Friday, May 22, 2009

Project Darkside: or, How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love the Black Mage

So, a few moons back, I'm playing Assassin's Creed, and thinking about good and evil, in games, like you do. Particularly in D&D, where the "payoff" for good or evil is so nebulous. More to the point, in a polytheistic universe with no dominance of celestial force in favor of good, what is evil? The best I could parse out was a general distinction between altruism (good) and selfishness (evil). This is a simple binary, by now intuitive to most people, backed up by common sense, personal experience, and not reading Ayn Rand.

This got me thinking about evolutionary psychology. (The group/self binary, not Ayn Rand.) I don't know what to make of evo psych as a science or social science; only the sexiest bits filter out into the mainstream press, and it's anyone's guess what the real research looks like at any given time. The stuff that's well-publicized, at least, tends to be a heady mixture of racism, sexism, and bullshit, and it's been argued that the field basically boils down to explaining modern behaviors (of which there exists little reliable evidence) by noting procedural similarities with ancient behaviors (of which there exists even less reliable evidence). Most of what you read about evo psych will fail to even accomplish the first of those two--if you want to explain why blonde hair is considered desirable by a significant majority of the species, for example, you first have to establish that it's actually true. (In case you were wondering, it turns out that it's because blonde women are more flammable than normal, non-blonde women, which makes them a valuable source of warmth in the cold Bronze Age winters.) David Livingstone Smith's Why We Lie was quite interesting and informative, and seemed to fall prey to precisely none of the huge methodological problems demonstrated in the shit you see in the Emm Ess Emm, so maybe the field's chock full of talented, sensible people who are drowned out by a couple of fame-whoring shitheads. Who knows.

That said, evo psych--not just people who claim to work in the field, but people discussing "natural" morality in general--tends to asume that selfishness is the default, and that works fine for reciprocal altruism. (In a shout-out to my demon-hunting brother, it is truly wonderful that our textbook example for altruistic behavior is derived from vampire bats.) But what about "pure" altruism, in which no obvious survival benefit presents itself? One current answer is that "pure" altruism is basically a glitch; early human societies may have presented few opportunities for altruism that didn't provide a likely survival benefit, so our genes don't account for the possibility. Ok, makes sense enough. Just because a behavior is widespread/universal doesn't mean it's necessarily adaptive, but could also be a spandrel or a malfunctioning of an adaptive behavior due to a change in context.

But really, do those circumstances exist even now? The theory above is meant to explain the Mother Theresas of the world--fuck off, secular contrarians, you know what I mean--but can we say conclusively that she did not benefit from her work? Because we sure as hell did. Missionary and humanitarian work within Christianity have historically yielded huge benefits for Christian cultures, establishing a cultural beachhead in what might otherwise have been hostile lands; while we're at it, poverty in general is a persistent security risk to pretty much everyone. But still, the benefit to the individual seems negligible, even if the benefit to the group--nation, in poli-sci terms, or just a general sense of "people around you"--is significant. Egoism generally assumes that altruism can only be "rational" when its benefit is fairly direct, fairly certain, and can reliably be calculated rationally. ("Rational" is a word I'll be using, and misusing, quite a bit. Bear with me, and try to tolerate some bendy definitions. Have a drink first, if that helps. I'll wait here.)

(Back? Ok.)

So we have the libido--which just means "drives" in early psychological usage, not specifically sex, although sex is certainly one of the strongest--which provides for selfishness, which encompasses reciprocal altruism. We also have this other, nebulous "moral feeling" that sometimes directs some of us to varying degrees of less-reciprocal altruism. (Or maybe we don't, but lots of philosophers think we do, and hey, sake of argument.) It's been suggested that this second urge is social, and not rational (assuming, of course, that they can be separated), but there are problems with this as well. Niebuhr uses the example of the individual whose moral feeling places him in conflict with, and therefore in danger from, his group to suggest that "conscience," his term for this nebulous "other" feeling, cannot be wholly rational or social.

So what if conscience isn't a glitch of the libido, but a key part of it? What if self-preservation, the drive to keep breathing, keep eating, and keep fucking, and make sure one's children survive to adulthood to do the same, has developed ways of presenting itself that are purely survival oriented, but not (consciously) rational, and therefore not calculable, in their expression to our consciousness? In a review of Christopher Strain's Pure Fire, a work concerning self-defense ideology in the civil rights movement, the author was criticized for including essentially suicidal actions under the rubric of self-defense. But there are, perhaps, different kinds of suicides, some quite life-affirming--there's some fine work on the social identity of suicide bombers that would seem to support this idea. Niebuhr's example, like Strain's, just means that the individual in question had determined, though not on a conscious or rational level, that staying in his current community "as is" constituted sufficient uncertainty and terror to be functionally equivalent to suicide, and a less pleasant one than a de facto suicide brought about by direct action.

