Wednesday, March 02, 2005

Are you practical or ruthless? (Or both?)

A recurring theme in the book I'm reading (the vampire pr0n) revolves around the nondistinction between practicality and ruthlessness. The main character repeatedly refers to herself, and others, using either of those adjectives, often in place of the other.

This begs the question: Does or can practicality engender ruthlessness and vice versa?

I agree with the author for the most part (if not in total). Practicality can often merit or require a certain ruthlessness. Being able to place the good of the majority above the good of the individual or fewer is or can be a positive attribute. This can and will lead to ruthlessness being a corequisite at times. This holds true especially for a (enlightened) dictatorship wherein the head of state is required to make decisions that will necessarily hurt some while still providing for the (perceived) best welfare of the state. Of course all of this is greatly subject to exploitation and abuse if without checks and balances.

The reverse is not always true, though. Ruthlessness less often equates to practicality, largely because we are human. People are imperfect. Less often will our harshness be the result of a desire for the greater good.

Even there, however, I can't help but think of examples. The biggest ones, in my opinion, are the various and multifarious (love that word) wars and crusades. Since the dawn of mankind (another wonderful phrase), man has warred based on his convictions that his actions were in response to a desire to effect change for the better good of all. In hindsight, rarely have these motivations stood the test and usually only in response to success and victory. The loser is rarely lauded as having "fought the good fight" for the good reasons. Hence, the losers are often tainted by their loss, their reasoning and basis for fighting subsequently considered as "bad" or distasteful. Sometimes the winners' motivations are considered equally horrendous but this is much rarer and far less prevalent. Either way, the ruthlessness of man as a fundamental is unarguable. (Or at least unarguable in my opinion.)

As a brief aside, this reminds me of a discussion in my Global Insights class in 10th grade. The teacher opened the Fascism section with a question. "What is fascism?" His answer was so poignant as to be memorable. "Fascism is human nature." That is exactly what I am saying here.

The above paragraph on historical wars and winners and losers is by way of an example that ruthlessness, especially in a war context, does not necessarily equate, especially in hindsight, to practicality.

A dovetail to this is the good/bad distinction. If we can accept that the ruthlessness employed by some historical figures, winners and losers, was in response to a desire to effect perceived positive change, then we can attempt to divorce the good/bad attribute from the figure. Why should one figure be considered bad or evil for trying to effect what he or she perceived to be a positive, beneficial change? Good and bad are subjective labels placed on these figures based on current evaluations of societal norms and convictions. If that is so, then perhaps, based on the motivations of the figures, they are not inherently good or bad/"evil". Ruthlessness, especially as considered in hindsight with regards to "evil" historical figures, is not a valid basis for the subjective consideration of a figure being good or bad.

I suppose the exception to the above statement or, more accurately, the caveat is that this holds true only when the motivation involves the desire to attain a perceived better result. That is, when one's actions are undertaken in pursuit of the perceived "greater good." If one's actions are motivated by spite, anger, madness or some other discernible motivation, the argument may not hold. Perhaps in the face of such other subjective motivations, a subjective determination is fitting and just.

For the record, I have a few particular "evil" historical figures in mind but I would rather not identify them or discuss them specifically. I do not necessarily agree with the figures and would rather not associate myself with supporting any of them. If I speak in generalities, perhaps my argument can be considered without the coloration of subjective beliefs relating to specific figures. That is, pick your favorite "evil" historical figure and apply my argument. See where it goes.

N.B. Apparently ctl+s equates to "publish post." Interesting.

I started off with practicality/ruthlessness and ended with good/bad not being so. Two distinct arguments that are nonetheless related. One of the reasons I enjoy discussing these arguments is that I consider myself to be rather practical. I honestly believe that I have the capacity, even if not yet acted upon, for ruthlessness or harshness based on a perceived desire to effect a change for "the better good." That belief in myself can both be noble and aweful. Noble in that self-sacrifice can be a result. Aweful in that knowledgeable sacrifice of others can be a result. It cuts both ways. But either way, perceived practicality reigns supreme, a philosophy for which I have a great affinity. Hence my presentation of the above arguments and my support thereof.

"When a romantic tries to do a good thing and fails, they give him a medal. When
a pragmatist succeeds, they wish him in hell." -- Stephen King, "Quitters, Inc."