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zombie squirrel

Started by james_west, May 23, 2001, 02:14:00 AM

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There's a place in the Soul of the Sorceror supplement in which it says that perhaps demons are evil the way squirrels are cute.

I, apparently, have a zombie squirrel living in my big oak tree. It's blackened, patches of fur are missing, its tail is a mess, it moves very slowly, and seems largely oblivious to the world around it. It is about as uncute as it is possible to be.

(I suspect it had a near-fatal interaction with a power line, poor critter, but there isn't a heck of a lot I can do about it.)

               - James

Ron Edwards

I think this post marks the moment when James' brain went "Sput." I'm cruisin' 'round the Forge, and at the moment every thread ends with a Classic West Insight - and now, this.

In my fashion, I shall try to turn this into a Sorcerer discussion. I'm pretty sure James is referring to the quote from Ran Hardin about demons being "evil" insofar as they interact with humans - it's the interface that's flawed or horrible in some way, not the demons "bringing" evil from elsewhere.

So! That would mean that James' un-cute squirrel might be analogized into an un-evil demon. My question then becomes, under what (rare) circumstances would generate such an interface? It's no fun just to say, "Oh, well, THIS demon is good" - we have to have a Humanity interaction that makes sense to us as audience.


P.S. James, you might want to call an Animal Emergency Clinic.


Without getting into the whole alignment issue (which annoys me), to say that a demon that is not evil must necessarily be good may be somewhat incorrect.  I do enjoy the theory of the casually cruel demon.  The one that kills not because it enjoys it, but because its needs necessitate it.  

I can even see great interaction with the sorcerer who *wants* the demon to kill, but the demon is reluctant because it detests violence.  Perhaps that demon has a need based upon violence and must be forced to fulfill that need by the sorcerer.  A suicidal demon, if you will.


(put the squirrel down James, it is the only humane thing to do)


In my experience, evil is mostly defined as sociopathy.

During the Gulf war, there was a traffic jam eight lanes wide and forty miles long of Iraqi troops trying to retreat to Basra. A fellow I knew in graduate school was one of the people assigned to drop napalm on them. He said he'd drench a few hundred people in napalm, fly back to the airbase, get out of his plane, throw up, get back in and do it again. (This was the infamous "Basra turkey shoot"). Most people would agree that someone willing to do this is not evil, in the commonly accepted sense.

Now, this was a person with a developed social conscience. If you had put any one of those people in front of him, tied up, and told him to coat them with jellied gasoline and light them on fire, I'm absolutely certain he'd refuse, pretty much regardless of circumstances. Most people would agree that someone willing to do this -IS- evil.

The difference is whether or not it's possible to feel an empathetic connection to the person. If you're in a plane several hundred or thousand feet up, it's very easy not to notice that you're doing horrible things to lots of people beneath you; it doesn't hit you on a visceral level.If the person is sitting in front of you, you realize on a very immediate level that this is another human being, in a "there but for the grace of god go I" sense, to whom you're going to be doing terrible things.

I want to avoid the issue of whether or not the person in the plane -ought- to be considering the humanity of the people he's killing. I think people agree that a person of normal ethical development is willing to do that, where a person of normal ethical development would be unwilling to do the same to a person standing in front of them.

As social animals, empathy for the people around us is basically the hallmark of "good." Sometimes this empathy produces negative results, and sometimes people who mostly lack empathy but think of themselves as good on a more abstract or intellectual level can be capable of very positive results.

However, if you think of people who are role models of "good", they usually have an extremely personal involvement with the people they are helping, and an obvious great deal of empathy. On the other hand, we clearly think of as evil people who are willing to personally do horrific things to people. Not to be too conspiracy minded, but I think it's clear that Lee Iacoca personally made decisions that he knew would result in the fiery deaths of innocent people. He's rich, and a lot of peoples' hero. Jeffrey Dahmer, on the other hand, personally tortured, killed, and ate people. Regardless of intellectual considerations, it's pretty clear who your visceral response of "evil" is to.

Moving on from this: cruel is the second cousin to evil. You call something cruel when it displays a complete lack of empathy, but fails to rise to the level of negative consequences implied by evil. Cats are cruel, because we find it hard to think of the torture of mice as something rising to the level of evil.

Which, finally, brings me to demons. Demons are clearly not social animals. They have no concept of empathy. It may not be their goal to cause pain and suffering of innocents, but it really makes very little difference to them if they do. They have no visceral response to cruelty or the prospect of it the way (ethically normal) humans do.

