Friday, July 03, 2009

Evil or mere justification; thinking about reasons and motivations

One feature of many juvenile arch villains is that they "Wish to destroy the World!" I always wondered why these characters would do such a thing. After all, it sort of renders them rather dead, too. The typical world destrying arch villain never seemed suicidal- on the contrary, they obviously placed a huge value on themselves. The early James Bond arch villains had big plans, but they wanted to do things like contaminate the US gold supply, a la Goldfinger. This would ruin the world economy, and vastly increase Goldfinger's assets in terms of the gold he owned. An implausible plan, but a recognisable motivation. Greed, simply put and driven by megalomania.

An essay on writing, and forgive me if i don't remember the author's name, said that all characters act feeling justified. All characters have a reason for their actions. The eessay went on to point out these reasons didn't have to be, good, reasonable or even rational. The character merely had to believe they had a reason for their actions. I'll compare two real life characters, even though both have been critised and lauded by other for their actions. Mother Theresa devotes her life to the poor. It is true that Christopher Hitchens wrote a highly critical essay, characterising her as a hypocrit. Be that as it may, I will continue assuming that her enunciated mission, to aid the poorest of the poor, stems from a desire to help the weak. She had a reason. Even if it was really a self-serving ploy to get into heaven, she had a reason.

Inn the same way, the 9/11 hijackers didn't set out to commit evil- they argued that the US was so corrupt it was worth terrorising millions of people, and killing themselves and thousands of others. As I noted , such reasons need not be reasonable, or even rational. But irrational hatred of a perceived injustice is a reason.

In fiction, a character may have an enunciated reason. In Robert Ludlum's The Bourne Supremacy, aging super agent Jason Bourne must confront a fictionalised carlos the jackal, loosely based on the real life terrorist/mercenary assasin. Carlos' reason for hunting down and killing Bourne is to prove that he, carlos, is the greatest assasin of all. All though the character has little depth beyond a vaguely portrayed narcissism, he does have a reason, and ludlum hints that that reason arises from motivations Carlos may not even recognise in himself. Through out the story, however, Carlos committs murder and mayhem without remorse. He does not see his actions as evil, but as neccesary or even desirable. The injury he causes are as acceptable to his character as, say, a store clerk making a customer wait while the clerk does a price check. The fact that in the case of the store clerk most people understand the neccessity of price checks, most people are appalled by the brutality and injury caused by terrorists such as the fictional carlos the jackal and the real life terrorists associated with the Al Queda network or any other of a long list of terror organisations.

These characters become unbelievable when they wake and decide to commit atrocities for no other reason than to commit atrocities. But these characters become believable when we read or watch them justifying their greed, for example or their hate. "The US prevented my country from offering me the opportunities I so richly deserve" "My greatness is diminuated by that fraud Bourne". The believability of a well motivated( that is to say one of believable motivation) fictional character suggests in turn that attributing evil as the motivation for a criminal, a terrorist or a wrong doer will lead us to misunderstand the situation.

Failing to understand that much of the support for Al Queda stemmed from a belief within the Muslim world that the USA intended to corrupt and destroy them lead to successful recruiting drives after the ill-advised invasion of Iraq. Recognising that that sentiment was fomented by clerics looking for power and embraced by spoilt young men without opportunities in their often medieval societies(Most of the 9/11 hi jackers were university educated Saudi's, who had not found suitable employment) would have lead to more fruitful security policies.

perhaps more generally, understanding that everyone acts with a reason, good, bad or irrational, we can better examine our own choices, as well as consider our own underlying motivations as well as those of others. This is not to deny responsibility for our actions, but to consider our actions in light of our ethical and practical responsibilities.

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"If I had to choose between betraying my country and betraying my friend, I hope I should have the guts to betray my country."
-E.M. Forster