Philosophical Story Challenge of the Week

So, Alayna and I saw Captain America: Civil War today, and I have to say that I was very impressed with the way the movie was handled. There was, of course, a suitable amount of action: car chases, fights, buildings being destroyed, etc. However, there was a well-developed plot that, while not exactly the story from the Marvel Civil War comic series, dealt with a number of the same major issues very well. In classical Greek tragedy the focal point of conflict it the collision of two equally real but mutually exclusive goods which inevitably ends in the destruction of one or both. This theme was a major part of the comic series and is a major part of the movie. Most everyone in the movie is actually trying to do the right thing, but they have radically different understandings of what the right thing actually is, and the film paints this extremely well. One of the deeper ethical issues that they handle with a good amount of tact and fairness is the issue of the relationship between volition, culpability, and responsibility. Let us assume that there is a murderer who is not in control of his actions: perhaps the individual is mentally deranged, brainwashed, in the midst of a night terror, etc. This individual kills several people, but does not actually choose to take any of the actions leading up to or including these killings. In the absence of volition but the presence of real suffering is the individual culpable for this suffering? Does he bear full guilt for the actions that were not in his control? Is he responsible in some way, but not in a way that implies legal or moral culpability and thus guilt? Is he freed of any and all responsibility because the actions were not his to meaningfully choose or reject? This is my challenge for you today.

As always, write a one thousand word story that presents your answer to the question. Also, watch the movie to see what their answer to the question was :).

Philosophical Challenge Post of the Week

KasichEvery now and then I get a class that is just frustrating (I teach university classes by the way). Most of my classes are good. There are always a few students who are frustrating, arrogant, or just don’t get it, but by and large classes are filled with students who actually want to learn and have some capacity to do so. However, there are those rare classes where the highest grade in the class is a 76 and the average grade is a 52. For some students this is because they’re just too lazy to try. For some it’s because they actually are in over their heads and can’t tell up from down–its like I’m speaking to them in Greek, even when I’m not. For some it’s because their lives have just gone completely haywire and they just can handle work that would normally be challenging, but doable. These classes drive me crazy. I find myself frustrated, and generally struggling with a desire to just fail the entire class outright and not even look at the rest of their assignments. I don’t do this, of course, but sometimes the struggle is real. So, what does this have to do with philosophy or writing? Well, I have a question for you: when should we do something that seems pointless? We’re not talking about a ‘choose the lesser of two evils’ decision, but instead a decision that just seems to have no purpose whatsoever. Teaching a class of students that you know will fail. Picking a fight you know you can’t win. Staying in a race in which you can win last place (at best)–John Kasich is a good example at the moment. When do the pointless things actually have a point, and how can we tell?

Here are a few ethical perspectives to prime you’re pump. Consequentialist reasoning (i.e. utilitarianism, ethical egoism, pragmatism, etc) says you don’t. If there’s no point in doing something then you shouldn’t waste the time and effort to do it. If everyone is going to fail, then don’t teach the class. If you can’t win the fight, then give up. If you’ll finish last, then quit.

However, deontological reasoning (i.e. kantianism, divine command theory, etc) argues that you should do your duty, regardless of the outcome. You teach the class because it’s you’re job. You pick the fight because your cause is just. You stay in the race because its your duty to finish.

A third perspectives comes from character reasoning (i.e. aristotelianism, humeanism, etc), and this argues that you should do what leads you to becoming a better person. You teach the class because you are a teacher, and you aren’t the kind of teacher who gives up on students. You pick the fight because you’re the kind of person who stands up for the little guy, even against Goliath. You stay in the race because you’re not a quitter. However, in each of these there is a limit. You don’t give up on students, but you also keep encouraging them to be better students. You stand up for the little guy, but you ask for help from a bunch of other little guys also. You stay in the race, but you pace yourself instead of killing yourself.

So, this is your question: when do pointless things actually have a point and how can we tell? As always, write me a story of 1000 words that presents your response to the question.