So here's the question: can you have 'good' without displaying any empathy whatsoever? Clearly in game mechanics terms, humanity and 'good' are seperable. Presumably, then, while demons completely lack humanity (and thus empathy), it is possible to be good and lack empathy.

               - James

PS: I realize I'm making a very specific definition of "humanity" in game terms here; clearly, loss of humanity may involve loss of other attributes. However, I find it hard to imagine that it is possible to have humanity without having compassion. (Empathy is necessary, I claim, but maybe not sufficient) I think I've mentioned I have an appointment as a special advocate in child abuse, dependency, and neglect cases, and the entire concept of loss of humanity (and how you get it back) seems especially relevant there.

[ This Message was edited by: james_west on 2001-05-23 14:42 ]

[ This Message was edited by: james_west on 2001-05-23 14:55 ]


I'm pretty sure James is referring to the quote from Ran Hardin

Actually, Ron, it's my quote...and, James, it was a chipmunk, not a squirrel!!  Oooo, you evil people twisting my words AND misquoting the source!  Why, why...I ought to RANT about this horrible injustice!

But I'll just snicker instead and congratulate myself on being clever and amusing -- ha-ha!  Hey, why isn't anyone else laughing?

Let's just look at the quote: "Perhaps not meaningfully malignant (no more than a chipmunk means to be cute)..."

What I was thinking of when I wrote that was simply that they were wrong...not evil, that is, not actively evil.  Just 'wrong' in a sense that was beyond their control.  No free will to choose.  Manifestations of desire, want, action.  On the surface, they look and act like living
beings, but in reality they lack any defining mental activity whatsoever...they're automatons, machines running on programming (if you will), the most basic of animal, however they appear.

On the other issue: James, ask the squirrel if it wants to die, if it says yes, then put it down.  Otherwise I suggest Ron's approach...get an animal care place involved.

Rev. Ravenscrye Grey Daegmorgan
Wild Hunt Studio


I'm thinking of Arnold Swarzenegger in Terminator 2. The character he was playing was supposed to be a remorseless, conscienceless killer, who had goals that were considered 'good' even though the character himself had no empathy (this was played on in the movie, such as when he shot the essentially blameless security guard in both knees.)

Essentially, if you have goals that sufficiently mimic the way good people act, then you may be considered good even if you completely lack humanity in any conventional sense.



Without delving too deeply into personal philosophies, I just wanted to mention another point-of-view here.

There are a number of people (primarily in business, but also in other places) who believe that all actions can be defined as universally good or evil.  In this instance, empathy does not come into play, except as a possible inhibitor toward defined options.  

Personally, I enjoy this philosophy, as I feel situational ethics and the like are extremely subjective (and I don't trust the average person further than I could throw him... which isn't far at all).  I think of Humanity as those who identify the risk versus reward over the view of right vs. wrong.  

Killing someone is wrong.  Period.  Under this model, extenuating circumstances have little to no involvement.  Self-defense may be fine and dandy, but that was a choice of death over possible prison.  I can see this, and I can understand it without having to place myself in other people's shoes and attempt to determine the subjective component of all actions... it's too much work, and I don't care enough to do it.

Therefore, I guess I am saying that I see Humanity (from a Sorcerer POV) and empathy as mutually exclusive, or at the very least, not intrinsically linked.

Of course, I think your model has good merit, and a strong backing from a society-level appreciation.  I just think in your games, my characters would meet the screaming void of unplayability very quickly.




I think the distinction you're making is between the sort of ethics that have to be thought about, and the sort of ethics that seem to be near universal (at least with respect to members of your own family/group) on a visceral level.

I don't claim that visceral ethics are better than intellectual ethics, but I do think that they're more fundamental to humanity, in the sense that I think that just about all people have some understanding of visceral ethics, whereas only people who have specifically thought about it in some context will have intellectual ethics.

I also think that having one without the other will tend to lead to error (rather different kinds of error). Having intellectual ethics without compassion leads to doing horrific things to individuals for the good of the group; having compassion without having intellectual ethics leads to making short term decisions that are kinder, but may result in long term problems. (The original star trek series, now that I think of it, dealt with this issue a lot; Spock had a lot of intellectual ethics, but very little visceral ethics, while McCoy was more of the reverse, and Kirk was in between.)

Did you know that 20 of the 23 people hung at Nuremberg were M.D.s ? While some of them were clearly just cruel because they enjoyed it, many of them genuinely thought that the horrific things that they were doing would save lives in the long run.

