Wednesday, February 04, 2004

Coolness as virtue

I'm still exploring Kant -- something I've done surprisingly little of, given my station in life. Kant says the following in the Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals:
Moderation in affects and passions, self-control, and calm reflection are ... good for all sorts of purposes ... but they lack much that would be required to declare them good without limitation (however unconditionally they were praised by the ancients); for, without the basic principles of a good will they can become extremely evil, and the coolness of a scoundrel makes him not only far more dangerous but also immediately more abominable in our eyes that we would have taken him to be without it. 4:394
I rarely find myself in sympathy with the virtue ethicist, but I think Kant may be treating the position unfairly here. It seems to me that coolness (I mean that as a technical term, including moderation, self-control, reflection, intelligence, etc.) is a virtue, even in an evil person. Maybe one reason Kant got this one wrong is that he didn't have movies. Today, contemporary thinkers get to see lots of examples of cool evil people. Consider Hannibal Lecter from Silence of the Lambs. Hannibal is a good example because he's both extremely evil and extremely cool. Remember his brilliantly holding on to a hidden pen spring, leading up to his brilliant escape from his cell, his brutal murder of a guard, and his brilliant escape from his prison? (If you don't, just take my word for it -- he's both evil and brilliant.) If Kant's right, then Hannibal's coolness should be a vice -- it should make him appear "immediately more abominable", independent of the fact that it makes him more dangerous. To determine whether he's right, compare Hannibal with two new fictional characters I'm about to invent. First, consider Hannidull. Hannidull, just like Hannibal, is an evil psychopath. In fact, his will is evil to exactly the same extent -- he has identical murderous inclinations, and he decides to act on them exactly as often. However, unlike Hannibal, Hannidull is not cool. He's not a genius -- in fact, he's a little slow. We're not as worried about Hannidull as we are about Hannibal, because Kant's right about Hannidull being far less dangerous. But Kant makes two claims: "...the coolness of a scoundrel makes him (1) not only far more dangerous but also (2) immediately more abominable..." So yes, he's right about (1). But what about (2)? To run this comparison, we need to hold dangerousness constant. So consider Hannidull+. Hannidull+, internally, is just like Hannidull: he's evil and dull, to exactly the same extent. But Hannidull+, unlike both Hannidull and Hannibal, is very physically powerful. He's so powerful, that he's just as difficult to capture as the cool Hannibal, and just as likely, once captured, to escape. In short, his power compensates for his lack of coolness (in terms of dangerousness). So Hannidull+ is exactly as dangerous as Hannibal. If Kant is right, we should judge Hannibal to be "more abominable" than Hannidull+, because he's "cooler". But that's not my intuition, and I'm guessing it's not the most common one, either. Once we hold dangerousness constant, Hannibal is more praiseworthy than Hannidull+, precisely because he's cooler. Hannibal is a better person than Hannidull+ (it's too bad about that evil psychopath thing, though). That is to say, coolness seems to be praiseworthy, even in evil people.

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