PSA: Use Genghis Khan To Avoid Godwin’s Law

Since we live in, as the comedic show Futurama called it, the Stupid Ages, where an astonishing number of people are willing to admit the evil of only truly extraordinary cases, it is very tempting when trying to have a discussion of a moral subject to invoke Adolph Hitler and the Nazi party. Unfortunately, Mike Godwin ruined this by coining Godwin’s Law. If you’re not familiar, Godwin’s Law states:

As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches one.

Godwin claims that he set out to try to reduce the incidence of glib Nazi comparisons, but I think that his main supporters are people who really don’t like the ability to clearly and unambiguously point out an instance of evil. This is a different time and place to when Godwin coined it, but certainly the majority of times I’ve seen it invoked is as a defense against thinking.

It occurred to me recently, though, that Genghis Khan works approximately as well as Hitler for a person who did what is (almost) universally acknowledged to be great evil while he thought that he was doing good. He’s not interchangeable with Hitler in all contexts, but he is in an awful lot of them. Where he is, you will probably save yourself some trouble while trying to stimulate thinking. Since he’s not quite as well known as Hitler, though, I do recommend always mentioning that he raped an awful lot of people. That will insure that people will think of him in the correct frame of mind.

(Note: this way not work as well in Mongolia, but you probably won’t need to do this as much in Mongolia anyway.)

Atheists and Morality

When I was young, I heard a fair amount of argumentation that “atheists can be just as moral as Christians,” and in a very theoretical sense—and neglecting the duty of piety to God which an atheist must necessarily transgress—there is a sense in which this is true. As time has proven, though, it’s an irrelevant sense.

There are two possible meanings to “atheists can be just as moral”, though they end up in the same place. The first meaning is that an atheist can, through practice and effort, form virtuous habits according to whatever theory of morality he holds, and continue in these virtuous habits all the days of his life. This is true, especially for people who become atheists as adults, since adults tend to be fixed in their habits relative to children. Habits formed in youth are, certainly, possible to keep even if the reason for them has been rejected. It is not easy for such an atheist, since the continuation of his habits will have only the support of his prejudices and not of his intellect, but it is certainly doable. At least so long as he doesn’t face temptation. Upper middle class bachelors, with cheap hobbies, few wants, and no family obligations, will in fact tend to be harmless until they return to dust.

This misses is that there is more to morality than simply being harmless, or even than simply being “a productive member of society”. These are fine things, but human beings were made for greatness, not for being somewhat more convenient to their neighbors than absolutely nothing would be. It doesn’t really matter, anyway, because of the second possible meaning.

The second possible meaning of “atheists can be just as moral” is that they can be just as moral, according to their own moral standards. If this sounds good to you, consider that Genghis Khan thought that pillaging, raping, and murdering were heroic actions and that he was a really great guy for doing them. Being moral according to your own moral standards—assuming you’ve done your best to ensure your moral standards are correct—may possibly be sufficient to make you saveable by the salvific power of Christ on the cross atoning for the sins of the world, but it doesn’t mean that you aren’t being immoral according to the correct moral standards.

To say that an atheist can follow his own moral standards is, in fact, to say that he is liable to be immoral precisely to the degree in which his standards differ from real morality. It is no answer to say that he will approve of himself while he fornicates, adulterates marriages, and murders. It is no answer to say that he will only murder the people he believes it’s perfectly fine to murder, or that he will only murder people he declares aren’t human beings before he murders them. Approving of his evil actions doesn’t make him less wrong, it makes him more wrong.

When the famous enlightenment philosopher said, “there is no God, but don’t tell that to the servants or they will steal the silver,” it is no answer to say, “perhaps, but they will not think that it’s wrong to steal the silver while they steal it.”

