Newsgroup Discussions: Evil On The Disc: Part II

Evil On The Disc: Part II

alt.books.pratchett

Date: 04 Nov 1998
From: francesco.nicoletti

Conversely, it's been suggested that Vetinari should be considered 'evil', even though no-one has actually pointed out anything he's ever done that was 'wrong'.

The things I find the Patrician has done wrong are the toleration of the Assassins guild and the Thieves Guild. in light of the rest of your posting this toleration may be for the greater good. The patrician may calculate that having the assassins where he can see them is better then driving them under ground, but the argument has never been made in the books by anyone, and I remain to be convinced. The licenced thieves are probably better then what went before but what they do is still wrong. So by implication is the patricians tolerance of them. He owns a scorpion pit-Is torture right even if it minimises the overall harm?


From: Mr M P Cairns

Wasn't there something in one of the books that went along the lines of Vetinari invites thieves to form Guilds, Thieves think "opportunity here", thieves form guilds, Vetinari gets to know names and lives of every major thief, Vetinari points this out to thieves, thieves think "oh dear, better behave". (G!G!?)

Plus it has been stated many times that the thieves guild is better at controlling crime than the watch ever was

Did Vetinari have anything to do with setting up the Assassins guild - he certainly tolerates them, but we know De'Ath, Pteppic's uncle and Teatime were all trained by the Guild in earlier times, and I at least have the impression that they've been around for centuries. Hang on, I've just had a thought. Does this mean that the Patrician's inspired idea (and about the only example I can think of in which the Patrician did something subtle to benefit the city) about the guilds for thieves etc. was actually just copying an idea one of his predecessors had decades ago. Surely it's not all a good PR job?


From: Sakura

In fact, I seem to recall that Vetinari himself attended the Assassin's School...and nobody could recall what he majored in.


Date: 05 Nov 1998
From: Betsy Perry

Foreign languages, wasn't it?


Date: 06 Nov 1998
From: Jens.Kristoffer.Nielsen

Quite correct, according to Jingo.


Date: 05 Nov 1998
From: francesco.nicoletti

Vetinari invites thieves to form Guilds, Thieves think "opportunity here", [...]

As a send up of Libertarians, and Free Marketeering the idea is extremely funny. But as something that promotes the common good the idea has holes.There is something wrong with a system where people are licenced to assault other people on a yearly basis.

Plus it has been stated many times that the thieves guild is better at controlling crime than the watch ever was

Notice how badly the guild works, any body visiting AM for any length of time meet unlicenced thieves?

Did Vetinari have anything to do with setting up the Assassins guild - he certainly tolerates them

No he did not found it but he tolerates it. A leader as effective as he could suppress the Assassins Guild if he wished. His sin may be a sin of omission but it still is a sin.

and about the only example I can think of in which the Patrician did something subtle to benefit the city

The patrician encourages multispeciesism.To the financial benefit of the city. He has helped with the re founding of the Watch. He is not completely evil. But he tends to treat people like cogs in his city machinery, rather than people with rights that should not be violated.


Date: 07 Nov 1998
From: Tamar

Notice how badly the guild works, any body visiting AM for any length of time meet unlicenced thieves?

But they are stated to control things better than the Watch did - not that they do it much better. The Watch tended to be all show and no action. Vimes himself remembers running across the city at top speed in the old days, "and none of them ever caught me either" - he was running away from the thieves etc.


Date: 04 Nov 1998
From: Anthony W. Youngman

He owns a scorpion pit-Is torture right even if it minimises the overall harm?

Has the pit actually got any scorpions in it? I get the impression it hasn't ...


From: Sam

So what is 'evil'? A tentative definition

I think your definitions are too loose. That is probably because of all the baggage that I attribute to the word evil, but I can't help that can I? You're definitions are in a semantic sense more correct than mine, I suspect, since evil really boils down to something bad or sinful.

However, I think your definition the first is very loose indeed and is really a description of the sin of omission, though only for the worst case sins (where harm prevention's within power of a sentient being)..

I think that you have to go further than consequences. I would like the knowledge of both the intent and the motivation of the act. You simply require that the person willingly disregards the harm caused to others. I'd like to know that the intention of the action was to cause harm and that the motivating force was malice.


From: Miq

I think your definitions are too loose. [...] evil really boils down to something bad or sinful.

But how do you determine what constitutes 'bad or sinful'? That's the question. My definitions were, as I said, tentative - I think they could both use improvement, but they were the best I could do without further constructive input.

I'd like to know that the intention of the action was to cause harm and that the motivating force was malice.

I was trying to develop a way of assessing the 'motivation'. In a fictional work, we are given plenty of insights into characters' intentions. But how can we use this insight objectively to assess the morality of a particular action?


Date: 05 Nov 1998
From: Sam

But how do you determine what constitutes 'bad or sinful'?

Hang on a minute, I thought you were trying to determine what this extra baggage that was implied when people used the word Evil was. If we can't even agree on what is bad then we are way further back than I thought. As far as I know, most societies share similar, if not identical, ideas about what is good and bad. My own feeling is that most of us are born with some in built control mechanism that tells us this. Some people say that it is conditioning at an early age that tells us this. How it comes about isn't the issue though.

Sinful was perhaps a bad (see can't avoid the word) choice of word on my part. Since it carries a religious connotation that bad does not. Let's not get into that discussion (at least not for now:-)). My use of the word bad, above, demonstrates that it is a much more versatile word than evil. So let us concentrate on evil for now...

I was trying to develop a way of assessing the 'motivation'. In a fictional work, we are given plenty of insights into characters' intentions. But how can we use this insight objectively to assess the morality of a particular action?

Morality.. Another word whose definition we could discuss till the cows come home! But let's stick to evil for now:-).

I agree that we have sufficient insight into fictional characters' intentions to analyse their motivations, so long as the author has given us that information. Indeed, the author may've even given us the motivations directly. This is, more or less what I was getting at, a couple of messages back, when I said I wouldn't use the word against a real person.

If I may be so bold, I shall attempt to modify your original defn1 so it fits what I am trying to get across.

Miq's first tentative definition with Sam's alterations:

An act may be said to be 'evil' if the agent[1] responsible[2] fails to take account of and minimise the harm[3] caused to other[4] sentient[5] beings.