Fiction as Theology Part 1: Is Fiction Theology and If So, What does this Mean?

waffles-vs-pancakesYesterday I started reading John Frame’s A Theology of Lordship Volume 3: Doctrine of the Christian Life. I bring this up because Frame makes the claim in his introduction that life is theology and theology is ethics, thus life is ethics. Now, he explains that by this he does not mean that there God is desperately interested in whether I have pancakes or waffles for breakfast in the morning, and thus my decision between pancakes and waffles is both a theologically significant and morally important decision. However, if I am to understand the purpose of my existence as being to glorify God (consider that Colossians 1:16 tells us that everything exists 1) because God made it, and 2) for God’s purposes) then the way I approach my decision about having pancakes or waffles (or perhaps sausage and eggs or a bowl of fruit) fundamentally changes. No longer am I considering this decision simply as a matter of preference, but I am considering how to best glorify God–which inevitably involves my own enjoyment of his creation, my health as a human being, the example that I am setting for others, the habits that I am forming as an individual, etc. Suddenly my decision about what to have for breakfast is no longer merely a choice of which tastes I prefer this morning, but it is a matter of 1) who I am as an individual and who I want to become as an individual, 2) what the likely results of my actions are, 3) what the intrinsic nature of my actions is, and 4) how my actions express the image of God that I bear. Now, all of this may sound unbearably and unnecessarily complex for those non-Christians reading this post. However, I might point out that this is not wholly dissimilar to Aristotle’s perspective, though with an eye towards the Christian God. More importantly, I might point that that any belief system requires a focus. For me this focus is God, for a Muslim it may be Allah, for an Atheist it may be their own good or some abstracted concept of the common good. Now, as a Christian I will argue that some of these foci are more intrinsically valuable than others, but that doesn’t change the fact that there is a focus to each of them. Every action is performed for an end–even when that end isn’t consciously considered.

blind-beliefSome of you may also be wondering what in the world any of this has to do with writing fiction, and I’m getting to that, though this is only the first of three posts. Reading Frame’s argument got me thinking: is writing a theological practice? If life is theology and theology is ethics, then it must necessarily include that fiction writing is a practice of theology which is in turn an application of ethics. Thus, all fiction writing would be the practice of theology. How might this be so? Does this mean that Robert Heinlein’s Starship Troopers is a work of practical theology? Well, when practical theology is considered as a discipline, not so much. However, when practical theology is defined as the application of one’s beliefs about god, gods, or the lack thereof to some particular aspect of life in this world, then yes, in a sense it is. I must stress this in a sense because Heinlein’s Starship Troopers, while certainly a work of political philosophy, says little, if anything, about God. However, consider that everything we write is set on the basis of our fundamental notions*. A friend recently described Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn series to me as ‘very clearly a Mormon fantasy,’ and he was exactly correct. Sanderson is a Mormon and this particular series is very clearly a fantasy (well-written and well-plotted) that is heavily influenced by a Mormon conception of god, life, and the universe. What we believe often has a much greater influence on what we write than we realize. Often, even when we go out of our way to write something that is fundamentally not what we believe, it still clearly communicates to others what we believe.

trust_me__i__m_ten___t_shirt_design_by_lantis_erin-d52yu6xSo, what do we do with this knowledge? What does this mean for Christian, Atheist, Mormon, Hindu, Agnostic, Wiccan, or generally confused writers? First, I will point out that it is fundamentally impossible to not have beliefs. As soon as we are exposed to something we begin to form beliefs and opinions about it. These may be more or less informed, more or less accurate, more or less consistent with other beliefs, etc. However, the only way to have no beliefs at all is to not exist, and the only way to have no beliefs about some particular idea or thing is to never be exposed to it. So, in my next two posts I’m going to focus on two questions: 1) how can my writing help me to explore my own beliefs and discover inconsistencies in them? 2) how can my writing help me to communicate my beliefs effectively to others?

I hope that you’re looking forward to them. I’m looking forward to writing them, that’s for sure.

* This is true whether one holds to a historicist, empirical, constructivist, etc theory of knowledge. Regardless of what knowledge inherently is or how beliefs are initially acquired, once we have established a set of consistent beliefs or biases the rest of our interaction with the world (both input and output) tends to be defined around these beliefs and to reference them regularly.

Philosophical Story Challenge of the Week

Hey, this is Alayna. Tobias is fighting some pretty nasty respiratory infection, so this morning’s post is on me. I’ve been enjoying (in a somewhat sarcastic sense) a blog written by a ‘Christian’ (using that term somewhat loosely) man detailing what a Biblical marriage looks like and what it means to be a husband/wife…with a little parenting advice thrown in for good measure. This man is in his second marriage, the first of which ended when his ex-wife had numerous affairs. However, his blog mainly details the issues he is facing in his second marriage. He and I often have the same critiques on American culture, but we have very different ideas on how to solve them. One of the issues he looks at is preserving virtue and how to best accomplish that. So your question today reflects that: is it possible to preserve virtue in another person? Should we even try? And if so, what should that look like? As always, your answer should be written in a 1000-word story.

