On Freedom, Evil, and Determinism

R. Scott Bakker in his forward to a Grimdark anthology edited by Adrian Collins and Mike Myers, Evil is a Matter of Perspective: An Anthology of Antagonists tells us:
“Infants display bias for and against at the tender age of three months! The more we study the psychology and neuroscience of good and evil, the more clear their biological bases and evolutionary origins become, to the point where it now takes a genuine leap of faith to say evil is more than a matter of mere perspective.

‘Evil,’ you could say, is the name our ancestors used to label victims.

Which is to say, to do evil.

We don’t ask where we’re going to be born, nor to whom we’re going to be born, nor the particular color of skin, hair, eyes, etc.; and, even less, do we have a choice as to which cultural inheritance is going to enforce its set of (a)religious, (a)moral, political, social, or ideological systems and beliefs on us from an early age. We all suffer our cultural inheritance as we emerge within the milieu of our parental, civic, and national regions till we supposedly reach that age when we are able to stand on our own and choose and know for ourselves what we think and do. Of course then the whole rigmarole of education begins anew as we leave our parents and enter into that ambiguous world where either private tutors or State controlled systems of education begin imposing their mores and memories, sciences and or religious ideologies. It seems we’re enveloped in a world that is not us for most of our young lives, and some never leave that envelope to step out on their own and begin the long struggle of freedom.

What is freedom? I can only answer for myself. Freedom for me is freedom from all these parental, social, and national ideologies and impositions. And, by this I mean to be able to either choose to accept them or reject them; or, even, enter into that gray zone of a life-long navigation of re-educating my self about what in me accepts or rejects this world I’ve been enveloped in for so many decades.

As I said some never leave the safety of the cocoon, the parental, social, and national wrappers that enfold their lives in a world of belief and practice. Blindly they believe their parents and their leaders like simpletons. Others begin to question aspects of this world, slowly try to explore other options, but for whatever reason fall back, fearful of being alone and lonely in this quest beyond the strictures of that all-encompassing envelope of thought and belief. And, still, others undaunted by the struggle emerge from those entrapments of social and cultural prisons to step into something else, something more unique but dangerous: the world of freedom. Philosophers for the past couple centuries have struggled to define this thing, “freedom”. Freedom isn’t something that can be defined, it’s something one lives; and, truthfully, it’s the scariest thing in the whole world. To be alone with the alone…

As Scott suggests there is also that biological necessity or determinism, a set of unknowns within us (which psychologists and philosophers for as long as humans could think have tried to understand) that already bind us to certain innate biases. Ancient cultures battled with this as ‘fate’, as if even before we were born something had thrown orlogs, or sticks, or dice, to assign each of us our place within the scheme of things; and, that, no matter how we might try and fight it, we are all doomed to follow this script to the bitter end. In the past few decades we’ve seen philosophers battle it out over Freedom and Determinism. No one has clarified this nor resolved it as of yet. Although many have come to their own point of being satisfied on one side or the other. Me. I just don’t know. Sometimes I believe I’ve overcome these deep seated determinants, and at others the old inner drives of fear, terror, hate, love, etc. (all those labels we like to cast over those impersonal drives that conquer our delusions of free choice and freedom!). So, yea, the story on that is still open-ended…

But what of evil? In fantasy we have the classic worlds of Tolkien where Evil (in the absolute sense) is an objective thing – it has a name: Sauron. And, all those who follow him are under the dominion of evil, etc., while all those who oppose him and his cohorts are part of the Good Society. But in our world, our contemporary society evil is many things: political, religious, social, etc. There are no absolutes in our modern world, although there are many would would say otherwise, even our liberal society with its notions of atheism and secularism harbor objective evils against tyranny, authoritarian regimes, etc. And, yet, even that lately is vanishing as most of the liberal democratic states have themselves gone under the sway of authoritarian and fascistic tendencies. But are these things part of objective values? Or, are they has the philosophers of the past two-hundred years espoused a part of a symbolic order imposed on an otherwise indifferent and nihilistic universe that in itself has no moral compass of any type. So that our notions of a Universal and Objective Standard of ethics and morality have slowly eroded into nothing over time to the point that we seem to live in a world where objective values no longer exists and only those local values of parental, civic, and national seem to safeguard that last bastion of objectivity.

There is and has been for a decade or so a form of narrative, some would say a tendency within fantasy that has embarked on a dark and gritty realism, a portrayal of existence that has no Objective Values or criteria by which we can judge existence within a moral compass. It’s termed grimdark, as Scott tells it in the forward of the above book,

In grimdark, then, the storyteller seeks to complicate, even undermine, our instinctively universalistic understanding of good and evil. One of the goals of grimdark, in other words, is to explore the perspectival structure of evil, either by jamming the moral intuitions of readers, and/ or by depicting morally ambivalent heroes (‘ rogues’) and morally ambiguous worlds. Where morally fantastic heroic fantasy tends to be scriptural, providing a mythologized portrait of the past, morally realistic heroic fantasy tends to be historical, providing a demythologized portrait of the past.1

In a world without Objective values, a world that is indeed grimdark to the hilt, much like our own, there is no objective criteria by which to speak evil, no way of knowing what is or isn’t evil; and, yet, because of this complication we strive to discover something that is not subjective, relative, or nihilistic. And, we fail… fail miserably. As Scott suggests:

Nowadays, we have no arbiter, no way, as Nietzsche might have put it, to evaluate competing valuations. The goodness of ‘evil,’ the ability to impose clarity where none can be found, is no longer an option belonging to us. Interminable debate is the inevitable outcome, particularly in those societies possessing guarantees on free speech.

So what to do? Scott puts it this way: “Evil is a matter of perspective. To appreciate this fact is to surmount the tribalism that is our inheritance, to join those who refuse, as far as they are able, to play groupish games. To write grimdark, to pursue complicated moralities in fantastic settings, is to risk the universal instincts of one’s fellows in a manner no other genre can.” The point here is to attain some form of freedom from all those imposed values we were born into: our parental, civic, and national mores. Realize that there is no Universal Symbolic Order or society or civilization who holds the truth on ethics, morality, or truth. To play these out in the realms of fiction and art to test them against each other, to complexify and open ourselves to the indifference of a universe without value so that our values are no longer bound to one perspective, but must be seen within a broader multicultural era of global proportion. Not a world of Sameness and Unity, but of Difference and Chaos; a perspectivism that allows us to test ourselves against this void of life and existence without falling back on platitudes and old worlds of thought and belief. To be free – alone and without justification.

  1. Edited by Adrian Collins; Mike Myers. Evil is a Matter of Perspective: An Anthology of Antagonists (Kindle Locations 128-132). Grimdark Magazine. Kindle Edition.

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