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’Mal’s Morals’ - a ’Verse essay

Monday 21 January 2013, by Webmaster

You don’t know me, son. So let me explain this to you once: If I ever kill you, you’ll be awake, you’ll be facing me, and you’ll be armed.

 Malcolm Reynolds, “Serenity”

Malcolm Reynolds, captain of Serenity, is a man living on the brink of disaster. He ekes out a meager existence, taking jobs on both sides of the law. Such a man can afford, of course, few luxuries. Despite this fact, he indulges in at least three. As the opening quotation suggests, he indulges in the luxury of honor. Along with that, he indulges in the luxury of loyalty and, most expensive of all, the luxury of morality.

If you don’t believe that these are luxuries, consider “The Train Job,” discussed in more detail below. Mal could have simply set sail with a tidy profit. Instead, because of his sense of honor, he earned nothing for the job, except the ire of a powerful crime lord. These “profits” would accumulate interest and, eventually (in “War Stories”), cost him a profound sum of money (earned in “Ariel”), a horrific torture session, and an ear (subsequently reattached).

Honor, loyalty, and morality are expensive. They cause you to make important-even life-threatening-sacrifices.

In some ways, you might think audiences would react negatively to such extravagance. We have only scorn for the penniless man who, finding a couple of bucks, buys a sixer of Stroh’s. Isn’t Mal foolish for such indulgences?

Perhaps. But that’s not the point.

Such traits—in particular the last of the three—are, to coin a phrase, moral pornography.

And we like to watch. Evolutionary Pornography

The answer to this mystery comes from a relatively new approach to understanding human nature, evolutionary psychology (Cosmides, Tooby, and Barkow 3).

One element of this approach allows us to think about a perennial mystery, the aesthetic sense. That is, it tells us about what we will find appealing.

And we already know some of the answers.

It’s the sugar in your coffee. It’s the salt on your pretzel.

It’s the sun on your face, soft fur on your hand, and the aroma of fresh apple pie.

It’s a sexy body, scantily, or perhaps elegantly, clad.

It’s skiing, surfing, parasailing, and Space Mountain.

But it would be a mistake to think that it stops there.

It is also solving a puzzle. It’s deftly penned prose, honed and polished to linguistic perfection. It’s the tones of exquisitely played Beethoven. It’s probably the parabolic touchdown pass.

And still it doesn’t end there. It’s seeing her name come up on your cell phone. It’s when open arms and wide smiles welcome you as you stomp the snow from your boots in the doorway. It is seeing your name at the top of the chapter. Better still, on the dust jacket.

It is not limited to the concrete. It begins with these. Or, at least, it began with these. But it didn’t stop. Not by a long shot. THIS IS YOUR BRAIN ON PORN

In a recent study (Singer et al. 467), two people were asked to play a simple game, called the “Dictator Game.” One person is given ten dollars, the other zero. The first person is faced with a simple choice: how much of the ten dollars to give to the second person, a stranger brought in just for the experiment. Thousands of participants from around the world have played variations on the Dictator Game.

This one was different. In this game, there was a third experimental subject. They couldn’t participate, but could only watch. This subject was, however, somewhat special. This subject was watching the game from inside a multi-million dollar magnet: an fMRI machine. And while the subject was watching (via computer), their brain activity was monitored. In this particular version of the game, on occasion, a “selfish” Dictator who chose to give little or no money to the other person was punished.

When the selfish Dictator—who the person in the magnet had never met and would never meet—was punished, an interesting thing happened. For some subjects (men), an area of the brain associated with reward (left ventral striatum/nucleus accumbens) “lit up” more when the unfair person was punished compared to a control condition.1

In a similar study, people in a scanner were actually able to punish people who had acted in an untrustworthy fashion toward them. Taking revenge here activated an area associated with pleasure, the caudate nucleus (de Quervain 1256).

Your brain likes to take revenge, and it likes to see the bad guys punished.

Revenge, whether you administer it or someone else does, is rewarding.

It’s the sugar in your coffee.

