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Thread: Breaking Good (can virtue be interesting)

  1. #1
    Merry Christmas Blorg's Avatar
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    Breaking Good (can virtue be interesting)

    http://www.nytimes.com/2015/08/09/bo...ref=books&_r=0

    What do you think?

    But as anyone who has earnestly attempted it will admit, being good is to feel far more at odds with the world than being bad does. It is the cumulation of calculated social compromises, purposeful acts of communion, and meticulous emotional arithmetic. Commonplace wickedness, meanwhile, is seldom the result of anything more devious than inattention to the feelings and realities of other people. Living virtuously is hard. It takes generative intellectual work that is far more interesting than the defensiveness of “being bad.” I would rather consider the challenges that go into a consciously lived life than the inevitably hurtful products of a cruel one.
    In her 1947 book “Gravity and Grace,” Simone Weil wrote: “Imaginary evil is romantic and varied; real evil is gloomy, monotonous, barren, boring. Imaginary good is boring; real good is always new, marvelous, intoxicating.”
    I like this quote too.


    Yes/no?

    edit: deleted meandering nonsense
    Last edited by Blorg; 08-09-2015 at 05:55 PM.
    "Better not to feel too much until the crisis ends—and if it never ends, at least we’ll have suffered a little less, developed a useful dullness...The constant—and very real—fear of being hurt, the fear of death, of intolerable loss, or even of “mere” humiliation, leads each of us, the citizens and prisoners of the conflict, to dampen our own vitality, our emotional and intellectual range, and to cloak ourselves in more and more protective layers until we suffocate." - Toni Morrison

  2. #2
    igKnight Hephaestus's Avatar
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    Superman sucks. Pollyanna's recovery was disappointing.

    Virtue is boring most of the time, and to say common decency is rare is to not understand at least one of the three main concepts you are invoking.

    The reason virtue is boring is because it's predictable. The more virtuous a character, the more predictable they are, and therefore: boring. With a normal person, common events can have dramatic tension. Will they return the wallet they found, with all the money still in it? Will they skim some? Or take it all and destroy the identifying contents and throw the wallet away? But with a paladin, you know what they're going to do, so the only tension is whether or not the wallet's owner will be grateful, or a giant dick and accuse the pally of taking something that they claim is missing. Note: it's the possibility of indecency that gives the story hooks--because it makes conflict.

    A story about someone finding a wallet, returning it, and being rewarded with a home cooked meal is 'nice', but you'll have to work harder to make it interesting. You'll have to rely on slapstick adversity or very interesting dialog, or spice it up with T&A to be satisfying. But if the wallet's owner is cranky old man who can't speak unmercilessly, or if the finder tries to keep the money and the owner is a Bad Man with resources hunting down their wallet and money and whomever found them, well, the former sounds fun already and the latter is pretty much 'No Country for Old Men'.

    This isn't to say that only Bad Things or Bad People are interesting. If you want to make Good Things interesting, you have to make them the result of less than virtuous people doing them. This is why we love Robin Hood: he steals from the wicked to benefit the greater good. When the virtuous act is common criminality, then things are interesting. But that isn't the common case of common Goodness.

    The most interesting variants aren't predicated on "When goodness is unlawful, the righteous will be outlaws", but on subversion and outcome based consideration. The obvious case being Byronic irony where no good deed goes unpunished, and all attempts at virtue result in ruin. But there's a reason such stories aren't that common. It's depressing to see all a person's acts of virtue thwarted by ruinous outcome--and it's more destructive to real goodwill than vicarious villainous thrills. We get vicarious thrills from seeing things we cannot do being done, and one of the ways we can be unable to do something is repression. It's fun to enjoy a fantasy of naughty behavior, less so to bear a conscience after having done it. But seeing goodness continually turned evil gnaws at our inner fears and ultimately seeds the ground for unvirtuous interpretation when real virtuous behavior tastes even a little sour. It's hard enough to stay the course without mythology backing up the urge to quit as sagacious given the consequence.

    "It's a Wonderful Life" is it's most interesting when George stops being virtuous (in a literally self sacrificing way) and sees that his suffering is multiplied as joy and goodness in the world. But if his actions had been truly futile, things would have been very different. Again though, the key is two people of flawed virtue, bringing things to a head. One, a bumbler, the other a crafty angry miser. Without them, there's no story.

    More interesting is to put things the other way round, and have a selfish villain whose every act leads to greater good. It's a comic staple, but it still works and makes for unpredictability. Imagine if in Breaking Bad, things got clearly better over time because of Walter's habit of killing his distributors?

