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Verruckt
2009-05-18, 09:22 PM
I've had a question bouncing around in my head for the past couple weeks and a comment over in Llama231's Top 10 Villains (http://www.giantitp.com/forums/showthread.php?t=110771) thread inspired me to start off a proper topic here to see what my fellow Playgrounders think. There are spoilers below and this thread will likely be full of them, you have been warned.

After reading the short story The Grand Inquisitor (http://www.webster.edu/~corbetre/philosophy/existentialism/dostoevsky/grand.html) contained within the larger Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky I was struck by a pretty disturbing dilemma. The titular character posits that he and his ilk are doing humanity a service by keeping the majority of people stupid, fed and subservient, because to be free and aware is misery. He believes that the majority of people would rather be bemused and happy than keenly aware and upset. He goes further to say that he himself and those like him are making the truest sacrifice, pledging their lives and living in the pain of awareness for the good of the rest of man kind. The dilemma is that I can't for the life of me prove him wrong

Ozymandias in Watchmen (both versions) makes a similar decision on a somewhat less shaky basis. He kills a great many people in order to save the human race, taking all the grief and responsibility of knowing the truth upon himself so that the rest of humanity will never need know what had to be done to bring it back from the edge of extinction.

My question is this: Are these two men, and others like them, Villains? The question works similarly for people who are ostensibly heroes. Is Neo really a hero for reducing a great number of people to what amounts to a less then third world existence in the harsh wreckage of humanity's ashes when they were ignorant but otherwise perfectly OK when still inside the Matrix? Is John Preston really in the right when he destabilizes a government that has brought Equilibrium to humanity for the sake of emotion?

This has been bugging the hells out of me and I wanted some outside input because my brain has been chasing itself in circles for a while now. Please fellow playgrounders, tell me what you think and help me awaken from my dogmatic frustration:smallfrown:.

The Tygre
2009-05-18, 11:53 PM
First and foremost, define 'Villain'.

Verruckt
2009-05-19, 12:15 AM
First and foremost, define 'Villain'.

Allow me to restate the question "Was what any of the people listed above did 'Ethical'"

Use any definition of ethical you wish, but you will be held accountable if you can't defend your definition better than "that's just how I feel":smallamused:.

(unless of course you're basing your answer in Virtue Ethics, in which case "How I Feel" is the whole basis of the system:smallbiggrin:)

warty goblin
2009-05-19, 01:26 AM
I don't care about Watchman, so I'll not argue that point.

On the former however, the Inquisitor's argument rests on a few, rather interesting tennets.

1) Morality/ethics is the maximization of happiness.

2) The ends justify the means.

3) People are happier not being free.

All of these are, at least from your description, taken somewhat axiomatically. If one accepts his starting conditions, than yes the conclusion seems inevitable, and hence one would have to conclude the character to be a hero.

The problem is that there is no neccessary an a priori reason to use somebody else's construction of morality. If I disagree with the way a person thinks in a story, that person is a villian, and that's about all there is to it. Villiany, and by extension heroes, who are most often defined as being in opposition to villians, are entirely subjective.

This is not neccessarily initially obvious, since many villians are made to appear villianous to a very large sector of the story's intended audience. Often this involves rather cheap tricks like making them ugly, the heroes good looking, and similar things. But fundamentally there's no reason when I read Lord of the Rings, or anything else, for me not to decide that Sauron had the right idea after all.

Where this gets more complicated is a case where the villian both seems to be doing what they percieve as a good thing, and is using a rather similar argument to ones we ourselves use to arrive at ends we find objectionable.

Verruckt
2009-05-19, 10:05 AM
I don't care about Watchman, so I'll not argue that point.

On the former however, the Inquisitor's argument rests on a few, rather interesting tennets.

1) Morality/ethics is the maximization of happiness.

2) The ends justify the means.

3) People are happier not being free.

All of these are, at least from your description, taken somewhat axiomatically. If one accepts his starting conditions, than yes the conclusion seems inevitable, and hence one would have to conclude the character to be a hero.

The problem is that there is no necessary an a priori reason to use somebody else's construction of morality. If I disagree with the way a person thinks in a story, that person is a villian, and that's about all there is to it. Villiany, and by extension heroes, who are most often defined as being in opposition to villians, are entirely subjective.