In other words, it’s evolution’s way of telling you that you’re experiencing something GOOD. Darwinian Aesthetics

If there is any basic principle in the history of psychology, it’s that organisms tend to seek reward (and avoid pain). And if there is any basic principle in the history of biology, it’s that organisms have been shaped by the forces of evolution via natural selection. Taken together, these two basic principles imply that evolution has equipped organisms to find things that are, evolutionarily speaking, GOOD for them to be rewarding.

It’s easy to understand why certain things are rewarding. For many organisms, evolution has sculpted their nervous systems to direct them toward the Big Four F’s: Feeding, Fighting, Fleeing, and Mating. If we could scan a mouse eating cheese, its brain would light up. If we could scan it winning a fight, if we could scan it escaping, if we could scan it in its more personal moments … same thing.

Evolution equips organisms with, roughly speaking, innate notions of what have been called “adaptive targets” (Cosmides and Tooby 459), things that are “GOOD” (again, in the evolutionary rather than moral sense) for the organism. Organisms’ nervous systems are designed to seek these things, find them rewarding, and come back for more (Orians and Heerwagen 555).

You’d like to think we’re different, but we’re not. Natural selection equipped us to find things rewarding that, over evolutionary time, directed our ancestors toward adaptive behavior (Thornhill 543). Like rats pressing a lever, people play the slots, lick ice cream cones, and down vodka tonics.

Psychologists can take advantage of this. Sometimes the reward systems can be “tricked.” Mice don’t get a kick out of cocaine because mice that did cocaine left more offspring than other mice. However, to guide mice toward adaptive behavior, some sort of neurophysiological reward system is needed, and cocaine activates this same system. To put it somewhat crudely, because of this fact, you can “hotwire” mouse brains to give them the neurophysiology reward without the experience that, in a world without experimental psychologists, would only come with some spectacularly adaptive behavior, or perhaps not at all.

People in marketing take advantage of this as well. Things, services, and ideas sell in a free market because they satisfy evolved appetites. In this sense, the marketplace—from the grocery store to the theme park to popular media—is a window that looks onto our evolved preferences. Crucially, what sells are the not only physical things we enjoy, but also representations of things. Literature is a clue to aesthetic systems—what we like to read about are the people, situations, and events that we would like to be or have happen to us in our world (Carroll). Untold riches. Beautiful women. Resourceful men.

Evolution didn’t equip us just to like the concrete, like a nice piece of cheese, a nice piece of cake, or, with apologies, a nice piece of ass.2

Human reward systems—our “Darwinian aesthetics” (Thornhill 561)—are not restricted to the concrete (Dutton 693). When our friend in the fMRI witnessed a selfish jerk getting punished, a complex social dynamic involving three people—jerk, victim, and punisher—his brain lit up because like sugar, coffee, and sex, justice is aesthetically appealing.

Like our lab rat on cocaine, human nervous systems can be “fooled” (Burnham and Phelan 246). We have brains that are designed to find certain things rewarding because they would have been adaptive in the past. We have various brain parts that lead to the experience of pleasure and pain. These brain regions are important because they’re evolution’s way of telling you that you’re doing something right, and should do it again. These reward regions guide you toward doing things that, under normal evolutionary circumstances, lead you to leave more descendants than you would otherwise. So, we’re wired to want to do, see, and smell certain things because our ancestors who did them did indeed leave descendents. The rest—the individuals whose brains were not wired up to guide them toward successful reproduction—those people are represented by those branches you see ending on evolutionary trees. Every generation is the result of particular individuals’ reproductive success in the previous generation.

In the case of the human male, it’s reasonable to design in an aesthetic appeal for a large number of sexually willing, very fertile young women (Malamuth 19). Larry Flynt discovered this, made a fortune, and was shot for his trouble.

Artists in various media discovered this as well, leaving us with da Vinci’s painting, Shakespeare’s wit, and Rodin’s sculpture. The Aesthetic of Character

Like our friend in the machine, we love to read—or watch—as the Count of Monte Cristo gets his revenge. There is a grammar of social relationships—a way in which various kinds of behaviors are combined together. Some constructions are more appealing than others. Revenge—misdeed followed by punishment—is an appealing grammar. As endless authors have discovered, deserved altruism, reciprocated love, and self-actualization are all appealing aesthetic grammars.

But behind the grammar is yet another adaptive target, another Darwinian aesthetic. They are complexly interrelated, but distinguishable.

