The following is a video I made for my YouTube channel, Jack’s World. It’s a video version of an article I wrote a while back. I added and removed a few details to the video. If necessary, I’ll do a follow-up. Enjoy!
We currently live in a golden age of villains. Between Thanos, Erik Killmonger, the Joker, and Walter White, there has been a veritable surge of complex characters who also happen to be compelling villains. While there’s still a place for the kind of pure evil that Disney villains have relied on for years, this trend in a more refined brand of villainy feels both refreshing and overdue.
I’ve written extensively on villains before. As a lifelong fan of superhero comics and movies, I’ve consumed, contemplated, and scrutinized hero/villain dynamics more than most. In doing so, I’ve noticed plenty of trends. Like most aspects of popular culture, it’s always evolving. Very few themes and details remain constant, especially when it comes to antagonists.
That said, there’s one trend in villains that has remained somewhat constant over the course of my lifetime. It’s also a trend that I see as intensifying, albeit in a subtle way. Some of it coincides with the growing complexity of villains in popular culture, but most of the trend precedes the current era of superhero-dominated media. If anything, superhero media helped accelerate it.
While most villains and heroes rarely identify with a certain political affiliation, it’s usually not hard to discern how most would vote in a contemporary election. I would even argue that it’s easier to surmise what a villain’s political leanings are compared to that of heroes. Take any villain from the past 10 years of movies, be they superhero or otherwise. Chances are a vast majority of them would identify as conservative.
Now, I understand conservatism is an exceedingly broad term. It has a dictionary definition, but as a political philosophy, there are many sub-sets, divisions, and variations. From fiscal conservatives to social conservative to neoconservatives, there are many wildly different ideologies that still identify as conservative. A few actively clash with one another.
Those complexities aside, there are some core tenants associated with conservatism and it’s those very tenants that make it such an effective basis for villains. Chief among conservative values is the idea that traditional norms, institutions, and values be maintained. Change isn’t actively dissuaded, but it is viewed with caution and suspicion. To be conservative is to affirm the status quo, to some extent.
That’s all well and good if the status quo is beneficial to everyone. It’s not so preferable for those who either fail to benefit or are actively screwed over by that same status quo. Since there has never been a society in history that has achieved perfect prosperity for everyone, regardless of their minority status, there’s bound to be people who get left behind.
In our own real-world history, we’ve seen people from those disaffected groups organize and fight the status quo to better their lives. That struggle has played out in the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s, the movement for women’s rights, and the LGBT rights movement that’s still going on today. Those who oppose these movements tend to have, broadly speaking, conservative leanings.
Look at the groups that opposed the Civil Rights movement.
They all espouse rhetoric that would put them at odds with Superman, Captain America, and most other superheroes who value justice, truth, and peace. For some, their talking points sound like ideas that only villains in the mold of Lex Luthor would agree with. While not all of them identify as overtly conservative, the standard principles are there.
Anything too different from the status quo must be wrong or evil.
Anybody too different from the people everyone else in a society must be bad, evil, or devious.
Any idea, trend, or movement that is disruptive or deviant in any way is something to be opposed.
It doesn’t just manifest in superhero movies or underdog stories, either. Look at a movie like “Footloose.” In this story, the people who ban dancing are uptight, dogmatic, religious zealots who likely voted for Ronald Reagan in 1984 when this movie came out. They were the antagonists of that story and the kids, while not overtly liberal, dared to defy them.
It can even manifest subtly in other media. In kids shows like “Recess,” “Hey Arnold,” and “Rocko’s Modern Life,” the most common antagonists are uptight authority figures who have no tolerance for new ideas, big changes, or anything remotely fun. It’s hard to imagine any of these characters voting for someone who builds their slogan around change, reform, and reinvention.
They like things the way they are. Most of them benefit from the current system and will naturally seek to preserve their place in that system. While they won’t always see themselves as villains, it’s difficult for them to come off as heroes. You can only be so heroic when your side is closely aligned with predatory business practices, fun-hating religious zealots, and unabashed war-mongers.
That’s not to say it’s impossible for liberals to be villains too. It does happen and it can be done very well when done right. I would argue that Erik Killmonger in “Black Panther” was more in line with an extreme liberal revolutionary who didn’t just want to pursue change. I would make a similar argument for Ra’s Al Ghul in “Batman Begins.”
These characters didn’t just seek to change society from its current unjust state. They sought to violently destroy it and rebuild it from the ground up. That kind of liberalism exists in the real world and it can make for compelling villains.
