Why Do Moderns Write Morally Ambiguous Good Guys?

(Note: if you’re not familiar Modern spelled with a capital ‘M’, please read Why Moderns Always Modernize Stories.)

When Moderns tell a heroic story—or more often a story which is supposed to be heroic—they almost invariably write morally ambiguous good guys. Probably the most common form of this is placing the moral ambiguity in the allies who the hero protagonist trusts. It turns out that they did horrible things in the past, they’ve been lying to the protagonist (often by omission), and their motives are selfish now.

Typically this is revealed in an unresolved battle partway through the story, where the main villain has a chance to talk with the protagonist, and tells him about the awful things that the protagonist’s allies did, or are trying to do. Then the battle ends, and the protagonist confronts his allies with the allegations.

At this point two things can happen, but almost invariably the path taken is that the ally admits it, the hero gets angry and won’t let the ally explain, then eventually the ally gets a chance to explain (or someone else explains for him), and the protagonist concludes that the ally was justified.

In general this is deeply unsatisfying. So, why do Moderns do it so much?

It has its root in the modern predicament, of course. As you will recall, in the face of radical doubt, the only certainty left is will. To the Modern, therefore, good is that which is an extension of the will, and evil is the will being restricted. It’s not that he wants this; it’s that in his cramped philosophy, nothing else is possible. In general, Moderns tend to believe it but try hard to pretend that it’s not the case. Admitting it tends to make one go mad and grow one’s mustache very long:

(If you don’t recognize him, that’s Friedrich Nietzsche, who lamented the death of God—a poetic way of saying that people had come to stop believing in God—as the greatest tragedy to befall humanity. However, he concluded that since it happened, we must pick up the pieces as best we may, and that without God to give us meaning, the best we could do is to try to take his place, that is, to use our will to create values. Trying to be happy in the face of how awful life without God is drove him mad. That’s probably why atheists since him have rarely been even half as honest about what atheism means.)

The problem with good being the will and evil being the will denied is that there’s no interesting story to tell within that framework.

A Christian can tell the story of a man knowing what good is and doing the very hard work of trying to be good in spite of temptation, and this is an interesting story, because temptation is hard to overcome and so it’s interesting to see someone do it.

A Modern cannot tell the story of a man wanting something then doing it; that’s just not interesting because it happens all the time. I want a drink of water, so I pick up my cup and drink water. That’s as much an extension of my will as is anything a hero might do on a quest. In fact, it may easily be more of an extension of my will, because I’m probably more thirsty (in the moment) than I care about who, exactly, rules the kingdom. Certainly I achieve the drink more perfectly as an extension of my will than I am likely to change who rules the kingdom, since I might (if I have magical enough sword) pick the man, but I can’t pick what the man does. And what he does is an extension of his will, not mine. (This, btw, is why installing a democracy is so favored as a happy ending—it’s making the government a more direct extension of the will of the people.)

There’s actually a more technical problem which comes in because one can only will what is first perceived in the intellect. In truth, that encompasses nothing, since we do not fully know the consequence of any action in this world, but this is clearer the further into the future an action is and the more people it involves. As such, it is not really possible for the protagonist to really will a complex outcome like restoring the rightful king to the throne of the kingdom. Moderns don’t know this at a conscious level at all, but it is true and so does influence them a bit. Anyway, back to the main problem.

So what is the Modern to do, in order to tell an interesting story? He can’t tell an interesting story about doing good, since to him that’s just doing anything, and if he does something reader is not the protagonist, so it doesn’t do him any good. Granted, the reader might possible identify with the protagonist, but that’s really hard to pull off for large audiences. It requires the protagonist to have all but no characteristics. For whatever reason, this seems to be done successfully more often with female protagonists than with male protagonists, but it can never be done with complete success. The protagonist must have some response to a given stimulus, and this can’t be the same response that every reader will have.

The obvious solution, and for that reason the most common solution, is to tell the story of the protagonist not knowing what he wants. Once he knows what he wants, the only open question is whether he gets it or not, which is to say, is it a fantasy story or a tragedy? When he doesn’t know what he wants, the story can be anything, which means that there is something (potentially) interesting to the reader to find out.

Thus we have the twist, so predictable that I’m not sure it really counts as a twist, that the protagonist, who thought he knew what he wants—if you’re not sitting down for this, you may want to sit now so you don’t fall down from shock—finds out that maybe he doesn’t want what he thought he wanted!

That is, the good guys turn out to be morally ambiguous, and the hero has to figure out if he really wants to help them.

It’s not really that the Moderns think that there are no good guys. Well, OK, they do think that. Oddly, despite Modern philosophy only allowing good and evil to be imputed onto things by the projection of values, Moderns are also consequentialists, and consequentialists only see shades of grey. So, yes, Moderns think that there are no good guys.



Moderns are nothing if not inconsistent. It doesn’t take much talking to a Modern to note that he’s rigidly convinced that he’s a good guy. Heck, he’ll probably tell you that he’s a good person if you give him half a chance.