And now we leave the lab and re-board Serenity. We don’t just love the story where the bad guy gets what he has coming. We don’t just consume the story arc with pleasure.

We love the hero who brings him to justice.

Characters’ attributes are the cocaine of good storytelling. In the same way that the male brain is attracted to representations of sexually available women because ancestors attracted to such things left descendants, the human brain is attracted to characters that display those features of abstract quality that would have made them GOOD to have around. In short, we love the good guys, in all probability, because wanting to hang around them would probably have been a GOOD idea.

This is not to say that things are so simple. Drawing characters who are GOOD is fairly easy. But some characters are relatively one-dimensional. They are defined by a simple trait, such as fighting for one’s country. Captain America is great as far as he goes,3 but some might argue that his character lacks a certain depth.

The art of character—both in the fictional sense and in life—is the inevitability of tradeoffs. At any given moment, we can choose to act selfishly, in our self-interest, or commit various acts of sacrifice, from small to large.

Malcolm Reynolds faces any number of such moments. Living on the brink of poverty, capture, and death, he could be forgiven for choosing self-interest. Remember: loyalty, honor, and moral principles are the luxuries of the wealthy. It is among the poor and desperate that they are remarkable. LOYALTY

Loyalty is, with some imprecision, siding with and sacrificing for others, particularly in the service of those with whom one has deep social bonds, such as love and friendship. It is altruism directed toward those to whom it is “due.” We value loyalty in our friends, and the lack of it—betrayal—can tear apart even close friendships. Members of a social species such as ours invest large amounts in a small number of people, some of whom are selected through no choice of our own—such as family members—and others who are selected through careful choices (Tooby and Cosmides 132). A key factor in these important decisions is expectations about others’ loyalty. In our own lives, we prefer others to sacrifice in our interest. No self-respecting evolved creature could be expected to be otherwise. This preference is visible more abstractly—we admire (real or media representations of) people who sacrifice for those dear to them.

It could be argued that because Mal is captain and leader, loyalty is his central defining character trait. There is no denying that this is indeed important. In “Heart of Gold,” we learned, eavesdropping on Mal’s eavesdropping, that Inara’s friend, Nandi, was in trouble, with no one to defend her against the nefarious forces aligned against her. Mal agreed to help. For free. As devotees of the series, we knew how unusual this was. Living from hand to mouth, the crew of Serenity could ill afford uncompensated work. We were surprised but delighted by Mal’s, “You keep your money. Won’t be needing no payment.”

When Inara insisted on paying because she thought it was “important we keep ours strictly a business arrangement,” we saw in Mal’s face that abstract moment of beauty. We saw the connotation of character that made it clear that he did not want to help for the money, but rather from loyalty. That she viewed the act—or, at least, said that she viewed it—as financial revealed that Mal was not just willing to sacrifice for the woman who—we knew, if even he didn’t—he loved; he was eager to.

Along the story arc, he caused her much more pain than her thoughtless remark caused him, by sleeping with Nandi.4 In this moment, Mal, arguably, came as close to distasteful to the viewer as he ever did in the series or in the movie. We sensed that Inara’s own words drove him from loyalty to selfishness, but, still, what we saw was a distinct lack of loyalty.

It is up to each of us as viewers—as judges of actions and character—to decide if Inara’s tears were too high a price to be paid for the satisfaction of Mal’s worldly appetites. Here, the metaphorical sugar of Mal’s loyalty is tinged bittersweet. It is unclear if the revelation of Mal’s ultimate humanity draws us to him—as with realist art—or away. Which do we prefer, the representation of the perfect but unbelievable hero, or the representation of the flawed man, realistically self-medicating his (emotional) pain by seeking (physical) pleasure?

Of course, sometimes we’re treated to simple sugary goodness. In “Ariel,” Jayne betrayed River and Simon to the authorities and Mal nearly killed Jayne in revenge. He stopped at the last moment, but here we saw loyalty practically naked. Tormenting Jayne for his betrayal, we saw Mal’s loyalty to people whom he owed very little. This was important in the context of character, as Mal frequently pretended that he kept them aboard for practical reasons, rather than any genuine friendship. If this were true, he would not have risked his relationship with his hired gun, Jayne. As Jayne gasped for breath as Serenity ascended up into the thinning atmosphere, Mal’s character was exposed before us.

