Defeating the Villain

post by Zubon · 2015-03-26T21:43:03.702Z · score: 30 (31 votes) · LW · GW · Legacy · 34 comments

We have a recurring theme in the greater Less Wrong community that life should be more like a high fantasy novel. Maybe that is to be expected when a quarter of the community came here via Harry Potter fanfiction, and we also have rationalist group houses named after fantasy locations, descriptions of community members in terms of character archetypes and PCs versus NPCs, semi-serious development of the new atheist gods, and feel free to contribute your favorites in the comments.

A failure mode common to high fantasy novels as well as politics is solving all our problems by defeating the villain. Actually, this is a common narrative structure for our entire storytelling species, and it works well as a narrative structure. The story needs conflict, so we pit a sympathetic protagonist against a compelling antagonist, and we reach a satisfying climax when the two come into direct conflict, good conquers evil, and we live happily ever after.

This isn't an article about whether your opponent really is a villain. Let's make the (large) assumption that you have legitimately identified a villain who is doing evil things. They certainly exist in the world. Defeating this villain is a legitimate goal.

And then what?

Defeating the villain is rarely enough. Building is harder than destroying, and it is very unlikely that something good will spontaneously fill the void when something evil is taken away. It is also insufficient to speak in vague generalities about the ideals to which the post-[whatever] society will adhere. How are you going to avoid the problems caused by whatever you are eliminating, and how are you going to successfully transition from evil to good?

In fantasy novels, this is rarely an issue. The story ends shortly after the climax, either with good ascending or time-skipping to a society made perfect off-camera. Sauron has been vanquished, the rightful king has been restored, cue epilogue(s). And then what? Has the Chosen One shown skill in diplomacy and economics, solving problems not involving swords? What was Aragorn's tax policy? Sauron managed to feed his armies from a wasteland; what kind of agricultural techniques do you have? And indeed, if the book/series needs a sequel, we find that a problem at least as bad as the original fills in the void.

Reality often follows that pattern. Marx explicitly had no plan for what happened after you smashed capitalism. Destroy the oppressors and then ... as it turns out, slightly different oppressors come in and generally kill a fair percentage of the population. It works on the other direction as well; the fall of Soviet communism led not to spontaneous capitalism but rather kleptocracy and Vladmir Putin. For most of my lifetime, a major pillar of American foreign policy has seemed to be the overthrow of hostile dictators (end of plan). For example, Muammar Gaddafi was killed in 2011, and Libya has been in some state of unrest or civil war ever since. Maybe this is one where it would not be best to contribute our favorites in the comments.

This is not to say that you never get improvements that way. Aragorn can hardly be worse than Sauron. Regression to the mean perhaps suggests that you will get something less bad just by luck, as Putin seems clearly less bad than Stalin, although Stalin seems clearly worse than almost any other regime change in history. Some would say that causing civil wars in hostile countries is the goal rather than a failure of American foreign policy, which seems a darker sort of instrumental rationality.

Human flourishing is not the default state of affairs, temporarily suppressed by villainy. Spontaneous order is real, but it still needs institutions and social technology to support it.

Defeating the villain is a (possibly) necessary but (almost certainly) insufficient condition for bringing about good.

One thing I really like about this community is that projects tend to be conceived in the positive rather than the negative. Please keep developing your plans not only in terms of "this is a bad thing to be eliminated" but also "this is a better thing to be created" and "this is how I plan to get there."

34 comments

Comments sorted by top scores.

comment by pianoforte611 · 2015-03-26T23:20:23.046Z · score: 10 (10 votes) · LW · GW

Just want to say I find your writing style very pleasant and easy to read.

comment by Zubon · 2015-03-27T13:24:13.905Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

Your kind words honor me.

comment by RowanE · 2015-03-27T18:12:24.054Z · score: 9 (9 votes) · LW · GW

I think for the most part the LW-sphere's attempts to make life like a high fantasy novel in this respect do so by targeting an extremely abstract thing as a villain, such as "death itself". In this case, it's only a metaphor intended for motivation, because humans really like "defeating the villain", and the actual thing being attempted is building, much more than it is destroying - the reasons why defeating an actual literal villain is usually not finishing the job and might actually make things worse don't really apply, although that doesn't necessarily rule out that the effort to "defeat death" might have negative consequences, such as those /u/chaosmage has detailed.

