What Bad Guys Get Right

Recently, I wrote about Writing Villains and Satanic Banality and Bad Guys Who Think They’re the Good Guys. In the latter, I mentioned an annoying habit some writers have where they mangle bad guys thinking that they’re good guys into bad guys actually being good guys. This leaves them with the problem of coming up with who the real bad guy is, and they usually do a bad job at this since the real bad guy’s motivations and actions are (typically) an afterthought. The way I put it, when explaining how the good guy was convinced that another good guy was actually a bad guy, was:

There’s only one way to do this, and Miss Bennet hit upon it in Pride & Prejudice when she was trying to exculpate both Mr. Darcy and Wickham: interested people have misrepresented each to the other. But there is a problem with this. As Elizabeth Bennet observed in reply, if you cannot clear the interested people, one will be obliged to think ill of someone. It is not an accident that in this sort of story the good guy inevitably discovers that he’s actually working for the real bad guys. The only other way out is the way the X-Files took: behind each good guy who seems to be a bad guy is some other apparent bad guy responsible for the deception. Every time you peel the onion, there’s another layer. If one doesn’t go that sort of unsatisfying route—perhaps because one is writing in a book or movie and not a TV story with hundreds of episodes coming down the pike—then what we end up with are villains who had plausibly convinced the good guy that they were good guys who are performing their evil for no real reason. They always want to take over the world because it’s there, or kill off three fourths of the population of the world because by some convoluted logic this would drive the share price of their company up by fifteen percent.

I want to go into a bit more depth on why the bad guy killing three fourths of the world to drive a stock price up by fifteen percent makes no sense despite the thing making a bad guy a bad guy being a fundamental error about what is good. Or, in other words, I want to discuss what it is that bad guys get right. Having them get the things wrong that they would get right is as bad as having them get nothing wrong.

The key to knowing what mistakes a villain will necessarily make and those he would never make comes from knowing which other beliefs about the world the villain will hold at the same time as he is considering his fundamental mistake. I probably need to pause here to explain what I mean.

When a person makes a mistake about the world, they will inevitably believe something else which contradicts that mistake. That is because there is only one completely consistent set of beliefs about the world—the correct ones. But a person who makes a mistake is unlikely to make all of the mistakes required to be completely consistent with that mistake; in general that would involve believing all sorts of weird things, like dogs not existing or trees being a figment of one’s imagination. For those who have not studied logic, there is a problem that immediately arises: anything follows from a contradiction. What this means is that if you believe two contradictory things, you can logically derive, through entirely valid logic, any conclusion that you want. You can, but the thing is: people don’t actually do that.

There are various ways to work around the problem that anything follows from a contradiction (I discuss one of the more common ways in my post Kant’s Version of Knowledge), but they all have the basic feature that the world becomes fractured to the person who believes the contradiction. The fracture lines are the contradictions. On one side of the contradiction, the person believes a fairly consistent set of beliefs which they only apply when that truth value of the contradiction is relevant. On the other side is another fairly consistent set of beliefs, many of which contradict the first one, which are only applied when the other side of the truth value is relevant. It is the selective application of universal worldviews which is how the person avoids having to deal with the contradiction.

Let’s get back to our hypothetical bad guy who would do anything to raise the price of his company’s stock. His fundamental error is that he takes the price of his company’s stock to be a much greater good than it is. When he is worshiping at the altar of the stock market, he sets the value of human life at zero, or close enough to that. So why is killing three fourths of the population off not something this villain would do? Because it would cause the price of his company’s stock to plummet in the long term. When thinking about the exaggerated value of a stock price, the villain would certainly include those things which are consistent with valuing a stock price, and knowledge of what raises and lowers a stock price most certainly are compatible with exaggerating the value of the stock price. No one would worship the price of stock but ignore what actually affects the price of stock. In fact, his worship of stock prices would lead him to know better than most men what makes stock prices go up and what makes them go down.

There are two things that affect the value of stock more than the performance of the individual company. They are, roughly in order of importance:

  1. General demand for stock
  2. Market stability

If three fourths of the population die off, markets will be horrifically unstable. This will push what investors remain away from the stock market and into things with more stability, like gold. But in our apocalyptic scenario, and more to the point, if three fourths of the population of the world die off, there won’t be many people left to buy the stock and most of them will be putting all of their money into surviving the post-apocalypse hellscape, not into stocks, if the stock market were even to survive.