Bad guys are people too

Hello internet,

I’ve been on a bit of a Star Wars binge recently


Yes, yes, we established that two weeks ago. Keep up.

Anyway, it’s probably just because of the new trailers coming out for The Force Awakens and Battlefront – but I’m hyped. I’ve been a Star Wars fan since 2003, when I was ten years old and the original Clone Wars cartoon (not the CGI series) was airing in five-minute shorts between other shows on Cartoon Network. At the time, I thought it was the most amazing thing I’d ever seen in my entire life. It was produced by Genndy Tartakovksy, who also produced Samurai Jack, and it had the same pacing style and the same gorgeous animation. Minimalist but seamlessly functional, with as little exposition as possible, focusing on sharp bursts of action broken up by long periods of quiet suspense, with casual acts of badassery thrown in, and interjections of funny dialogue. Looking back, it was probably a big influence on my writing style. Except I need to learn to be a bit more economical with my exposition.

I can highly recommend watching it. It’s all on YouTube, and it puts the CGI follow-up series to shame. (And it is, so far, the only media from the Star Wars universe to feature high-velocity speeder bike jousting.)

But this post wasn’t supposed to be about Clone Wars. I watched the series again this week, as well as playing through some of my old favourite Star Wars video games and watching the original film trilogy, and I enjoyed them as much as ever.

I’ve harboured secret desires to be a Jedi ever since I first saw Obi Wan Kenobi leaping off that speeder bike, but one of the things that’s always fascinated me about the Star Wars universe is the minor characters. Particularly, in the original movies, the officers and starship crews of the Imperial Navy. Maybe it’s just superb acting from one or two minor actors, but I’ve always found them to be quite tragic characters, in their own way. I’m thinking mainly of Admiral Piett and Commander Jerjerrod. You remember Commander Jerjerrod?


In their minds, they’re serving their emperor, bringing order and justice to a galaxy which is full of “scum and villainy” even by the appraisal of Master Kenobi, who’s apparently the most philosophically enlightened being in the entire universe, given his power to become one with the living force and appear as a glowy blue ghost. The opening scrawl of Episode IV denounces the Galactic Empire categorically as “evil”, but it probably doesn’t seem like an evil organisation to the men who work for it. The Old Republic was more democratic, but it was also more corrupt: corruption which has been swept away by the New Order. Under the empire, does the galaxy still have the problem of huge militarised corporations laying siege to planets which won’t agree to exploitative trading rights, while the politicians – many of them with Trade Federation credits in their pockets – bicker over an appropriate response? Is slavery still common practice on the outer rim worlds? It doesn’t seem like it, from what we see in the original trilogy.

I’m not trying to make the case that the empire are the good guys (even though I do always play as the empire on Battlefront 2 and Empire at War). They did, after all, perpetuate genocide on a planetary scale. And more importantly, they’re supposed to be the bad guys. That’s their function in the story. But what I like is that not every servant of the Galactic Empire actually seems like a ‘bad guy’. Palpatine’s supposed to be maleficence given form, and I’m prepared to believe that he has a core group of supporters and agents whose motivations are wholly evil. But the wider empire must be held together by billions of front-line officers who think that they’re the good guys, or else they wouldn’t get out of bed every morning, pull on their jackboots, and report for duty. For people like Piett and Jerjerrod, the empire probably seems like a breath of fresh air, and Palpatine probably seems like a hero: a reformer who finally made sure that the galactic government had the ability to end corruption and exercise real power to end slavery and other shady practices on the outer rim worlds.

My point – and yes, I do actually have one – is that as writers of any genre, it’s important (and often very rewarding) to make sure that the ‘bad guys’ aren’t uniformly evil. Even if they’re the ones wearing evil uniforms. A multifaceted presentation of any large group is always better than a flat, uniform depiction, but that’s particularly true when you’re dealing with a large organisation or empire that serves as the antagonist in your story. I get bored very quickly if the “good guys” in a story are all morally upstanding paragons of virtue – in Star Wars, we have figures like Han Solo to prevent that from happening – but I get disinterested even more quickly if the “bad guys” are carbon-copy evil scumbags from the emperor of the galaxy all the way down to the lowliest stormtrooper. Shades of grey are always more believable, and more entertaining. Misplaced loyalty from fundamentally honourable characters can be very compelling. Particularly if those characters start to suspect that they might be on the wrong side of history.