However, the number of villains who align with the politics of Killmonger are far fewer than those who would align with the politics of Lex Luthor. In general, it’s easier to resist change rather than embrace it. It’s also necessary to some extent for those to resist change to be uptight authority figures who are okay with coercing others to maintain traditions. Logistically, the villains in many conflicts must be conservative.
Now, that’s not to say that villains will always lean conservative in popular media. What it means to be conservative changes over time. If you were to listen to conservative rhetoric 50 years ago, they would sound very different. They might even sound liberal by today’s standards.
The same goes for liberalism of previous eras. It hasn’t always been closely aligned with the politics surrounding minority rights, income inequality, or political correctness. The liberals of the 1920s would likely clash with the liberals of today. That’s just part of the ever-evolving nature of politics.
For the time being, though, being a villain in popular culture usually means being conservative to a certain extent. Conservatives are more likely to be the rich, greedy business people who would gladly burn down a rain forest or exploit slave labor to raise profits. Conservatives are more likely to be the rule-loving, fun-hating, curfew-enforcing religious zealots who wouldn’t mind electing theocrats with every election.
These types of individuals are far more likely to be villains in a story. At the very least, they’ll side or tolerate the villain. It’s easy to believe that those who side with the religious right and well-connected rich people will generally oppose a selfless, likable protagonist. From a narrative perspective, these kinds of villains are better in that we tend to root for heroes who oppose authoritarian bullies like that.
Again, it’s guaranteed that political and cultural trends will likely change what it means to be conservative, liberal, and everything in between. For the time being, if you were to bet on the political leanings of an antagonist, the odds are mostly in favor of that antagonist being conservative.
Imagine, for a moment, that an armed government officer shows up at your door and points a gun at your head. The officer informs you that for the next nine months, you will be injected with a generally non-fatal strain of flu that’ll make you feel tired, sore, and occasionally nauseous. Then, after that nine-month period is up, you’ll be given an infant child that you are henceforth responsible for.
Failure to comply with any part of that request will result in you or anyone who assists you going to prison for an extended period. You can protest it all you want. There’s no getting out of it. The government agent keeps the gun pointed at your head the entire time and if you want to avoid breaking the law, you just have to endure.
What I just described isn’t a perfect parallel to the strict abortion law recently passed by Alabama, but it helps illustrate what women are facing in light of such laws. While other parts of the world are liberalizing their abortion laws, certain parts of the United States are going in the other direction. However, the Alabama law represents a new extreme.
Now, even though I’ve discussed abortion before, I want to reiterate that I don’t like talking about this issue. It’s not because I’m a man or because I’m inherently skeptical of movements tied to organized religion. This issue affects everyone, regardless of gender. The principle alone of forcing someone to endure nine months of bodily rigor makes it relevant.
It’s for that reason that I tend to favor the pro-choice side of the debate. There are too many real-world examples of the dire consequences of a society where abortion is outright banned. I singled a former communist country one whose policy is quite similar to that of Alabama’s. However, my feelings on this issue go beyond just the consequences of these restrictive laws.
Even if I agreed with the idea that life beings at conception, I would still be in favor of keeping abortion legal in most cases. I just can’t support an effort that involves the government holding a gun to the head of women and their doctors, prohibiting them from making choices about their health and their bodies.
Now, I already know how the pro-life crowd will respond to that sentiment. They’ll point out that if life truly does begin at conception, then abortion is murder, by default. I’ll even concede that their reasoning isn’t entirely flawed. A fertilized embryo has many of the defining traits of biological life. It even has many traits we associate with personhood.
This idea that a fertilized embryo is a person makes up the bedrock of pro-life arguments. It’ll likely be the argument that’ll likely be used, should abortion access become an issue for the Supreme Court, which many pro-life groups are banking on. Considering how religious and logistical arguments rarely count much in a courtroom, this is their best bet.
There are a many flaws in the pro-life arguments, some of which I’ve touched on before, but this is the one I want to focus on because it’ll likely be cited more frequently as the debate intensifies. I believe that if abortion is ever banned in the United States, it’s because the law will recognize a fertilized embryo as a person.
However, with that distinction comes many implications, some of which lead to unavoidable inconsistencies. As the late George Carlin once so brilliantly illustrated, inconsistencies tend to reveal absurdities. To highlight just a few, here are just some of the questions that we’ll have to answer if we determine a fertilized embryo is a person.
If a fertilized embryo is a person, then at what point do identical twins become two individual persons?
This question has implications of its own. Part of the principle behind saying life begins at conception is the idea that when the sperm and egg meet, it combines to create a unique strand of human DNA, which constitutes human life. That sounds good on paper, but when identical twins enter the picture, it breaks down.
