Friday, June 18, 2010

Moral Differences

Anehara Misa is kind of a hypocrite.

She’s one of the main characters in an anime called Yoku Wakaru Gendai Mahou, and a hacker of nearly matchless ability. You see, the “gendai mahou”, or “modern magic”, of the title is of course computer code-based. How people can “compile” code that manages to do anything from creating swords out of thin air to attracting cats is never explained, unfortunately.

Anyway, near the end of the series Misa either falls into a pathetically obvious trap by the main villain or intentionally triggers it to gain an advantage, I’m still not sure which. In the ensuing confrontation, when Misa reminds the villain that “Stealing is a crime, you know”, he all but laughs in her face, saying “I never thought I’d hear those words coming from you.”

After all, the hackers of fiction are never the “white hat” gainfully employed hackers that are hired by companies to test their computer security. It’s probably overly cruel to tag Misa as a “black hat” style hacker, but considering she did create a botnet out of millions of computers (also, the anime doesn’t exactly realistically depict hacking, either) for her own personal benefit at least once, it just might be justified.

This is when Misa tries to argue that there’s a world of difference between grey and black. To some extent, I suppose she has a point, considering her stated goal is to ensure that malicious computer code doesn’t end up doing damage to society. But I really don’t think that the question here is a difference of kind. Only one of scale.

To be fair, most of Misa’s questionable decisions were made when the other obvious choice can best be summarized as “Tokyo destroyed”. But to the villain, that amount of harm was an acceptable sacrifice to force the world as a whole to recognize the existence of modern magic. Theoretically, that would vastly increase that magic’s prevalence among the people as a whole, giving them the weapons and abilities to vastly improve humankind.

... Personally, I think that justification is utterly ridiculous. But perhaps in the long term, had the villain succeeded, it would have ended up being “worth it” in the end by a purely utilitarian calculus. Certainly, the villain believed that to be the case.

I have very little respect for someone who would so casually write off a city of 35 million people as “acceptable casualties”, but the fact remains that he isn’t doing that for his own personal amusement, or even some clearly defined personal gain. I’m sure Misa felt better about herself to accuse him of “black” morality, but she too was willing to sacrifice lives for what she felt was best, in the end.

So the moral difference isn’t really a major one after all. Both could agree that sometimes, the best result will require the unwilling sacrifice of innocent others. They may disagree on how many lives (one, or millions) can be toyed with, but is that really enough of a difference?

The accusations over such minor differences illustrate just how easy it is to assume superiority. Too easy, in fact, considering people can try to assume superiority (as Misa did) when they might not actually have it. She only missed one thing: you can’t claim the moral high ground unless you actually have it. If you don’t, all you accomplish is making yourself look even worse in the end.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Different Realities

Conventional wisdom holds that this concept of “reality” is a monolithic, unchanging constant: reality for me is no different than reality for anyone else, and the only time the concept of an overarching reality comes up is when it is differentiated from those things that are clearly not real. Such as, you know, video games. Say what you will about the realistic graphics or the actual scientific concepts shown, but it won’t change the obvious fact that Halo is not “reality”.

I have to wonder if that’s actually the case, though. And no, I don’t mean the bit about Halo. But I do have to think that this concept of reality as presented there may not be the way the world actually works.

I’m not going to go so far as to say there are physical alternate realities... but then, there are people that would. After all, what is the Christian afterlife, but two alternate realities separate from the world most of us are familiar with? Advancements in scientific research and exploration have all but proven that a heaven or a hell do not exist in any place we could physically travel to.

Perhaps I stole that from Dungeons and Dragons. I still remember the many different world systems of the D&D campaign settings. The Prime Material Plane was the “real” world as we would call it, and then there were multitudes of other planes, heaven and hell in all the colors of D&D’s oft-maligned alignment system. There were even rules for finding other Material Planes; that paragraph set me to imagining that maybe we were one of those Material Planes, and that the world of Faerûn could actually be found one day.

... Maybe that doesn’t count though. After all, if they do exist, then they would be part of this thing we call “reality”, wouldn’t they? The fact that someone believes they might exist doesn’t make his/her reality different from mine, it just means we have different sets of beliefs. And if those beliefs conflict in an irreconcilable fashion, then in “reality”, one of us has to be wrong. Right?

Well, for one, seeing the world in that fashion is a good way not to make friends. It really matters very little what you believe exists after death: whether a cycle of reincarnation followed eventually by absolutely nothing, or an eternal reward in a paradisiacal realm of God, we can’t know for sure until we die, and perhaps not even then. Trying to “prove” that one is “right” does nothing beyond annoying people, most of the time.

While the debate wasn’t over something as difficult as life after death, perhaps the recently-aired anime Strike Witches can illustrate what I mean. Near the end of the season, the main character was confronted with an enemy that was acting... strangely. And by that, I mean the enemy flyer wasn’t shooting at Yoshika, which was a change from the norm.

I’ll get into what exactly happened a little later. For the moment, the important detail is this: Yoshika became convinced that the enemy could, perhaps, be reasoned with. And over the next episode, she spent her time trying to convince her fellow Strike Witches that maybe they didn’t have to fight them. Unsurprisingly, her squadron mates... disagreed. Angrily, most of the time. All Yoshika really accomplished by pushing her case was pissing off her friends, to be honest. So perhaps it’s better to let different realities coexist.

There’s only one problem. That is very much a different example than the theological disputes I presented earlier. It absolutely matters whether or not an enemy can be reasoned with, because being able to end a war peacefully means not having more people die. So doesn’t it matter which of those differing realities is an accurate picture of the true “reality”?

Actually... maybe not. What actually happened: Yoshika tried to fire on the enemy, found that her safety was on. While she was turning her safety off, the enemy turned into a replica of a Witch and began flying in circles around Yoshika, who chased the enemy “Witch” without trying to fire on it. The enemy revealed its weak point to Yoshika, and Yoshika was about to touch it before the rest of the squadron arrived.

And that’s it. Yoshika was convinced that the enemy was playing with her, not trying to fight. The rest of the Strike Witches were convinced that it was a trap. How do two wildly different pictures of the same events come about?

To put it simply, we all view reality a little bit differently to begin with. There is no such thing as “reality” that is the same for two people; starting with their observations and carrying on through their analyses of those observations, “reality” is colored by those biases and perceptions that we all inevitably carry.

Yoshika didn’t really want to fight in the first place. Sure, she joined the Strike Witches when she learned of her father’s work and felt she had to help protect people, but her first memories of war was the loss of her dad to that war. Many of the other Strike Witches, on the other hand, have personally observed the devastation wrought by the enemy and aren’t inclined to settle for anything less than the eradication of the enemy.

And this isn’t just limited to anime. In the Washington Post today, June 3, 2010, there are letters responding to the recent events in Israel, off the Gaza Strip. A letter arguing that the people of the flotilla that was attacked knew what they were getting into and were attempting to provoke violence is printed right above a letter presenting the flotilla as a peaceful, multinational aid group.

... Different realities. In the real world, it’s all too easy to see what you want to see, painting a picture of reality that supports your biases. I won’t even argue that we should try to avoid that: it’s impossible. All we can do is acknowledge it: “reality” does not exist. I can present what is to me the clear and unvarnished Truth, and someone else can still logically and in good faith disagree with it. Perhaps, then, we need to do less presenting of Truths and more acknowledgement that different realities can exist, even in our world.