If you were to ask anyone, “would killing three fourths of the population of the world off be good for the price of a stock, any stock?” If they were at all knowledgeable about stocks, they would answer “no”. The more knowledgeable, the faster and more emphatic the answer would come. If you found a man so twisted by over-valuing the price of the stock of a company for which he works, he will answer your question before you’ve even finished asking it, since you are causing him to think about the thing which is to him the most painful in the world—the price of his company’s stock dropping like a rock.

None of this in any way contradicts that, at least when he’s thinking about his true love—stock prices—he would set the value of human life near zero. He might not care whether men live or die, but he would care very much what those worthless men would pay for his stock. Something that kills off a few people, he would not mind at all. Something that kills off enough people to affect the markets, he would not give a hearing to.

Now, to fully consider the nature of the fractured mind that results from moral error, none of this means that the villain would not care about the lives of people he interacts with in ways that do not affect stock prices. When that beloved subject is sufficiently far from his mind—and no one can concentrate on one thing forever—he will, mentally, live in a very different world. He will live in a world in which people have value apart from what they will pay for a stock. He might be quite fond of the person who makes the best smoothies at his favorite juicery. He might be quite fond of his wife, or children, when he is home and not working; he might be a dog lover when he is on vacation. He might be strongly in favor of welfare for the poor, when he gives them a thought, at a party.

None of these things are required, but they are all entirely realistic. I nearly said “consistent,” which they would not be. They would be a highly realistic inconsistency, though.

The final thing required, to understand this mentality, is to understand what happens when conflicts do arise between the two worldviews. What happens is that one will win, but it will very rarely win completely. The victory will look like a subordination of the less dominant worldview to the more dominant worldview. But to understand what this subordination will look like, it’s important to bear in mind that the mistake is real and thus the thing which is regarded with exaggerated value really is regarded as having that value. In our example, the villain really does believe that his company’s stock price is of truly enormous importance, far beyond individual human life. When the world view where the person who makes his favorite smoothie contradicts, such as the person being put out of work by a corporate merger, his love for the smoothie maker will subordinate to the value of the share price. That is, he will make out some way that this suffering has value, and that value given by the increase in share price.

Here, if one was writing this character, some knowledge of how corporations actually work would be quite valuable. Unfortunately, writers (especially Hollywood writers) seem to live in an almost perfect ignorance of the stock market, apart from having heard a few terms and know that stocks are bought and sold. There are only two ways in which the price of a company’s shares actually benefit the company, and only of them actually benefits the company. The first is that the company can raise money by creating new shares to sell (diluting the value of the existing shares, but in theory it being worth it to existing shareholders because the value created exceeds the dilution incurred). The other is that shareholders vote for the board of directors, who pick the CEO and determine his salary, and they have a strong tendency to reward CEOs who drive up stock prices and punish CEOs who let share prices fall. That affects behavior, but it doesn’t actually do the company any good. (There is also the fact that a sufficiently high share price protects a company against a hostile takeover, since no one would have the money to buy the company, but this is not typically very relevant.)

The person who worships the stock price will know that this allows the company to gain funds to expand the business, so he would probably rationalize the smoothie guy’s suffering as being for the greater good by pointing to how the increased efficiency makes more capital available to the corporation to grow and provide its services. The mere fact that growth and increased services are secondary goods to the stock-price-worshiper does not mean that he is unaware of them, and this knowledge will be very useful to him when trying to reconcile his love for the smoothie maker with his greater love for the stock price which was increased by the merger.

In short, when faced with this, he will not say that the smoothie maker’s doesn’t matter, but that his (involuntary) sacrifice is for the greater good, and so the smoothie maker, in accepting his fate, is noble and should be praised. He might even try to help the smoothie maker out, so long as there’s a way he can do it which won’t hurt his company’s share price.

A person worshiping a stock price is a somewhat silly example, though not so silly that it has not been done before in fiction. However that goes, it does serve to show how the villain’s thought process works. And if you ever wondered how Hitler could be a vegetarian who loved dogs and also a mass murderer, this is how. Rest assured, he had theories as to how his mass murder was really, truly, in the end, humanitarian. Villains always do.

These explanations that the villain has of how his villainy is really virtuous will always seem convoluted, but only to outsiders. They will not appear convoluted to the villain himself. They seem natural to the villain because he has learned to live with a fractured mind; to reconcile contradictory worldviews. It only seems convoluted to outsiders because they have not learned this mental agility.

One thought on “What Bad Guys Get Right

  1. Mary

    A truly amazing number of writers can reveal that interested parties can act as diabolical masterminds for no particular reason if that’s what it takes to make the characters on stage flawless

    Liked by 1 person

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