Friday, May 9, 2008

An Archvillain's Take On Moral Behavior

I'm opening this with a spoiler warning: if you haven't finished the first season of the anime series Magic Knight Rayearth, or haven't finished the campaign mode of Advance Wars: Days of Ruin, then I would finish those before you read this. I'll be quoting the villains of both from very late in the season and the campaign, and I wouldn't want to ruin anything for anyone.

I'm sure that many of us are familiar with those people that call themselves moral and virtuous. I personally know at least one person that really is one of the most moral people I've ever met. Likewise, I've met people that claim to be righteous or moral. Sometimes they are, but for anyone that would take that title, there are a few major pitfalls to avoid. And ironically enough, it's the villains of most games that bring those pitfalls into the spotlight.

As a side note, one of the anime series that I actually have the complete DVDs for, if the spoiler warning didn't tip you off already, is called Magic Knight Rayearth. For those unfamiliar with the series, Magic Knight Rayearth describes the adventures of three schoolgirls transported to an alternate world of magic and monsters. Their goal is to save that world by defeating the High Priest, Zagato, that kidnapped the princess.

That description makes it sound very clichéd, but it really is a very complicated situation and a very interesting story. One of the key mechanics in this alternate world, called Cephiro, is that the world is a land of the will. A strong will does more for a person than anything else in the world. Magic is powered by convictions and beliefs, and determination literally ensures victory.

One of Zagato's minions was in love with the High Priest. She betrayed everything else, including her former teacher, to fight for Zagato. Near the end of the series, she learned that Zagato was actually in love with the princess. This destroyed her usually calm demeanor, and she lamented that everything she had done was for him. Zagato responded coldly, "No. You fought for yourself. People always fight for themselves. You are no different. It was not for me. If you look, you'll see that you fought for your own heart."

I can hear the righteous of the world yelling, "No, that isn't true! I help others!" Well, yes, maybe. I can hardly deny that some are motivated by the needs of others. But can any of us ever say that we're completely devoted to the needs of others? Can you truly, honestly say that what you want never even enters the picture?

As an example of what I'm trying to say, I'll gladly refer to Magic Knight Rayearth yet again. The three girls that were transported to Cephiro were (understandably) extremely disoriented when they first arrived. Think about it: what would you do if you were standing in a skyscraper's observation deck one moment and falling out of the sky in a strange world the next? I can bet there aren't too many people that would just coolly brush themselves off and accept that they weren't where they came from.

Yet then the problem emerged. When they first came to Cephiro, they didn't question the situation that they were in. They focused on the next goal that they had been given, and didn't stop to question what was happening to them. They were often more concerned with getting back to Tokyo and protecting each other than they were about the world that they were in. And as much as they may have said that they were going to save the princess and save Cephiro and its people, I have to find some serious flaws in their reasoning and their motivations.

Thus does Magic Knight Rayearth illuminate a major pitfall of altruism: when those that are trying to help have other motivations behind it. Helping others to get people to see you and admire you is wrong. If a person helps others merely to be recognized by his friends and associates, then what happens when he no longer needs or wants more time in the limelight? And for those who like happy endings, the protagonists of Magic Knight Rayearth recognized this as well as the first season ended. Throughout the second season, they devoted themselves to actually helping Cephiro, rather than just following instructions. They realized that if they were going to help Cephiro and its people, they needed to focus on, well, helping Cephiro.

It's put best in Advance Wars: Days of Ruin. In that game, the world was devastated by a rain of meteors that nearly meant the end of days. The sun was blocked out for over a year, and the majority of the world's surface was damaged in the fall. The main character of the campaign, Will, tags along with and eventually becomes the commander of a division of troops that remained intact and now focuses on helping as many people as they can. However, the head of a military contractor, Caulder, welcomes the devastation. After all, a world without much organization or government means no restrictions on scientific progress, and no restrictions on experiments that would be kindly called "despicable."