Identical twins, by definition, have the same DNA. At some point during gestation, they split into two individuals. At what point does that occur? By what basis are they distinct? If the answer to that is arbitrary, then how is saying life begins at conception any less arbitrary? Once personhood status is granted to a fetus, this will be something the law and doctors will have to answer.
If a fertilized embryo is a person, then does one that fails to implant on a woman’s uterus count as an accidental death under the law?
This happens to every sexually active woman, regardless of whether they’re in a monogamous marriage or working in a brothel. Even if an egg gets fertilized, it doesn’t always implant. The reasons for this are many, but if a fertilized egg is a person, then that still constitutes a death. As such, it would have to be treated as such under the law.
Most women don’t even know that a fertilized embryo has failed to implant. Most just end up getting flushed down a toilet, as part of their menstrual cycle. Under this legal definition of personhood, though, there’s no difference between that and flushing a live infant down a toilet. Given how Susan Smith was convicted of murder when she drowned her children, will other women face a similar sentence?
If a fertilized embryo is a person, then how does the state go about monitoring sexually active women to determine how many deaths occur because implantation did not occur?
This ties directly to the previous question. As soon as the law determines that an embryo is a person, it suddenly has a daunting challenge. It must now monitor and document every sexually active woman very closely to see how many fertilized embryos pass through her system, if only to determine how many deaths occurred inside her.
Even with advances in medical technology, it requires a level of invasiveness that even the most totalitarian state in the world can’t administer. There are over 150 million women in the United States. Is the government really equipped to monitor the activity inside every one of their wombs without breaking some very significant laws?
If a fertilized embryo is a person, then wouldn’t any woman who had a miscarriage be subject to manslaughter laws if her actions indirectly caused it?
This has already come up in a few states with restrictive abortion laws. Women who have suffered miscarriages are already being investigated as criminals. Ignoring, for a moment, the difficulty of determining whether a woman intentionally caused her miscarriage, look at it from a personal perspective.
A woman just suffers a miscarriage. She is likely distraught, distressed, and physically weakened. Now, government agents are going to treat her like a criminal and possibly prosecute her for a crime. While manslaughter is not on the same level as murder, it’s still treated as a crime and people do go to jail for it.
That means, for embryos to be considered persons, it must also be necessary to put women who suffered a miscarriage in prison. I don’t think even the most ardent pro-life adherent can comfortably stomach that.
If a fertilized embryo is a person, then would that person be legally culpable if a woman suffers complications during the pregnancy and dies?
This is somewhat a reversal of the previous question. There are occasions where pregnancy actually leads to a woman’s death. According to the Centers for Disease Control, approximately 700 women die every year in the United States due to complications during pregnancy. In the cases where the infant survives, are they somehow culpable?
If an embryo is a person, then their actions can’t be entirely distinct from that of any child. There are cases in which children get convicted of murder and are punished for it. Even if an infant cannot have intent or malice, their presence inside the woman is still the cause of the complication. That means manslaughter or wrongful death could be applicable.
I know there’s plenty of inherent absurdity in the notion of prosecuting an infant for the wrongful death of his or her mother, but if they’re going to be defined as a person, then that includes the same rights and responsibilities. To do otherwise would just be inconsistent and require the same arbitrary distinctions of which pro-life individuals are so critical.
If a fertilized embryo is a person, then would that person be culpable in the event that an identical or fraternal twin dies in utero, as can be the case in Vanishing Twin Syndrome?
A lot of things can happen inside the womb during gestation. Twins are just one of them, but there are instances where the presence of another fetus causes one to die or become unviable. Regardless of whether it involves an identical twin or a fraternal twin, the legal implications are the same. One person has died while the other has not. Like any other person, it would have to be investigated.
It could be the case that one infant hogged nutrient, causing the other to starve to death. There are also cases in which one twin will absorb the other. Technically, that would make the other baby both a cannibal and a killer. It would have to be investigated and prosecuted as such.
I concede that some of the scenarios I’ve described are absurd. That’s my underlying point. If the pro-life movement gets its way and fertilized embryos are treated as legal persons, then that has consequences that are logistically, legally, and morally untenable.
The bigger picture surrounding these questions tends to get lost among those who simply call abortion murder. However, if those same people got their way, then they would be unable to avoid these questions and their consequences.
A while back, a relative of mine told a story about a college professor and a smart-ass student. The student claimed he was a hardcore nihilist. He genuinely believed that there was no inherent purpose to humanity, life, or the universe. His professor didn’t respond at first. However, that didn’t stop him from making a point and sending a message.
