Saturday, August 26, 2006

Epic Themes: good, evil, and the ends of life

A common theme of epic literature (and I'm thinking here of Robert Jordan's Wheel of Time series) is that the "baddies" value their own lives more highly than the "goodies" do. In particular, the hero sometimes appears to see their own life as merely a means to the end of fulfilling the quest (vanquishing evil or whatnot), being willing to sacrifice the former for the latter, whereas villains seek immortality at any price, hence treating life -- or at least their own -- as the supreme end in itself. Do you think these authors are right to valorize the former attitude? Or should we value living for its own sake (though of course not to the exclusion of all else)?

I was reminded of this by an interesting recent post by Peter Levine, on how to respond to the terror risk. Levine writes:

[A]s a nation, we are entitled to care more about the 2,700 killed on 9/11 than about the roughly similar number of deaths to tonsil cancer in 2001. Pure utilitarianism would tell us that 9/11 happened in the past; thus it's irrational to do anything about it, other than to try to prevent a similar disaster in the future. And it's irrational to put resources into preventing a terrorist attack if we could prevent more deaths by putting the same money and energy into seat belts or cancer prevention. However, the attack on 9/11 was a story of hatred against the United States, premeditated murder, acute suffering, and heroic response. Unless we can pay special attention to moving stories, there is no reason to care about life itself.

Is that true? Such a communitarian perspective is a bit foreign to me, though there does seem something attractive about it (which I may explore more in a future post). 

Of course the liberal individualist's response is clear: it is not the role of government to spin moving stories from our lives. Each individual's life is precious in itself, imbued with pre-political interests and meaning, and the role of politics is to advance these pre-existing interests insofar as they're compatible with those of other citizens. A traffic-related death is no less tragic than that of a terrorist's victim. To focus efforts on the latter, merely because we find the story more "moving", is to unethically elevate our aesthetic values above the intrinsic value of the real human lives that are at stake here.

I guess the key dispute is whether our individual lives have such value (qua individual), or whether meaning can only arise out of collective pursuits, or by one's role in a "higher" narrative. What do you think?


  1. My immediate responce is that the activities which give meaning to individual lives are almost always, and perhaps inescapably, reliant on the participation of other people in, and their endorsement of, those activities. But I want to speedily add that the "communities of meaning" that result from this state of things are often quite small, and often a lot smaller than (or else not co-extensive with) the "community of meaning" defined by the citizens of a nation. The meaning I find in playing soccer, for example, is reliant on the existence of 10 or 12 friends who are also interested in the game; and perhaps the meaning that that community derives from that activity is also reliant on the participation of a much wider community in the New Zealand game; and that in turn upon a wider "sphere of meaning." Even a potentially solitary activity, like painting or writing,is (for me at least) reliant for its meaning (at least in part) on my knowledge that there are a large number of other people who perform the same activity. I suppose I can imagine finding meaning in these activities without knowing about those other participants, but it would be a diminished meaning: I would no longer have the feeling that I was one element of the current manifestation of an artistic urge that has been present in human beings for many centuries.
    I hope this is to the point.

  2. In any story about a hero and a baddie you are probably not the hero or the baddie - so being self sacrificing is generally good (as long as it benefits you) and being selfish isn't.

  3. Hi Mike, that sounds plausible enough, though I guess those smaller "communities" are sufficiently pre-political as to be consistent with the liberal individualist/utilitarian view.

  4. I just lost my post that I crafted carefully, this annoys me greatly.

    Anyway, let me try and reconstruct the highlights:

    Since we acknowledge the ability of people to value things independently of others and that this value is underwritten by the various pre-political assumptions we have made, how do we understand subjetive and objective value, particularly as it related to the individual himself and the individual as a social being as the valuer.

    It seems we want to reconcile the two, but I contend that we still don't knkow enough about human nature to completely answer this, if this is possible at all. What then are the positives and negatives associated with viewing human beings as individuals with intrinsic menaing and capable of valuings, and a inidividual similarly understood as a member of an interconnected social whole, namely being human.

  5. It occurs to me that in the preceding post I only post a kind of redundant series of questions.

    What I wanted to say that it is both meaningful that people value things subjectively, and that this is indisputable; on the other hand, I wanted to say that people have to value things objectively, particularly as this value derives froma collective sense, or at least participation in the human experience. I am not sure that these two are incompatible but then neither do they seem wholly subsumable under the other since, the things I care about may not be the things you or some other cares about.

    Beyond that basic understanding, we also need to understand whether values can be coesxistent, and if not then understand how to order them, and so the question turns on priotizing values. On this score, it seems that many subjective values would have to be trumped if we care about equality and fairness; where fairness is irrelevant then it is not clear how we undertsand the value orderings since there is no objective measure of value (after all for many things the value is self-contained and, put crudely, only becomes relevant because we are socially co-existent)


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