When Will finally reaches Caulder's main base, Caulder mercilessly assaults the basis behind Will's actions. He tells Will, "You have simply been conditioned to accept the values of society. And now you unthinkingly spout those same values to me. Do you not fight? Do you not kill? Is this not for selfish reasons?" And, there is a tiny bit of sense in what he says. After all, who's to say whether one does good things for the people that benefit, or for that sense of righteousness that one gets when one does good things?

Yet Will has a perfect response. Although this isn't the direct response, Will does eventually say, "If those ideas aren't my own? If he conditioned me? Then that's fine. Keep your theories, Caulder. What's important is that I help people. I have no other ambitions. That is what my heart tells me to do, and my heart is my own."

If you're going to be a righteous person, then take the lessons of Magic Knight Rayearth and Advance Wars: Days of Ruin seriously. If you want to help people, don't do so for the accolades you'll get or the rewards that society gives you. Don't do the right thing because you'll be rewarded for it. (Far too often, you won't be.) Don't do the right thing because you have to, whether because you know nothing else (Magic Knight Rayearth) or because someone else would punish you otherwise. Do the right thing because you want to. Do the right thing because it is the right thing.

Huh, I thought this would be about conflict more in general. Oh well. In any case, I mentioned scientific progress when I talked about Advance Wars: Days of Ruin. For my next article, I'm addressing that in more detail, and asking a very hard question: when should we tell the scientists "no more"?


Warty Gobln said...

Nice article, and a very well articulated argument. I only have one problem with it, which I'll outline below.

If I'm out walking one night when I slip and break my leg, do I care if a person helps me to the hospital because they are genuinely concerned with helping people, or because they wanna feel good about themselves? Not particularly, I care about getting my broken leg set. If I'm a poor parent and my child is dying, do I care whether they get the money for treatment from a lot of concerned people who geniunely care, or from a massive drug company wanting good PR? No, I care that my child isn't going to die. If I'm a soldier wounded on the battlefield, and found by the enemy, do I care that they take care of me because they care about me, or because they want their own wounded to be looked after, or because they don't want the stigma of prisoner abuse? Not really, I care that I'm not dying slowly in the middle of a battlefield, or being tortured for information.

See what I'm getting at here? Why a person helps is, at that particular time, only relevant to the person doing the helping, not to the helped. The fundamental reality is that a lot of people need help in the world, and stigmatizing people who help them for selfish reasons only results in them deciding not to do anything, which doesn't exactly strike me as a great solution.

トビアン said...


I do want to bring forward a point to consider-what if people only did the right thing because it was the right thing to do? In a way, if you take away the incentive, society as a whole would could be a lot more, well for a lack of a better term, crappy. I think that a lot of people who do the "right" thing do so because there is an ulterior motive behind it-and I think that is fine. At least they are choosing the "right" action versus the worse action (or inaction, which can be just as bad the wrong action in many cases). I do understand the underlying point of this article, but at the same time I personally think that truly altruistic people are quite a rarity and that any kind of good behavior or actions should be lauded, even if it comes with strings attached. If one is able to find a truly altruistic person in life, or is blessed with having that type of persona, well congratulations. You have found something quite rare in todays society, and you should be commended for it. For everyone else who acts "right" with quiet motives behind it, good for you. At least you are trying, instead of doing the wrong action.

In short, this may seem like a pessimistic view on society, but I do think that purely good people exist. I just think that they are exceptionally rare, and that we should take whatever we can get.

Counterpower said...

And both of you are certainly correct.

I'm still going to stand by my position that the right thing for the wrong reasons isn't as good an outcome, though. Although it is better than doing nothing (or something negative), as you both observed, society as a whole would be much better served by truly altruistic behavior. In the end, the right thing for the wrong reasons is a façade. Not the worst thing in the world, certainly, but it could be better.

The goal here, as I see it, is the Han Solo model. A person that does the right things with strings attached finds out that doing the right things is its own reward after all.