Shortly after that initial encounter, the professor handed out grades on the first paper. He gave the self-professed nihilist a zero. When the student protested the grade, the professor just shrugged and reminded him that he was a nihilist. If he thought nothing mattered, then why should he care about his grades?
Regardless of whether this story is true, it makes an interesting point. That professor, who I suspect a PHD in trolling, exposed his arrogant student’s hypocrisy. He claimed to be a nihilist, but he still cared about his grades. He may have overestimated the extent of his nihilism, but the professor proved it only went so far.
It’s a lesson that’s a lot more relevant today because nihilism, in general, has become oddly fashionable. We have popular TV shows like “Rick and Morty,” “True Detective,” and “Bojack Horseman” that each espouse a certain degree of nihilistic philosophy. Iconic villains like Heath Ledger’s Joker in “The Dark Knight” also embody the random chaos that often reflects the chaos of a nihilistic worldview.
As much as I love the “The Dark Knight” and “Rick and Morty,” including its unique approach to exploring nihilism, there are serious issues with applying their philosophy to real life. These are fictional characters unbound by the logistics and consequences of real life. Nobody could reasonably do what they do and get the same result. We already have enough scary clowns committing crimes.
That hasn’t stopped some people from taking those complex philosophical concepts more seriously than most. It also happens to complement the ongoing rise of trolling, both on the internet and in real life. That makes sense because the mentality of a troll has to be nihilistic to some extent. When your goal is to cross lines and demean people for the thrill of it, you can’t be too concerned with greater meaning.
That’s not to say there aren’t trolls who are genuine sadists. I’ve encountered more than a few who would qualify. For the most part, though, nihilism is an excuse rather than a motivation. Some pretend they just want to watch the world burn when they say something that’s horribly offensive or laughably absurd. They’re just trying and failing to be as charismatic as Heath Ledger’s Joker.
It’s a phony brand of nihilism and one that defeats itself when you apply the slightest bit of scrutiny. It often leads to empty arguments on otherwise serious issues. It usually breaks down like this.
Someone will say something absurd, wrong, or just flat out offensive.
Someone else calls them out on it.
An argument ensues that usually involves an escalating amount of hatred, insults, and frustration.
Ultimately, the person who made the triggering remark claims they’re just in it for the kicks, the cheap thrills, and to taste the tears of their enemies.
In the end, they try to come off as this enlightened, above-it-all intellectual who has somehow transcended the petty arguments that the non-nihilists of the world keep having. They pretend they’re above it all or just don’t care. Again, it’s an excuse. They’re not full-on nihilists in the traditions of Rick Sanchez or Friedrich Nietzsche. They’re just assholes trying to hide from the fact that they’re assholes.
These same people who claim to care nothing about the greater meaning of the universe rarely practice what they so poorly preach. They still pay their taxes. They still work jobs that they probably hate to make money so that they can function in this undeniably flawed society we live in. If they were truly nihilists, they wouldn’t see the point in any of that.
If they got sick, they wouldn’t go to a doctor to get better. What’s the point?
If they lost all their money, they wouldn’t worry. What’s the point?
If their lives were utterly ruined by their behavior, they wouldn’t complain about it. What’s the point?
The phony nihilists pretend they can be Rick Sanchez or Heath Ledger’s Joker. However, they never come close to turning themselves into a pickle or setting fire to a giant pile of money. Those are things that a hardcore nihilist would do and they wouldn’t bother arguing about it. Again, and this is the question that phony nihilists avoid answering, what’s the point?
More and more, nihilism is being used less as a philosophy and more as a rhetorical tactic from trolls. In an era where it’s easy to troll and people are extremely divided, I understand why this brand of phony nihilism is emerging. I can even see why it has an appeal. It allows people to skip the part where they have to justify their beliefs or take responsibility for the actions. It’s more about convenience than conviction.
I don’t expect the trend of phony nihilism to stop anytime soon. If anything, it’s going to intensify as the world becomes increasingly complex on every level. There are over 7.7 billion people on this planet and it’s getting exceedingly difficult to feel like you matter in such a world. Falling into a nihilist trap is easy and even comforting for some.
It’s still not an excuse to be an asshole. Even if you think nothing truly matters and we’re all just globs of matter waiting for the heat death of the universe, you’re alive in this world with billions of other people trying to find their place in it. Being an asshole, whether it’s out of nihilism or some other philosophy, is never justified.
These are tenuous times for abortion rights. Regardless of your gender, there’s no getting around the news. The overall trend in abortion access is not on the path of greater accessibility. If anything, it’s going in the opposite direction.