This is what I like about Piett and Jerjerrod, and to a lesser extent the regular officers on the command bridge of Darth Vader’s star destroyer, who look up from their stations in terror whenever he billows past. Not only do they seem like semi-decent human beings (or, at least, we never see them do anything outright evil without it seeming like they’re conflicted about it), but when we see them come into close contact with the leaders of the empire – Darth Vader, and the Emperor himself – we see that their loyalties begin to waver. They begin to wonder whether they want to be on the same side as people who are willing to commit such foul acts. In any story that depicts people fighting for a cause that they believe in, I’m always interested to see people stop and question their loyalties.

So I have a writing challenge for you, this week. Go and read whatever story you’re writing, or one you’ve already written. Look at the “bad guys”, whoever they are, whether they’re an evil interplanetary empire or just one person who serves as your book’s primary antagonist. Remain conscious of their motivations, and ask yourself whether they’re certain of what they’re doing. Is certainty realistic? Look at the good guys as well. Could you improve your story by making them more doubtful of their actions? I’d love to hear what you think, in the comments!

NerdCon: Stories, and disassociating the dream of “being a writer” from the practice of actually writing

Hello, internet!

Sorry that Tobias had to cover for me on Sunday, but I had a good reason.

I am a Nerdfighter. If you don’t know what a Nerdfighter is then this video may, or indeed may not, help.

I’ve been a devout follower of Hank and John Green for over a year now. That means I’m very late to the game compared with other Nerdfighters, some of whom have been subscribed to the vlogbrothers YouTube channel since it’s creation in 2007. For those of you who aren’t familiar with them, Hank and John started out recording daily video blogs – some magnificently silly, others serious and thought-provoking – and have slowly expanded their online aegis into a vast array of web series, charity fundraising efforts, and educational shows about science and history. Hank Green also runs VidCon, a huge convention for online content creators. Their self-ascribed mission is to fight worldsuck wherever it may be, and make sure that nobody ever forgets to be awesome.

As well as a Nerdfighter I’m also a writer, and an aspiring author. So when Hank Green announced that he was going to use his famed convention-creating abilities to throw together an event that celebrated stories and the human capacity for narrative thought, I was beyond thrilled.

Initially it didn’t look like I was going to be able to go. NerdCon: Stories was being held in Minneapolis, from which I was separated by a not-insubstantial ocean.

Probably sharks

Even if I could somehow cross the Atlantic, tickets to NerdCon were limited. And there was also the small problem of being in a job that didn’t pay very well and didn’t give me much time off to attend fun conventions. My prospects seemed bleak.

Fortunately, my former employer dealt with both of those problems in one fell swoop, by making me unemployed and paying me my last month’s wages without expecting me to come into work. With free time and money to spend, I decided that NerdCon would be worth the cost. I think I might have been the only British person who thought so, although I did run into someone from the Republic of Ireland. (At a vending machine. He wanted to know if $3.50 was too much to pay for a bottle of soda, and out of all of the attendees in the Minneapolis Convention Centre he managed by sheer chance to ask the only other non-American. I had to tell him that I didn’t know.)

As well as the vlogbrothers, NerdCon had a heap of featured guests whose names might be more familiar to you. I spent the weekend soaking up the imparted wisdom of heavyweight sci-fi and fantasy authors such as Patrick Rothfuss, John Scalzi, Lev Grossman, and Holly Black, and being entertained by humorists, musicians, and creators like Paul & Storm and Darin Ross (the genius behind Superfight). 

Despite the theme of the conference, I don’t want to just tell you the story of what happened at NerdCon. I could write a 10,000 word post about all of the technical writing advice that I got from just one of the panels, or a long thought-piece dwelling on all of the ramifications of the discussion into the ethics of writing that Patrick Rothfuss led on the last day of the conference. (How many deaths from lung cancer can be causally attributed to the romanticised depiction of tobacco-smoking in the early chapters of The Hobbit?) The morning and evening shows in the main auditorium were enrapturing, full of poetry and theatre and comedy and messages every day about why stories matter. I was moved to tears by the power of John Green’s address on how we should never look down upon fiction that allows us to escape ourselves when our own bodies start to feel like our own private prisons. As someone who’s had my own bitter struggles with depression and anxiety, I knew exactly what he meant.

I can talk about all of that stuff in later posts, if that’s what people want. What I’d like to write about now is the changes that I started to notice in my own attitudes to writing, over the course of the conference. I took a lot away from NerdCon that wasn’t in the program (including a lot of happy memories and a nasty case of con flu), but I think that Hank Green was kind of hoping that everyone would leave NerdCon feeling like they attended a slightly different convention, and that they’d all draw their own narrative conclusions from it. Here are mine.