comment by Epictetus · 2015-03-27T08:28:42.410Z · score: 8 (8 votes) · LW · GW

Tolkien did offer a glimpse into a more realistic take on his story:

The real war does not resemble the legendary war in its process or its conclusion. If it had inspired or directed the development of the legend, then certainly the Ring would have been seized and used against Sauron; he would not have been annihilated but enslaved, and Barad-dur would not have been destroyed but occupied. Saruman, failing to get possession of the Ring, would in the confusion and treacheries of the time have found in Mordor the missing links in his own researches into Ring-lore, and before long he would have made a Great Ring of his own with which to challenge the self-styled Ruler of Middle-earth. in that conflict both sides would have held hobbits in hatred and contempt: they would not long have survived even as slaves.

comment by HalMorris · 2015-03-28T01:50:43.504Z · score: 7 (7 votes) · LW · GW

comment by CronoDAS · 2015-03-27T23:38:11.024Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

Defeating the villain is rarely enough. Building is harder than destroying, and it is very unlikely that something good will spontaneously fill the void when something evil is taken away. It is also insufficient to speak in vague generalities about the ideals to which the post-[whatever] society will adhere. How are you going to avoid the problems caused by whatever you are eliminating, and how are you going to successfully transition from evil to good?

In fantasy novels, this is rarely an issue.

Two exceptions: Orwell's Animal Farm, which was explicitly an allegory for the Russian Revolution, and Brian Sanderson's Mistborn trilogy, in which defeating the Evil Overlord turns out to have been only the beginning of the heroes' troubles...

comment by shminux · 2015-03-26T22:20:24.110Z · score: 3 (7 votes) · LW · GW

Aragorn can hardly be worse than Sauron.

Aragorn was totally worse than Sauron, unless you value orc lives as negative (they certainly didn't). It's mere addition.

comment by Manfred · 2015-03-26T23:19:56.453Z · score: 12 (12 votes) · LW · GW

Maybe Aragorn followed a strategy to not care about agents created in certain blackmail-like conditions, so that Sauron wouldn't be able to get Aragorn to do anything just by creating sufficient numbers of orcs that wanted that thing.

comment by RichardKennaway · 2015-03-26T23:34:16.065Z · score: 8 (8 votes) · LW · GW

As far as I recall, wIthin the world of LotR orcs are defined to be creatures of evil. Quite literally, the only good orc is a dead orc. Even if someone in that world compassionately regards the orcs as victims of the powers that created them by perverting the nature of the Elves, still they are evil, and always and everywhere it is praiseworthy to kill one, regardless of what the orcs have to say for themselves.

A world in which good people owe orcs any sort of rights or fair treatment is not the world of LotR, but a different world borrowing some of the same names. Indeed, orcs appear to be but more or less intelligent tools, guided by the mind of Sauron and of little use without it, and I think one could make a case that to kill an orc has exactly the same lack of moral significance as to destroy an enemy drone in the real world.

comment by AnthonyC · 2015-03-27T01:49:10.820Z · score: 3 (5 votes) · LW · GW

There were other gods than Sauron (and Morgoth before him). The Maiar and Valar could probably have un-corrupted them, if they had deigned to bother to try instead of just accepting the gradual decline of the Good in Middle Earth. Maybe when the last of the elves got to Valinor they could have persuaded them to do so.

comment by JohnBuridan · 2015-03-27T05:04:53.937Z · score: 5 (7 votes) · LW · GW

You think that the Will of Melkor could be potentially un-corrupted? Though all evil in Arda is his doing, bitterness, greed, excessive heat, piercing cold, avaricious orcs, other creatures that lust for blood or power, and even darker things than this, that is not enough to despair of him? Aye, you don't yet realize what Morgoth is. He is pride and cruelty and rage. Morgoth's spirit cannot change, because it presumes the only worthwhile fact is its own continued self-expression. His cruelty wishes to wrench all that's beautiful and true in the world into darker purposes, to turn good intentions to bad ends. And his rage, oh, his rage is a starless cry of cosmic dismay that all the evils of the world are undone one by one.

