Saturday, December 13, 2008

Heroism Within the Enemy's Morality

In his essay "The Philosophic Foundations of Heroism," Andrew Bernstein makes the case that the primary component of heroism is "moral stature":

An uncompromising commitment to morality is the foundation of heroism. Although the point can be stated simply—the hero is a "good guy"—its reasons are philosophical and apply to all instances of the concept.
I strongly agree with Bernstein, but would like to pose a question I did not find within the essay. How do we put into context the enemy, if they are following their own "moral" system? For Objectivists, such as Bernstein (and myself), the answer is simple: some systems of morality are anything but. But this is a bit glib, and should be answered in full. I would also submit that the word "protagonist" can be used to describe a "hero" among the enemy, but again, I don't want to oversimplify.

Under the strict etymological sense, a hero is a “defender/protector.” But that becomes a floating abstraction, because it doesn’t say WHAT is being defended or protected. That is why a Hitler or Stalin or bin Laden can be heroes in the service of evil ends, but villains to the opposition. But, since men are not omniscient, it is possible for a hero to follow a flawed moral system, at least for a time, though it will require evasion. But this is why we have the concept of tragic heroes, or flawed heroes. Ayn Rand’s depiction of Andre Taganova in We the Living would be an example here. I have to wonder if Bernstein’s definition of hero would allow for a broad survey of heroes that would include less-than-desirable characters. If they are not moral in the Objectivist sense, they can still be considered “protagonists” from the view of their moral system.

To really get at this answer, we have to look at the moral system in question. Is it a matter of "competing moral systems?" Is a matter of the good versus the better? This can be a possibility, which is the underpinning of the idea of competition in Ayn Rand's view of capitalism. (There is a touch of this in Landon's post on The Prestige, where he asks the question "when is the price of greatness too much?".) There is also the issue of "bad versus bad," i.e., gang warfare, etc. Often, both sides of the war will see themselves as "the good guy," and many may rationalize their beliefs, and honestly believe they are in the right. The extreme version of this would be the war between Russia and Germany during World War II; both Hitler and Stalin saw themselves as heroes of their respective moral systems.

(Indeed, while most "villains" are drawn to be "evil world conquerors," that is a depiction from the hero's point-of-view. Better-drawn characters like Magneto from the X-Men are more realistic in the depiction of such villains, often having a legitimate complaint. In Magneto's case, he is a "mutant" allegory, a mix of a Jewish holocaust survivor and Malcolm X, both who would have a legitimate right for retribution against the Germans and the racist policies of America at the time, yet become, in their "solution," a mirror of the very thing they sought to fight.)

Now this leads us to the question of whether or not a bin Laden or Hitler can be considered heroes. These types of “heroes” do not, in fact, create, they destroy; their “moral systems” are based on inversions of life. However, is one is speaking broadly, and does not define morality, it is possible to thing of them as “heroes,” but again, only as long as evasion is in force.

But there is another issue here, an argument from "authority" or "consensus." The danger is in defining morality not by what is right for life based on the requirements of reality, but in appealing to who or how many people define something as moral, without looking at whether or not it truly IS moral. "50 million Elvis fans can't be wrong," as the saying goes.) But just because someone claims a moral stance, doesn't mean they are. To define what makes a moral system is beyond the scope of this one post, but in a nutshell, it depends on one's values. If one values life and creation, heroic standards will flow from that. If one is a complete nihilist, the opposite will flow. However, it's not often so clear-cut in real-life examples, with the possibility of error and evasion coming into play. This is not to say there are no absolutes, but that people often mix them into grays, resulting in "gray heroes."

(Another comic book example: Eddie Brock, aka VENOM, of the Spiderman series: Brock is a reporter who justifies his acts under the label of "victim," claiming that Spiderman stole his "innocence." It is clear, however, [except to Spiderman, apparently, who all too often accepts unearned guilt from his enemies] that Brock is guilty of evasion and avoiding responsibilty for his own actions, which is why he is the "black-suited" inversion of Spiderman, a "shadow" in the Jungian sense.)

With that said, I think it becomes clear: broadly speaking, a hero is a defender of a particular value system. That hero can be mistaken in his chosen values, due to error or evasion. He will be seen, however, as a hero by the proponents of that value system, making him the protagonist, and anyone who opposes him as the antagonist. Bernstein (and Rand) go the extra step in defining what a hero is for a morality of "living on Earth," by addressing the relation of creation to heroism. The question is, what value system do YOU support, and what embodies a hero in your eyes? And how do you deal with contradictions, and disputes among men?