NerdCon was an excellent resource for any aspiring author, with the featured guests offering a huge amount of very practical advice that I can take away and apply directly to my own writing. For me, though, it also had the potential to be a bit of a trap. This was not NerdCon’s fault at all – it was mine – but the problem was only compounded by the warmth and personability of the featured guests. I felt like I’d made friends with all of them by Saturday night, even though part of my brain knew that it was a fundamentally unequal relationship. I didn’t go to any signings or smaller meetings where they might have learnt my name or formed an impression of me, and even if I had, I would still have just been one fan among 3,000. But being in a friendly environment with these successful writers for a whole weekend made me feel like I could bask a little in their fame and success. The mere act of being at NerdCon gave me a sense of authorial gratification that was perhaps undeserved. “Here I am, at a writer’s convention”, I could think, as I rocked up at the conference centre with my cup of coffee each morning. “With real successful writers, just like I’m going to be one day.” I watched them on stage, enjoying their well-earned limelight, and delusions of grandeur began to take root in my mind. I began to wonder how long it would be before I (inevitably) got invited to speak at writing conventions. I imagined myself on stage with the panellists when they played Superfight. Instead of listening to their advice in panels, I started to let myself think of the kind of advice that I would give if I was sitting in their place.

And eventually, after I’d wasted a lot of time doing this, I remembered how many other attendees there were in the room. They were all writers too, some of them far further down the road to publication and financial success than I was, and I realised that I was being an idiot. Daydreaming about success was very gratifying, but it was ultimately completely useless.

The latest page of Wondermark, a webcomic that I adore, sums this up nicely.


Unlike the aspirant novelist in the comic, I did actually manage to write something at NerdCon, which I was hoping to read out at one of the open mic events (alas, they were fully booked before I had the chance to sign up). But that doesn’t vindicate me at all if I still go away from NerdCon and spend the next week daydreaming about how amazing it will be when I’m a famous author on stage at a writing convention. I should be striking while the iron is hot, writing as much as I can while the advice and inspiration from all of the speakers is still fresh in my mind.

Perhaps this conclusion might seem totally self-evident to the writers who were speaking at NerdCon, and many of the other attendees, if they were to read it. Perhaps the panellists never had this problem themselves, because they didn’t have any delusions of grandeur to start with. Perhaps when fame came to them it was as a genuine surprise, rather than the achievement of something that they’d aspired towards since they’d first decided that they wanted to write books. Perhaps they just set out with realistic expectations, pressed their noses to the grindstone, and worked tirelessly over the course of years and decades to produce some truly excellent books. And that’s exactly what I need to do. Statistically speaking, not everyone who attended the conference and heard the panellists speak is going to end up as a financially successful author, even if they are naturally talented writers. I think the ones who do succeed are probably going to be the ones who sit down at their writing desks and banish any thought of fame and glory from their minds. At least until after they’ve published something.

I suppose it’s possible that all of the other attendees were already fully intending to do that, and I was the only one narcissistic enough to get wrapped up in wondering how I’d answer when attendees at future conventions asked me about my writing process. But I’ll post this anyway, just in case there’s anyone else like me, who needs a cold shower to get the thoughts of fame out of their head, and a motivational boot up the arse to get them back to their writing.

NerdCon itself was wonderful, and I could go on for weeks about it. If you have any questions, or you’d like me to post some of the notes I made during the panels, then please let me know in the comments!

