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Tag - philosophy

The Hobbit Life: How The Lord of the Rings Helped Me Become a Better Person

It’s the New Year, and that means everyone is either psyching themselves up to try to make themselves better people, or busy telling everyone they can find that New Year’s Resolutions are pointless.  Sure there is some middle-ground in there somewhere, but it’s pretty slim.  For me, my hope is to become more content with where I am in life, and quit looking to the next step.

One thing that is becoming more and more common in our society is something called “status anxiety.”  Status anxiety is fear of being less-than because others around you have more.  I definitely see this trait in myself, and I am working hard to fix it.  After reading a few books on the subject, I became bored with the droll, nonfiction accounts of status anxiety and began my semiannual reading of The Lord of the Rings.  It’s funny how different mindsets play in to one’s interpretation of what they are reading.  While reading the introduction there exists an almost total antithesis of status anxiety in the story’s lore.  Sometimes the best advice we can find is that found in the stories we love.  I find that pop culture, in general, allows us to explore different ideals with more clarity than most give it credit.

Now, obviously there is a strong sense of epic mythological adventure in The Lord of the Rings – there is a reason that it is one of the most popular fantasy series out there – but I want to look at something a little smaller in scope — both literally and metaphorically.  For today’s article I’d like to look at how the simplistic lifestyle of the Hobbits might help inform us on how better to live our lives, especially in the always-connected, hectic lifestyle in which most of us find ourselves.

“In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit. Not a nasty, dirty, wet hole, filled with the ends of worms and an oozy smell, nor yet a dry, bare, sandy hole with nothing in it to sit down on or to eat: it was a hobbit-hole, and that means comfort.” ~ The Hobbit

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Both The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings center on the adventures of Bilbo and his nephew Frodo, and through these books we can get several glimpses of Hobbit culture.  Outside of a few notable outliers, two of which were just mentioned, the Shire-folk tend to value the simple things — good stories, good food, and good friends top the list — while more adventurous endeavors and loud behavior are generally frowned upon.  Really, besides the Sacksville-Bagginses, we see very little covetous behavior in Hobbit culture.  In fact, it appears that their lack of status anxiety is the key reason Frodo was so resilient to the pull of the One Ring.  Sméagol immediately covets the Ring, going so far as to kill his good friend to obtain it, and then spend the entire story trying to rebooting his precious, where Frodo’s immediate reaction is to reject the Ring and give it to Gandalf.  “The excesses of Hobbits,” David Day notes in Tolkien: a Dictionary, “were limited to dressing in bright colours and consuming six substantial meals a day.”  In fact, it appears that Hobbits that preferred to wealth above all us are generally considered assholes — looking at you, Sacksville-Bagginses.

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“There is more in you of good than you know, child of the kindly West. Some courage and some wisdom, blended in measure. If more of us valued food and cheer and song above hoarded gold, it would be a merrier world.” ~ The Hobbit

There also exists in Tolkien’s tales a sense of technophobia, meaning that the heroes often work in concert with nature, while the villains use more advanced technology to destroy nature and to create twisted versions of natural things; Orcs, for example, are thought to have once been Elves that were twisted into unnatural, evil creatures by Melkor, the villain of The Silmarillion and Sauron’s master.  We see a stark difference between the lively Shire with the fire and destruction of Mordor and Isengard.

Full disclosure, it would be hypocritical of me to say that I am a technophobe – after all, I am writing this on a laptop listening to Pandora on an Xbox One – but in a culture in which we can be continually connected to everything everywhere, maybe we could use a chance to unplug occasionally.  The Hobbits frequently go on long walks, enjoy good books, and like few things more than a good meal, a good beer, and a table of friends.  It’s a running, albeit irritating and ironic, trend on social media to portray society (especially millennials) as completely absorbed in our devices.  I wouldn’t go so far as to say completely absorbed, but I know that I am guilty of checking my News Feed or reading articles when I could be enjoying the company I find myself with.

One of the most pervasive examples of Hobbit culture throughout The Lord of the Rings is that of Mr. Samwise Gamgee (who we’ve already argued is the true hero of The Lord of the Rings).  His loyalty to his friends is the only reason he leaves the Shire, and the whole time he’s gone he looks forward to being home.  Even after seeing the splendor of Rivendell and Lothlórien, Sam dreams of a simple life in the Shire.  This shows that one can appreciate the courage and goodness found in epic stories, even to the point where it stymies one’s own courage to face unexpected fears (like Shelob, spider-child of Ungoliant), but still find the joy in time spent with good food, beer, and friends.

