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.

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