Tell me not of the turning of Melkor, even now he is chained up on the other side of night, yet still whispering his will throughout Middle-Earth, and plotting to break the Gates and return again to destroy the Sun and the Moon and all living things. You are telling me that same guy who wants to tear down all the universe in supreme envy can be turned to work for Good?

This is Morgoth we are talking about, not Anakin Skywalker.

P.S. I take your point; but the Maiar and Valar do act indirectly in Middle-Earth, though creation is over as are the wars against Sauron and Ar-Pharazon. They do not just accept the the gradual decline of the world.

I will never relinquish my Sword of Fandom +10. :)

comment by NancyLebovitz · 2015-03-27T10:29:01.311Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

Is Melkor explicitly described as unredeemable?

As I recall, Eru's creation is incomplete, and we cannot know all the outcomes.

comment by JohnBuridan · 2015-03-29T18:09:27.249Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Well, Nancy, Melkor was imprisoned once before by the Valar. They thought he had been rehabilitated and were mistaken; he destroyed the Two Trees of Valinor.

He will return in the end for Ragnorok called Dagor Dagorath. You are right, the outcomes cannot be known by us. I assume he will be vanquished totally, but Eru's creation is incomplete. Something unexpected may yet happen.

comment by sentientplatypus · 2015-04-04T00:43:46.137Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

I think a good example of defeating the villain and not actually making things better can be seen in many of the Arab Spring revolutions, especially Egypt. It was the most stable country in the Middle East for decades, though it was ruled by a dictator. Egypt got rid of Mubarak, but the movement that did it had no kind of coherent plan for how they were going to create a stable democracy afterward. And now Egypt is a decidedly worse place to live than when Mubarak was in charge.

comment by Val · 2015-03-27T19:27:41.982Z · score: 2 (4 votes) · LW · GW

This "let's defeat the villain and everything will be OK" mentality is what made me skeptical of many aspects of liberalism. Many liberal-leaning activists choose a controversial topic (religion, gay marriage, abortion, immigration, etc.) and proclaim that the old system is evil, without a rational explanation why, and more importantly, without a rational explanation how their proposal would be better in the long term. If I ask for an explanation, I'm often labeled as "the enemy".

It's interesting, as I think that if liberalism were slower, I would likely be a liberal. If the liberal views were rationally discussed, and if serious research was being made to study the effects of these novel ideas on society after many generations, or if we just slowly introduced a few minor reforms first, and then observed how it affects the next generation, I would be among the very strong supporters of these liberal ideas.

Why I'm conservative-leaning? Because I hold the belief that while the proposals of liberals might bring the advantage of some personal freedoms, 1. these would be relative, so people would not feel happier and 2. they could have long-lasting negative side-effects of the society as a whole.

Why wasn't I convinced by these ideas? Because they are used as ammunition, as things which "sound good". The weight is not on scientific rigor, but about how nice the idea sounds to potential voters.

A (maybe a little extreme) example: A school wants to introduce the rule that teachers are not allowed to correct student's essays with a red pen, because red is an aggressive color, it is abusive and it causes psychological trauma for the children. Or that they intentionally forbid children to call each other boys and girls, or even to forbid them the knowledge that any difference exists, just to erode the difference between genders, so that everyone should choose a gender later and not be "biased". These seem to be suggested because they "sound good" for a liberal activist, but as I grew up while my essays were corrected with a red pen, and all other people I know grew up that way, and countless generations grew up that way, and none of us seem to have any psychological trauma because of this, I would oppose any such "novel ideas", unless there was a serious study observing the long-lasting effects proving me wrong.