So, essentially, what we have here is hard to pin down within the philosophical schools with which I'm familiar. In its early, pen-and-paper conception, I called it ethical nihilism, which is apparently a phrase both vague and in use, so here I use the more humble "Project Darkside," or simply D. It's egoistic, certainly, but not rational. It leads to a kind of enforced altruism (or "altruism," if you please), for reasons to be discussed, but doesn't require a god's-eye view like utilitarianism. It is ultimately consequentialist, but posits moral actions with no clear consequences in sight. More to the point, it encourages no particular actions, but seems to do a good job describing how people actually live; yet, by its insistent directionality it seems to be proscriptive as well as descriptive. It posits that morality is not a duty, per se, but but something that arises, emergently, from the chance interactions of horny people who don't want to die. Things like aggregate happiness, respect for free will, or adherence to rules derive their value from their contribution to the needs of the libido, and may be provisionally discarded when it's convenient to do so, i.e. when they cease to contribute. (And there it is, folks, the sentence that can be quoted out of context to undermine my credibility in anything I say or do in the future. Public office, here I...stay quietly away from!) Which is where it gets a bit creepy.

Because we can't accurately imagine the past or recreate lived experience from texts, D suggests that morality is entirely contextual. The treatment of women as property--or, if another of my pet theories is correct, the creation of the concept of "property" as analagous to women--might be so historically pervasive because, under different material/cultural conditions, it was actually beneficial overall. It's clearly not now, but when someone disagrees, all the ethical nihilist feminist may offer in reply is that the enslavement of women is detrimental to one's ability to keep breathing. (Conveniently, it allows said feminist to morally add, "...because if you keep doing it, we'll kill you.") So it's pretty damn relativistic about rights in general, and rights advance only by economic pressure and the threat of violence, but is that really so different from now?

Now, the theological implications. It's obviously compatible with atheism, and a rationalist would say it requires atheism, but a fan of D would make a rather crap rationalist. If religion is viewed primarily in terms of its value as tribal affiliation, things get muddier. It's fairly compatible with transcendentalism, or unitarianism, or the American civil religion, of course; interesting, since those traditions all draw heavily from Europe, but are also as American as cherry pie. Or, well, you know.

In more old-school religion, D is oddly compatible with the doctrine of total depravity. In fact, it might be the doctrine of total depravity, with a weirdly sunny eschatology tacked on. Simply put, if the sum of all human kindness and decency is an unconsciously calculated selfishness, it's easy to see exactly what's wrong with the sons of Adam and daughters of Eve. We can't be moral because we can't even conceive of what real disinterested love would be. Or, for that matter, real faith in God. Faith is instead something we believe provisionally and socially, and through that loophole, you could drive a camel.

Now then. Back to the games.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

The media effects paradigm has been validated!

So, the girlfriend is still sick, three and a half months since she became too ill to attend class, and we're still trying to figure out why. I'm coping with the uncertainty by spending an inordinate amount of time with my DS.

On that note, I picked up Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars, mostly for her benefit, as I'm not as into GTA as most of my particular subgroup, it would seem. I liked San Andreas a whole lot, but mostly because of the RPG elements that have been absent from the more recent iterations. But, after having failed to complete Fire Emblem more times than I care to admit, I gave Chinatown Wars a try, and was pleasantly surprised. Then, something disturbing happened.

Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars has completely desensitized me to market capitalism.

Oh, it started out as a way to break up the monotony of the story missions. A little E here, some downers there. Buy low, sell high. Not complicated. But soon, without any conscious effort, I began looking at the numbers more closely. In describing the game, I found myself using the term "ROI" in reference to my purchasing patterns. I began purchasing additional safehouses in key neighborhoods to lower the risk of getting pinched with six grand of smack on my person. (No, it still doesn't have any concept of "prison," but losing a hundred bucks and all your guns is a hell of a lot less threatening than losing a hundred bucks, your guns, and some small packages that were the fruits of an entire hour of gameplay.) I once found myself very frustrated when I couldn't afford to make a purchase I needed for a mission. I wasn't broke, you see; I had assets out the wazoo. The trouble was, I had no liquidity. Everything I had was tied up in weed, which nobody was interested in buying because the goddamn Jamaicans were flooding the market with their cheap shit, just like fucking Microsoft. Prices were low, and stayed low for some time. I hoped that perhaps I could influence the market by executing dealers with shotguns, but this failed to have any appreciable effect. I've recently opened up the ability to hijack shipments of specific gangs' merchandise, and I'm eager to see if that will give me a bit more of an edge.

So for now, I'm back to advancing the story, idly wondering which behaviors of the market are being modeled, and which ones aren't. If I buy up/steal and hoard all the coke I can find, can I create demand through scarcity? In a more robust sim, would it be prudent to put more resources into buying off the police, to both reduce my risk and inhibit competition? Should I tolerate the comparatively low ROI for weed transactions due to the inherently lowered risk of a smaller initial investment? Or should I be patient, maximizing profits by means of carefully planned, high risk ventures in powder? Even more disturbing than that, I find myself idly wondering about reading up on currency markets.

For God's sake, we really shouldn't let kids anywhere near this. Lord knows what they'll pick up.