Heinlein and Honor

Flamingphonebook writes in with some comments re my recent denunciation of STRANGER IN A STRANGE LAND. My reply is overlong, so I put it here under its own entry:

“I don’t see why the escapism of science fiction–works with premises contradictory to physical reality–is an honorable pursuit, but works with premises contradictory to moral reality are not.”

That I can explain quite simply. The science fiction in a science fiction story is labeled as fiction. No one is trying to sell me a flying car.

The immorality of moral relativism, on the other hand, is labeled and sold as truth, not as an amusing counter-factual speculation.

It is dishonorable because people — to be precise, people like me — are deceived by the message Heinlein is preaching, and for many years bought into it. Some people ruin their lives. I almost did, and the fact that I was spared is through no merit of my own.

So I hate the man who deceived me, and I condemn his work of deception.

Now, you can say it is my fault I was deceived, and in a way you’d be right. Of course, everyone who is deceived is victimized precisely because he trusts someone who betrays his trust. You can blame the truster for his gullibility, but you cannot excuse the deceiver for his deception.

“No one complains about caper films where the good guys steal for their own use.”

Beg pardon? I certainly do.

“Heck, even Hannibal Lecter got to be the hero on occasion.”

Gag. Not to me. Are you making a joke?

“But religion and sex are taboos (drugs too, I would imagine, although Captain America is still loved).”

Well, I lost some respect for you with the Captain America crack. You are equating drug abuse with medicine. Admittedly, geewhizwowgosh superscience medicine, but medicine nonetheless. Steve Rogers volunteered for a dangerous experiment, not to get a trippy high.

“Taboo” is just a word people use to dismiss a moral rule they want to break. I would say the topics have not been taboo during my lifetime. I don’t know what society you are describing, but it is not one I’ve ever seen.

Religion and sex have never been taboo in my lifetime, in the circles I have seen, but I have been among people, usually science fiction types, for whom an honest discussion of chastity and faith was taboo. I have been at a sci fi con where, after the panel is done badmouthing religion in public, the religious types gather in dark corners and whisper, surprised to find they are not alone.

“I can see why the book gets a red mark from many for that, but since I am selfish, it adds to my enjoyment.”

You like having your ego stroked. That of course is the source of the great appeal of this book. Back when I was young and stupid, I liked having my ego stroked too. Every propagandists knows this technique. Only a humble man can see through propaganda that flatters the ego: the proud man mistakes criticism of a lie that fooled him to be an attack on himself, his self image.

In regards to your selfishness, or Heinlein’s, or Rand’s, what’s in it for me? Why should I or anyone tolerate it?

Neither Ayn Rand nor RAH had children. Selfishness is a non-Darwinian characteristic.

“As I said, the book has some good philosophical points. Its overall theme, I think, is, “Change the physics, and you change the morals.” “

This is, at best, a trite and easily-refuted philosophical points. It might make a fourteen-year-old pause to ponder, but not a forty-year-old.

This is the old chestnut of moral relativism, which can be refuted in a sentence: if it is good to change the morals when the laws of physics change, then under what conditions is it good to change from moral relativism to moral absolutism?

If you answer that moral relativism applies to all situations, times and places, then you are a moral absolutist. The burden of proof is then upon you to define which moral rules are absolute and which are relative, and to explain the inconsistency.

“You may not like Heinlein’s utopia, but I do not think you can deny that it is more appropriate for some than the quiet heaven of the Bible, or the self-immolationary Nirvana of Hinduism, or the workers’ paradise of Marx.”

I deny exactly this.

Heinlein’s utopia, where the smart people declare themselves to be god, kill the stupid people, solve all money problems by pretending money grows on trees and can be shared freely, and have an orgy, is both less feasible and lesshuman than the ambitions of the Hindu, who seeks to extinguish suffering by extinguishing desire, and of Marx, who at least analyzed the problem, even if he did so wrongly.

Appropriate for some” — no, you are again making the Heinlein error of assuming human nature, or the nature of moral reality, or the nature of cause and effect, simply differ from person to person. Personalities differ between people. We have different weaknesses and temptations. Reality stays the same. That is why we call it ‘reality.’ Moral principles (which I would argue are an aspect of reality) stay the same.

“In any case, if I can suspend my value structure to enjoy a pious and chaste hero defeat villains whose sides I might actually take, because the story is well-written and the characters well-defined, it ought to work the other way as well.”

Except vice and virtue are not interchangeable. Calling a lack of self control a virtue does not make it so. Your ‘value system’ which is to exploit women by seducing them is not merely an alternative ‘value system’ to chastity, but a vice, and a degrading one, if you don’t mind my saying so.

If you respect a hero in a story who shows some self-control you lack, you cannot expect someone with self-control, me, to respect an antihero in a story who betrays a weakness I lack.

The situation is not symmetrical.