This does bring up something of a side-note, which is sometimes talked about in this context: people who believe that God sees everything and punishes wrongdoing in the afterlife are more likely to think that they cannot get away with a moral transgression than are people who think that no one will catch them now or later. There is something to this, since the feeling that someone will know what you do is a support to doing the right thing. This is not the entirety of morality, however. People can habituate themselves to virtue such that they do not need this support in order to do the right thing, i.e. so that they can do the right thing even if they don’t believe anyone will know, merely because it is the right thing to do. Which brings us back to this second point: that does no good if the person’s theory of right and wrong is wrong.

If someone’s theory of right and wrong is wrong, he will not just do wrong (that he approves of) when no one is looking, he will also do wrong when everyone is looking.

Many atheists of the late 1800s and early 1900s took great offense at the idea that an atheist could not recognize moral standards. All people know right from wrong, they indignantly said. That modern atheists are busy villifying those older atheists for not living up to the different moral standards of modern atheists tells you what you need to know about this silly claim.

In the end, it doesn’t matter whether atheists can, through effort and practice, create virtuous habits and stick to them even if no one is looking, until the day they die. History tells us, if common sense didn’t already, that they will alter their moral standards before then. Once that happens, it’s only a matter of time and temptation before they form new habits accordingly.

Murder, She Wrote & Stereotypes

Murder, She Wrote has been accused of being formulaic, sometimes in very funny ways, but that’s not really true unless you construe the formula so generally that a show with a genre must be formulaic. (On that subject, you might want to read Writing Formulas and Formulaic Writing and In-Genre Fiction is Dull Outside of It.)

What people are really referring to is that Murder, She Wrote generally used very clichéd characters. Writers, businessmen, police detectives, lawyers, real-estate agents—these were all variants on the standard cliché of them. Businessmen did business and they cared about numbers and money, especially if the numbers represented money. Real estate agents were always desperate to make sales, no matter what. TV actors were always full of themselves and demanding. (When I say “always” what I really mean is “almost always.) There was a reason for this, though.

Once you subtract out the commercials, an episode of Murder, She Wrote were approximately 45 minutes long (once you subtract the coming attractions, intro sequence, and closing credits). That’s not a long time to tell a complicated story, and if—as I’ve done recently writing episode reviews—you pay close attention to how many plot elements there are in a typical episode, you’ll discover that they’re actually quite densely packed. Once I started describing and analyzing all of the plot elements, it started taking me about a week to review one. This comes from the need to establish why Jessica is present, to give several people plausible motives, to do some basic investigation to uncover clues, and to throw in a red herring or two. Once you consider how much needs to be done, it becomes clear that there just wasn’t much time for characterization.

The characters in Murder, She Wrote were not, in the main, clichés because the writers had no creativity. I don’t want to oversell this; the writers were TV writers. They churned product out on a tight schedule and were not, for the most part, brilliant people. However, they did tend to flavor their characters in creative ways, if sparingly. What they were really doing was using clichéd characters in order to save time. We’ve all seen the characters they’re referring to a hundred times, generally more developed in those other places. Even if not more developed in those other places, a hundred variants on the same idea fleshes it out in our imagination. This is shorthand.

Had Murder, She Wrote used really original characters in each episode, the episodes would have had to be two hours long. That is, they would have been movies.

This shorthand is also part of what makes Murder, She Wrote a kind of comfort food. We’re familiar with all of these characters; we’ve spent a long time with them and now we’re seeing them again. Sometimes even played by the same actors we’re used to watching play them in the old days. This isn’t really a coincidence, it’s part of the show’s theme that old things are still good.

Prime Day Cometh

I recently got a notification that Amazon’s “holiday,” Prime Day, is coming this summer. This amuses me on several levels.

The first is that Prime Day is actually two days long. So far as I know, this isn’t a sundown to sundown thing, either. Amazon just has their own special definition of “day.”

Also, for those who haven’t heard of it, Prime Day is basically Amazon trying to make up its own Black Friday which no one else celebrates. In theory is is a “day” on which there are all sorts of amazing deals, such as usually are only found on Black Friday.