It satiated our appetite for loyalty. HONOR

The quotation that opens this chapter, taken from the pilot episode, denotes Mal’s honor. Dictionary definitions vary, but generally honor refers to a sense of fairness and honesty. To see honor best is to see what it is not. A person of honor does not take advantage of someone who could be exploited. He does not profit from the misfortunes of others. And he ensures that in conflict, the playing field is flat—which is why he does not shoot someone in the back. Note that being honorable does not necessarily mean being law-abiding. An honorable person might well not abide by an unfair law.

To return to “The Train Job,” Mal and his crew were hired by one Niska to steal some cargo from the Alliance. All went well—or reasonably well—until Mal learned what they had stolen: medicine for sick people, including women and children. To keep the merchandise was to let these people die.

No person of honor could let this stand. Mal returned the booty and tried to return the payment for doing the job, thus losing all profits but obeying the strictures of personal honor. To keep the payment and deliver the goods to the (already wealthy) criminal mastermind would have made him a reversed Robin Hood, taking from the poor and giving to the rich. His return of the medicine and his attempt to return the payment for the job fit nicely into our aesthetic sense of honor. The deserving poor got their medicine, the malign rich were denied additional wealth, and all of this, recall, came with a decidedly high price tag.

It is important to note that when trying to return the money to set things straight with Niska, Niska’s henchman, Crow, declined to accept the returned money. On his knees and bound, Crow was kicked into Serenity’s engine intake by Mal’s boot. We saw here that Mal’s honor has its limits. And, again, as viewers we are asked to evaluate—or even understand—Mal’s conflict, and we are once again drawn into the texture of fiction that separates it from fantasy. Mal is honorable. He did the right thing. But he does not only kill people when the playing field is even. Nobility is sometimes trumped by the reality of the underbelly of the smuggler’s lifestyle.

More importantly, it is sometimes trumped by the third and final element of Mal’s character addressed here, morality. MORALITY

It is easy to think that Mal’s signature qualities are loyalty and honor. Whedon goes to great lengths to show us these features, setting the character’s actions, often, in opposition to his lines. Listening to Mal, it would be easy to believe he is only out for himself and to heck with other people or a set of abstract principles. His loyalty and honor lie in what he does rather than what he says.

But it would be a mistake to think that loyalty and honor always win. If Mal were driven first and only by loyalty, for example, he would not put his crew in harm’s way. And he certainly would not go out of his way to do so in the service of an abstraction such as moral principle.

Morality has frequently been equated with conscience—doing the right thing according to a set of principles. However, morality is much more than that. When Crow was liquefied by Serenity’s engine, this was really an act of morality; in particular, it was moralistic punishment. Crow, unwilling to abide by the equitable arrangement Mal had presented him, was subject to Mal’s moral wrath.

The best illustrations of the conflict among morality and nobility and loyalty come from moments in the film, Serenity. First, consider the interplay of Mal’s honor and morality. From the quote that opens this chapter, you might think Mal would be reluctant to kill unarmed men. There was Crow, of course. In the film, however, his moralistic outrage is in full swing; he shoots no fewer than three unarmed men, one in the process of trying to surrender. (Mal was, it must be said, pretty angry; the man was part of an attack in which Shepherd Book and the others in the settlement were killed.)

But the critical moment is when Mal discovers the secret of the planet Miranda. He is faced with a choice. He can skulk away. Or he can go toe-to-toe with both the Alliance and the Reavers, putting himself and his crew at risk so that he has the chance to make public the sins of the Alliance—the deaths on Miranda and the creation of the Reavers, along with the cover-up.

It’s important to note that loyalty demands ignoring this political scandal. A single Reaver ship or Alliance cruiser is more than a match for Serenity, which is no military heavy cruiser, like Enterprise, but a small cargo vessel. And there is no profit in succeeding in this mission.

No profit, that is, other than the (arguable) cornerstone of morality: punishing those who have committed a great wrong, in this case the Alliance’s crimes against an entire populace.

And, in the end, the price is paid. Simon is severely wounded, and Wash, Mal’s closest friend’s husband, is killed.