[1] Any entity capable of making a decision.

(A Free Agent TM:-))
This would mean that a machine could be evil. I don't like this since I would like the creator/programmer of the machine to be the evil one. I don't see how we can answer this one without mentioning free will, artificial intelligence, the existence of a Creator of mankind etc. But Miq said not to do this, so I won't. (Not yet anyhow.)

[2] Responsible for = is capable of preventing, and decides not to. Several people may be held responsible for one action.

[2] Responsible for => is the being who knowingly[2a] acts[2c] in the way under discussion.

[2a] knowingly => is aware of the consequences of their actions and is capable of preventing themselves from acting without causing material harm to themselves[2b], and decides not to. Several people may be held responsible for one action.

[2b] I think this is important as I would not consider someone evil for not preventing something which would cause themselves harm. Selfish perhaps, but evil?

[2c] Since we have started by defining an act, the act must be recognisable, hence we know who is responsible.

[4] I have a strong gut feeling that a moral agent should be allowed to do as much harm to itself as it likes, without being called to account for it.[4a].

[4a] I tend to agree with Miq on this one. However, we could argue that we just include self in the utilitarian harm defn appropriately weighted.

[5] In this context, beings that are capable of suffering. Where suffering is the opposite of happiness[6]. We can expand on the utilitarian defn of harm to give different classes of being different weights in the equation in a democratic manner (if we have to).

[6] ??????????

The problems I highlighted in [1] and [6], are making me wonder if this whole thing is simply not possible? I know what I mean when I use the word evil, but then I know what I mean when I use the word free will and I know what I mean by happiness... But, can I define these concepts in a succinct way which gets all the meaning I imply across? Can I heck! And I never will be able to do this, there are many people out there who would disagree with me whatever. For one thing, I believe in the human spirit (and to a lesser extent, such for all life) many people do not. This is, as far as I'm concerned absolutely fundamental to any discussion of free will and hence to evil. Someone who thinks that we are no more than complex chemical machines will always disagree with my theories and never the twain shall meet.

Apologies for wasting your time...


From: Miq

This would mean that a machine could be evil.

I don't see why an AI entity can't be evil in its own right. What about Hal in 2001? True, this might be attributable to its programmer/creator, depending on the motivation and care of the latter; but if an AI has acquired self-awareness, I'd say it can be held accountable for its own decisions.

I don't see how we can answer this one without mentioning free will, artificial intelligence, the existence of a Creator of mankind etc. But Miq said not to do this, so I won't. (Not yet anyhow.)

Well, the debate about Free Will tends to focus on whether FW itself is possible, or internally coherent, as an idea. For the purposes of this discussion, we must assume that it is. So I think it's a red herring.

[2] Responsible for => is the being who knowingly[2a] acts[2c] in the way under discussion.

Knowingly? How about people who act recklessly?

Consider Lupine Wonse. He was given adequate warning by the book that he may not be able to control the dragon he summoned. He chose to ignore that warning, and convinced himself that he could control it. So he didn't know that the dragon would rampage out of control - but he should have.

[2a] knowingly => is aware of the consequences of their actions and is capable of preventing themselves from acting without causing material harm to themselves[2b], and decides not to. Several people may be held responsible for one action.

How about one who knowingly abstains from action that could prevent such effects?

[2b] I think this is important as I would not consider someone evil for not preventing something which would cause themselves harm. Selfish perhaps, but evil?

Weeell, I did try to distinguish between evil people and evil actions. But I'll pass on that for now, if you don't mind...

[2c] Since we have started by defining an act, the act must be recognisable, hence we know who is responsible.

Mmmm. How about the act of creating the New Death in Reaper Man? Of killing the Hogfather? Summoning the Elves? Creating the King Golem?

[3] Good utilitarian definition: harm = reduction in net 'happiness'. But how to define happiness[6]?

Simple. 'Happiness' is whatever the individual concerned says it is. No-one else has anything to say about it. Specifically, this prevents the likes of Vorbis from coming along and saying "But that's not true happiness..."

[4a] we could argue that we just include self in the utilitarian harm defn appropriately weighted.

I think this probably is necessary, to be consistent.

We can expand on the utilitarian defn of harm to give different classes of being different weights in the equation in a democratic manner (if we have to).

We don't. Let's concentrate on the principle, not the nitty- gritty details. ;-)

I know what I mean when I use the word evil, but then I know what I mean when I use the word free will and I know what I mean by happiness... But, can I define these concepts in a succinct way which gets all the meaning I imply across? Can I heck!

But you can. Well, maybe 'succinct' would be an exaggeration. But there's a process called 'knowledge extraction', which consists of exactly this sort of thing.

And I never will be able to do this, there are many people out there who would disagree with me whatever.

Doesn't matter. So long as your understanding is internally coherent, it's valid, whatever anyone else thinks of it.

Someone who thinks that we are no more than complex chemical machines will always disagree with my theories and never the twain shall meet.

Those theories don't matter to this discussion. 'Someone who thinks we are no more than chemical machines' has no business using words like 'evil' at all, so they shouldn't even be interested in this thread.

Apologies for wasting your time...

Nunno, please. But let's try to give as many Pratchett references as we can, to keep somewhere near on-topic. It's also a useful discipline.


From: a15

How about people who act recklessly?

Not sure, if I'd call them evil or just reckless.

Consider Lupine Wonse.[...]So he didn't know that the dragon would rampage out of control - but he should have.

Yes, so he was deluded, reckless and perhaps even power crazy, but I wouldn't go so far as to say Evil.

How about one who knowingly abstains from action that could prevent such effects?

This is tricky... Can we say ..is capable of preventing themselves from acting or is capable of acting to prevent the action, without causing..?

I did try to distinguish between evil people and evil actions.

Even so, the act is only an evil act if someone is doing it, in which case this is necessary.

How about the act of creating the New Death in Reaper Man?

Wasn't this created through human belief? (Or am I wrong? it's a long time since I read RM.) Are we to belief that all those humans were evil? I would exclude this from the discussion because cause and effect are not direct enough and hence I cannot apportion the blame. You want to blame the Auditors for banishing the original Death I guess? If we can establish Cause and Effect, then the Act becomes irrelevant (See below). note to self: reread RM

Of killing the Hogfather?