Regardless of which side you’re on in this exceedingly divisive issue, there’s no denying the legal reality. For the past 25 years, a woman’s ability to get an abortion has steadily eroded, thanks largely to the spread of TRAP Laws. These laws may not explicitly outlaw abortion, but they make getting one inconvenient at best and impossible at worst.
As I say in every piece I write about abortion, I don’t particularly enjoy talking about abortion. This is an issue that I feel I’m woefully unqualified to talk about because I’m not a woman and will never know what it’s like to be in such a difficult situation.
That said, there is an aspect about this topic that I feel needs to be addressed and it’s a part of the issue that impacts men. It takes two to make a baby, last I checked. Even though it’s objectively true that abortion affects women more directly, men do have a role and I feel that role will expand as abortion rights trend in a less-than-liberal direction.
As I write this, the United States Supreme Court is in the midst of a huge shake-up. After the retirement of Justice Anthony Kennedy, the justice system is poised to shift heavily to the right. That has caused plenty of concerns among those who worry about the status of Roe v. Wade, the Supreme Court case that legalized abortion nationwide in 1973.
At the moment, it still seems like a long-shot for this decision to be overturned. However, Supreme Court decisions have been overturned in the past. It happened with racial segregation. It happened with anti-sodomy laws. Legally speaking, there’s no reason why it couldn’t happen with abortion.
Now, that process is fraught with a long list of political, legal, and ethical complications, the least of which would be the long-term alienation of whatever political party favors it. However, I don’t want to harp too much on the politics here. Instead, I want to focus on the social component because that’s where the effects will be most directly felt.
Women, by far, will be the most directly impacted. There are still women alive today who can recount what life was like before Roe v. Wade. Their stories are becoming more relevant. For men, however, I don’t think those stories are as well-known and for good reason. Women had to endure bearing those unwanted children. At worst, men just found themselves on the wrong end of a shotgun wedding.
If Roe v. Wade were overturned, however, that wouldn’t be the only predicament most men faced. Beyond the abortion issue, 1973 was a very different place. In that world, it was possible for a man to just skip town, run out on a pregnant woman, and never interact with her again. While that man would have to be a callous, irresponsible asshole, it was possible and it did happen.
That sort of thing isn’t as easy to do today. Anyone who has seen a single episode of Maury Povich knows that. Between social media, improvements in paternity tests, and tougher child support laws, most of which came after 1973, it’s a lot harder for a man to escape parental obligations. It’s not impossible, but it’s not as easy as just skipping town.
In a world where women cannot easily end an unwanted pregnancy, there will be greater incentive to find these reckless men and hold them responsible. Where there’s an incentive, especially one that has the potential to become a lucrative legal racket, there will be people and businesses that emerge to fill that need.
How that manifests is hard to determine, but desperate people will find a way and you won’t find many more desperate than a woman dealing with a child she can neither afford nor care for. I know a sizable contingent of people, many of which are probably men, will blame the woman for being promiscuous. That still doesn’t change the basic equation of human reproduction.
Two people are involved. Those people, in a world where decisions about a pregnancy are pre-made by the law, are going to be in a tough situation. Regardless of whether a pregnancy was the result of an accident, a crime, or an extortion plot, there will be serious ramifications and not just in terms of legal fees.
The story of women enduring the rigors and hardship of an unwanted pregnancy are many. However, the story of men living in a world without Roe v. Wade and modern child support laws haven’t been told yet because the circumstances haven’t been in place. On the day Roe v. Wade gets overturned, those stories will begin and those are stories men don’t want told.
They’re not very sexy stories, to say the least. They have sexy moments, but extremely unsexy outcomes. Picture, if you can, the following scenario that may play out in a world without Roe v. Wade.
A young man with plenty of dreams has a one-night stand with a woman in a lone act of recklessness. The woman ends up pregnant. Since they live in a state where abortion is illegal, she has to have the child. The man has no idea for months until the woman tracks him down through the courts, forces him to take a paternity test, and confirms that he’s the father.
With no say in the matter, he’s legally liable for child support for the next 18 years. The woman, without any of his input, decides to keep the child instead of putting it up for adoption. The man resents the woman for making this decision without him, but begrudgingly goes along with it, if only to avoid the stigma.
Years go by and his life becomes more of a struggle. He can barely afford to support himself due to the child support payments. He and the mother of his child are constantly at each other’s throats, going through legal battles over how much support is needed and how much access he should have to his child.
Between the legal and financial struggles, both end up in poverty. Their child ends up in poverty too, growing up in a broken home. In a world where there are few choices for women and fewer choices for men, there are plenty others.