Alexandra & Sean Astin and Sarah & Maisy McLeod as Elanor, Sam, Rosie, & 'Baby Gamgee', Final scene, ROTK. (Sam and Rosie's second child was a male named Frodo)

Alexandra & Sean Astin and Sarah & Maisy McLeod as Elanor, Sam, Rosie, & ‘Baby Gamgee’, Final scene, ROTK. (Sam and Rosie’s second child was a male named Frodo)

The Philosophy of Civil War Part 2: Captain America and Deontology

In Part 1 of this series, we looked at how Tony Stark’s utilitarian outlook allowed him to justify his actions in Marvel’s Civil War.  Today I want to look at a different ethical philosophy called deontology.  The first time we looked at deontology on 4LN we were discussing why Batman does not kill.  Now we will look at how this philosophy shapes Captain America’s actions in the civil war.

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So what is deontology?

Deontology is pretty much the opposite of utilitarianism. This philosophy focuses exclusively on what one ought to do, or what is one’s “duty.” Unlike utilitarianism, deontologists believe the end does not justify the means. They also believe every person has intrinsic value and that it is immoral to use someone as a means to an end. Instead, every person is an end in and of him/herself. Immanuel Kant, a major deontologist, had a list of rules for which one could determine their duty called the Categorical Imperative, which states:

  • Act only according to that maxim by which you can also will that it would become a universal law.
  • Act in such a way that you always treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, never simply as a means, but always at the same time as an end.
  • Every rational being must so act as if he were through his maxim always a legislating member in a universal kingdom of ends.

That’s some dense language so I am going to try to break it down because it really does show why Captain America does what he does. Kant is saying three things.  First, he says that one should live by a code that they think could become a rule for all; then that everyone has intrinsic value and should not be used as a means to an end, but be treated as an end; and finally, that we must all act as if our personal code is a universal law and is also an end in itself.

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Cap sees the SRA as a violation of human rights, and since no person should be used as a means to an end he believes that it is his duty to oppose the bill despite it being law. This is why he refuses to back down despite the fact that his identity is not a secret. In the comics, Spider-Man asks Captain America why he refuses to give up. He responds with the following Mark Twain quote:

Each must for himself alone decide what is right and what is wrong, and which course is patriotic and which isn’t. You cannot shirk this and be a man.  To decide it against your convictions is to be an unqualified and inexcusable traitor, both to yourself and to your country, let men label you as they may.  If you alone of all the nation shall decide one way, and that way be the right way according to your convictions of the right, you have your duty by yourself and by your country. Hold up your head. You have nothing to be ashamed of.

Cap then tells Spidey:

Doesn’t matter what the press says. Doesn’t matter what the politicians or the mobs say. Doesn’t matter if the whole country decides that something wrong is something right.  This nation was founded on one principle above all else: The requirement that we stand up for what we believe, no matter the odds or the consequences. When the mob and the press and the whole world tell you to move, your job is to plant yourself like a tree besides the river of truth, and tell the whole world — No, you move.

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There is not a shred of utilitarian philosophy in those powerful words. That is pure deontological reasoning. He is fighting for what he believes is morally correct based on his moral code. We see this side of Steve during Captain America: the Winter Soldier as well. He thinks Project Insight (an initiative to preemptively neutralize threats before an incident happens) is an affront to human rights, and that the punishment should follow the crime not preempt it.  He tells Nick Fury that he is holding a gun to the head of every citizen and calling it security, then says “This isn’t freedom, this is fear.”

This isn’t to say deontology is flawless.  Like any philosophy, deontology certainly has its sticking points.  However, these flaws don’t present themselves in this particular story, and since this is more of a philosophical overview of Civil War as opposed to a straightforward deontology vs. utilitarianism debate, we won’t go into them in this article (just look up Kant’s Nazi problem and start reading).

Both sides of the Civil War got out of hand. The reasons behind the SRA made sense. Superheroes have incredible power, and the collateral damage they cause can be staggering.  From a utilitarian point of view, the greatest happiness would be a general populace without fear, and that is nearly impossible with the ever-present threat of masked villains and vigilantes with the power to destroy small towns. If people had that kind of power in real life, I am sure almost all of us would want them controlled to some extent.  The problem is how the bill was implemented and the direction it took.  The SRA, and those that supported it, is responsible for the death of some heroes and the indefinite incarceration of many others without trial.  Despite Tony’s arc reactor being in the right place at first, he and his team are the clear villains in the conflict, but that’s not to say Captain America is completely blameless. He did respond to force with force, continuing the escalation of the war.  It’s hard to say if Cap would have ever gone as far had it not been for Tony being the catalyst for an arms race.  In the end though, Steve realizes that, while the law in unjust, it is his responsibility to end the war by turning himself in.  He does this with the hope that the judicial system will realize its error and discontinue the violation of their rights.

