The Feeling Is Mutual

She is clearly a villain—but there is such a thing as a sympathetic villain, and it's not as if our sympathy is a finite resource. It seems like she's hurting herself most of all, and it's just because of the brain poison she was fed [...] I can imagine how I might have turned out the same way if I had been born a few years earlier and read the wrong things in the wrong order.

/r/SneerClub reader's commentary on the present author

"I can easily imagine being a villain, in a nearby possible world in which my analogue read different books in a different order," is—or should be—a deeply unsettling thought.

In all philosophical strictness, a physicalist universe such as our own isn't going to have some objective morality that all agents are compelled to recognize, but even if there is necessarily some element of subjectivity in that we value sentient life rather than tiling the universe with diamonds, we usually expect morality to at least not be completely arbitrary: we want to argue that a villain is in the wrong because of reasons, rather than simply observing that she has her values, and we have ours, and we label ours "good" and hers "evil" because we're us, even though she places those labels the other way around because she's her.

If good and evil aren't arbitrary, but our understanding of good and evil depends on which books we read in what order, and which books we read in what order does seem like an arbitrary historical contingency, then how do we know our sequence of books led us to actually being in the right, when we would have predictably thought otherwise had we encountered the villain's books instead? How do we break the symmetry?—if the villain is at all smart, she should be asking herself the same question.

And that's how I break the symmetry: by acknowledging it when my counterparts don't. I don't think I have fundamentally different values from those whom I happen to be fighting. I think I happen to know some decision-relevant facts and philosophy that they don't, and I can trace back the causal chain of what I think I know and how I think I know it. They see me as complicit with their oppressors, and mine; I see them as not understanding what I'm trying to do.

I'm trying to construct a map that reflects the territory. If this should entail some risk of self-fulfilling prophecies—if some corner of reality is all twisted up such that any attempt to describe that reality would thereby change it (for the map is part of the territory)—then I want a map of how that process works.

If the one should see this only as service to our oppressors, then I should happily taste the steel of her beautiful weapons, if she could only tell me in sufficient detail how describing me as the villain shortens the length of the message needed to describe her observations. I'm listening.

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