Does that sound like an appealing, functional society? Does it sound like one that benefits men, women, and children in any capacity? You don’t need to be a liberal, conservative, or a Supreme Court Justice to understand why such a society is undesirable.
Some of this isn’t even speculation. There have been societies that have outlawed abortion completely. Those societies didn’t prosper. They didn’t benefit men, women, or children. However, the lessons from those societies will probably not faze the anti-abortion crowd. I doubt they’ll give any judges or legislators pause as they push for more restrictions.
The impact of these laws will be felt first by the women. They still bear the children. They’ll still suffer the most negative effects at first. Those effects will quickly find their way to the men, as well. Unlike the men prior to 1973, they won’t be able to escape it.
As a man, there’s only so much I can bring to the table in the abortion debate. However, given the current laws surrounding child support, child rearing, and parental rights, there are more than a few issues that should give men cause for concern. Even if you’re a man and you consider yourself anti-abortion, there’s one inescapable truth. A world without Roe v. Wade is going to impact everyone.
Picture the perfect candidate for an election. I know the bar for politicians these days is laughably low, but try to stretch your imagination a bit. Try to envision the kind of candidate that embodies the best collection of values, abilities, and charisma for a civilized society.
Everybody looks for something different in a candidate, but a truly perfect candidate would appeal to everyone in a democratic system. This person would embody the highest values, championing human rights to the utmost and justice for everyone. Every decision they make is with the safety, sanctity, and rights of other people as their top priority. There’s no compromise. They do right by the people every time and all the time.
This person would also be the ultimate leader, capable of getting anyone to go along with them without fear or coercion. There wouldn’t need to be corruption of any kind. This person would be perfectly capable of navigating every level of government and making it work to the utmost. The people would trust in that government, believe in it, and even celebrate it.
Keep that perfect candidate in the forefront of your mind because when it comes to discussing politics, cynicism tends to rule the day. I don’t think I need to cite too many recent events to show how imperfect democracy is these days. I don’t even need to cite famous historical events that show just how bad government can be in this convoluted world.
It’s because of that cynicism, though, that the perfect candidate you’re thinking of could never win a democratic election in the real world. Even if they existed, the inherent flaws of the electorate and those of less perfect candidates would keep them from winning. It’s one of democracy’s greatest flaws. It’s not about who the best candidate is. It’s just about who can convince enough people that they’re worth voting for.
On the subject of democracy, Winston Churchill once said the following:
“The best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter.”
Time, politics, and the proliferation of has only proven Mr. Churchill right. I would even amend that quote to say just 30 seconds on 4chan will make anyone lose faith in the promise of democracy. That’s not to say democracy is all bad, though. Mr. Churchill also once famously said this about the alternatives:
“Indeed it has been said that democracy is the worst form of Government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.”
It’s distressing, but frustrating fact of civilization, one that fuels mass protests, fake news, and lurid scandals. Go back to any point in history and scrutinize any government, be it a king or some quasi-democracy, and chances are you’ll find serious flaws in the system. I don’t just mean long lines at the post office, either. There have been times when democracy has not furthered the protection of human rights.
It’s not necessarily a flawed principle as it is a concept with flawed ingredients. While I tend to place a great deal of faith in the goodness of human nature, I don’t deny that people can be arrogant, irrational, and downright callous. We’re prone to overreacting and not thinking things through. We’re hard-wired to go with intuition over logic.
Even when we’re proven wrong, we stubbornly cling to our assertions. The prevalence of creationism is proof enough of that. Every election cycle is prone to bold promises, bloated melodrama, and major goals that rarely ever become actual policy. Some become full-fledged revolutions with Utopian visions. The fact that none of those utopias ever manifested is proof of how unsuccessful they were.
We are not a species built for democracy on a large scale. We evolved to function in close-knit tribes, hunting and gathering for food while fighting for survival. That kind of evolution doesn’t really lend itself to a functioning democracy. It doesn’t lend itself to a total autocracy, either. Whether it’s a free republic or a fascist state, humans cannot govern other humans without their flaws plaguing them in both directions.
It’s for this reason that I often lean libertarian in political debates, but given the complexities and challenges of modern society, even that only goes so far. Like it or not, large-scale civilizations populated a species not evolved to manage it requires some measure of authority. More importantly, it requires competent, incorruptible, compassionate authority.
It needs to be able to defend a population of people within a particular border. It needs fair and just laws that can be equally enforced. It also needs the confidence and trust of the people being governed. Sometimes, it’s done out of fear. Sometimes, it’s done out of free will. Both can work, provided the system has robust capabilities that aren’t prone to human error.
