My younger son is an aspiring novelist; most of what he has
been writing is set in a fictional world of superheroes and supervillains. Some
of the villains are likable characters, which raises the question of in what
sense they are evil. When I put the question to him in the context of the central
character of his first novel, The Titanium Tyrant, who is both superintelligent
and honorable, his response was that he was a villain because he did not mind
killing innocent people in the process of his crimes.
It occurred to me that, by that definition, there are a lot
of villains. Churchill and FDR were prepared to murder very large numbers of
German civilians by mass bombing campaigns designed to kill as many, not as
few, as possible. Obama has taken responsibility for drone strikes which, in
the process of trying to kill terrorists, have clearly killed quite a lot of
innocent civilians. In theory, we all believe that all lives matter, but in
practice we divide people into our ingroup and everyone else and mostly ignore
costs imposed on the latter. In the modern world, that largely means the
division between our fellow citizens and foreigners.
It is not limited to national governments and warfare,
although that’s the clearest example. U.S. immigration restrictions impose
enormous costs on people who would like to come and are not allowed to. Most of
those people are much poorer than most Americans. Yet Americans who regard
themselves as favoring the poor, most obviously at the moment Bernie Sanders,
feel no guilt at keeping foreigners desperately poor in order to keep American
poor from getting, by world standards, a little less rich.
In the year 1000, Iceland faced a conflict between pagans
and Christians. Before it was resolved by peaceful arbitration, there was a
brief period when the two sides declared themselves out of law with each other.
Put in modern terms, they were declaring Iceland two countries located on the
same territory, each viewing the other as foreigners.
The Titanium Tyrant is out of law with the rest of us, loyal
to his own people. By some standards that makes him a villain—but not obviously
more of a villain than a lot of the people who many of us approve of.