Robin Williams (1951 – 2014)

“Once upon a time on this stage, a special kind of magic happened. A great artist walked out here and went into orbit, for more than five hours. So Consider yourself warned and privileged as we were, to enjoy the comedic genius of Robin Williams.”

What can I say? I was just watching Mrs. Doubtfire for the 100th time last week. My goodness what a loss.

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Choice and the Problem of Ignorance

The following is directly quoted from  “AIDS, Witchcraft, and the Problem of Power in Post-Apartheid South Africa” written by “Adam Ashforth”. All rights are reserved for the author, and the original link to the paper can be found HERE. The paper was written in 2001, and what it contains may not be accurate today, though it is significant and relevant.

In a scene replayed tens of thousands of times in recent years in South Africa, a relative appeared at the Khanyile family’s door in the shack settlement of Snake Park on the outskirts of Soweto to inform them of a funeral. A cousin in a town not far off had passed away. A young man in his late twenties or early thirties, the deceased had been sick for some time. In their message announcing the funeral, the dead cousin’s parents specified nothing about the illness, other than to say he’d been sick for some time. The relative visiting the Khanyiles, however, whispered the cause: “isidliso.”

Khanyile and his family took note. They know about this isidliso, otherwise called “Black poison,” an evil work of the people they call witches. Along with whatever treatments the deceased relative would have secured from medical practitioners in his town, they knew without being told that he had been taken to traditional healers to combat the witchcraft manifest in the form of isidliso. All of Khanyile’s family concurred with this diagnosis except one. Moleboheng, twenty seven and skeptical, thought the cousin’s story was “nonsense.”1

“He died of AIDS, obviously,” Moleboheng told her mother after the cousin left. (She is far too polite and sensible to say this in front of the relative, for then the relative would report to others that her family were starting vicious rumors.) Mama Khanyile conceded the possibility of AIDS, although that didn’t necessarily rule out isidliso. Her view was that the AIDS, if indeed it was AIDS, must have been sent by someone. Someone had wanted to see the young man dead and had used witchcraft to send this AIDS or isidliso to kill him. Moleboheng still insisted that was nonsense, as she does whenever her mother starts on witchcraft. In this, as in most things pertaining to witchcraft, the daughter and her family agree to disagree. She knows that within African society at large her way of looking at things is in a distinct minority.

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I am using this in my new project to ask an important moral question: Are we free to choose in the light of our stupidity? Do we think that people (like the people in the paper above) should be forced to abandon their beliefs? What about the anti-vaccination movement in US and UK?

Serendipity, the Little Creature of Accidental Discovery

I have a bad feeling about growing up. Or, rather that image of growing up that translates into putting aside games, animations and movies. That image that means no sense of wonder and imagination. I already had made a post about how games could be useful as technologies some time ago, but something happened that made me come up with another argument in defence of imagination.

There are numerous videos about games, Sci-fi movies and animations, and comic books and anime on YouTube, and I follow some of them. Sometimes however, when a particular video about, say, a certain Sci-fi subject (game, movie or animation) is published, some commenters keep saying “This is pointless, you people should grow up” or simply “get a life”.

Aside from the fact that even games have proven to be useful, there is one notion that should make us reject this mindset of growing up, and that is scientific “serendipity”: the sweet little creature of accidental discovery…

The discovery of Penicillin for example is one of those happy accidents in science, the discovery of X-rays was also a serendipity. But my favourite example of these accidental discoveries is the discovery of chemical structure of Benzene: Friedrich Kekule found the structure in a dream, in which he saw Carbon atoms going in a circle and forming a ring.

Benzene (Source: Wikipedia)

The most important thing that gives serendipity wings is our own imagination. If we keep rejecting dreams, we may never find out new things. This I believe is what gives credit to this statement from Einstein: “Imagination … is more important than knowledge. Knowledge is limited. Imagination encircles the world.”

Morality, Superheroes and the Case for the Right Thing

It was the night, but not a silent one: screams and cries of hundreds of people could be heard from all over Gotham city. Batman, standing on the tallest point of Wayne tower, sighed. The Joker had escaped; again. It was going to be a long long night.

The thought of writing this post came to me after I watched “The Dark Night Rises”. (Have in mind that although the next sentence is most likely expected by those who will watch it, but it is a spoiler nonetheless): There is a scene at almost the end of the movie, in which Catwoman (played by Anne Hathaway) kills Bane (Tom Hardy), saving Batman’s (Christian Bale) life, and immediately telling him: “About the whole no guns thing, I’m not sure I feel strongly about it as you do.”