Wasn't this Teatime? Or was it just lack of human belief caused by Teatime? same problem, same answer. note to self: reread HF

Summoning the Elves?

Wasn't this a particular "apprentice witch" who didn't know better? note to self: reread L&L

Creating the King Golem?

note to self: reread FoC

Yes, but that was a problem with the original definition which started: "An act.." without giving further clarification of what was required for an act to qualify. I decided not to alter this because one then gets into cause and effect complications. Although, I think we could do this by ignoring the word act and going for the word cause. If we can't disentangle cause and effect then the term Evil will be next to useless anyway, so:

An agent[1] may cause 'evil' if the agent responsible[2]

This may have other drawbacks?

'Happiness' is whatever the individual concerned says it is. No-one else has anything to say about it. Specifically, this prevents the likes of Vorbis from coming along and saying "But that's not true happiness..."

Problem is, it's us who are deciding what happiness is not them. I don't remember PTerry ever writing "and they all lived happily ever after.." but ICBW.

So long as your understanding is internally coherent, it's valid, whatever anyone else thinks of it.

Yes, but wasn't the point of the discussion to come to some sort of democratic agreement of what the term meant? I still want to define happiness and/or suffering.

'Someone who thinks we are no more than chemical machines' has no business using words like 'evil' at all, so they shouldn't even be interested in this thread.

Ah, but why not? It's a perfectly ordinary word they would argue. They could certainly define a concept of morality using a similar utilitarian definition of harm and use evil accordingly. It is a separate concept from bad which is too ambiguous. It is this which I can't reconcile because to me Free Will is a pre-requisite for evil. After all, if you accept AI as self-aware, where does that leave the discussion? The AI can have a concept of evil, since it is capable of it, but it is just a mechanical machine, albeit a complex one.


Date: 07 Nov 1998
From: Tamar

[New Death in Reaper Man]

Wasn't this created through human belief?

The New Death of humans on the Disc did arise as a result of human belief, which is very complex; it took a while. The lesser Deaths arose very quickly.

[Killing the Hogfather]

Wasn't this Teatime? Or was it just lack of human belief caused by Teatime?

The Hogfather was not quite killed, though he was returned to his early form by the lack of belief caused by Teatime.

[Summoning the Elves]

Wasn't this a particular "apprentice witch" who didn't know better?

The Elves were not summoned; they were ready and waiting to break through, and the witch-wanna-be went into the circle when it was at its weakest, which allowed the elves to break through. As you say, she didn't know better.

[Creating the King Golem]

The King Golem was created to lead and free his people, but he was not intended as an instrument of destruction; the stress drove him mad. There was no evil intent.


From: Paul Johnson

Well, the debate about Free Will tends to focus on whether FW itself is possible, or internally coherent, as an idea.

Free will is another of those concepts that I don't find terribly useful. Its normally invoked as a requirement before you can punish someone justly for their actions: if they didn't do something of their own free will then its not their fault and therefore punishment is unjust.

A more useful question is: will the proposed punishment alter the future behaviour of enough individuals to outweigh the harm of the punishment? If so then go ahead. Otherwise don't bother.

This becomes relevant later on.

Consider Lupine Wonse [...] he didn't know that the dragon would rampage out of control - but he should have.

Psychiatrists occasionally stop to wonder what they are trying to achieve in curing their patients. I once came across a definition of "sanity" which ran along the following lines: To be sane you must be

1: Able to understand the relationship between your actions and the effects they have.

2: Able to distinguish between things inside yourself and things outside yourself. (Schizophrenia seems, at its core, to be an inability to do this).

3: Empathising: you have to be able to imagine yourself in the place of another, and see how events will affect them.

4: Satiable. After doing one thing for long enough you get bored and want to do something else for a while instead.

Wonse failed 1, thus rendering him slightly insane.


Date: 04 Nov 1998
From: David Brain

People can perform evil acts without being evil per se.

This still leaves the Faculty of UU to deal with. Almost all of them reached their position apparently via murder. They wanted promotion, thus they followed whatever route was necessary to get it. I agree that this does not make them evil people, but I would imagine that the morality of their actions much be considered questionable.


Date: 06 Nov 1998
From: frozen_nova

Not quite all of them, the bursar for a start didn't (Nobody else wanted the job so he just got it).

Actually Ridicully was appointed Archchancellor by general consensus of wizards rather than bumping anyone off. Though he'd properly be able to have achieved promotion though general persistence and being very loud etc.


Date: 07 Nov 1998
From: Trent Hill

It has been mentioned in the books that he achieved 7th level at an incredibly young age and that he is why murder has drawn to a halt. He's not only very good at the game but is liable to shout at you after you fail, or nail your palm to the wall with a crossbow bolt.

I would assume that he's knocked over quite a few older wizards in his time.


From: Miq

I wouldn't assume that. I seem to recall that, after graduating, he strode off to make his career well away from the university, which is how he developed such unwizardly habits - healthy living etc. Which probably has a lot to do with his unusual survival in UU.


Date: 09 Nov 1998
From: Trent Hill

I seem to recall that he achieved 7th level before being recalled to work on his families farm or something...


Date: 07 Nov 1998
From: Anthony W. Youngman

But it's also there somewhere that he was elected because the wizards cottoned on to the fact that being ArchChancellor was usually the best indicator that your remaining tenure on the disk would be short.

He was elected in his absence while he was away. Maybe the other wizards thought it would be an easy way of getting rid of him ... permanently :-) Talk about hoist by your own petard ...


Date: 05 Nov 1998
From: T J Wilkinson

An act may be said to be 'evil' if the agent[1] responsible[2] fails to take account of and minimise the harm[3] caused to other[4] sentient[5] beings.

What really sends a chill down my spine is not when someone carelessly fails to minimise the harm their act will do, but when the harm is an explicit part of the act, e.g. "Let's go down to that village and kill everyone so we can take their money." I can more understand someone not fully knowing the effects of an act but acting anyway than the planning of cold-blooded murder.

When it comes to acts in which killing/torturing other people is not an essential part of it there is more of a scale. For example someone who today dumped radioactive waste into a village's water supply may as well, morally, have gone down there and started cutting throats. But if we go back, say before World War II[1] someone might throw out some funny radioactive stuff without being aware of its dangers and without being easily able to find out. While the results are still horrible and the person bears the responsibility of doing what's possible to make up, it is not an evil act in the same way that "Let's go down to that village and kill everyone" is.