At least based on previous prime days, there aren’t any amazing deals to be had, at least not on anything that anyone wants, or in comparison to what items normally sell for. There is a certain amount of removing all discounts in the days leading up to Prime Day so that re-applying the ordinary discounts can be claimed to be a sale, but that’s not exactly impressive. There are, of course, the occasional significant markdowns on overstocked items, but if one pays attention those always come up from time to time. If they’re still doing it, those are available year-round on Amazon’s “gold box”. I once got a very nice kitchen knife for $20 that way. (I think it may have been overstocked because the factory forgot to sharpen it and it couldn’t cut a paper towel out of the box. Since one has to periodically sharpen kitchen knives anyway, this wasn’t exactly a big deal to me.) A “day” dedicated to buying things at basically the same prices but with more fanfare than normal isn’t very exciting.

Which actually brings me to Black Friday. There was a short time when Black Friday sales really were a thing, large box stores offering exceptionally deep discounts on some items in order to lure people into the store, at which point they would start doing the rest of their Christmas shopping while they were there. As the saying goes, though, while you can fool all of the people some of the time, you can’t fool all of the people all of the time, and competition from other stores combined with awareness that it would be better to hold off on one’s other shopping until the crowds weren’t of quite such deadly sizes rendered the practice of huge discounts on attractive items economically untenable. And whatever can’t go on forever, won’t.

Black Friday is already passing into the sands of time. Cyber Monday never really became a thing. I find it quite funny that Amazon is trying to invent a pretend holiday which Amazon can own based on holidays already on their way out.

Missed One

In my previous post about the taxonomy of atheists, I realized that I missed one: the atheist who hates human nature. This is probably more commonly known as the atheist who wants to be immoral, though they amount to the same thing. The example which comes to mind quickest is Bertrand Russell.

I wrote about Bertrand Russell a bit in my post about his famous teapot argument. The short version was after seeing how stupid his teapot argument was, and knowing that he was a well educated man, I knew he had to have an ulterior motive and so I knew that he was a bad man. And briefly looking up his biography turned up that he was a serial adulterer.

This sort of atheist is not limited to those who wish to contravene sexual morality, though that may be the most common form of it. People who wish to be something other than they are can also fall into this trap, since it amounts to hating God for giving them the nature that they have and not the nature that they want. People can hate God for giving them the wrong hair, or the wrong skin, or making them short instead of tall. It will, of course, be most common where people think that they can do something about it and God is standing in their way. That is why you see this more commonly with morality, since somebody who believes that he should be, by nature, a bigamist, will tend to think that if he simply practices bigamy he will be what he wishes to be. And, indeed, if our nature was our own creation, he would be right. If God exists, however, essence precedes existence and he is what God made him, regardless of what he’s futilely trying to remake himself into.

This, by the way, is why the life history of people trying to make themselves into something that they’re not is always extremely depressing. I’m currently reading the biography of a guy who was certain in his heart that he was a rock star—and he absolutely hated reality for disagreeing with him. The harder he pursued his delusion, the angrier he got at everyone around him. This is really what Sartre was talking about when he said, “hell is other people.” If you take the existentialist position seriously (that existence precedes essence), other people will be hell because, being just as real as you are, they will inevitably prove that the essence you’re trying to give yourself is a lie.

Contingency

The argument for God’s existence from contingency and necessity is not very long, so there aren’t many ways to attack it. Mostly they consist of holding that reason doesn’t actually work. However, one of the more reasonable approaches is to question whether anything is contingent. The traditional approach looks at whether something exists at all points in time, but since time is so mysterious this can be questioned simply because anything regarding time can be, despite our direct perception of time. But we also dichotomy perceive our free will, and yet determinists exist, too. Perhaps a way of helping such people is to look at space rather than time. If a thing does not exist at all points in space simultaneously, it is clearly not necessary since there are places where it is not anything at all – the places where it isn’t. If a thing exists in one place and not another, it’s existence in the one place and not another must be contingent on something other than itself. If that thing is not necessary, then it must be contingent on something else. There cannot be an infinite chain that doesn’t terminate in something necessary, or else there would be nothing at all since no contingency would be fulfilled. That necessary thing all (reasonable) men call God.