    But my favorite is when someone has a set of seeming vices they adhere to as if they were righteous and their vices virtues, and it pays off dividends in what we'd objectively see as good. They're unpredictable (so long as their beliefs aren't fully known, or if they are flawed in relation to their different belief system) but their outside the box peculiarity results in happy outcomes. Difficult to do well, but great fun if well done. I recommend "The Irresponsible Captain Tylor", an aging anime series, for a good example where this isn't taken to anti-heroics.

    Ultimately, I think we like seeing people who are a little scummy succeed more than we like seeing people who are Good do anything but fail, because slightly scummy is how we are likely to honestly appraise ourselves. We like to see ourselves in our heroes even more than we like to wish we were more like them.
    --Mention of these things is so taboo, they aren't even allowed a name for the prohibition. It is just not done.

  3. #3
    Hasta Siempre Madrigal's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Hephaestus View Post
    Ultimately, I think we like seeing people who are a little scummy succeed more than we like seeing people who are Good do anything but fail, because slightly scummy is how we are likely to honestly appraise ourselves. We like to see ourselves in our heroes even more than we like to wish we were more like them.
    Heh!

    I actually thought about this rather recently when I saw a play about Rosa Luxemburg. I realized that anyone who doesn't understand socialism should never interpret or write the lines of a revolutionary heroine. I thought of everything Rosa Luxemburg should have been in that play, and what an appallingly stupid job they had done, and then I realized... the people I agree with would have made a spotless Rosa with no contradictions except for the external dramas of her time. She would not have had any complexity as a character. It would have been just as insufferable to watch as the total nonesense I had just sat through.

    Dirty Hands by Sartre. That, I liked. Try to find the virtuous one... they all are, or none are. It really got under my skin when I was at the height of my dogmatism. Which I suppose is proof of its genius.
    Everything under heaven is in utter chaos; the situation is excellent. - Mao

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    Member Fragaria's Avatar
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  5. #5
    Member rhinosaur's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Hephaestus View Post
    The reason virtue is boring is because it's predictable.
    With the prevalence of anti- heroes these days it wouldn't surprise me to find an "anti-anti-hero" aka superman pop up in pop culture soon. One who you think will break bad or have a moment of weakness toward the pop definition of anti- heroics, but whose ultimate conflict is purity of action and traditional virtue. Which, ironically, would place him/her at odds with current expectations of heroes.

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    igKnight Hephaestus's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by rhinosaur View Post
    With the prevalence of anti- heroes these days it wouldn't surprise me to find an "anti-anti-hero" aka superman pop up in pop culture soon. One who you think will break bad or have a moment of weakness toward the pop definition of anti- heroics, but whose ultimate conflict is purity of action and traditional virtue. Which, ironically, would place him/her at odds with current expectations of heroes.
    It exists--Captain America.
    --Mention of these things is so taboo, they aren't even allowed a name for the prohibition. It is just not done.

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    If people find someone "virtuous" to be alienating or unlikable, it's probably because their moral code is conflicting with the values of that social circle. They're being virtuous in alignment with their own values, but being anti-social with others. Edward Snowden is an easy example. To the pro-privacy crowd, Edward Snowden is a hero. An ultimate example of a man who gave up everything, family, a great career, love, and even went into exile, to do the virtuous thing. To the US government and Intelligence Community, Edward Snowden is a traitor and an asshole of massive proportions who ruined years of work, potentially put the lives of their friends in jeopardy, and gave information to the enemy.

    That's a zero-sum type example. There is pro-social behavior which helps everyone, sure, but as already discussed, that just tends to be boring. I think the reason we tend to like anti-heroes is because those types are often people that are extremely pro-social. They'll fuck over the other group as long as it benefits their friends. These are people we trust, as long as they're on our side, because we know that their moral code is in our best interest. Someone who is constantly virtuous might either help us or fuck us over, depending on their beliefs. If my friends and I are planning something illegal, we probably won't trust the guy who refuses to pirate movies to come along. He might snitch on us.

  8. #8
    Member Fragaria's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by rhinosaur View Post
    With the prevalence of anti- heroes these days it wouldn't surprise me to find an "anti-anti-hero" aka superman pop up in pop culture soon. One who you think will break bad or have a moment of weakness toward the pop definition of anti- heroics, but whose ultimate conflict is purity of action and traditional virtue. Which, ironically, would place him/her at odds with current expectations of heroes.
    That sounds like Malevolent. I can see a whole fad of Hollywood making sympathetic back-stories of Diseny villains in the next ten years.

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