So my definition would be "an act is evil when it deliberately includes harming other people as either the goal or part of achieving a goal. An act is also evil if it obviously causes harm to other people as a side effect."

The problem with this definition is that a person who breaks up a relationship with someone who loves them is doing an evil act. But if you exclude short term harm on the basis that it will avoid long term pain Vorbis might be considered a good guy since he would think that the short term pain of, say, killing someone, is worth the souls it will save.

Any ideas?

By this definition, Mort's action in saving Princess Keli is evil.

By my definition Mort's action isn't. It doesn't involve causing pain to people directly, and it's done on the spur of the moment.

I remember once while baby-sitting my brothers I heard them both screaming in the bathroom. The next conscious act I took was to stop laughing and go to find a glass and a piece of paper to remove the spider from the bath. I'd nearly teleported to the bathroom and burst in ready to cope with anything[2]. From what I've heard from people who've rescued lives that switching over to auto-pilot is quite common. If there'd been an axe murderer coming through the window I most likely would have hit him over the head with the pot plant (in a heavy pot) by the bath without worrying about the moral implications if I killed him. I once heard of a mother who lifted up a bus that had run over her child in the burst of adrenaline. It's possible Mort was operating in the same state. You don't think about what you're doing. You just do it[3].

Dibbler habitually acts in this way, but he might be excused on grounds of naivete - he simply doesn't realise that what he is doing is harmful to someone. If he did, he might act differently.

I'm getting more and more inclined to thinking that Dibbler is evil, but I am reluctant to use that word since evil to me implies not just the motives but the level of harm the act entails. Killing or torturing people ranks worse, in my personal ordering, than taking over their idea. After all it's easier to get up and dust yourself off afterwards.[4]

[1] I'm a bit hazy on when the discovery of the dangerous effects of radioactive substances was, but just go back before they were common knowledge, anyway.

[2] The fit of laughter, on discovering what they were terrified of, was also involuntary.

[3] It's interesting to wonder how much of a knee-jerk reaction this is. Once while driving a car I automatically braked when my mind was going "What the f--k! That car can't be there!" which is hardly a motion my ancestors learnt in the stone age.

[4] Not to play down the damage caused by long exposure to someone truly vicious, especially to someone in a parental role, but torture involves both physical and psychological damage.


From: Miq

What really sends a chill down my spine is not when someone carelessly fails to minimise the harm their act will do, but when the harm is an explicit part of the act

How about when someone acts recklessly? I've just mentioned Lupine Wonse in another branch of the thread: he had all the information he needed to know that he couldn't control the dragon, that it would run amok, but he chose to ignore it.

But if we go back, say before World War II someone might throw out some funny radioactive stuff without being aware of its dangers and without being easily able to find out.

Okay, I'll agree that one shouldn't be held fully responsible for causing things that one couldn't reasonably foresee. But there's still plenty of people who should know better, but choose not to (like Wonse).

I'm also thinking now of the history of the gonne. Three people bear a particular responsibility here: Leonard, for inventing it, Vetinari, for not ensuring its destruction, and Cruces (or whoever the chief assassin was at the time) for the same reason. Leonard I am inclined to excuse because he's morally incompetent - it never occurs to him that any of his inventions could be used destructively. Cruces certainly bears blame for not destroying it as instructed. But, like Vimes, I'm also inclined to blame Vetinari, for leaving the job in the hands of people who he knew couldn't be trusted.

So my definition would be "an act is evil when it deliberately includes harming other people as either the goal or part of achieving a goal. An act is also evil if it obviously causes harm to other people as a side effect."

Umm. That looks like a recipe for pacifism. So Mort's action in murdering the assassin who was about to kill Princess Keli was evil? As was Carrot's action in killing Cruces? Or Susan's in killing Teatime?

if you exclude short term harm on the basis that it will avoid long term pain Vorbis might be considered a good guy since he would think that the short term pain of, say, killing someone, is worth the souls it will save.

A couple.

First, long-term effects are inherently less certain and predictable than short-term ones, so should be given a lesser weighting.

Second, I think you have to include yourself in the calculation of total harm. And when you're ending a relationship, you might also reasonably claim to know that the relationship has a limited shelf-life, and you're just getting the inevitable over with.

By this definition, Mort's action in saving Princess Keli is evil.

By my definition Mort's action isn't. It doesn't involve causing pain to people directly, and it's done on the spur of the moment.

See above. Also, when did premeditation come into it?

If Teatime didn't plan to kill Ernie, but just did it on the spur of the moment because he found him 'boring', does that make him less evil? The Emperor in IT orders hideous punishments on the spur of the moment.

I'm getting more and more inclined to thinking that Dibbler is evil, but I am reluctant to use that word since evil to me implies not just the motives but the level of harm the act entails.

Interesting. I'm decreasingly inclined to consider CMOT as evil. His motives are purely selfish, but I really don't think he is aware of doing harm; and I'm sure he's shown actual compassion at some point, though I can't remember where.


Date: 07 Nov 1998
From: T J Wilkinson

I've just mentioned Lupine Wonse in another branch of the thread: he had all the information he needed to know that he couldn't control the dragon, that it would run amok, but he chose to ignore it.

It's like you or me tossing nuclear waste into water supplies, he had the information and he did it anyway. I felt some sympathy for him, but he also chilled my spine.

I'm also thinking now of the history of the gonne.

Vetinari could have checked up that it had been destroyed. The fact that he didn't suggests that he came under the Gonne's influence and may not have been in his right mind. There's a discussion between Leonardo and Vetinari in MAA that suggests this, Vetinari is puzzled as to why he didn't destroy it. The effect of the gonne on Vimes shows that the gonne has a pretty strong influence on people. I think you could make a case for diminished responsibility from that for both Cruces and Vetinari.

So Mort's action in murdering the assassin who was about to kill Princess Keli was evil? As was Carrot's action in killing Cruces? Or Susan's in killing Teatime?

I note this problem in the next paragraph, which is quoted below, although the example I was thinking of is slightly different the basic idea is the same: where do you draw the line in a trade-off between doing some harm in order to stop some harm.