This is not necessarily initially obvious, since many villians are made to appear villianous to a very large sector of the story's intended audience. Often this involves rather cheap tricks like making them ugly, the heroes good looking, and similar things. But fundamentally there's no reason when I read Lord of the Rings, or anything else, for me not to decide that Sauron had the right idea after all.

Where this gets more complicated is a case where the villian both seems to be doing what they perceive as a good thing, and is using a rather similar argument to ones we ourselves use to arrive at ends we find objectionable.

Hmm... I see what you're saying. I guess what disturbs me about these guys is that they achieve ends that no one finds objectionable (everyone is happy, no nuclear war) by means that are terrible. If what you're saying carries through, and all morality is truly subjective, then I guess my heroes are most people's villains.

I don't know what that says about me but there you go.

Dienekes
2009-05-19, 10:30 AM
Villain is based on the story they are presented in. So yes, Ozy is a villain (don't know the other one).

Though I link villain with antagonist, which some disagree with. Now are they evil, and that I say no.

Shyftir
2009-05-19, 12:46 PM
There is a universal morality in mankind. (I.e. Lying is bad, don't break promises, don't steal other peoples stuff, etc.) Some societies have altered from this in part, but none in whole. Sometimes that which is immoral is illegal, sometimes its not.
I think the dnd alignment system helps here to illustrate.
Lawful Good is concerned with being just.
Neutral Good is concerned with being healthy both physically and spiritually.
Chaotic Good is concerned with being free.
All these paths are morally fairly decent, with Lawful being more concerned with morals but all three are good.

Lawful Neutral is concerned with order.
True Neutral is concerned with balance or self-preservation
Choatic Neutral is concerned with self-determination / gain.
Of these Lawful neutral is generally more moral, but not for its own sake, True Neutral sees balance as the core of morality, and Chaotic neutral is generally cares nothing about morality.

Lawful Evil is concerned with control of others.
Neutral Evil is concerned with evil for its own sake a rebellion against morality.
Chaotic Evil is concerned with destruction and slaughter.
None of these are moral although Lawful Evil often feels the need to justify themselves morally.

So in conclusion universal morality desires freedom, wellness, and justice. A moral society has freedom within boundaries and provides for and protects wellness. All of these alignments are concerned with happiness, everyone seeks to be happy they take different directions, have different values; for some people ignorance is bliss, but some people burn to know the truth.

So to answer your examples. The Inquisitor is Lawful Evil, he justifies his oppression because some people don't mind as long as they get fed. Just because he doesn't oppress everyone doesn't mean he isn't oppressive.

Ozymandias is either neutral good or true neutral he is more concerned with existence than morality. He does a terrible thing for the right reasons, but if he truly was moral he would also accept the physical punishment for his deeds.

Neo is Chaotic Good. Freedom is more important to him then health. Plus alot of people in the Matrix are unhappy it replicates normal life.

John Preston is Neutral Good. His government had bought peace at the cost of true humanity. True no-one was unhappy but they weren't happy either.

That's my opinion on the matter. Villain is defined by the story though.
For instance V from V for Vendetta is a terrorist who does terible things and he was morally at fault when his actions were for revenge. So he was chaotic neutral seeking revenge. But he is the hero of the story.

Dervag
2009-05-19, 01:17 PM
Hmm... I see what you're saying. I guess what disturbs me about these guys is that they achieve ends that no one finds objectionable (everyone is happy, no nuclear war) by means that are terrible.So? Let me give an analogy by way of Benito Mussolini's promise to "make the trains run on time."

[Of course, reality is that Mussolini didn't make the trains run on time; insofar as Italian trains ran on time, it wasn't anything Mussolini could honestly take credit for. But he said trains ran on time, and a lot of people believed him, and saw that as a good thing about his reign]
______

In principle, Mussolini can make trains run on time all he likes. Making trains run on time does not require you to be good or evil. If you expect the nature of the universe to reward the good with on-time trains and punish the wicked with delayed trains, you're going to be sorely disappointed. Making trains run on time is a matter of good maintenance, having important supplies on hand, having well-trained, motivated employees, and so on. The Minions of Darkness can do it just about as well as the Forces of Light, if they truly care to make the effort and have adequate organizational skills.

