December 21, 2008

Thoughts on Wall-E

I just saw Wall-E, and I really enjoyed it. It made me think about a few things that I find interesting enough to blog about.

It's really easy to strongly empathize with a character that wants something very simple, attainable, and appropriate — especially when it will bring them a great amount of happiness. In Wall-E's case it was the hand-holding. "Why not!?" you say to yourself, as the writers bait you over and over again. This is a fundamental undertone in oh so many romantic comedies (like The Office and Scrubs). It's also used as a tactic in more drama-oriented partner-based content, though I can't think of any good examples off the top of my head.

You're roped in because of the sheer simplicity of the greatest possible outcome. It could happen at any moment, so you can't miss a beat and have to keep watching if there's more available. In the more shameless writing, the character gets what they want, only to have it ruined by some trivial little thing. Then the cycle can start all over again, since you're obviously appalled that a trivial little thing could ruin something which brings the character such great happiness.

The woman-like robot was the more capable and powerful one. I'm a fan of traditional role reversal.

Negative Utilitarianism

The humans from the movie bring a bunch of interesting points to light. They live in a world that offers the epitome of luxury and narcissism. It's clear in the move that a byproduct of this lifestyle is a lack of human connection. All in all, the situation brings up an important point about what the "end goal" of human development might be.

Were the end goal a utility maximization, as "positive" utilitarians hold, the indefinite life of extreme luxury would be a feasible outcome. From the way I empathized with the characters in the movie, it's fairly clear to me that this is not reflective of human potential, and should actually be construed as a tragic loss.

The awesomeness of humanity may very well be in the constant struggle — the actualization of untapped potential. Though the life of extreme luxury could offer more happiness, there seems to be something inherently meaningless in the human race sitting on its butt being happy. There are other philosophical works that indirectly support this theory, such as Marx's theory of alienation of the working man and Kierkegaard's idea that one's life was typically devoted to some project which was intended to give the life meaning.

I think that this is an interesting counterpoint for positive utilitarianism as well as an argument for negative utilitarianism. Negative utilitarianism (vacuously) contends that, beyond alleviation of suffering, that which brings us the most utils is not necessarily the best way to go. This seems wholly consistent with the idea that, after we've gotten humanity to a point of civility, how to proceed is relatively unknown. Maximization of potential is not obviously consistent with maximization of utility, but somehow, in a common-sense kind of way, seems right.

One could argue that the positive utilitarian argument still holds, under the interpretation that human actualization in the long run leads to greater utility than local maximization (luxury in the now), but I dispute that we would have the capability to determine that at any given time were positive utilitarianism our guiding philosophy. Perhaps it would be formally correct, but I don't care much if we would fail to interpret it correctly. Negative utilitarianism seems a more appropriate philosophy for the now, certainly until we alleviate all the suffering — I'd be happy to figure it out from there. ;-)

(Note: I didn't make an attempt to be philosophically rigorous in the above discussion, so don't sweat the small stuff if you're going to be critical — I just intended to get an idea out there. If you'd like me to make an attempt to be rigorous and/or precise, just LMK and I'll write another entry.)