How does this qualification work to my definition of evil: an act is not evil if it causes harm but is done in the defence of self or others against an immediate, physical threat.

The immediate, physical threat is there to rule out killing someone because they've got ideas you don't like on the basis that you're saving someone else from being corrupted by them.

We're not going to get an elegant statement of what is evil at this rate are we? Maybe we can pin down some major groups of actions though.

I think you have to include yourself in the calculation of total harm. And when you're ending a relationship, you might also reasonably claim to know that the relationship has a limited shelf-life, and you're just getting the inevitable over with.

So we're back off to making trade-offs of harm, which leads to the justification for Vorbis? Every now and then you hear of people breaking up a relationship and then getting back together, I came close to breaking up a relationship myself that's still going, so it's hardly that you're sure that breaking up will do more harm than good.

when did premeditation come into it?

Just now. Acting in the heat of the moment when the adrenaline is flowing is different from acting cooly and consciously. I have more empathy for someone who causes harm by a hurried action conceived out of perceived necessity than that of a conscious, clear-minded decision.

If Teatime didn't plan to kill Ernie, but just did it on the spur of the moment because he found him 'boring', does that make him less evil? The Emperor in IT orders hideous punishments on the spur of the moment.

But neither is being hurried into a decision and they make the same sort of decisions persistently over time, with no sign of regret.

Am I the only one who thinks that feelings of remorse, guilt, shame, and an effort to put things right can redeem a character or a person to some extent?


Date: 08 Nov 1998
From: Miq

The immediate, physical threat is there to rule out killing someone because they've got ideas you don't like on the basis that you're saving someone else from being corrupted by them.

This is starting to look quite tempting... as if you've struck quite close to Pterry's own ideas. But it does have a few problems still.

For instance, how about Vetinari's action in locking up Leonard of Quirm? Or his treatment of mimes?

And depending on your understanding of 'harm', what about the witches' messing about with politics in WS? That 'harmed' the interests of the Duke and Duchess, without any particular threat.

Or are you restricting the definition to physical, bodily harm? In which case we'd have to excuse Dibbler - but, more worryingly, we'd also have to excuse Lily's treatment of the Wolf...

So we're back off to making trade-offs of harm, which leads to the justification for Vorbis?

I think we can make tradeoffs without coming anywhere near justifying Vorbis. Though Carpe Jugulum throws some interesting new light on Vorbis, but I can't really go into that without spoiling it.

Every now and then you hear of people breaking up a relationship and then getting back together, I came close to breaking up a relationship myself that's still going, so it's hardly that you're sure that breaking up will do more harm than good.

Yep, you can be mistaken, but you can also be right. Breaking up a relationship is always going to be painful to some extent. But staying together may also be painful, and it may only be a short-term measure.

I have more empathy for someone who causes harm by a hurried action conceived out of perceived necessity than that of a conscious, clear-minded decision.

That may be more understandable, but it may still do a great deal of harm. Personally, if someone is going to do me harm, I'd rather believe that they'd thought about it. IMHO, being hurt pointlessly is more painful than suffering for a good reason (or at least, what someone thinks is a good reason).

Am I the only one who thinks that feelings of remorse, guilt, shame, and an effort to put things right can redeem a character or a person to some extent?

Not at all - I'd certainly agree with that, as was implied in my definition of an 'evil person'. Someone who feels remorse etc. will not do these things habitually.


Date: 10 Nov 1998
From: T J Wilkinson

how about Vetinari's action in locking up Leonard of Quirm? Or his treatment of mimes?

Vetinari's action in locking up Leonard has hardly harmed him. Leonard da Quirm now gets free board and all the bits of paper, string and so forth he wants.

what about the witches' messing about with politics in WS? [...] Lily's treatment of the Wolf...

I can't think of a wording to cover these situations. How would you put it?

Breaking up a relationship is always going to be painful to some extent. But staying together may also be painful, and it may only be a short-term measure.

My point was that even when it comes to breaking up a relationship you cannot be certain of the effect it will have. Vorbis was certain that the long-term benefits of what he did outweighed the short-term costs. What is the difference between the two? There is one, but I cannot put my finger on it and if we're going to get a rough but explicit statement of what evil is we need to distinguish between the two.

IMHO, being hurt pointlessly is more painful than suffering for a good reason (or at least, what someone thinks is a good reason)

Really? I'd prefer to be harmed by someone who's very rushed, they're not going to put much thought into making things as painful as possible.

What I am talking about here is not harm being pointlessly done on the spur of the moment. I'm talking about people facing a life-and-death situation. Taking an action in that situation that has long-term harmful effects but saves someone's life is different from carefully sitting down and planning the same action in an unhurried situation.


Date: 08 Nov 1998
From: Leo Barium

Okay, I'll agree that one shouldn't be held fully responsible for causing things that one couldn't reasonably foresee. But there's still plenty of people who should know better, but choose not to (like Wonse).

The thing is, though, Wonse was a dreamer. I doubt he consciously weighing up the pros and cons of summoning a dragon, and decided that it would be all right to do it. Rather, I think he was so keen to get a king along, he didn't stop to think about what would happen. Yes, this is a morally irresponsible thing to do, but he believed that a king was what was needed.

This would have been all right, if the point of getting a king was to improve Ankh-Morporkian society, but as it was to enhance his position in the government, I agree that he was evil. However, I think it's more to do with his naked, ruthless, self-centred ambition than anything else.

I'm also thinking now of the history of the gonne.[...] But, like Vimes, I'm also inclined to blame Vetinari, for leaving the job in the hands of people who he knew couldn't be trusted.

But does that really make him evil? You could say that Vetinari used the gonne as a test of the Assassins' competence. If they failed to destroy the gonne, then they were not the people they should have been, and, if you have the ability to kill people in thousands of different ways, this could be a very dangerous thing. The gonne provided Vetinari an early warning system for an Assassin gonne bad - imagine Cruces became like Teatime, while he was in charge of the guild. That would be far more dangerous to society than the one weapon which the gonne was. It killed, what, three uninvolved people; imagine what would have happened if someone like Teatime had control of the Assassin's guild - total, uncontrollable slaughter.

So Mort's action in murdering the assassin who was about to kill Princess Keli was evil? As was Carrot's action in killing Cruces? Or Susan's in killing Teatime?