The fact that you make trains run on time therefore tells us nothing about whether you are good or evil. By extension, there are many ways to be evil that will work. The train runs on time, the harvest comes in, people can live and raise families. Evil isn't always about marauding orcs from the Shadow Wastes murdering people in their beds. And "good" doesn't just mean "wise, well-executed policy statements."

To find the difference between good and evil, you have to look closer. The evil cannot justify evil by saying that they trains run on time, because you don't need evil to make trains run on time. Conversely, you can't be surprised to find an evil society where trains run on time (where people have enough to eat, where ...), because you don't need [i]good to make those things happen, either.
_______


If what you're saying carries through, and all morality is truly subjective, then I guess my heroes are most people's villains.

I don't know what that says about me but there you go.But to my way of thinking, the above doesn't mean good and evil are subjective. It just means that there are some things that are below the distinction between good and evil. Rain falls on the just and unjust alike, and railroad timetables can work as well for the saints as for the sinners. The real difference lies on the level of how people interact with each other, not on the level of how they interact with things.

It is thus a common tactic for the evil to define their success in terms of interactions with things (which they're good at) and not in terms of people (which they're not so good at).

Scylfing
2009-05-19, 01:56 PM
I think it's pretty clear by the end of the novel that Dostoevsky believed Happiness = living the ethical/moral life in the actions that you undertake toward others. Happiness isn't a lack of suffering or adversity, it doesn't mean you never lose anything that you love, no it's the state in which you are engaging in a virtuous life with your fellow Man. Alyosha had to endure all sorts of sad things but in his interaction with the children you can see how beneficial he was for forming their character in positive ways when they just as easily could have become little monsters (see how terribly Kolya behaved early on and how he'd changed by the end).

The upshot is that this doesn't mean the Grand Inquisitor a tragic misguided hero--that would be Ivan, whose heart really was in the right place as he was motivated by the same concerns Alyosha was, he just went about it the wrong way and it ended up causing even more suffering. It means he's just like every other powerful man, using the same appeal to herd morality that they all use to justify themselves in their greed and desire for power. He's a villain and a monster, but he's a real monster and that makes him scary.

All that said, I like tragic characters who blur the lines between hero and villain, or even between protagonist and antagonist. Someone like Edmund Dantes who has legitimate reasons to desire revenge and executes it masterfully, but in doing so goes way too far and becomes the same as what he's taking vengeance upon by hurting people who'd never actually wronged him. Or Michael Corleone who wanted to take care of his family, even better than his father even, which ostensibly is a noble thing, but the way he ends up going about it ends up wrecking what he loved. This is of course an idea as old as Western drama itself but it's still really compelling when it's handled well.

So I guess to answer your underlying question, I would say it depends on whether the villain in question (judging villainy by what harm they do) actually has heroic motives or not. I don't know about Ozymandias, but for the Grand Inquisitor I'd say not.

Mr.Silver
2009-05-19, 03:03 PM
There is a universal morality in mankind.
(I.e. Lying is bad, don't break promises, don't steal other peoples stuff, etc.) Some societies have altered from this in part, but none in whole.
Leaving aside the obvious lexical problem of how exactly something which is universal can be opted out of, this is a very bold statement to make indeed. It has also has precious little evidence. While many ethicists would say that there is some objective basis to morality (as I do) it's a very different thing to claim that there's some universal moral system.
There are some conventions without which society is difficult but morality itself is a bit wider in scope. The three examples you suggested are, of course, also subject to a lot of debate in regards to how much moral weight each of them exerts.



Sometimes that which is immoral is illegal, sometimes its not.
Correct.



I think the dnd alignment system helps here to illustrate.

No it really, really doesn't. Ever. I'm frankly quite shocked you even thought to bring it up in a discussion on real world morality when it is quite clearly only suited to scenarioes involving applying rules to games of make-believe. They are gross oversimplifications relying on not preconcieved assumptions of some rather questionable terms (law and chaos are huge offenders here).


So in conclusion universal morality desires freedom,
Slave economies of the 'classical' civilisations and all forms of autocratic society (which when talking historically vastly outnumber democratic ones). Neither of these were considered particularly morally wrong at the time. Not really seeing the 'universal' aspect hear.

wellness
Might be tempted to grant this, but the idea that it the soceity that is responsible for it is again not as universal as you seem to think it is.

justice
Which would be great is the concept of justice wasn't as equally difficult to define as the concept of good. Executions, maiming and torture for example have been staples of a many forms of 'justice' which were all seen as being perfectly fine at the time.