I know the evidence for some of my beliefs is mostly anecdotic, but even anecdotic evidence is better than no evidence at all.

comment by fezziwig · 2015-03-27T21:08:53.416Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

The problems you're describing don't sound like "failure to make plans for after the villain is defeated" so much as "failure to accurately assess whether your target is a villain or not". I think Zubon's point is that even after you've found a real live villain and come up with a workable plan to defeat him, you're still not done.

comment by Val · 2015-03-27T23:55:10.805Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

A villain is not necessarily a person or an institution. I was referring to people viewing certain social and cultural norms as "villains", without any serious study into what long term effects the abolition of these norms would cause, or how an alternative norm they would propose instead of the old would fare in the long term.

I'm not claiming that a traditional norm is good solely because it's traditional, I'm open to new ideas. However, I believe that in case of a conflict between an old and a new norm, the burden of proof lies on the new norm, especially if the old norm was keeping society functional for many generations, and the new wasn't seen in effect in real life for long enough.

comment by [deleted] · 2015-03-30T09:33:30.412Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

I think they used to be slower up to 1968 or so. Things got a bit confused since then, since the general social change outcome of the era is broadly liberal, but one should not forget the radical students were e.g. Maoists which is not a liberal ideology at all. So it seems, that liberal changes are made not simply by liberals arguing for them (who may accept going slower) but as a way to de-fang left radicalism. Something similar is happening even today. Since liberal arguments against gay marriage exist, the push to go fast on it cannot possibly come from true liberalism but from some kind of a radical wing.

This radicalism is a but difficult to pin down today. Things were a bit easier back when Mao's little red book was a student fashion item because you could more or less glean a clearly stated ideology and goals from it. Today it is a bit strange because a radicalism exists without a clear goal other than ending oppression, but that is not very clearly defined. Partially borrowings from anarchism can be identified. Intersectionality, kyriarchy sounds like to me ideas that were at least partially taken from anarchism. It is possible that today there is an form of an anarchist radicalism going on, but it is less clear than before as it does not really identify as one.

This idea came to me when I was reading Alfie Kohn's articles. I have never seen him identify as an anarchist but still I know actual anarchists like his works, and they sound a lot like that kind of too-fast liberalism you complain about, so it is possible it is a kind of anarchist radicalism without the name.

comment by gjm · 2015-03-30T11:33:13.049Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Since liberal arguments against gay marriage exist, the push to go fast on it cannot possibly come from true liberalism

Surely that inference is wrong. It would be a reasonable deduction from "the liberal arguments against same-sex marriage are stronger than those in favour", but not from "liberal arguments against same-sex marriage exist". In fact, even the former would be dubious; the arguments might be strong but not generally known, for instance; or strong but not generally recognized as such.

My impression of the liberally-inclined people I know is that those who are aware of alleged liberal arguments against same-sex marriage generally think they're bad arguments. So I think that for your inference to work, it would need to be true (1) that there are in fact good liberal arguments against same-sex marriage and (2) that being motivated by "true liberalism" implies being aware of all good arguments and evaluating them correctly. Of these, #1 is surely possible but #2 is absolutely ridiculous, no?

I had a quick look at the article linked above. It seems to me that its arguments against same-sex marriage are neither very good nor very liberal. Of course I could be wrong, but if I'm not crazy or stupid to evaluate them that way then they can't show that my preference for "marriage equality" makes me part of, or deceived by, a radical wing rather than a "true liberal".

comment by ChristianKl · 2015-03-28T10:48:46.264Z · score: 0 (2 votes) · LW · GW

I know grew up that way, and countless generations grew up that way, and none of us seem to have any psychological trauma because of this

How do you know? A lot of children enjoy learning before they go into school and then they stop enjoying it after the kind of feedback they get in school.

In my own experience pointing out errors in essays was seldom done in a way that helps learning. I would have profited a lot of a teacher telling me that it's important to write more clearly. Instead the teacher frequently marked things as mistakes that were simply disagreements.

Or that they intentionally forbid children to call each other boys and girls, or even to forbid them the knowledge that any difference exists, just to erode the difference between genders, so that everyone should choose a gender later and not be "biased".