                                 - James

P.S.: I don't really think this is off-topic at all. Sorceror is a game that's fundamentally ABOUT definitions of ethics, and while Ron is very careful to avoid defining them, it's the sort of issue that's bound to come up pretty much right away in games, and may lead to substantial personal conflict between players when the GM implies to one of them that they're a fundamentally unethical person.

[ This Message was edited by: james_west on 2001-05-23 15:19 ]

Ron Edwards

No way is this off-topic. Go, go!


P.S. Sorry Raven.


I guess, what I'm trying to say is that I think "viceral" ethics lead to more confusion than they are worth (in my experience).  

You know:  "Never lie."  But then, what do you say when your girlfirend asks if she looks fat in some dress?  I say yes or no, whichever is true.  I figure, how can I be wrong when all I am doing is following a universal rule established by every parent in every place, everywhere (considering your occupation, James, I'm sure you could point to exceptions, but let's not deal with outliers here... and please, no matter what, let me believe they *are* outliers).

I'm just saying that I always get yelled at for following the rules.  I hate that.  I think that is wrong.  If the rule is wrong, then yell at the rule, not me.  But I think you get the idea.

I think all ethics are necessarily "intellectual" ethics, based upon the fact that children have no inherent sense of good vs. evil, right vs. wrong.  Children are wicked little bastards, seriously.  Shame, ethics... social mores, if you will, they are all taught, not inborn.  Ron, you have psych/soc knowledge... and I know you have plenty of bio in your brain... back me up here (and btw, if I'm wrong and he's right, then feel free to frolick about the other forms :wink: )

I love ethics discussion James, and I realize this post is "idiotic", but I had to respond and my brain is melting... almost finished for the day, almost get to go home.  Seriously, I'll do better later, I promise.


PS:  I agree completely with your postscript.

Jared A. Sorensen

Needs and Desires are tricky because they change the Demon from a tool to something with accountibility and reasoning.  But does the Demon really have accountibility?  I think not...the Sorcerer is responsible for the actions of the Demon...the Demon is (gasp!) and innocent (or kinda, sorta).

Like, a Demon with the Need to drink blood and the Desire to cause bloodshed (convenient, neh?).  By our standards (most of us anyway), this Demon is quite evil.  But is it?  From the Demon's point of view, these are necessary things.  It's not a human and it doesn't have the ability to think outside of itself (or does it?)...which I believe is a definition of empathy (side note: researchers did an experiment with great apes and were shown that the apes do in fact possess empathy).  So I think that a Demon is blameless.  It's not's just a force, the way a gun or a tidal wave can cause destruction but not through any kind of malice.

I dunno.  I just skirt this whole issue in the Schism supplement...there's no real concept of good/evil.  I quote the mighty David Cronenberg (I used this quote in Schism as well):

I don't think that the flesh is necessarily treacherous, evil, bad. It is cantankerous, and it is independent. The idea of independence is the key. It really is like colonialism. The colonies suddenly decide that they can and should exist with their own personality and should detach from the control of the mother country. At first the colony is perceived as being treacherous. It's a betrayal. Ultimately, it can be seen as the separation of a partner that could be very valuable as an equal rather than as something you dominate.
jared a. sorensen /


I think all ethics are necessarily "intellectual" ethics, based upon the fact that children have no inherent sense of good vs. evil, right vs. wrong.  Children are wicked little bastards, seriously.  Shame, ethics... social mores, if you will, they are all taught, not inborn.

There is a subtlety here, a gradation of nature vs nurture:
On the most extreme 'nature' side is height: assuming they get enough food and are not artificially stunted, all children will grow. They start off short, and get bigger. You can stop it, but you don't have to start it.

Next along this line is language. Children are born not knowing language, and clearly need to be taught language. However, it is something that you don't have to go out of your way to teach them; they will learn it with very little interference on your part. You have to go out of your way to stop them from learning language, rather than go out of your way to teach it to them. A strong predisposition to learn language is probably built into them.

I claim that empathy is only a little further along. We're very much a social species; it's pretty much our 'thing', even more than intelligence, from an evolutionary perspective, I think: I suspect intelligence exists because it allows us to cooperate better. So I very much suspect that we're hardwired to learn to cooperate with each-other. Like language, you have to have a teacher, but for normal people the child will learn some level of empathy with almost no effort on the part of the parent. This only fails to happen, really, on the part of parents who themselves have substantial problems with it, or who essentially interact with their children not at all (these children frequently have difficulty with language as well.) My point here is that this sort of ethics is very easy to learn, and we're probably hardwired to find it easy to learn.