Weezer
2009-05-19, 03:48 PM
I agree with those who are arguing for a subjective morality, if you look at history things were common or even required that to modern morality seems completely immoral and despicable. For example gladiatorial combat, seeing slaves fight each other or animals to the death is morally repugnant to us while to the Romans it was a compulsory part of every major festivity. I think that this shows that there is no universal a priori standard of morals, morals are just what you personally believe is right.

More on topic I in many ways agree with the Grand Inquisitor, I think that people are in truth miserable (or at least unhappy) when they become free. Where he and I diverge is that I think that it isn't the world that creates or restricts peoples freedom, it is people recognizing their freedom that truly makes us free. So in this case it would be wrong to kill Him as the Inquisitor did, not because it affects anyone's freedom but because you are killing someone, but I don't disagree with the basic propositions of his argument.

As for Ozymanidas I think what he did was moral and I think of him as the tragic hero of Watchmen. He looked at the problems facing the world and saw only one way of fixing them. If doing so killed a small percentage of those who would die in the event of nuclear war it is a valid price to pay.

GoC
2009-05-19, 07:05 PM
They believe that they are making humanity better (good intentions). Hence they're good people.
We do not know whether these actions were indeed better than the alternative so can't say anything about the morality of the actions themselves.


There is a universal morality in mankind. (I.e. Lying is bad, don't break promises, don't steal other peoples stuff, etc.)
...
These are not absolutes. Sometimes lying is good. Sometimes promises must be broken.


he truly was moral he would also accept the physical punishment for his deeds.
Why? Would the world be a better place with him dead and unable to help mankind with amazing discoveries?

Verruckt
2009-05-19, 09:39 PM
So? Let me give an analogy by way of Benito Mussolini's promise to "make the trains run on time."

[Of course, reality is that Mussolini didn't make the trains run on time; insofar as Italian trains ran on time, it wasn't anything Mussolini could honestly take credit for. But he said trains ran on time, and a lot of people believed him, and saw that as a good thing about his reign]
______

In principle, Mussolini can make trains run on time all he likes. Making trains run on time does not require you to be good or evil. If you expect the nature of the universe to reward the good with on-time trains and punish the wicked with delayed trains, you're going to be sorely disappointed. Making trains run on time is a matter of good maintenance, having important supplies on hand, having well-trained, motivated employees, and so on. The Minions of Darkness can do it just about as well as the Forces of Light, if they truly care to make the effort and have adequate organizational skills.

The fact that you make trains run on time therefore tells us nothing about whether you are good or evil. By extension, there are many ways to be evil that will work. The train runs on time, the harvest comes in, people can live and raise families. Evil isn't always about marauding orcs from the Shadow Wastes murdering people in their beds. And "good" doesn't just mean "wise, well-executed policy statements."

To find the difference between good and evil, you have to look closer. The evil cannot justify evil by saying that they trains run on time, because you don't need evil to make trains run on time. Conversely, you can't be surprised to find an evil society where trains run on time (where people have enough to eat, where ...), because you don't need [i]good to make those things happen, either.
_______


This is helpful, I'll have to mull it over, but more immediately:



But to my way of thinking, the above doesn't mean good and evil are subjective. It just means that there are some things that are below the distinction between good and evil. Rain falls on the just and unjust alike, and railroad timetables can work as well for the saints as for the sinners. The real difference lies on the level of how people interact with each other, not on the level of how they interact with things.

It is thus a common tactic for the evil to define their success in terms of interactions with things (which they're good at) and not in terms of people (which they're not so good at).

Neither the Inquisitor nor Ozy define their success by interaction with things. Both of them, in a horrible way, are trying to help people.



The upshot is that this doesn't mean the Grand Inquisitor a tragic misguided hero--that would be Ivan, whose heart really was in the right place as he was motivated by the same concerns Alyosha was, he just went about it the wrong way and it ended up causing even more suffering. It means he's just like every other powerful man, using the same appeal to herd morality that they all use to justify themselves in their greed and desire for power. He's a villain and a monster, but he's a real monster and that makes him scary.

