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Australian philosopher, literary critic, legal scholar, and professional writer. Based in Newcastle, NSW. Author of FREEDOM OF RELIGION AND THE SECULAR STATE (2012), HUMANITY ENHANCED (2014), and THE MYSTERY OF MORAL AUTHORITY (2016).

Monday, November 21, 2011

Sunday supervillainy - is Doctor Doom a villain?

By now, the character of Dr. Doom has been interpreted and reinterpreted in so many different ways that it may be very much open to argument whether he is a villain anymore ... or whether he has now progressed to some special kind of status as an anti-hero, or anti-villain, or who knows what...

Surely, though, we can be confident that Dr. Doom was a villain, plain and simple, in the early Fantastic Four stories that introduced the character. Indeed, it seems clear enough that he is a villain, plain and simple, in many other stories. Stories such as Thor # 182-183 don't leave us in much doubt - or, in fact, in any doubt at all - that Thor is the hero of the narrative and Dr. Doom is its villain. This is a rather simple story, and even a young child would not be in any doubt that Doom is its bad guy.

Okay, so fine. It seems to be a true statement that "Dr. Doom is a villain within the story told in Thor # 182-83."

Let me raise a philosophical question about this, having reached this far. Is it a fact that Dr. Doom is a villain within the story told in Thor # 182-183? If not, are there true statements that are not facts? Or do you not wish to maintain, after all, that it actually is true that Dr. Doom is a villain within the story told in Thor # 182-183?

Should we say that it is true only according to something like a set of values or a method of reading, and that someone with a different set of values and/or method of reading might not be wrong to apply that instead, and deny that Doom is a villain? After all, even some literary critics are fond of producing seemingly perverse readings of texts, in the process exposing and challenging various assumptions that we (whoever, exactly, "we" are) normally make when we read texts. These critics are not naive or stupid.

Nonetheless, even if we relativise it, we seem to have a true statement that we can make, something like, "Relative to the widely-accepted values and reading protocols of readers in about 1970, Dr. Doom is a villain in Thor # 182-83."

But isn't there something odd about this? It sounds like a kind of sociological fact, but surely we don't go out and study courses in sociology, or conduct surveys, or do other kinds of sociological research to see whether Dr. Doom is a villain in this particular narrative. If the narrative is available to us, perhaps by subscribing to the Marvel Digital database, we can just go and read it and see for ourselves.

When I assert that Dr. Doom is a villain in this simple story aimed at kids and teenagers (as comics were then far more than now), I don't really expect anyone to disagree with me. It seems to be just true, even if it's not objectively true (e.g. the truth of it might have some kind of component that relates to us, and which need not relate to all rational beings in the universe - maybe an intelligent but malevolent bug-eyed monster from Mars could perceive Doom as the hero without making an outright mistake).

I'm interested in this at the moment because I keep getting caught up in debates - currently with Jerry Coyne if you look over at Why Evolution Is True - about what a fact is. It's interesting anyway: what makes judgments about who is a hero or otherwise in a narrative true? How do these sorts of judgments relate to the judgments that we make in real life about whether people are morally good or bad? Are any of these judgments objectively correct? If so, in what sense of "objective" or "objectively"?

To me, a fact is just a true proposition. Some people seem to think that a fact is some sort of state of affairs that could be conveyed by a true proposition. They might think that some true propositions are not statements of fact (e.g. certain mathematical or logical ones). Either way, though, "Dr. Doom is a villain within the story told in Thor # 182-83" looks like a fact, or a statement of fact if you prefer (something about a state of affairs in the world, including the story's words and images makes the statement true).

Perhaps it's a funny sort of fact that Dr. Doom is a villain, etc., but I suggest that if you read the story you'll be as certain of this fact as you are of most. The story doesn't really leave room for people like us to draw other conclusions unless we are trying to be difficult or perverse.

As I said, it may not be an objective fact. It may not be a scientific fact. But does anyone, after reading the story, really want to deny that Doom is a villain in it? We need to have an understanding of facts, truth, inquiry, science, etc., that is capable of coping with this situation.


Spencer Troxell said...

You're right. This was trickier and deeper than I expected.

If we're going to hold that good and bad are scientifically measurable things, wouldn't we have to also hold that heroism and villainy are also scientifically measurable--and thus objective--things?

cadfan17 said...

We're stuck then, aren't we. Because the statement "Doctor Doom is a villain" is, in my opinion, less like a factual statement about Doctor Doom, and more like a factual statement about my perception of Doctor Doom. I think it has more in common with the statement "rice noodles are delicious" than it has with the statement "rice noodles are high in sodium relative to human dietary needs."

Sadly, we talk about our perceptions of things as if we were talking about the things, and this causes no end of spilled ink for philosophers.

Max said...

Our perception of things is surely a component of our experience of the things themselves. That may be neither here nor there so I will plow on.
Is the question: "Is Dr Doom a villain" quantifiable? I think we could could come up with a reasonable definition that captures true villiany, get out our sheet and check off the boxes and see if he was indeed a badguy sor a set of issues. Then we could say by some modestly objective criteria that it was a fact, for a certain number of issues, Dr. Doom was a villain.