You’ll notice that in the formula I’ve described above, which we’re all far too familiar with, the protagonist never switches sides. Occasionally, if the show is badly written, he’ll give a speech in which he talks the two sides into compromising. If the show is particularly badly written, he will point out some way of compromising where both sides get what they want and no one has to give up anything that they care about, which neither side thought of because the writers think that the audience is dumb. However this goes, however, you almost never see the protagonist switching sides. (That’s not quite a universal, as you will occasionally see that in spy-thrillers, but there are structural reasons for that which are specific to that genre.) Why is that?

Because the Modern believes that he’s the good guy.

So one can introduce moral ambiguity to make things interesting, but it does need to be resolved so that the Modern, who identifies with the protagonist, can end up as the good guy.

The problem, of course, is that the modern is a consequentialist, so the resolution of the ambiguity almost never involves the ambiguity actually being resolved. The Modern thinks it suffices to make the consequences—or as often, curiously, the intended consequences—good, i.e. desirable to the protagonist. So this ends up ruining the story for those who believe in human nature and consequently natural law, but this really was an accident on the part of the Modern writing it. He was doing his best.

His best just wasn’t good enough.

Kant’s Version of Knowledge

For those who don’t know, there is a school of philosophy called, unfortunately enough given the passage of time, Modern Philosophy. It had several features, but the main one was that it denied that knowledge was really possible. It was rarely that explicit, and oddly enough started in the 1600s with René Descartes’ proof that knowledge is possible. It ended with Immanuel Kant’s work in the 1700s trying to come up with a workable substitute for knowledge. It’s a common school of philosophy, these days, and no one has ever been able to figure out how its adherents are acting in good faith—especially since its adherents deny that good faith is really possible—but everyone acts like they are anyway since they seem to claim to, and academia is a very polite place (in front of students, anyway). There’s a joke about Modern Philosophy which runs:

Modern Philosophy was born with Descartes, died with Kant, and has been roaming the halls of academia ever since like a zombie: eating brains but never getting any smarter for it.

The most pernicious effect of Modern Philosophy—and I say this despite Modern Philosophy’s causative relationship to the existence of Post-Modernism—is the version of knowledge which Kant came up with in order to try to solve the problems of Modern Philosophy. (In technical terms, Kantian epistemology.) What Kant proposed was, roughly, the following:

We can’t have any direct knowledge of things apart from ourselves, so the best that we can do is to ape the scientific method: create theories of the world and then test them, refining them over time as we get more evidence.

Kant went on to say that we must believe in God, free will, and the immortality of the soul, because the alternative hypotheses predict an irrational world, which is not what we live in.

Most everyone else who takes Modern Philosophy seriously was quite happy to believe that we live in an irrational world, and so they will happily reject all three. (Interestingly, Kant was reputed to be a creature of extreme habit that never varied; I don’t know if that was of any significance to his intuitions.) But this has become the dominant idea of what knowledge is. It is not a direct communion of the mind with things outside of the mind, which everyone up until this point had meant by knowledge whether they affirmed or denied it.

The tricky thing to recognizing this is that Kant was very intelligent, and of a philosophical disposition. Most people are not very intelligent, and more importantly most people are not of a philosophical disposition. The result, taking these two things into account, is analogous to what has happened in physics after Newtonian mechanics was shown to be false.

Someone unfamiliar with how physics is conducted might think that once Newton’s laws of motion were shown to be wrong, they would have been discarded, but they were not. The reason they were not is that they are not very far from correct in low-mass and low-velocity situations, but they are much easier to compute. Since most everything that happens on the earth is in a low-mass, low-velocity situation compared to where the errors in Newtonian mechanics become noticeable, people just go on using Newtonian mechanics whenever they know that the error would be small. Basically, they know that the laws are wrong, but since there is always measurement error and other sources of imprecision in practice, the laws can be used anywhere we know that the error would be so small as to be insignificant compared to our measurement tolerances.

People do the same thing with the theories of reality which they substitute for knowledge. Instead of, like Kant, coming up with one consistent theory which is the best theory they can possibly come up with, they will use several theories—which they know to be quite wrong in some cases—and just make sure to restrict their application of these theories to the parts of life where these theories produce correct results. (Also, emotional reaction is commonly used as the test of whether the theory is right—does the theory say something that makes people feel worse than the alternative.) Neck-down Darwinism is probably the best example. (If you’re not familiar with it: below the neck evolution explains everything about the human body, but above the neck all men are created equal.)

The result is that people are completely unfazed when you point out the contradictions in their beliefs. They already knew that their beliefs contradicted. They just have some sort of rule (possibly a rule-of-thumb) for which belief they apply in the cases of contradiction. Most of them take this as part of the nature of knowledge: since a universally correct theory is impossible (so far) to construct, the best that you can do is several contradictory universal theories which are only applied where they have been experimentally verified to produce “correct” results. Many people with Kantian epistemology consider it a sign of mental weakness to be unaware that your own beliefs contradict; only the small-minded or extremely inexperienced think that one theory covers everything.

The truly sinister thing about this epistemology is that it deprives the victim of the obvious means of escape. For most wrong theories of the universe, running into an unresolvable (actual, rather than apparent) contradiction is evidence that the theory is wrong, and a sign that alternatives must be sought. Someone suffering from Kantian epistemology won’t even pause at contradictions, so God alone knows how they will know to look for something better.