Unless a government is populated by a democratic council consisting of Superman, Wonder Woman, and Dr. Doom, that kind of functional democracy is physically impossible. Even though democracy is still the best we have from an exceedingly limited list of options, that may change in a big way thanks to artificial intelligence.
I know it seems like I attribute many superhuman capabilities to this emerging field, it’s hard to overstate its potential. Unlike every other tool humanity has created, artificial intelligence promises to rewrite the rules at every level of society. That includes government and it’s here where AI’s capabilities could go beyond superhuman.
Think back to that perfect candidate I mentioned earlier and all the traits that made them perfect. By and large, an advanced artificial intelligence shares many of those traits and then some. A sufficiently powerful AI would be beyond politics, pettiness, or demagoguery. In principle, it could embody everything people would want in a strong leader and a capable government.
For one, it would be smarter than any human. Beyond knowing more about every subject than any human ever could, it would be smart in a way that would allow it to persuade people to trust it. That’s often a skill that even smart politicians fail to refine. It certainly doesn’t help that many voters attribute intelligence with smugness. That’s a big reason why populist candidates of questionable merit gain so much support.
An advanced artificial intelligence, provided it has an in depth understanding of human psychology and how to persuade people, would be able to gain support from everyone. It wouldn’t be bound by the limits that keep most human candidates from appealing to everyone. With enough intelligence and capabilities, it would surmise a way to appeal to everybody.
Beyond just persuading the voters, an AI of that level could be just as effective at actual governance. There are plenty of candidates who are very adept at winning elections, but terrible when it comes to actually governing. A capable AI would be able to do both. If anything, one function would complement the other.
With enough emotional, logistical, and pragmatic intelligence, this AI would be capable of crafting and passing laws without the need for debate or controversy. The laws it crafts are already so refined and so well thought out that to do so would be redundant. In the same time it takes your phone to send a text, this AI could pass sweeping legislation that protects human rights, ensures justice for all, and promotes economic growth.
It’s hard to imagine because the only laws and government we’ve ever known have come from flawed humans. It’s just as hard to imagine how those laws would be enforced. Perhaps this advanced AI has nodes all throughout society that allow it to gather data, know where enforcement is needed, and determine the appropriate recourse. If it’s capable enough, people won’t even know it’s there.
Perhaps that same AI uses a mix of human enforcers and intelligent robots to maintain order. If the AI is sufficiently capable, every enforcer at every level would be equipped with perfect knowledge and a clear understanding of how to carry out the orders of the government. Since an AI wouldn’t be prone to corruption or prejudice, instances of injustices would be few and far between.
It wouldn’t be a totalitarian state of Orwellian proportions. It would be more of a “Star Trek” style, post-scarcity society where we wouldn’t have to be cynical about government authority. We would inherently trust it because it’s just that effective. We wouldn’t feel like we’re being run by a robot dictator. We would feel like we’re being run by the greatest ruler outside of a “Black Panther” movie.
To some extent, though, an advanced artificial intelligence of this nature would render democracy obsolete. If we created an AI that could effectively govern society at every level, then what’s the purpose of having elections in the first place? Why bother when there’s an intelligence that’s literally more capable than any ordinary human could possibly be?
History has shown that democracy and government can only do so much when flawed humans are in charge. Once advanced artificial intelligence enters the picture, the logistics of governance changes entirely.
Perhaps there will be a period in our history where instead of running human candidates, we start creating AI systems that compete with one another in a pseudo-democratic process. That would go a long way towards improving overall governance.
Unlike humans, though, technology evolves much faster than humans ever will and it wouldn’t take long for those systems to improve to a point where they’re just too good an option to overlook. Human-led governments, even in humans who are enhanced to some degree, will still have flaws. In a future where technology, society, and individuals keep creating new challenges, we’ll need a capable government to manage it all.
In the end, that government probably won’t be a democracy. It won’t be a dictatorship, either. It’ll be something that we can’t yet conceptualize. That’s the biggest challenge when contemplating something like an advanced artificial intelligence, though. It operates on a level that ordinary humans literally cannot comprehend. That’s why it’s our best option for governing our future.
Brace yourself because I’m about to talk about two topics that make people very uncomfortable. One is abortion, a heated political topic that is poised to get even more heated, due to recent political upheavals. The other is Hell, a distressing theological issue that makes us dwell/lament on our impending death. If that weren’t volatile enough, I’m going to tie both topics together.
Rest assured, I’m not doing this to combine a couple of controversial issues for dramatic effect. While I loathe talking about issues like abortion, I don’t avoid it when it reveals something important about a particular movement or can demonstrate important lessons about society.