Philosophical Story Challenge of the Week

So, I have a practical question for you today. Lately the news has been filled with, among all of the important information about ISIS, the Syrian civil war, Refugee crises in Europe, and the Presidential Campaigns, an awful lot of news about Josh Duggar and his television savvy family. Further, a few years ago a remarkably similar scandal broke in Sovereign Grace Ministries, particularly in the Covenant Life Church. It came to light that the pastoral leaders of the church had ignored and/or covered up multiple reports that the church’s youth pastor was engaged in inappropriate activities with some of the boys in the church’s ministries. If you want more information about either situation, it won’t be hard to find online, but I’m not interested in getting into the details of these specific events here. What I do want to do is present you with a thought experiment: One day Sam, the pastor of a large church with around 1000 members, was approached by a young man that he recognized as being active in the youth program of the church. The young man, Leo, seems clearly uncomfortable, and he confides in Sam that he’s thinking about leaving the youth ministry at the church. His parents love the church, but he just doesn’t want to stay with the youth any longer, and he’s not sure what to do, since he’s not old enough to drive. When Sam asks Leo why he wants to leave the youth ministry, the boy becomes evasive, but it seems clear to Sam that it has something to do with their youth pastor, Lonny. Sam asks if Leo would be willing to sit down with himself and Lonny to talk out whatever is bothering him, but the boy refuses, and withdraws into himself, unwilling to say more. The next day Sam asks Lonny about this, and Lonny tells Sam that he had discovered Leo looking at pornography on one of the youth programs community computers. The computers have strong filters on them, and Lonny isn’t sure how Leo bypassed them, but he confronted Leo about it and told Leo that he wouldn’t be allowed to use the computers for a time, and also informed the boys parents, who asked him to let them handle the situation from there. Sam consider this to be a realistic explanation for the boys behavior, and accepts Lonny’s word for it, but a week later Leo approaches him again. This time Leo seems even more depressed, and he simply asks Sam if God will send him to hell for something that some one else has done to him. This question seems out of character for the story that Lonny presented, and so Sam asks Leo gently what someone has been doing to him. Leo tells him that Lonny has been driving him home after youth group on Wednesday nights for the past few weeks, and that when he does, he talks about very explicit sexual matters with Leo, and has asked him if it would be alright if Lonny touched him in certain ways to ‘teach’ him about ‘Godly sexuality.’ At this point, Sam isn’t sure who to believe. Lonny has been their youth pastor for two years, and this is the first time anyone has complained about him. The parents love him, and all the kids seem to get along with him very well. He wonders if Leo might be making up a story to get Lonny in trouble, but if Leo isn’t the implications are enormous. In this situation, what should Sam do? If he calls the police and such accusations become public, they could have a drastic impact on Lonny’s life, even if they aren’t true. But if they are true, Leo is a victim of a predator that Sam himself has brought into their midst.

As always, write a 1000 word story that presents and defends your solution to Sam’s situation.

Writing ethically about warfare and violence in science fiction and fantasy: Part 1

Hello, internet!

I’ve been thinking a lot about violence recently.

Freddy Kreuger

I promise that it’s not as creepy as it sounds.

I’m endeavoring to write a book series that features – among other things – a goodly amount of shooting, stabbing, explosions, death, and organised warfare. Characters engage in battle, participate in acts of bloody violence, and deprive each other quite liberally of life and limb. I am trying to write about war at its ugliest, but I am trying to depict it thoughtfully, and in a way that doesn’t disguise my opinion that there’s no such thing as a good or necessary war.

Some of you might be thinking “great, pass the popcorn.” But if you’re anything like me, and you have a propensity for overthinking things, you might be wondering why I’d choose to write about something so violent in the first place – especially if I don’t believe in the idea of a necessary war. I’ve been wondering the same thing.

Fantasy, of course, has its origins in violence. The earliest fantastic stories are of the warrior fighting the beast: Beowulf and Grendel, St. George and the dragon, or Rostam and the White Demon. Here we have three examples of human heroes who embody all of the heroic masculine virtues of the cultures who created them, pitted against supernatural creatures of unknown origin which are depicted as vile, murderous and often entirely unsympathetic. We do not, generally, want the monsters to win…although we might briefly come around to the monster’s side in the moments where classical heroes throw tantrums about treasure or honour or shouting their name at cyclopeses that they’ve recently blinded. Despite their occasional idiocy, we still support the hero, and we still cheer when the monster is brought to ruin.

Dragon Slayed

This has its problems, as I’ll discuss below. Stories of organised warfare have also featured in folklore and fantasy since the earliest oral storytellers, the earliest example I can think of being Homer’s Illiad. The Illiad actually does a decent job of depicting neither side in the Trojan War as being ultimately evil, which is more than can be said for a lot of fantasy that has been written in the centuries since. I’m going to start this series on violence and warfare by taking a few shots at a relatively easy, low-hanging target: the Tolkien legendarium.

Tolkien offers us a fairly clear-cut, simplistic idea of good and evil. When Tolkien’s audience is presented with a choice between the desperate armies of men and the dark hordes of Mordor, few of us would suggest that the Fellowship of the Ring were unjustified in lopping off all of those greasy orc limbs or blithely counting off their kills atop the walls of Helm’s Deep. Anyone who’s seen the movies will remember Frodo’s vision of what the future would look like under the reign of Sauron: the Shire despoiled and the Hobbits impressed into slavery.

