(urth) Necromancy, and Severian on trial

Chris rasputin_ at hotmail.com
Thu Mar 24 23:37:09 PST 2005

Maru said:
>Yes, but if you are using an objective system, you can fight back easily; 
>science strives for objectivity, and generally bows to who has better data 
>and explanations, not who is spouting the rhetoric.  What about when you 
>have subjective systems? There you are denied even that bare chance of 
>making a rational case against the current sub-goals.

I wasn't trying to imply that this somehow made objective worse than 
subjective/relative; I tend to think the opposite is true. But both have 
their own characteristic flaws, and the flaw you originally mentioned 
happened to be common to pretty much all forms of moral objectivism, not 
just to duty-based systems. And I had no other point in that regard.

>Not just unproblematic, but commendable. Severian _could_ have refused, and 
>doomed the Urthians to their previous doom, but he did not, he took that 
>cross on himself.  The situation is analogous to a doomed terminal dying 
>patient (say, a 110 year old man), who somehow has multiple livers in 
>perfect shape (bear with me), and if you, the doctor will take that burden 
>on yourself, you can slice out those livers and give them to a bunch of 
>other people who are about to perish of not-having-liver-ness, thus saving 
>say a dozen lives while hastening another out the door.

The example you describe is similar to a standard thought problem brought up 
by (or against) utilitarians, and it's harsher than you describe. Let's say 
you're a doctor with multiple patients waiting for transplants. In the ER 
you happen to get a friendless hobo who has nothing wrong with him, he just 
passed out drunk. Now maybe his liver happens to be shot, but all his other 
organs are in good shape. As a utilitarian the commendable thing to do is to 
carve up the hobo for spare parts for your other patients.

But even further than that, in that doctor's position, as a utilitarian, the 
even BETTER thing for you to do is to send a couple orderlies out around 
town collecting the homeless until you get as many organs as you need. (Of 
course it doesn't *have* to be homeless people, but the homeless provide 
optimal utility because fewer people will be distressed by their passing and 
they tend to lead low-quality lives anyway).

Now, I understand that there are some utilitarians who would wholeheartedly 
give the thumbs-up to this (although as far as I can tell *most* of them 
react to this example by coming up with a rationale as to why they wouldn't 
really do that), and you may be one of them. However if you don't see why 
those of us who don't share your view would find this sort of thing 
disturbing, "ghoulish" even, I don't know what to tell you.

>The difference is: Severian's plan /worked/.  All the credit, all the 

In the consequentialist world perhaps, but the comment you're responding to 
was from a duty perspective, and in matters of duty/rules, justification 
doesn't proceed by results.

Even utilitarian systems, in practice, aren't entirely consequentialist; if 
you drink two cases of beer, pack up your 4 kids in a car and go driving 
down the road at 100 mph, even the utilitarian will not morally praise you 
because by some freak accident this combination of actions just happened to 
save a bus full of nuns.

There also remains the question: by what standard are you judging Severian's 
plan "good" (and thus his actions "good", because the plan worked)? And this 
is ultimately the exact same question we started with when trying to judge 
Severian. Appealing to his success does not advance us any steps closer to 
an answer to this.

>Another thing: Severian is the rightful autarch of Urth; as a 
>feudal/fascist ruler, he claims
>ultimate authority over his subjects.  No wonder he wouldn't worry whether 
>he should do it or not.

He is not the Autarch of Urth, he is the Autarch of the Commonwealth, a 
single kingdom on Urth among others. But even if he were the Autarch of all 
of Urth, why should this matter to *us* in judging his character?

As a side note with talk of fascism running rampant in the list I find 
myself reflecting that tyranny and fascism were not aspects that I strongly 
associated with Autarchy when I first read the books. My first impression, 
even at this point, when someone calls Severian "the Autarch" is to think: 
self-ruled, self-ruler. Only by extension do I reach an idea of governing 

>It could be that as Autarch, he has already been judged or advised so many 
>times, by people so far above the norm in intelligence, knowledge, and 
>experience that he doesn't give a flip about what the reader may think, he 
>stands with the giants, and their appraisal is what matters.

Except that he obviously does care about the reader's opinion of his 
actions, even down to his relationships with various women.

In subsequent conversation since your post it has been cited that Severian 
doesn't appear to even recognize the consequences of what he's going to do 
until he gets to the trial. This is interesting, but I think that he is 
either being evasive with us on this point and pretending ignorance, or else 
he kept himself *willfully* ignorant up to that point. Severian is perfectly 
aware that natives of Urth - perhaps even *most* natives of Urth - do not 
like what he is planning on doing, would stop him if they could, and may 
even try to kill him. How does he know this without having some clue as to 
why they're so dead set against his project? And doesn't it seem odd that he 
would not ask this question, even as they did try to kill him?

Severian in this respect is a figure of - for lack of a better word - 
"fanatical" certainty. And this seems a certainty based more on some 
intuition or faith, some inherent value he holds, rather than a matter of 
rational deliberation.

>I do not think the dual 'heavenly-New-Sun-with-no-real-free-will' and 
>'human-Severian' is much of a problem; at least it wasn't for most of
>Christinaity, and their human portion was not even a torturer but a 

I expected someone else to answer this but it passed under the radar. To 
envision Christ without free will *would* be a problem in Christianity, a 
big problem. Part of the significance of his sacrifice is that Christ, alone 
among humans, never sinned, yet paid the price for all sinners. His never 
sinning itself has no significance at all if he could have sinned. And in 
another sense, it is important that Christ was also free to put his burden 

In any event I'm not sure whether this particular point is any help with 
Severian's case.

Sorry to be so contrary. My next post will be much more agreeable, I 


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