Tyrion’s explanations of Dany’s motivations after the fact make sense and could’ve been the basis of a season 8 that was actually good.

The problem is that all of this was kept completely hidden from us until after the scene for which it was vital context. In order to make Dany’s torching of King’s Landing maximally shocking, the writers shut us out of Dany’s head until after it was too late – both too late for the audience to predict what would happen next, and too late to make the scene work. And that former one didn’t even work out well, because once a show becomes sufficiently popular, the internet’s theorycrafters will have any team of writers so thoroughly outnumbered that your only options are either to favor one faction of theorists over another or else to provide an ending that’s so bad that people never entertained the notion, because fans of ongoing art generally agree that the ending is going to be good. If they didn’t, they wouldn’t be fans.