Morality trumps loyalty and honor. In the film, Mal fights dirty and uses his crew as human fodder in the service of a principle. And not only that, but punishing the Alliance might not even bring about a greater good. It certainly will not bring back the dead on Miranda.

Mal’s loyalty has limits. It does not dictate all his actions.

And we adore him for it.

And this is part of Whedon’s genius. In Mal we see a man continually beset by the exigencies of his morality, whose necessities preclude loyalty, as there are principles that pull with too much force to leave intact the bonds of friendship, even love. Conclusion

Whedon’s creations, of character in context, hold important lessons about our evolved aesthetic sense. From the appeal and success of his works, we can infer important lessons about what human psychology finds rewarding. The lights of Firefly illuminate human nature. In particular, they reveal something which is often only obvious at the level of the concrete. We do not find it particularly interesting or mysterious that we are drawn to Hershey bars. The evolved function of this appetite is relatively easy to understand.

But evolved aesthetics climb to higher levels, and we are drawn to representations of GOOD things. We enjoy pictures of landscapes, beautiful people, and cuddly babies. The function of these appetites is relatively easy to understand: Evolved creatures should be attracted to things that are GOOD for them.

Yet higher, we are drawn to representations of abstract principles. We like to see loyalty rewarded, love reciprocated, and justice done. The leap is longer, but it is easy to imagine that, like our friend whose brain found reward in seeing unfairness punished, our brains are built in such a way that they find these things rewarding.

In the domain of character, a similar explanation holds. We live (and our ancestors lived) in a world in which friends need to be chosen, alliances formed, and social bonds maintained. With only limited time and a limited number of people to ally with, surely we ought to be attracted to people who would make good friends and allies. Our minds should find the people who show these qualities rewarding.

If we imagine that the Good Guys are to these reward systems what pictures of young naked women are to male evolved mating psychology, we see that Mal’s morality feeds these systems. To write such characters properly is more complex than writing a porn film. Our tastes in social relationships are more finely grained and more nuanced than male sexual appetites.5

Our Darwinian social aesthetics should be honed to draw us to characters with features that would have made them very appealing to have in one’s social network.6 They should have a diversity of positive features. Interestingly, because of the complexity of social life, they can’t max out on all of them because some of them are in conflict. Sometimes, morality precludes loyalty. Sometimes, loyalty precludes nobility. Luke Skywalker, somewhat frustratingly, won’t just kill the Emperor because Luke abides by a principle of nonviolence unless absolutely necessary (which, fortunately, is frequently enough for some good light saber duels). But our evolved systems are drawn to people with mixes of these qualities because these systems serve us well in guiding us—in real life—toward making good choices about our social lives.7

The genius of writing is establishing a character with a mix of these features and finding elements that make them excite the part of your brain that’s telling you who to befriend and who to stay away from. This art tells us about evolved human social aesthetics. The characters we love are character pornography—they tell us what our system craves. In the same way that (some) men8 would like to live in a world of endless sexually eager, attractive women, we would like to live in a world populated by the characters we are drawn to.

What would it be like to live in a ’verse populated by Mal Reynoldses? Unless circumstances were extreme (e.g., if a planet’s population had been obliterated), you wouldn’t have to worry about getting shot in your sleep. Or in your back. Or when unarmed. There would, however, be little respect for the law. Mals, as it were, have no particular patience for the laws of men. Laws are an inconvenience to be accepted when possible, bent when expedient, and ignored when necessary or, more importantly, Right. People would be honorable, loyal, and moral, and particularly the last.

In this sense, Mal is the kind of guy we would like around, a realistic and interesting mélange, making him, to mix some metaphors, morally succulent.

Because, in the end, it’s not, actually, the sugar in your coffee. It’s the flavor of the beans, the fat in the cream, the sweetness of the sugar, and the warmth in your mouth, all in the right combination.

Evolved aesthetics are, to be sure, satisfying at their most basic. But woven into a tapestry, the complexity of aesthetic targets is the reason that we have the word “sublime.”

And, finally, I hasten to add that it is not intended to be a criticism of Firefly, Serenity, or Joss Whedon to call Mal morally pornographic. After all, it’s really good porn.