Could you point to a school that does this, or is it simply a strawman?

comment by [deleted] · 2015-03-30T09:39:37.918Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

One meta level deeper: to what extent is education largely about learning to putting up with enduring things you don't like, and is that a good or bad idea or rather to what extent is good or bad? This aspect - discipline training etc. - can explain a predict a lot of these methods. So the point is to stop enjoying learning, then doing it anyway, in order to learn to be able to do not enjoyable things. How important is this as a skill? This is one of the biggest political-philosophical challenges in the last 2-300 years, because if we would assume human nature is all right, we would be roughly okay in following what we like, if we would assume it is rotten, then the most important learning would be to learn to defeat ourselves and do things that don't feel good. I think there is an emerging consensus from Haidt to everywhere that human nature is more or less okay-ish in finding good goals but there is far too often the issue of being too lazy and distracted to follow them, and thus it may be useful if schools focus on overcoming that by forcing students to learn things they dislike learning.

comment by ChristianKl · 2015-03-30T10:56:29.338Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

I don't think my teachers at school did effectively teach me discipline. A lot of them believed in the notion of talent instead of believing in a growth mindset where every student can achieve anything if they just put in enough time.

Teachers protect their own self image that way. If it's all talent, then they aren't to blame that the bad students don't get it.

Because of the importance of discipline I myself started to set SMART goals and every day write down the percentage that of my goals that I achieved the last day (in 4 categories) under the label integrity.

I have never done a single SMART goal in school and it's not something usually done or encouraged by the system.

There are jobs such as cleaning toilets that can be done well by people who just endure they tasks they are given. Most knowledge worker tasks on the other hand are preferably done by a person who likes doing them.

if we would assume it is rotten, then the most important learning would be to learn to defeat ourselves and do things that don't feel good.

Nobody benefits from you being depressed.

comment by chaosmage · 2015-03-27T13:56:24.331Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

I wonder what happens if I follow this to what I viscerally feel to be a supervillain: Death itself.

Maybe Death is like Gaddafi. It is very bad, but gives a semblance of order, and removing that might not make living in its former domain any better immediately. It is hard to even make a guess at the probability of this, given that we don't know what defeating Death would mean or even look like, but we can try to build scenarios and select among post-villain worlds before its removal, in the same way that we and the Libyans would wish had been done in the Gaddafi case.

Do we want to retain Death as an option? Or should immortality, once accepted, be compulsory? Fictional immortalities tend to not be absolute: if you wanted to kill yourself, you could still jump into a black hole or something. But suppose those aren't possible, and a more modest type of durability can be rounded up into immortality by some cognitive modifications that create extreme aversion to bodily harm. Even if those didn't necessarily come with durability, people in love could still blackmail each other into accepting such modifications, and spend billions of years living a life that isn't actually a choice, sort of like in Friendship is Optimal.

Then there are the innumerable ways immortality could be worse than death - many of these have already been explored in fiction. Maybe you permanently lose 1% of your capacity for reason and happiness every 50 years, and unlike Death that isn't fixable - or whatever.

But even if both of these were averted and immortality was otherwise perfect for the immortal individual, it might still be a bad thing for humanity or life. If it is not available to everyone - because it is too expensive, classified as Top Secret military technology or only works on people with certain inalienable features like particular chromosomes or a Wizard Gene - that gives a whole new level to societal inequality. Death used to be the great equalizer - remove it and the rich (or Wizard Gene holders or whatever) become so dissimilar from mortals as to be practically a seperate species. And the only comparative advantage mortals retain is the ability to do suicide attacks. That kind of scenario can go wrong in all sorts of ways. It can still be a net gain for a select group of individuals - like getting rid of Gaddafi was a net gain for the people in his prisons - while a net loss for a larger number of other individuals.

You could construct even weirder scenarios, where immortalizing one individual removes one distant and probably lifeless galaxy, but I find it too hard to suspend my disbelief about such scenarios for them to help me think.

So how would removing Death lead to a certainly improved universe? I think that at a minimum, it'd have to be available to every human, retain Death as an option and not have side-effects that could ever escalate into fates worse than Death. That's a much, much taller order than "just invent uploading and declare victory" and might be a hopeless endeavor even if uploading is possible.