The Uncredible Hallq said...

Hmmm... I'm on an enforced break from TVTropes, so I'm not going to re-read what it says about villains, but I checked Wikipedia, and it gives a definition of villain which basically boils down to "the evil guy in a story."

Does this mean that to decide whether we can make objective judgments of villainy, we need to decide whether we can make objective judgments of evil?

But there's room to question whether Wikipedia's definition is correct. One quote in the article implies that villains are only villains if they do evil for evil's sake. But that can't be right. Clearly a WWII movie could have Hitler as the villain while making clear that he didn't see himself as doing evil for evil's sake.

Russell Blackford said...

cadfan17, it could be that my perception of Dr. Doom as a villain in the Thor story under discussion is just a matter of taste. Some people like rice, some people like cashews, etc., and there's no right and wrong about it. It could be like that.

But is this really plausible? Any child above a quite early age will be able to read the story and tell you that Doom is the bad guy in the story. It doesn't seem to be just a matter of personal taste.

That's not to say that it's an objective fact. It might be more like, "The new Mercedes 300 is a good car." Here, "good" is not merely a matter of taste, but nor is it objective in the strongest sense. It indicates that the Mercedes meets certain standards that are widely accepted by people who care about cars, and we could track back and find non-arbitrary reasons why people tend to accept those standards: reasons to do with human needs and human psychology.

My own way of thinking about it tends to be more along semiotic lines. Doom is coded as a villain, and the code concerned is one that we all learn as we learn language. Presumably even the Martian monster could learn the code and conclude that, within its terms, Doom is the "villain" (while not actually being opposed to any of the sorts of behaviour that Doom engages in). There seems to be a fact here, but it's a socially constructed fact.

Anonymous said...

Since Doctor Doom does not exist, only a philosopher would think about whether or not he is really a villian. Did Pegasus really have wings? Is God really omniscient?

March Hare said...

A villain is someone who is actively trying to bring about outcomes that I, in my personal stramash of views, find to be bad.

However, when one reads/views/hears a story told in someone else's voice, with their personal view colouring every act, then we can often have a skewed view compared to what we would normally think. Thus we can find ourselves cheering for someone we'd normally consider the bad guy, or being very clear on who the author thinks the villain is, regardless of our own views - but if those views happen to coincide then it feels very natural for us to say that someone definitely is the villain, but we have to remember all the psychological problems with using a feeling as proof of an objective fact.

This goes much deeper than simply villains though, this is what lawyers do (as I'm sure you're aware) in court cases, more importantly it is what the media do. Watch a conservative news report on heavy handed police and we see the police as enforcing the law and protecting the majority. Watch a liberal news report and you see a militarised police force brutalising unarmed, peaceful protesters. Same facts, different spin, different viewer opinion.

March Hare said...

I guess another way to see if something like this is objective is to ask: Is there a possible set of values that someone could have that would make them have a different conclusion to the common one?

If not then we are either looking at as close to an objective fact as any subjective idea can be or we have a lack of imagination.

If so then we have to ask if that opinion is worth listening to and if we would be better off treating it as if it was an objective fact. e.g. there is an opinion that prayer is the best cure for all ailments but we ignore that view and use modern medicine as if it was factually always the best (when we know fine well it isn't).

Svlad Cjelli said...

"Villain" is a literary term. A role casting. You'd need a better example.

Is it a fact that Russel Crowe played a gladiator? Yes, yes it is.

JonJ said...

I don't see the problem at all; it's simply a matter of how you define 'villain'. If you take it to mean 'someone who acts in a consistently evil and destructive way throughout all his or her appearances' then Doom is not a villain. If you replace 'all' with 'some of' or 'the majority of' then Doom is a villain.

Why don't we find this distinction in the dictionary? Presumably because it's not interesting or important enough to be worth codifying. We can express what we want to say easily enough -- as you have shown -- by saying 'Doom acts like a villain on some occasions and not others'. So what on earth is the problem? Isn't it a little childish to insist that there must be some clear criteria for applying the terms 'goodie' and 'baddie' in perpetua? Even black hats fade over time.

The only puzzling thing about the post for me is why philosophers seem to find it so hard to understand that language has developed to cope with important distinctions that make a real difference: there's no reason to think it should automatically be able to cope with anything we throw at it, no matter how trivial, and no reason to be surprised when it fails.

Russell Blackford said...

"The only puzzling thing about the post for me is why philosophers seem to find it so hard to understand that language has developed to cope with important distinctions that make a real difference..."

But that's just the sort of point that philosophers make (and have made since Socrates), and that posts like this try to bring out. It's not all cut and dried for us, but, sure, nor should we expect it to be.

It's still worth trying to work out what the complexities actually are, rather than just kinda saying, " of course there are going to be complexities."

stutart said...

i would ask whether this objectively or scientifically has anything to do with supervillainy. :)

Russell Blackford said...

Do you have an inclination, one way or the other? Are you inclined to say that it has or that it hasn't?