Visit New Zealand!
Visit New Zealand!

Faced with such a foe, the fellowship never seem to doubt the morality of their crusade against the orcs, and neither do we as the audience.

And therein lies the problem.

Warfare in the real world is never as clear-cut as it is in the War of the Ring, and I think fantasy authors are under a very important moral obligation to avoid depicting violence or warfare in ways that simplify war into a battle between good and evil. I’d hope that this is obvious to many writers, and it is true that very few contemporary fantasy authors are guilty of writing about war in these terms. Even if they did, publishers would be unlikely to take them on, and politically engaged modern readers would probably be very critical of their books. But it can happen, and it’s worth remaining vigilant against it and analysing why it’s a bad thing when it does happen.

The problem with creating a race like the orcs – or a villain like Sauron – is that it encourages attitudes deep in the western cultural subconscious that are leftover from the time of colonialism, or from earlier medieval attitudes towards the Islamic world, which probably have their basis in the rivalry between prehistoric tribes. The attitude of ‘otherness,’ which morphed into Orientalism during the 18th and 19th centuries, has been written about at length by cultural historians like Edward Said. It is essentially a racist attitude which allows negative characteristics to be ascribed to groups who aren’t “us,” vindicating ourselves in the process and making us feel as though “we” are somehow morally superior, and ultimately strengthening the divide between “us” and “them,” whoever us and them happen to be. Encouraging the idea of the racial “other” as different, physically repulsive, and morally inferior is a strategy that has been used for centuries to make westerners feel morally justified in engaging in various kinds of colonial exploitation and domestic warfare.

Destroy this mad brute
An example of “otherness” mobilised to encourage British men to enlist as soldiers during the First World War

We can see ghosts of this divisive kind of “otherness” when we see the way that the orcs are depicted in the Lord of the Rings film adaptations – they are physically repulsive, greasy and black-skinned, and they seem to be universally morally bankrupt, delighting in violence, theft, cannibalism, and tormenting their captives. They are literally birthed from holes in the ground, which is a stereotype that used to be applied to people of Asian ethnicity during the European middle ages. We don’t see any sympathetic orc characters throughout the entire trilogy, and so, at the end of The Return of the King, we cheer when we see the surviving orcs being swallowed up by the ground outside the gates of Mordor. In short, the idea of a genocide against orcs seems entirely justified.

Whenever fiction leads us to believe that a genocide of any race, even a fictional one, seems entirely justified, I think we have to take a step back and ask some serious questions about the fiction we’re reading, or watching on the screen.

The greatest risk is that our attitude towards orcs bleeds over into our attitudes towards other nationalities or ethnic groups in the real world, allowing us to ascribe negative characteristics to them and make sweeping generalisations about them in the same way that we felt comfortable making sweeping generalisations about the orcs. Even on a very small scale, orcs can be used as a way of insulting subcultures that we don’t like. In the UK, I’ve heard fans of Manchester United Football Club refer to fans of Liverpool FC, and people from Liverpool generally, as ‘orcs’. If humans can draw those kinds of comparisons with the supporters of rival football teams, it stands to reason that we can draw similar comparisons with disadvantaged ethnic minorities, or members of other cultures.

Peter Jackon’s casting decisions for the orcs and Uruk-Hai in the Lord of the Rings films stray uncomfortably far into this territory. Amazingly, orcs were the only speaking parts given to actors of colour in the entire trilogy. If you don’t believe me you can watch this fairly depressing video by Dylan Marron on Youtube:

We should be very worried that Peter Jackson didn’t see fit to cast any black actors as hobbits, Rohirrim, or soldiers of Gondor – especially when people of colour were very much present in all of their real-world analogues, such as the Anglo-Saxon and Viking armies of the late first millennium. What was it that subconsciously led to black actors only being cast as orcs? What was it that made Peter Jackson think, “If I need actors to play characters who look disgusting, act immorally, make guttural chanting noises, and terrify my main characters, I should definitely hire some black actors”?

There are also the Haradrim and Easterlings, who are mute throughout the films – but if anything, they represent an even bigger example of divisive orientalism. Within the universe of Middle Earth, we’re forced to wonder why any humans would realistically ally themselves with Sauron, who appears to be a manifestation of pure evil. The disturbing implication is that the men of the east somehow have more in common with the orcs than they do with the men of the west.

I have a lot more to say on the subject, but I doubt that Tobias would thank me for turning this post into a 5,000 word essay. I’ll talk more about this topic in future posts. Until then, think hard about how you’re presenting the bad guys in your own writing. And write well!