When it comes to Hell, a topic that heats up any debate between believers and non-believers, the conversations are just as difficult. I still feel they’re worth having. This one, in particular, counts as one of them because there are certain implications that warrant a more nuanced discussion.
It’s no secret that those who are vehemently anti-abortion also happen to be religious. Anti-abortion protesters even cite bible passages to justify their position. Now, I can understand and even accept certain ethical aspects of the pro-life position. However, when religion enters the debate, that’s where some real disconnects emerge.
That’s because when those factors enter the pro-life equation, both the morality and the math break down. To understand why, it’s important to focus on an aspect of the abortion debate that the late, great George Carlin famously emphasized. He sought consistency in the anti-abortion debate and noted its rarity in the most hilarious way possible.
Consistency is important if your argument is going to have merit. Even with emotionally-charged topics like abortion, consistency is key to ensuring that an argument has some semblance of logic. Since logic and faith tend to conflict, especially in matters of science, bringing religion into the mix can easily derail that consistency.
This is where the issue of Hell enters the picture. It’s a very unpleasant, but very critical concept to certain religions, namely Christianity and Islam. It’s central to their theology, which emphasizes punishment for the sinful. It’s a very morbid, but very relevant concept because everybody dies and nobody knows for sure what happens afterwards, if anything.
In the abortion debate, Hell matters for the anti-abortion side because their most frequent refrain is that abortion is murder. Having an abortion is the taking of a human life and murder is an egregious sin. It’s one of the few sins that’s enshrined in both secular law and the 10 Commandments.
By holding that position, though, it raises an important implication for both the consistency of the anti-abortion position and the theology used to justify it.
If abortion really does take a life, then what happens to that life? Does it go to Heaven or Hell?
That’s a critical question to answer, but it’s here where both the consistency and the moral underpinnings of the anti-abortion debate break down. In fact, it doesn’t even matter which way the question is answered. It still has critical implications that make an anti-abortion stance for religious reasons untenable.
To understand why, we need to look at the possible answers to the question and examine the bigger picture. Say, for instance, that you believe the deity you worship saves the souls of aborted fetuses. They all get to go to Heaven because sending unborn children to Hell just doesn’t make sense for a loving God.
By that logic, though, wouldn’t abortion actually be the best thing a woman could do for her unborn child? If, by aborting a pregnancy, she guarantees that her child goes to Heaven, wouldn’t that be the greatest act of love a mother could give?
In that moral framework, any woman who gives birth is basically gambling with their child’s soul. By bringing them into a sinful world, they put them in a position to live a life that will eventually send them to Hell. It doesn’t matter if that chance is remote. It doesn’t even matter if the deity reserves Hell for the worst of the worst. Any child born still has a non-zero chance of damnation.
In that context, being anti-abortion is the worst position to take for someone who believes that their deity sends aborted fetuses to Heaven. If anything, they would have to be in favor of abortion for every pregnancy, planned or unplanned, because it means more souls in Heaven and fewer in Hell.
The implications are just as distressing if you answer the question the other way. If your deity sends aborted fetuses to Hell, then logic follows that this deity cannot be just or loving. A fetus, by default, has no ability to even contemplate sin, let alone commit it. Sending it to Hell implies that sin, itself, is an empty concept.
It also undercuts key aspects of Judeo-Christian theology, which says that someone must sin to warrant damnation. Holding both a fetus and a young child with a limited capacity to understand such concepts is untenable. Keep in mind, Hell is supposed to be full of torture and suffering. What kind of deity puts a child through that?
Even if the deity knows which fetus or small child is destined to sin and punishes them accordingly, that still renders the anti-abortion position pointless. If the deity already knows which life is damned, then why does it matter whether a woman opts to have an abortion? If that has already been determined, then abortion has no religious implications whatsoever.
Whatever the case, the very concept of Hell creates an illogical loop that is incapable of consistency. Even if you grant the most generous assumptions of a religious argument, it still falls apart as soon as you try to put it into an ethical framework.
While the very concept of Hell is subject to all sorts of moral complexities, it effectively supercedes those complexities in the abortion debate. Either Hell is full of innocent aborted souls or is devoid of them. In both cases, it reveals more about the deity and the adherents of a religion than it does the actual issue.
None of this is to say that those who make anti-abortion arguments on the basis of faith aren’t sincere. I don’t doubt for a second that they are. They genuinely believe that abortion is immoral and constitutes murder. However, when it comes to making a moral argument, consistency matters. Without it, the arguments are entirely arbitrary and there’s no winning that debate.