So I guess to answer your underlying question, I would say it depends on whether the villain in question (judging villainy by what harm they do) actually has heroic motives or not. I don't know about Ozymandias, but for the Grand Inquisitor I'd say not.

I agree with your assessment of villainy, but I'm still not sure that the Inquisitor is a villain. Is it really that he's simply trying to invent motives to rationalize his actions in a position of power, or is he really on to something? I can't help feeling that he might not be entirely wrong in endeavoring to keep everyone fed and happy. Neo, being his pretty much polar opposite, frees your mind and then damns you to a subsistence living existence and your only consolation is knowing the terrible truth. In a way the masses of ignorant people who watch TV and eat three square meals a day are more free than those who have rejected the system.

The thing that Neo fights for and the Inquisitor endeavors to prevent isn't so much Freedom as it is Awareness. I don't know that Neo is right or the Inquisitor is wrong for wanting to do that.


They believe that they are making humanity better (good intentions). Hence they're good people.

I'm pretty sure that could be said of a great deal of the members of the Nazi party, are you comfortable with the implications of your position?

GoC
2009-05-19, 10:14 PM
I'm pretty sure that could be said of a great deal of the members of the Nazi party, are you comfortable with the implications of your position?
Yes. I may however, believe that said member of the nazi party were blind, racist, idiots and were probably evil for other things (such as rape, doubtful any thought rape was making humanity better). Most nazis probably didn't really believe that all jews should die for the good of humanity, they just wanted an excuse to have power and murder people.

Jack Squat
2009-05-19, 10:24 PM
Most nazis probably didn't really believe that all jews should die for the good of humanity, they just wanted an excuse to have power and murder people.

There were a few that wanted the power, and that be enough to corrupt their heros, yes, but I'd say most of the members of the party didn't particularly want to kill off the Jews, but they were following orders under the penalty of death. They killed others or turned a blind eye out of fear of standing up to what they felt was wrong. That's just those that worked in/with the concentration camps.

Other members of the party, and those outside of it (but still in the military) didn't know any more than the Jews were being rounded up into camps, and they didn't care any more than we cared about the Japanese being relocated.

It just goes to show how many people can be controlled by very few evil men.

kpenguin
2009-05-19, 10:31 PM
Use any definition of ethical you wish, but you will be held accountable if you can't defend your definition better than "that's just how I feel":smallamused:

Any ethical definition I wish, you say?

Well, Ozy clearly violates Kant's Second Maxim. He's using humanity (the people of New York) as a means to an end (saving humanity from nuclear holocaust).

Verruckt
2009-05-19, 10:50 PM
Any ethical definition I wish, you say?

Well, Ozy clearly violates Kant's Second Maxim. He's using humanity (the people of New York) as a means to an end (saving humanity from nuclear holocaust).

"Act in such a way that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, always at the same time as an end and never merely as a means to an end."

It seems to me that neither Ozy nor the Inquisitor violate this, as humanity is their End as well as their Mean. In fact I don't think they are violating any of them. They both act in such a way that suggests they believe they are in accordance with a universal law (save humanity, no matter the cost), and they are certainly rational people acting as though they were legislators within the "universal kingdom of ends" (although in this case they are also the judicial and executive bodies.)

GoC
2009-05-19, 10:54 PM
There were a few that wanted the power, and that be enough to corrupt their heros, yes, but I'd say most of the members of the party didn't particularly want to kill off the Jews, but they were following orders under the penalty of death. They killed others or turned a blind eye out of fear of standing up to what they felt was wrong. That's just those that worked in/with the concentration camps.

Other members of the party, and those outside of it (but still in the military) didn't know any more than the Jews were being rounded up into camps, and they didn't care any more than we cared about the Japanese being relocated.

It just goes to show how many people can be controlled by very few evil men.

Then Verruckt's statement: "I'm pretty sure that could be said of a great deal of the members of the Nazi party"
was false and I didn't need to answer the question.:smallbiggrin:

kpenguin
2009-05-19, 11:10 PM
While Ozy fufills the "treat humanity as an end" portion of the formulation, he fails to fufill the second portion of not treating humanity as a means. Kant posited that as soon as you treat humanity as a means, it devalues free will (the source of all ethical action) and thus humanity.