Well, there you have it.  I hope you enjoyed this series of articles.  During this two part series, we have seen why Tony was able to justify his use of force while implementing the SRA, and why Steve Rogers felt that it was his duty to oppose the law.  We have seen why Tony’s personality pushed him to go to far in his quest for maximum utility; how Steve uses Kant’s categorical imperative to determine his moral code, and his resoluteness in carrying out what he believes he ought to do despite the odds against him.  I tried to be as unpretentious as possible while presenting these ideas and I hope I succeeded.  What do you think about the conflict between Captain America and Iron Man?  Do you think these philosophies accurately describe them?  Let us know what you think in the comments!

The Philosophy of Civil War Part 1: Tony Stark and Utilitarianism

One thing I have always enjoyed about pop culture is how it can express lofty ideals in unique, accessible ways.  Several books and movies have helped shape my world-view, and several others have at least helped me understand things I otherwise would not have known.  This week I want to take a look at Marvel’s epic crossover event Civil War, and how two opposing ethical views help shape the conflict that arises between Captain America and Iron Man.

Since this post was originally way too long, I decided to break it into two sections so you would actually have time to read it.  In this first section, we will look at how the philosophy of utilitarianism fits in perfectly with Iron Man’s decisions in Civil War.  Tomorrow we will see how Captain America’s deontological outlook colors the decisions he makes.  But first, let’s look at a brief synopsis of Civil War.

Please note: this synopsis does not include any major spoilers.

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Civil War centers on the events surrounding the implementation of the Superhuman Registration Act (SRA). After a group of young, rash superheroes (who happen to star in a reality TV show) attempt to apprehend a group of supervillains goes horribly wrong, and an elementary school is destroyed, public outcry leads the US government to pass a bill requiring all super-powered individuals to register their secret identities and powers with the government and act as a sort of super police force.

The pro-registration side (led by Iron Man) feels that this is a natural progression of things and it is pointless to oppose that level of public uproar. Those who oppose the bill (led by Captain America) think that this is a gross violation of their rights and will take away any chance of them being able to both use their powers for good and allow them to live a normal life/protect their loved ones. The tension between the two groups eventually escalates into full-blown battle as Iron Man’s forces attempt to apprehend those who oppose the SRA, and Captain America and his Secret Avengers are trying to both carry on with their heroic activities and counter Iron Man’s attacks.

As the fight wages on, Iron Man obtains funds from Congress to build a giant prison in the Negative Zone. The purpose of this prison is to indefinitely house those superheroes that refuse to register without trial. This leads to an escalation in the conflict, which in turn leads to a no holds barred fight between the two sides.

Now that we have an extremely brief, mostly spoiler-free synopsis of Civil War I want to look at the two philosophies that I think best represent both sides. By understanding these two different ethical outlooks we might better understand why each side thinks they are making a moral choice. First up: Utilitarianism!

There are several different variations of utilitarianism but generally speaking, utilitarians believe that no action or choice is inherently right or wrong. Instead, what makes a particular action right or wrong is judged by the amount of good (e.g. happiness, pleasure, satisfaction, etc.) it brings to the greatest number of people.   To make it even simpler, the end justifies the means. When we first looked at utilitarianism, we saw how from a purely utilitarian point of view Lando Calrissian’s betrayal of Han Solo could have been considered a just decision. Utilitarianism would also be the ethical philosophy used to justify Tony Stark’s actions in Civil War.

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We see hints at Tony’s utilitarian outlook in the move Avengers: Age of Ultron as well. Tony believes that using artificial intelligence will eventually lead to the greatest amount of good/happiness for the greatest amount of people. He is so set and so focused on this being the moral choice that he ignores the other Avengers and develops the technology in secret ultimately leading to Ultron, an enemy set on eradicating the human race. Obviously, this was an unforeseen consequence, but that’s kind of the thing — it’s impossible to know all of the potential outcomes of a particular decision. Perhaps the real problem of utilitarianism, at least when it comes to Tony and Civil War, is that the calculation of the greatest good for the greatest number is subject to the person working the equation. Tony is a narcissist, which inherently leads to narcissistic utilitarianism, meaning he might not see the greatest good the same way someone with a different starting point would.

The greatest good for the greatest number sounds pretty great in theory, but (like Communism) there are definitely some flaws with this philosophical stance, and these deficiencies are clearly seen in real life and in the story of Civil War. For instance, utilitarianism could be used to justify the slavery of a small group because it could bring happiness and economic stability to a greater number; or it could be used to justify imprisoning superheroes in the Negative Zone without a trial. Both of these actions (especially the one that actually exists in the real world) would be considered wrong by most, but could be justified using a utilitarian point of view.

Now that we have taken a look at Tony’s particular brand of narcissistic utilitarianism, I hope you have a better understanding of why Tony thought what he was doing was necessary in order to maximize utility.  Tony was trying to make right a lot of wrongs and thought that by reining in powerful heroes he could bring happiness and security to the greatest number of people.  If you liked this entry, be sure to come back for part 2 to find out more about deontology and Captain America’s anti-SRA stance!

