Moral Philosphy in Books

2015-06-21

An comparison of moral philosophy various books (and series).

What is it that separates good people from evil people? This question shows up in in a number books/series, often with different answers. Here are some I remember:
  1. The Wheel of Time by Robert Jordan: Probably the simplest conception. Evil people serve the Dark One. Good people oppose him. Team Good might be generally nicer, but it would take statistics to know. There are Good people in favor of torture and slavery, and most people on Team Evil just want to live their lives and aren't interested in destroying the world. They only joined up because they thought being part of a secret society would have practical benefits (e.g. political connections). For most of the series, most people just ignore the great conflict (or oppose the heroes for personal reasons), but they all line up with Team Good when the crisis becomes impossible to ignore. As a result, we have monolithic evil verses divided good. Oh, and it is impossible to switch teams. To the best of my memory, no one manages this in the entire series, although a number of Evil people wish they could.

    In hindsight, I think there may be more going on here. After re-reading the series, I have come to suspect that the existance of the Dark One doesn't change the moral balance of the world all that much. Instead, the Darkfriends just recruit the people who are already ruthless, selfish, and power-hungry. We are told at one point that what the Dark One values most in his minions is selfishness.

  2. The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien: Team Evil is sort of treated as non-people. The question of why Sauron is evil and if this could be changed never comes up. His armies and minions are treated almost as extensions of him (one metaphysical theory has the orcs as directly controlled by his will). Opposing him we have the people with moral status, both Good and Evil. The Evil ones (e.g. Gollum, Denothar, Sauroman) act out of madness or simple self-interest, while the Good ones act out of a desire for preserve the world as it was before. Aragorn becomes king of Gondor, but it almost feels like it was forced upon him. Tolkien says he (Aragon) had a complex scheme to achieve just that, but even then, the throne is almost incidental; he wants it because that was the impossible price Elrond had put on Arwen.

  3. The unnamed "Truth" series by Dawn Cook (First Truth, etc.): This one is pretty clear-cut. Good people seek modest goals, such as being with the people they love, developing their abilities, and being accepted into their communities. The risk their lives and positions to protect the innocent and stand up for what they feel is right. The biggest moral debate is whether it is permissible to manipulate people for their own good. On the other hand, the Evil characters (there are only two in the whole series) are selfish and power-hungry. They try to remake the world in their image by sorcery and genocide, all in a complex attempt to prove to themselves that they are better than others.

  4. A Fire Upon the Deep by Victor Vinge: This one is a bit more complex because there are two types of Evil groups. The Blight is a Power (i.e. superhuman AI) that does not recognize organic beings as people (normal for Powers), but acts almost like an automaton. It seems incapable of negotiations or conceiving of any other goal than directly controlling an ever-larger portion of the galaxy. Near the end, the author describes it as "less than a Power" (although it can kill other Powers), but to me it appears to be less than a human as well. We can choose and re-evaluate our goals, but it cannot. On the other hand, there are other Evil groups, like Death-to-Vermin and Steel's Flenserists. Their Evil is composed of taking advantage of circumstances to gain power over others. One of the most telling moments occurs when the heroes grudgingly decide not to reveal something important they have discovered, for fear it would lead to a pogrom.

  5. Ender's Game by Orson Scott Card (the series lacks the unity to evaluate as a group): This story does not divide up well into Good and Evil. Almost all the problems are a result of misunderstandings between various Good factions, most of whom justify their actions as necessary for a semi-noble cause (normally individual or species self-defense). There are occasional references to Evil groups, such as the Russian Federation, but the only Evil character to play a major role is Peter. The interesting thing about Peter is that he inadvertently gives up his Evil: He wants to rule the world, and decides that the only way people will let him do this is if he pretends to be Good, and he winds up an old man before he realizes that he has spent his entire life keeping his position, and never got a chance to be Evil after all.

  6. A Song of Ice and Fire (a.k.a. A Game of Thrones) by George. R. Martin (book version): This one is probably the messiest. All the characters do both good and evil things. For example, Littlefinger the nasty schemer does his best to prevent Westeros falling into civil war, and if Eddard Stark had been willing to go along with him, most of the plot could have been avoided. On the other side, Jon Snow (one of the most upstanding characters in the series) takes a Wildling girl as a lover within a few months of swearing his oath of celibacy. Overall, a Good character here is one who's Good deeds outweigh his Evil ones. Except that if you ever amass too high of a balance, something terrible will happen to you. I have heard it described as "reverse karma", but it can be described just as well with the modern proverb "no good deed ever goes unpunished".

  7. The [original] Chronicles of Thomas Covenant by Stephen Donaldson: A series with very few Evil characters, yet where Evil is the closest to victory. Lord Foul and his three Ravers are irredeemably and unapologetically Evil, and their goals shift from eradicating all hope to ending time. The armies of Evil are largely slaves whose greatest desire is to go home and live in peace, although the motivations of the ur-viles are more complex. On the side of Good, the characters hold themselves to the highest moral standards, and consider inability to be a culpable crime (or at least not a valid excuse for not doing things). The reason for this seems to be the metaphysics of the series, where Evil deeds not only reliably incur stiff karmic penalties, but run a serious risk of shifting metaphysics in Lord Foul's favor (and yes, that include his own Evil deeds). Good deeds do not appear to reverse the shift, although Lord Foul can incur karmic penalties on himself. The real question of what is Good or Evil is mostly explored through Thomas Covenant (the protagonist), who does deeds both Good and Evil. In these books, it is clear that the essence of Good is in the sort of thing you do not do. While an Evil person may seek to kill his enemies, and Good person must do his best to protect them, even if they are actively trying to kill him. That is not to say that he can never kill them, only that it is at best a draw and should be treated as a last resort. To win, you would have to get them to turn to Good. I can't think of a time when this actually works, but it is maintained as an ideal.

I don't have a really point here, although I broadly agree more with the one farther down on the list. Maybe that good fiction has a lot of depth.

There are also a couple other series I should have included here:
  1. The Sword of Truth (books 1-4) by Terry Goodkind, where the characters reliably do not measure up to their moral standards (and admit as much). I don't count the rest of the series because the underlying ideas change significantly between thr 4th and 6th books.

  2. Well World by Jack L. Chalker, which has a 3-way division between Evil, normal people, and Good (always Nathan, sometimes other people). This one was an especially silly to miss because I think these were the books that prompted me to write this essay.

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