What about altering that definition to 'An act is evil when it deliberately includes harming other people as either the goal or part of achieving the goal, unless they are going to harm other people. An act is also evil if more than the minimum necessary amount of force is used, or if it obviously causes harm to other people as a side effect.'

This would stop all these three, as the assassin, Cruces and Teatime would all have harmed other people if they weren't stopped. Also, in the circumstances listed above, I believe killing the victims was necessary.

If Teatime didn't plan to kill Ernie, but just did it on the spur of the moment because he found him 'boring', does that make him less evil? The Emperor in IT orders hideous punishments on the spur of the moment.

I feel that this is where a person's upbringing comes into things. Teatime had no parents (the book implies that there's a suspicion that Teatime may have killed them), and so, was probably never taught the difference between right and wrong at a young age. I think that he did plan to kill Ernie - to leave him alive could be very messy, especially if Ernie told his boss about Teatime. The 'boring' bit was, I think, just an excuse for killing him that Teatime used to impress the crew (rather like the small child that he's frequently compared to). Therefore, he didn't stop to think whether killing Ernie was the right or wrong thing to do, he just did it because it was necessary.

The Emperor, presumably, did know the difference between right and wrong, and, as all his decisions were on the spur of the moment, he is quite similar to Teatime. Neither of them believe that they are doing wrong, Teatime because he doesn't know right or wrong, and the Empower because he never stops to think about the moral implications.

Both are evil, but avoid regarding themselves as such.


From: Miq

The thing is, though, Wonse was a dreamer.[...] Yes, this is a morally irresponsible thing to do, but he believed that a king was what was needed.

Do you think that's an excuse? If we put aside for the moment the issue of his personal ambitions, would he then have been justified in doing what he did?

But does that really make him evil?

Not in itself, no. It takes more than one action to make someone evil.

You could say that Vetinari used the gonne as a test of the Assassins' competence. If they failed to destroy the gonne [...]

But they did fail to destroy it. So if that's what Vetinari had in mind, why didn't he do anything about it?

What about altering that definition to 'An act is evil when it deliberately includes harming other people as either the goal or part of achieving the goal, unless they are going to harm other people. An act is also evil if more than the minimum necessary amount of force is used, or if it obviously causes harm to other people as a side effect.'

Okay, now I've got a new example to play with. How about 'Old Stoneface' Vimes's action in executing King Alphonse the Kind?

This would stop all these three, as the assassin, Cruces and Teatime would all have harmed other people if they weren't stopped. Also, in the circumstances listed above, I believe killing the victims was necessary.

'Necessary'? You mean, it was the minimum force that would achieve the aim?

Maybe so. But if you're going to justify violence on the grounds that 'it seems to be necessary', then you really don't have a leg to stand on when it comes to calling people 'evil'. Lupine Wonse could say that it was 'necessary' to murder a few innocent people in order to restore proper government to Ankh-Morpork.

I think that he did plan to kill Ernie - to leave him alive could be very messy, especially if Ernie told his boss about Teatime. The 'boring' bit was, I think, just an excuse for killing him that Teatime used to impress the crew (rather like the small child that he's frequently compared to).

I agree entirely, but that's not the point I was getting at. If he did it on the spur of the moment, would that make you think him a 'nicer' character?

Both are evil, but avoid regarding themselves as such.

Doesn't everyone? I can't offhand think of anyone who actually thinks of themselves as evil, with the possible exception of Vassenego and the traditionalist demons in Eric - and they're far from the nastiest characters in the Chronicles.


Date: 06 Nov 1998
From: Mikko Pohjola

Is evil a matter of the causal status of the actions perpetrated, or is it a matter of the motivations which caused the actions?

The motivations of a person can never be 'evil'. They can be greedy, selfish, illegal, nasty, hateful or anything else, but never evil.

In theory evil, as such, doesn't even exist in a world without a pre-destined future which has at some point gone awry (some would say our's is such a world - think about the Fall of Man in the Bible). I don't know if the Disc is such a world or not - that is something for Pterry to reveal.

How can I say this about the existence of evil? By definition of evil there must be an Absolute Evil and also an Absolute Good. They are somehow locked in some eternal battle which determines the future of the world. In a world of infinite possibilities the sum of all these things is either the Good Outcome or the Evil Outcome. Some actions don't make much difference - and if they do, that difference is easy to counter-act. Some actions do make a drastic difference - and those actions can be thought of as being Evil.

Thus actions which lead to Evil purpose are Evil. A person who consciously strives to commit these Evil actions is an Evil person. Most people have no knowledge of what is good and what is evil, so they're not good or evil. They just are.

If there really is Good and Evil on the Disc (which I doubt) we don't have any way of knowing which is which. Terry makes us sympathize with Brutha and Carrot, yet makes us dislike Dios and Teatime. Who is to say Terry isn't aligned with the Evil guys trying to make them look nice?

So, although in theory Evil doesn't exist in most worlds, in practice it does. People see Evil as the way current pr(opaganda) tells them to. In practice people see Carrot as Good, yet they see Old Stoneface Vimes as Evil. Stoneface once killed the king of A-M, Carrot killed a person who was going to make him the king. They actually did just the same thing, but other was made Good and the other Evil by the history.

Now seeing it pointless to argue whether any particular Discworld character is Evil or not, I don't quite see how all you people seem to dislike people like Teatime so much. They're MAD! They can't help it. They should be helped, not hunted down and killed.


From: Sam

The motivations of a person can never be 'evil'. They can be greedy, selfish, illegal, nasty, hateful or anything else, but never evil.

You state this as fact, but, it is actually just your opinion. Evil is only an adjective which means bad or malicious and has religious overtones, along with other baggage it has assumed over time. As an adjective it "can" apply to the nouns of motivation and intention.

Evil is, of course, also a noun. And this is where the absolutes of Good and Evil may come in. If we have to have absolutes rather than using them as relative terms.

Evilly is an adverb and so it can be applied to a verb also.

In theory evil, as such, doesn't even exist in a world without a pre-destined future which has at some point gone awry

Eh? I don't understand this, please explain. It exists in my dictionary. How is the future of our World pre-destined? QED.