She is of course referring to the fact that Batman does not kill criminals, no matter how “evil” they are, and obviously would not allow other “vigilante superheroes” to do so either (e.g. Catwoman). This phenomenon of course is the underlying theme of almost every superhero movie and cartoon ever made (for example my favourite one the justice league), and though I’m not very familiar with the original comic books, I’m positively sure the same theme happens there as well.

I believe that this poses a very interesting moral dilemma, that shows the conflict between individual-right-based ethics and consequentialist ethics. The question is, should Batmen kill Joker (Should a superhero kill a super villain)?  But there is even a better question: Is Batman doing something wrong by not killing the Joker?

Justice demands it

There is a common perception among people (religious or not) about justice, which is very close to the notion of “An eye for an eye”. Although in recent years and under the influence of social activists this perception has changed in some cases (for example capital punishment by death based on “A life for a life”), still most people think it is justified to retaliate an action with the same opposite: “you destroy my property, I destroy yours”.

This is not the position that most (if any) philosophers take in ethical issues. And the reason is simple, I think most people would agree that two wrongs will not make a right. In more sophisticated terms, this notion cannot be justified in any of the moral theories we know and we use as the “right” thing to do. Looking closely at the issue, we can see that there is an equivocation between “revenge” and “justice” in such perception.

therefore, based on that argument, no matter how many people the Joker “has” killed, Batman cannot justify killing him based on the idea of “An eye for an eye”.

Killing is wrong, period

If one asks Batman himself why he does not kill the Joker, his answer will most likely be in form of a moral code: Killing is bad, because it is bad. It seems most of the time that it is taken as it is given, without any justification behind it. But occasionally even the comic book characters need to give a better reason. This is the case for “Under the Red Hood”, with the following dialog (Extracted from IMDB):

Batman: You don’t understand. I don’t think you’d ever understood.
Jason Todd: What? What, your moral code just won’t allow for that? It’s too hard to cross that line?
Batman: No. God Almighty, no. It’d be too damned easy. All I’ve ever wanted to do is kill him. A day doesn’t go by I don’t think about subjecting him to every horrendous torture he’s dealt out to others and them end him.
Joker: Aw. So you do think about me.
Batman: But if I do that, if I allow myself to go down into that place, I’ll never come back.

Of course, Batman is talking about revenge, not justice; but this is a crucial point: Where should a superhero stop? The argument here is a superhero (or no one for that matter) is in a position to decide about the lives of others, no matter who they are or they have done, simply because no one is capable of escaping the “corruption” it brings to them. They fear they will never come back.

Well, although this seems still an unsatisfying argument, we can see it as a moral code: “Killing is wrong, period”.

The case of “What if?”

In history of Batman comics, Joker has proven special. He has escaped the infamous “Arkham Asylum” numerous times (I dare say double digit, in games, cartoons, books and films), and each time has killed more people. A consequentialist (or Utilitarian) argument could be made that simply the cost of having Joker around is going to be much higher than the cost of simply “ending him”. The reason for that is Joker is most likely (as far as the Joker goes, definitely) going to kill much more than he already has. This argument is not about what he has done in the past, it is about what he is most likely to do (or will do) in the future.

If we look at the case from the consequentialist perspective, “Not” killing the Joker will be the wrong doing. At least at the point that Batman’s knowledge of him reviles the fact that he (the Joker) will kill more people in the future. I believe that many of us intuitively would agree to this notion. If someone presents us with the case of “Someone has a time machine, should s/he kill Hitler?”, I think many of us (most of us?) will agree to that.

Now comes the hard question: “Someone has a time machine, should s/he kill baby Hitler? Or Hitler’s mother?” Should one kill the source of “potential” crimes against humanity?

The case of reality

I think that Batman in fact “should” kill the Joker, since not only there is no guarantee that he will kill more people, but also it is highly likely. But in reality, or a more practical sense, the case is not as easy as it seems. Most criminals cannot escape prison and remain there. Even if they do escape, at least it is not repeatedly (unless of course they are Steven Jay Russell).

Also, our ability to judge the future actions of a sane person is highly untrustworthy (remember that the Joker was completely insane). It is possible that a person actually changes his/her behaviour, and it seems justifiable to give them “a second chance”, not just “end them”.

In the end, there is an irony in Batman’s story: It seems that Batman has done more or less the wrong thing in the context of his own story, while in reality basing one’s actions in such a way that takes not killing to be a virtue seems the right way to be. Batman has done the wrong thing, but has given the right message.

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P.S. This discussion can go much more deeper than this. As I was writing it, I knew there’s a lot more to say on this subject which are ignored here.