After going through these imaginations with something I viscerally feel to be a villain, I can kind of understand the impulse to just remove Gaddafi and hope for the best, rather than plan (and take responsibility) for what happens after.

comment by artemium · 2015-03-31T06:23:37.481Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

One of the reasons is that a lot of LW members are really involved in FAI issues and they strongly believe that if they manage to succeed in building a "good" AI , most of earthly problems will be solved in an very short time, Bostrom said something like that we can postpone solving complicated philosophical issues after we solved AI ethics issue.

comment by [deleted] · 2015-03-30T09:19:20.001Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Wait a bit please. I am under the impression the defeating the villain worked very well for Western Europe after WW2? Or maybe that is the issue, that that kind of historical experience generated this kind of generalization even in situations where it doesn't apply?

It should not be too hard to make heuristics for it. The more power is concentrated into a few hands the more likely defeating them will change something. You can defeat a few big villains, many small ones not.

comment by Epictetus · 2015-04-01T19:23:46.592Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Wait a bit please. I am under the impression the defeating the villain worked very well for Western Europe after WW2?

Mainly because nuclear weapons meant that no one wanted to start another major European war. Take those away, and there would almost certainly have been a third world war shortly afterward. Instead, they got the Cold War.

Eastern Europe, meanwhile, got to trade Nazi occupation for Soviet satellite status.

comment by Zubon · 2015-04-01T12:22:26.714Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Big win for Western Europe, needed another 50 years to settle out in Eastern Europe due to that Stalin issue. And a significant cause of WWII was the epilogue of WWI. As a cartoonishly over the top supervillain that really happened, WWII Germany serves as an example of how this problem comes about, how just defeating the villain can go well when there were good institutions being suppressed, and how it can leave half a continent still oppressed by the next, subtly worse dictator for generations.

comment by IlyaShpitser · 2015-04-01T12:30:08.596Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

There was nothing subtle about Uncle Joe :(.

comment by Zubon · 2015-04-01T15:14:57.259Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

True. I was suggesting that Stalin was "subtly worse" than Hitler, in that he managed to kill far more people without raising as much international outcry.

comment by torekp · 2015-04-05T14:18:43.024Z · score: 0 (2 votes) · LW · GW

And a significant cause of WWII was the epilogue of WWI.

Understate much?

comment by [deleted] · 2015-04-01T13:17:53.718Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

when there were good institutions being suppressed

Arguably the institutions of Germany were not really that good. Hardly any experience with democracy and not too positive ones before (hyperinflation...). It was not really a falling back to something working situation. One could say that the everyday culture was functional, because it was broadly speaking hard-working and precise and organized, so it could be channeled into an economic wonder, it had the pedalling for that, but the steering had to be invented from the ground up i.e. the political institutions. Actually it surprising how a well done political system was drawn up what a short time.

Italy is an even more interesting experience because post-WW2 Italian politics has always been a mess, unstable governments collapsing in weeks and all that, and yet arguably it was a good period of their history, the whole Vespa-Lamborghini-Fiat-Lollobrigida movies-fashion industry era, it was arguably a productive era, not one of general lethargy. Italians thought politics sucks, shrugged, and went on making interesting things instead of sitting around waiting for someone to fix politics.

Again, it can be understood as falling back to non-political, everyday cultural institutions and norms, of course.

comment by Zubon · 2015-04-01T15:09:17.738Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Arguably the institutions of Germany were not really that good.

Sorry I was unclear. I was characterizing the institutions of neighboring countries as being suppressed. I'm not sure how far you'd need to fall back to find something "working" in Germany (pre-Weimar, so pre-WWI, so ... how far back do we want to go here?).

comment by Lumifer · 2015-04-01T16:34:35.832Z · score: -1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

As a cartoonishly over the top supervillain that really happened

You are, of course, reading history written by the victors...

comment by Jiro · 2015-03-29T02:41:44.020Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Sauron wasn't actually dead at the end of Lord of the Rings, he just permanently lost all his power. So what's to prevent him from coming back? Sure, he has no physical abilities, but I'm pretty sure that Adolf Hitler, for instance, didn't get as far as he got based on his physical strength.