By definition of evil there must be an Absolute Evil and also an Absolute Good. They are somehow locked in some eternal battle which determines the future of the world.

AFAIAA, this is not a part of the definition of evil. Please state your definition so we can judge this for ourselves.

Most people have no knowledge of what is good and what is evil, so they're not good or evil. They just are

IRL yes, there are very few perfect people and very few people with no redeeming features. In fiction, and on the Disc in particular, PTerry can portray the extremes and often does as it is these extremes which provoke us to explore our own societies and is part of what makes the books so good.

Teatime has an extreme personality. = evil? or mad?
Carrot has an extreme personality. = good? certainly a conscience but a bit too "letter of the law" to be good personified?
Vetinari has an extreme personality.= just? calculating?
Esme Weatherwax has an extreme personality= ???

Good and Evil have nothing to do with what people think.

No, good and evil have everything to do with what people think. Please supply a definition so we can judge what you mean.

Who is to say Terry isn't alligned with the Evil guys trying to make them look nice?

Terry doesn't tell us how to read, he just writes the books.

Stoneface once killed the king of A-M, Carrot killed a person who was going to make him the king. They actually did just the same thing, but other was made Good and the other Evil by the history.

Yes, history and others on the disc may have judged Stoneface as a bad person (I don't remember them calling him evil - by my defns, we don't have enough evidence for this). But what we're talking about is how we, the reader's see characters, not how they see one another. I have some sympathy for Old Stoneface, but do we know the whole story?

Carrot is seen as good by the people around him yes, and so history may be judging him good, but what do you and I think? History is about facts not making judgements as to whether a particular person was good or evil, you have to make up your own mind about that.

Now seeing it pointless to argue whether any particular Discworld character is Evil or not, I don't quite see how all you people seem to dislike people like Teatime so much. They're MAD! They can't help it. They should be helped, not hunted down and killed.

I can't see that anyone would like Teatime. Whether we call him evil or mad is up to each of us as individuals. You are just using the word mad so you don't have to call him evil. He certainly knows his own mind. Teatime is not irrational within his own mind-set, he does not froth at the mouth and have fits. It's up to you how you judge him. Don't forget, he is a fictional character, and within the confines of what we mean by the word evil, PTerry is perfectly entitled to create a truly evil character. The fact that, if he was a real life person, you would call him mad and lock him in a padded cell instead of calling him evil and locking him up does you credit, but we are discussing fictional characters, not real life people. I like you, would not use the word evil IRL. Not because I think it does not exist, but because I cannot bring myself to judge a person in that way without the knowledge of their intentions and motivations. In fiction, this is not the case.

You don't have to go very far back to get to a time when people who we now classify as mentally ill were then classified as possessed or evil.


From: Joerg Ruedenauer

You state this as fact, but, it is actually just your opinion.

I think what Mikko meant was that no person can do something because they want to do something evil, but that they always have other reasons, perhaps because of their otherwise too bad conscience. I have a feeling that this is wrong, but I can't imagine an example for the contrary now.

AFAIAA, this is not a part of the definition of evil.

It reminds me somehow of a Greek interpretation of the Christian religion (and of GO, of course). From my definition of good/evil (see below) there has to be a battle, but nothing absolute, eternal or affecting the whole world.

PTerry can portray the extremes and often does as it is these extremes which provoke us to explore our own societies and is part of what makes the books so good.

Exactly. But by Mikko's definition of Evil persons there would be no Evil persons, because he says above that nobody can consciously commit Evil actions. But in fiction I'm pretty sure there are Evil persons.

Esme Weatherwax has an extreme personality=???

It is emphasised several times that Esme is good.

Terry doesn't tell us how to read, he just writes the books.

That's too simple. An author naturally writes a book in a manner to make the reader read in a certain way. But the point is that Terry creates the characters. If he makes them look nice, they are nice. Terry doesn't tell the history of a world, he writes fiction.

Carrot is seen as good by the people around him yes, and so history may be judging him good, but what do you and I think? History is about facts not making judgements as to whether a particular person was good or evil, you have to make up your own mind about that.

Completely wrong. History is not facts, but a) facts seen from the view of the historians and b) fiction of the "historians" (i.e. propaganda). Look at the examples above or e.g. at the "historical fact" who was guilty of WW1 - that has changed quite a lot over the years, and facts don't change. IMO, historical persons aren't good or evil (see below).

A problem with this whole discussion is that you are debating good and evil in fiction, but you are trying to give a definition that does also work in reality.

I think such a definition is not possible because what is (in reality) seen as "evil" depends on the personal view. This is certainly the case for specific actions or motivations. As for the global definitions, they are also always influenced by what you were taught to be evil: you try to get the definitions out of examples. If you are idealistic enough to think you can make a definition of evil without using examples, I leave that to you and the philosophers (I think Kant came pretty near to define some actions as evil). Now I'll try to give you a definition of good and evil in fiction: Good persons: The persons from whose eyes the story is mainly told (e.g. Mort, Susan, Pteppic, Magrat,...) and the persons who are on their side (i.e. help them against the Evil Persons in the certainly existing conflict) (e.g. Ysabell, Death, Ptraci, Nanny, ...). Evil persons / things [1]: The ones on the other side of the conflict (e.g. the Universe, Teatime, Dios, Lily,...) and sometimes the ones that help them [2].

Good act: something that helps the good persons in the conflict.
Evil act: something that helps the evil persons/things.

[1]: Note that there have not to be Evil persons in a story. The Evil can also be something different like monsters, animals (not seen as persons) or even some kind of music (SM).

[2]: Only if they are not forced to help them. These people are rare, because there's usually one Big Evil in a story. The headhunter in Star Wars would be such an evil persons (e.g.).

All the other persons in a story are neither good nor evil (like Dibbler). They can, though, do good or evil deeds.


Date: 07 Nov 1998
From: Sam

I think what Mikko meant was that no person can do something because they want to do something evil, but that they always have other reasons, perhaps because of their otherwise too bad conscience. I have a feeling that this is wrong, but I can't imagine an example for the contrary now.

People (esp. characters in fiction) may do things because they wish to harm others. This is to me, the same as being Evil. I can't think of any DW references, Teatime may come closest, but I think he just didn't understand harm, but that's not so different. Maybe Ipslore, is better since his motivation was revenge and a part of that was to cause others harm.