Philosophy in Comics: The Nihilist Villain.

I have always found myself rooting for the villain. I’m really not sure what that says about me as a person. I’m a college students and taking philosophy/ethics classes, and they pretty much tell me I shouldn’t root for the bad guy, but I really can’t help it. I’m at a stage in my life where I look at things from a Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900) perspective. I see no point in college, I see no point in working 9-5 until you’re 60 and can retire. I see no point in military conflicts, and I see no point in political parties. I understand the need for police, prisons, law and order, but I see no point in limiting the rights of humans. In theory, I agree with Nietzsche, but in a world of super villains it can be a hell of a terrifying thought. I haven’t found a complete nihilist in comics, but I have a few characters who share some traits of a nihilist.

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Lets take a look at one of the most famous chaotic villains, if you know anything about comic books, you know who this is going to be. The Joker. Lets look at how crazy he is, he once tried to copyright fish. You know, the kind that swim in the ocean, lakes or FISH tanks. He had his twisted smile put on these fish and then tried to copyright that. Or another time when he shoots Barbra Gordon in the spine, strips her naked, photographs it, and arguably rapes his helpless victim (now this isn’t shown or discussed, but it is VERY much implied). So when we look at the grand scheme of this brutal attack, Joker does this entirely to prove a point, and that point is that just one bad day can ruin anyone. And his target was to ruin Police Commissioner Jim Gordon. Joker ends up sending Gordon through some sick twisted carnival ride and shows him the images of his naked, beaten, and broken daughter. This is enough to send any man crazy. BUT Joker did not act on a Nihilist playing field, he had a reason and a point. He had something he wanted to prove, but he failed because Jim Gordon wasn’t ruined. (When people tell me Joker is their favorite villain, I just think of him as a rapist, and no rapist deserves any form of flattery. This theory on Joker being a rapist actually causes me to hate him.)

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Let us shy away from Batman because this can easily become a “Lets Look at the psychology/morals of Batman villains” and it seems we all know the majority of them already—one of my favorite villains is actually Sinestro. He’s an angry bitter man. He has gone through the ringer with the Green Lantern Corps, he left and started his own lanterns, the Sinestro Corps all because he is pissed that Hal is such a perfect pretty boy that can’t do wrong in they eyes of the Guardians. I can relate to Sinestro, but he doesn’t act on nihilism, he has a reason to be angry. He has a reason to hate Hal Jordan as well as all other Lanterns. Even when he goes of and starts his own Corps, it doesn’t end well for him and he just keeps becoming more and more angry. In Green Lantern N52, we get a little back-story on what causes Sinestro to become so bitter. Their start with a frustrated Sinestro due to the fact that the ring has chosen him, again, and it wants to redeem Sinestro. Later in the story Sinestro returns to his home world only to have it destroyed by an angry and “evil” Volthoom, the first Lantern. So all of Sinestro’s action in N52 can be brought back to significant reasons for his anger two main ones being, hate and frustration, so there is no way that Sinestro can fall into the Nihilist category.

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Well, how about Edward Blake, also known as The Comedian. In Watchmen we are shown what a terrible person Blake is. The entire story practically is about him, he’s our main character and we are trying to figure out who killed him. I think Blake is our best-represented Nihilist in the comic book world. When he’s in Vietnam fighting with the American military, he knocks up a local woman and ends up shooting and killing her because she is pregnant with his child. He kills her practically because she wants him to stay in Vietnam and remember her country, her people and “Their” child. Comedian sees no point in this so after a little bit of a struggle and broken bottle to his face, he ends up shooting and killing her AND the unborn child. When other characters talk about Blake, they seem to become uncomfortable and some can’t even stand the thought of being around him. Hell, he’s another example of a rapist in the comic medium when he sexually assaults Sally Jupiter.

Comedian

Edward Blake, Comedian, went to war for one reason. To kill. The United States army sponsored him in order to help bring the war to an end. He was on Military salary and his actions suffered no repercussions due to his military involvement. It’s never discussed that he was punished for the murder of a local woman and her unborn child, but knowing the character that Edward is, its not likely that he suffered any discipline. After all, in The Comedians eyes, the world is just a sadistic joke that only he understands. Even in the end when Eddie is murdered, he doesn’t really care. He’s not a nihilist, because he had purpose and he saw purpose, but he’s damn near close to one.

 

So, after a lot of consideration, I cannot think of an ultimate Nihilist Villain (or hero, depending how you view Comedian).  It’s a cool thought, but I think a nihilist villain would be way more terrifying then Joker. A nihilist would see no point in any morals or thoughts. He would act on nothing, and there would be no predictability. His crimes would be atrocious, and I think he would honestly be way to dark to handle. So after all is said and done, villains act n some sort of reasoning or morals. At least, that’s what we want to think…