Philosophical Story Challenge of the Week

Well, I’m not sure how many of you are Republicans, or Republican sympathetic independents, but the Reps had their first major debate on Thursday with a whopping seventeen candidates facing off in two different sets of debates (one aired at 5pm and the other at the normal time). Honestly, I think that there are several good candidates on the field this time around (which is more than I can say for the last Presidential election). Ben Carson, Jeb Bush, Chris Christie, and Marco Rubio particularly impressed me with their passion, thoroughness, and character (though not all three in any one candidate). For your plot challenge today I want to provide you with a dilemma that I found myself in during the last Presidential election: what do you do when you don’t have a candidate?

There are two major schools of thought on this issue. The first is essentially pragmatic and argues that when you don’t have someone to vote for then you choose someone to vote against. The argument goes that you vote for the lesser of two evils and try to mitigate the damage done when there isn’t anyone good to vote for.

The other school of thought argues that voting for the lesser evil is still voting for evil. The argument generally goes that when one is asked to vote for either Lucifer or Mephistopheles, one should choose not to vote rather than vote for a devil. Now, arguments can certainly be made that candidates are not devils (though they might be questioned by those who paid close attention to Paul Ryan’s campaign tactics… especially when he flatly stated that the Republican campaign commercials weren’t concerned with the truth), but the analogy still stand. If one truly feels that neither candidate should be president, then does one have any business voting for either of them?

So, this is your task for today: write me a 1000 word story that presents and defends the position that you support on this issue. It could be one of the above positions, or it could be another position of your own devising. Have fun!

Philosophy Challenge of the Week

Well, first of all, I’m sorry for the late post. I was pretty wiped last night, and I wound up going to bed early and completely forgot to post before doing so. However, I do have an interesting issue for you today. Epistemology is the study of how we know–specifically it is the study of knowledge, what it means to know something, how we can be said to know something, and the process that knowing follows. Ethics is the study of morality–specifically it is the study of right and wrong, what we mean by these words, whether there is a moral truth, what that moral truth might be, how we can practice it, and whether we should practice it. Now, a number of philosophers posit a strong connection between the two, even to the point of arguing that they are actually one field of study. We speak of good and bad theories and beliefs, and we also speak of morally correct and incorrect actions. We often evaluate beliefs on their impact in the world (moral), rather than on their correspondence with reality (epistemical based on a correspondence theory of truth) or their internal cohesion (epistemical based on a coherence theory of truth). So, these philosophers argue that morality and epistemology are one field–that they are both evaluations of right and wrong, good and evil in regard to the reality or coherence of the world around us.

Other philosophers argue that there distinct connections between the two fields, but that they are distinct and necessarily separate fields. These philosophers will often point out that there are wrong beliefs that are not immoral (for instance, the belief that 2+2=7) and immoral actions that are require intellectual rigor (such as successfully scamming a professor by passing off famous research as your own original work).  These thinkers argue that epistemology is a field dealing with theoretical things (i.e. knowledge generally) and ethics is a field dealing with practical things (i.e. what we should do), but that the two necessitate one another. For instance, I cannot do what I should do (ethics) unless I first know what is best to do  or what the rules say I should do (epistemology). Thus, some of them posit a sub-field that combines the two and call this moral epistemology (i.e. the study of how we know right and wrong).

Lastly, some thinkers have argued that there is absolutely no connection between the two fields. Knowing truth is one thing and doing what you should do is something else entirely. These thinkers may point out that sometimes it is a sign of virtue to believe something that seems patently untrue (for instance: a man who, contrary to all evidence, believes that his wife is not and would not cheat on him may be seen as morally virtuous, but he may also be seen as irrational). These philosophers argue for a strong distinction between ethics and epistemology that is as strong as the distinction between ethics and mathematics. They argue that it is entirely plausible for a person to be intellectually perfect (i.e. having a perfect knowledge of truth) and yet morally repugnant, and vice versa.

However, it is also generally true that, when faced with a great scientist, philosopher, or theologian who lived a morally abysmal life, or a morally upstanding man who is clearly a blithering idiot, we tend to be stymied. There is naturally a feeling that something is off, even if we can’t quite put our fingers on what that some thing is.

So, here is your question for today: given this common experience, what is (or is there) the connection between ethics and epistemology? Between morality and knowledge?

As always, write me a story of 1000 words that clearly presents and defends your answer to the question.