It reminds me somehow of a greek interpretation of the christian religion (and of GO, of course). From my definition of good/evil (see below) there has to be a battle, but nothing absolute, eternal or affecting the whole world.

I don't see it this way, Good vs Evil in the big-picture "Star Wars" (pune unintentional) way is not the only way to see things. When considering individual characters, we are looking at whether any one person is good or evil. To take the Star Wars comparison a bit further, The Emperor in Star-Wars is meant to be Evil personified and DV and the rest of the empire are his minions. The rebellion is a kind of ordinary people rising up against the forces of evil. This is a little shallow as the motivations of the characters are all too black and white (except perhaps HS & DV). Each has a label, Good or Evil. It doesn't matter what they do. This to me is its biggest failing and where the Discworld is really superb. We are not told at the beginning that so and so is Good and so and so is Evil. There are no two sides battling it out. See Jingo as an excellent example of where neither side is portrayed as overly right. Both sides are effectively in the wrong.

IMO, there doesn't have to be a battle for a thing to be evil.

It is emphasised severel times that Esme is good.

Yes, but she's way more complicated than that! My question marks (in all cases) was to show that none of PTerry's characters are one dimensional. This is much more realistic than the Good vs Evil struggle that Star Wars uses.

An author naturally writes a book in a manner to make the reader read in a certain way. But the point is that Terry creates the characters. If he makes them look nice, they are nice. Terry doesn't tell the history of a world, he writes fiction.

It was something PTerry said, although in a different context, but I was using it to say that PTerry writes the story and gives us some insight into the way they are thinking. But we interpret that and judge the characters themselves. PTerry's writing is deeper than simply: he's nice, he's not...they disagree, have a fight and the nice one wins, but lets the bad one live because he's nice... If it wasn't, then we wouldn't be here discussing it.

History is not facts, but a) facts seen from the view of the historians and b) fiction of the "historians" *i.e. propaganda).

In a free environment, the intellectual discipline of history is a study of the past. Of course, this is muddied by interpretation, but any good historian will try and get behind the propaganda to what is real. That is the whole point. A good historian will try and find the reasons something happened and what happened. They do not write about the evil (side which lost) ... They try to be objective.

The point I was trying to make in relation to Stoneface vis-a-vis Carrot was that however they are seen by the people on the Disc, PTerry gives us readers more insight into their characters than the people on the disc have. Therefore, we can be more objective in our assessment of them than the people they meet day to day.

A problem with this whole discussion is that you are debating good and evil in fiction, but you are trying to give a definition that does also work in reality.

What's the point if the concepts have no bearing on the words we use in real life?

If you are idealistic enough to think you can make a definition of evil without using examples, I leave that to you and the philosophers (I think Kant came pretty near to define some actions as evil).

It is certainly very difficult to come up with a definition, especially one on which we all agree, but without the discussion, we will misunderstand one another.

Now I'll try to give you a definition of good and evil in fiction

This is far too simplistic and tries to boil Pterry's writing down to the crude level of a big battle of good vs evil, which it is not. At least, not always, L&L could possibly be seen in this light.

There are basic acts which pretty much all human beings agree on as being wrong. Most societies condemn these acts and punish the perpetrators. How would you view a book written about a murderer? From the viewpoint of the murderer? Would he be on the side of Good? The only example I can think off OTTTOMH is Frederick Forsyth's - Jackal. Sure, you may sympathise with the guy, but you know that what he is trying to do (getting paid to assassinate the French President) is wrong.

I really thought you were going somewhere with this post until I got to the definition which was a real let down. Maybe we are talking about totally different concepts. But to me, evil is about motivation and intent not who ends up the victor. Likewise, good.


From: Joerg Ruedenauer

IMO, there doesn't have to be a battle for a thing to be evil.

I think in fiction there's always some kind of battle. But I'd like to get an example where there isn't.

[...]

PTerry's writing is deeper than simply: he's nice, he's not...they disagree, have a fight and the nice one wins, but lets the bad one live because he's nice... If it wasn't, then we wouldn't be here discussing it.

But there isn't a discussion for nearly all the characters. A real discussion here only seems to be about Dibbler and Vetinari, and they both are neither good nor evil after my definition - so you can discuss them. As for PTerry's writing being simply, see below.

In a free environment, the intellectual discipline of history is a study of the past. [...] They try to be objective.

The historians you think of try to find out what happened more or less a long time ago. They have to base their science on older sources, mostly written by the historians I was thinking of. These historians try to describe what happens now or what happened during their life. So your historians cannot know if their sources are true, so they cannot know if the facts they have discovered are true. There is only a probability. Just look at the fossils on the Discworld.

[...]

A problem with this whole discussion is that you are debating good and evil in fiction, but you are trying to give a definition that does also work in reality.

What's the point if the concepts have no bearing on the words we use in real life?

Tricky question (like all 'what's the point...' questions). You shouldn't use the words in real life. Perhaps the point is that it helps to understand the books. Perhaps the point is that it makes fun.

This is far too simplistic and tries to boil Pterry's writing down to the crude level of a big battle of good vs evil, which it is not.

Sorry if you have thought so. It is clear that the books are much more complex than just a good vs. evil - battle. But I think a definition has to simplify. And IMO you can get a conflict out of each Discworld book (though there's much more to the book than just this conflict). And if you take a look you'll find that you think of the persons on the one side as good while you think of the persons on the other side as evil. I have to admit that my definition was made out of examples. But, as I have said before, I think it is very hard to avoid that.

The only example I can think off OTTTOMH is Frederick Forsyth's - Jackal.

I don't know the book (I'll check the library next week). I don't know of any book written completely from the view of the evil protagonist. I wonder if it is possible. But such a book would surely be very interesting.

Won't you give it a try, Terry?

I really thought you were going somewhere with this post until I got to the definition which was a real let down. Maybe we are talking about totally different concepts. But to me, evil is about motivation and intent not who ends up the victor. Likewise, good.

I hope you're thinking better of my definition now. It is perhaps a flaw in it that it only judges a minority of characters as good/evil. But I think it is just the point that you can't tell for most of the persons if they are good or evil. I think e.g. it is nonsense to say 'Dibbler is evil' or 'Dibbler is good'.


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