By contrast, the sort of universals of ethics you're talking about seem to be foreign to most people (and from your examples, this seems to be true in your experience as well). I think that, while they are clearly learnable, learning to be comfortable with them is about like learning to be comfortable with calculus. It takes a lot of practice.

It seems like interesting stories ought to lie at the intersections of these systems of ethics, anyway.

                            - James

P.S. I actually have more of a life than the volume of my posts recently might indicate. I'm just having a slow week...

Ron Edwards

My perspective on all this is that learning is a developmental function - it is one of the processes we carry out, much like our heartbeat.

The interesting thing is that different species have different "maps" or "recipes" for learning. Humans, for instance, do not have to learn to speak - they only have to learn HOW to speak. Think of walking; same thing. We easily learn those things we are well-built to learn, but we learn other things either very painfully or not at all.

One can teach geese to play soccer (rolling little balls in various directions). One can teach rats to run mazes. It does not surprise me that in each case, the animal performs similar behaviors in the course of its non-laboratory life. The lab subjects are merely modifications of a behavior that they ORDINARILY learn to perform. (And you cannot teach either rats or geese the "other" behavior, by the way.)

Humans learn social mores. More accurately, we INNATELY learn ABOUT social mores. Given data (e.g. an upbringing), conclusions emerge - and in separate instances with different data being taken in, we observe highly individualized takes on how to act.

Nurture is one of Nature's processes. There is no dichotomy. Culture is human biology occurring in a given time and place, with a given history.


Zak Arntson

On natural empathy.  Here's my definition of empathy: Being able to, in any fashion, imagine yourself in the role of another.  Discusses above is empathy as it relates to social creatures, but here's another (parallel, not mutually exclusive) look at empathy:

On an animal level:
Prey animals tend to have low-empathy.  The survival traits involved are fight/flight.  You don't need to know what your predator is thinking, you just see it and cope.

Predator animals have a higher empathy.  To hunt down something often requires an ability to second-guess the prey.  A great cat quietly stalking an antelope ... the cat must have a sense of "what would I do if I were the antelope."

Scavenger animals tend to have the highest empathy.  You must know where to get your next meal, by following the predator's behavior AND avoiding the predator.  In especially harsh surroundings, you must learn all about your environment and survive by not being fast or strong, but by adapting.  Look at crows and rats, they are fairly intelligent scavengers.

This doesn't cover the social model of empathy (Chimps are a tight social group that actively hunt and forage, so they are predators with a high empathy, but they need it for their complex social interaction).

Perhaps humans have intelligence in part because their ancestors were both highly social AND scavengers?

Laslty, I think empathy + self-awareness should be treated like a gift, and I see good vs. evil involving the simple "Do unto others" rule (or a "Do unto others the way they don't want to be treated").  It's way easier for a human to put themselves in the role of victim than, say a lion.

So the idea of a demon being beyond empathy holds merit from an animal point of view if their natural environment doesn't involve the predator/prey/scavenger hierarchy.  A demon may not have any sort of empathy, resulting in a detachment (like the Melniboneans from the Elric series) from emotions.


Sh*t. I had a really long post that I managed to delete a moment ago accidentally.

Here's a synopsis:

There actually seem to be three systems of ethics, regardless of the order people learn them in.

(1) Ethics that are based on empathy.
(2) Ethics that are based on rules of behavior.
(3) Ethics that are based on consideration of long term effects/greatest good.

(I personally believe that people also usually learn them in that order, and that there is a possible fourth step in which you learn ways of resolving conflicts between the systems, resource allocation ethics, etc.)

Absence of any of these can produce bad consequences, which you can imagine for yourself (I had long lists of examples of different combinations of ethical lacks, with long asides).

I tend to think of humanity as more related to (1), since it seems like sort of a baseline; a lot of people whom I wouldn't consider to be lacking in humanity have (1) but not (2) or (3).

So, Demons traditionally lack all three of these (they have no empathy, don't have personal ethical codes, and do not have the long term good of any group of humans in mind).

So there are, perhaps interesting stories to be told (and some that -have- been told) involving demons that -do- possess one or more, but not all, of these elements, and the tragedy that results.

           - James

PS - Zak, I very much liked your post, but I was sensing that moving in that direction might bog down ...

Incidentally, my squirrel seems more animated now, is interacting with other squirrels, and moving more easily. Either I overestimated the initial extent of his injuries, or he heals very fast. He's still darned ugly, though.

[ This Message was edited by: james_west on 2001-05-23 21:11 ]

[ This Message was edited by: james_west on 2001-05-24 01:08 ]