That's one of the reasons Kant posited that lying is unethical, because it denies the right of the person deceived to be an end by making them a mean. Ozy lies, by the way, so we could use just that to condemn him, but Kant accepted that not lying is an imperfect duty, one which we should not condemn for not completing but praised for doing so.

That's also why Kant is always brought up on the anti-flip side of the trolley problem. His second maxim does not allow you to simply flip the switch and kill a single person to save five, which also uses humanity as both a means and an end.

I would further posit that Ozy's ultimate end is not humanity. Saving the world from nuclear holocaust was not his ultimate end, but simply a means to achieve greatness and leave a mark on history like Alexander.

Verruckt
2009-05-19, 11:43 PM
While Ozy fufills the "treat humanity as an end" portion of the formulation, he fails to fufill the second portion of not treating humanity as a means. Kant posited that as soon as you treat humanity as a means, it devalues free will (the source of all ethical action) and thus humanity.

That's one of the reasons Kant posited that lying is unethical, because it denies the right of the person deceived to be an end by making them a mean. Ozy lies, by the way, so we could use just that to condemn him, but Kant accepted that not lying is an imperfect duty, one which we should not condemn for not completing but praised for doing so.

That's also why Kant is always brought up on the anti-flip side of the trolley problem. His second maxim does not allow you to simply flip the switch and kill a single person to save five, which also uses humanity as both a means and an end.

I would further posit that Ozy's ultimate end is not humanity. Saving the world from nuclear holocaust was not his ultimate end, but simply a means to achieve greatness and leave a mark on history like Alexander.

Kant is as magnificent as ever, but the Inquisitor challenges this basic assumption:
free will (the source of all ethical action) To his mind it is unethical to allow for free will. Free will sucks, it makes you realize how awful the world around you really is and forces you to deal with it knowing that you as one person can do almost nothing to change that save help prevent other people from suffering as you do.

kpenguin
2009-05-20, 12:00 AM
To his mind it is unethical to allow for free will. Free will sucks, it makes you realize how awful the world around you really is and forces you to deal with it knowing that you as one person can do almost nothing to change that save help prevent other people from suffering as you do.

The basic idea behind Kant is that morality depends on rationality. Kant further posited that rationality depends on free will, since autonomy is required to conduct reason. Therefore, it follows that in order to maintain one's morality, one must maintain one's free will.

Scylfing
2009-05-20, 01:02 AM
I agree with your assessment of villainy, but I'm still not sure that the Inquisitor is a villain. Is it really that he's simply trying to invent motives to rationalize his actions in a position of power, or is he really on to something? I can't help feeling that he might not be entirely wrong in endeavoring to keep everyone fed and happy.

Dostoevsky is saying that this isn't happiness, it is merely existence, and if existence simply is treated as its own end and its own means toward achieving itself, then happiness has no place here at all since happiness itself is an end.

Maybe I'm mistaken about the Inquisitor's motives, maybe he really was a true believer in this ideology of preserving humanity's existence through slavery, but even were that so he misses the trees for the forest. :smallwink: In thinking only about humanity as a generality, he ends up committing despicable acts against individual humans in the name of protecting the so-called whole. Ivan is the same way (go figure, he created the Inquisitor), he talks about being a humanist, loving humanity as such, but he deals poorly with individual people and causes significant harm as a result (see Smerdyakov). He waxes poetic about the suffering of children in general but he doesn't do anything to actually help any particular child (contrast with Alyosha, big time).

But I don't think I am mistaken. I think it's the same crap that Rousseau identified in the Discourse on Inequality (and Augustine, oddly enough, way before him in The City of God) where one guy tells his neighbors that he's better and therefore ought to have power over them for their own good, and the poor sods for whatever reason agree with him. Dostoevsky's trying to show via Alyosha and Father Zosima that we don't need those jerks to take care of us, we can get by well enough if we freely help each other.

Now you can disagree with the author's philosophical positions all you like with your interpretation of the character of the Inquisitor as something more heroic and agreeable than what was intended, but from a literary standpoint I don't see how he can be viewed as heroic when the hero (or heroes, if you include Zosima) of the book is his complete opposite.

Verruckt
2009-05-21, 10:19 AM
*snip*

Just more proof I'm going to need to read The Brothers several more times before I start to get a handle on it. Dostoevsky might be clearer than Kant, but that's not saying much:smallsmile: