Sunday, February 12, 2006


I was in the shower this morning thinking about Superman.

No, no, it's not what you think. I had just read some article that referred to the ring of Gyges, and it got me thinking about human nature, and wielding power. So the amazing thing about Superman, as we all know, is that he's sort of all-powerful (though not invisible) but he never takes advantage of other people. Just think about how amazing that is! Can anybody say that they could be so restrained with Superman's powers? Also, he has an intuitive sense of right and wrong. He can quickly survey a scene and know what is the moral course of action. I concluded as I soaped my head (I have no hair, and thus no use for shampoo) that Superman was the perfect example for a virtue ethicist. He's been raised properly, and always picks the path of the golden mean (though his mean is going to be radically different from mine and yours). "He's perhaps to brave," you say, but I think he knows to keep his distance from kryptonite, does he not? He's not thinking about consequences, necessarily, when he acts, he just does what he thinks is right.

Then I got around to thinking about other superheroes. Batman's a consequentialist, of course. I don't know if he's a utilitarian or not, but certainly some kind of consequentialist. He can be a little brutal because he thinks it's necessary to achieve his ends. He doesn't have the moral perception that superman has, and while superman is optimistic about human nature, Batman is pessimistic. Batman, I think, is often inclined towards the extremes of many of the categories in which Superman finds a golden mean. But Batman is disciplined, and has a strong sense of duty. He kicks butt when he needs to.

Then I was trying to think of a Kantian superhero. Batman and Superman lie way too often to be Kantians. A Kantian superhero has got to be without a secret identity, then. What would he/she do, just run around treating people as ends in themselves, never as mere means?? Wonderwoman is good, because she doesn't have a secret identity, but I think she's more like superman, probably a virtue ethicist. Spiderman's a utilitarian, I think. The Green lantern? Aquaman? He's always looking out for the rights of sea-creatures, but they're not rational. Or are they...? Maybe he knows something we don't. Captain America? He doesn't exactly have a secret identity, its more like he left his old identity behind when he became captian america. He's also really into freedom, so that's good. Anyone have a suggestion? This is bugging me.


  1. a) I am not sure that having an alter ego constitutes lying. If Bruce Wayne had said, "I am not Batman" then that would be lying. But he IS Bruce Wayne.

    b) Batman could simply be a natural rights retributivist of a very strong stripe.

  2. First, I think Spiderman is a Care Ethicist; he spends way too much time saving Mary Jane from shit.

    Second, I think that Superman will be either a Kantian or a Virtue Ethicist depending on who is writing him. For example, in the second Dark Knight series, Superman (initially, if I remember correctly) is allowing all sorts of terrible things to happen because he refuses to go against the established law in America. He knows what is happening is wrong, but he feels that as an alien his duty is to uphold the law, not create it. Batman disagrees, and I take this as evidence that Consequentialism can beat the living crap out of both Virtue Ethics and Kantian Ethics... most likely while wearing kryponite gauntlets.

  3. clark kent is the phenomenal being, superman is the noumenal being.

  4. thor gets to be divine command theory, jah?

  5. The reason why I consider spiderman to be a utilitarian rather than a care-ethicist, is that one of his major problems is how often he abandons Mary Jane to save others. He's kind of a tortured soul, pulled in different directions by his different obligations. If he were a good Care Ethicist, he'd probably give up on being spiderman and just spend time with Mary Jane and aunt May.

    Rather, and this is most pronounced in the spiderman movies, he feels a strong duty to save as many people as possible, to the detriment of his personal ties. This is the characteristic (supposed) flaw of utilitarianism. I think the utilitarian reply would be that poor spiderman's just a utilitarian in training. He's still trying to find that right balance between partial affections, and saving the world. Of course, every superhero with a secret identity has this problem, but I think it's most pronounced with spiderman. Batman basically just chooses to give up his personal life, and though it presents problems for superman, it's not focused on as a central concern as it often is in spiderman.

  6. also, Pat, it may be true that Clark Kent rarely says "I'm not superman," he does a lot of other lying to maintain his alter ego. when he has to run off to save a city, he's later asked "Clark, where did you go, you just disappeared?" and he'll say something like, "Sorry Lois, I remembered I left the water on, and I had to go turn it off." Any superhero with a secret identity will have to make countless such lies, probably impermissible for a kantian.

    Could Blade be a Kantian? He's trying to give the villainous vampires their deserved punishment, and all.

  7. According to Mark Wade (DC comics historian and Superman writer) Superman is really more of an egoist than is readily apparent. His life was pretty miserable as long as he was trying to deny his alien heritage. It was not until he embraced it and became Superman that he was ever really happy.

    Thus, his virtuous actions are motivated by a desire to do good as an expression of himself. When he tosses a bundle of nukes into the sun or stops a speeding train he is just being himself. I don't know that Wade thinks there is a real alternative for the Man of Steel. He's awful close to being a phronomos.

  8. I'm certainly no authority on comics, and fortunately, I suspect neither are most of you. Supposing I grant that Mark Wade is an authority on this subject, see Matteson's post. I certainly needn't grant that's anything bad for the character of Superman. (And I'm not assuming Matteson's making these claims either.)

    However, often when we point to egoism it's in an attempt to discredit the goodness of a person's actions. It depends, however, on what we mean by egoism. Clearly psychological egoists needn't assume this. Their claim is merely that everyone does act always in their own interest or desires (for a complete discussion of the distinction look elsewhere, I'm not making it here). The point is that with the psychological egoist, no claim is being made about what one ought to do, merely that it's what we do. Psychological egoism is consistent, to my mind, to most every moral view (even those that ask us not act in our interests), because psychological egoism is making no claim about what we ought to do. A moral theory that says we should act against our own interests would certainly be unaffective if psychological egoism were true, but not inconsistent.

    So, Superman's an egoist, big surprise, we may all be. So that shouldn't bother us unless by egoist you mean ethical egoist. In which case, right action is dictated by whether it's in your own interest. But this too may be perfectly consistent with virtue theory.

    I wouldn't have thought of Superman as a virtue theorist anyway. But I'll save that for another post.

    Apocolypse, now there's a real Aristotilean Naturalist! Survival of the fittest!

  9. You seem to think that being an authority on comics is a bad thing. I see no evidence of that. The graphic novel is capable of being an incredible artistic achievement.

    I don't know that Wade is a philosopher by training. It's not a bad article though. In any case, I think the stronger argument is not that he is an egoist in a trivial sort of way, but that he's a product of virtuous upbringing. Wade attributes this to the Midwestern upbringing, though I don't know that this has anything to do with the fact that he is very good at picking out the golden mean. Is there evidence that Superman has a mind as fast as his feet?

  10. No, I'm not the sort to make evaluative claims about people's interests. [I'm wearing a batman shirt right now, afterall.] The 'fortunately' was used because it's hard to argue about something you know little about unless you assume no one else does either. If there are experts, let them speak, I say. But if there are not, then we can argue about the details all day since we haven't sufficient evidence to back our claims. And it's probably more fun that way.

    You're right to think that I do wonder if Wade knows what he's talking about philosophically. And egoism trivially speaking is always important to seperate from non-triviality, and since I know most people are untrained in the distinction, I thought it worth mentioning.

    One additional point, and I'll preface this by saying I haven't read everyone's post so far so forgive if this is redundant (and if you're not in a forgiving mood, then eat it, whatever the proverbial 'it' is [a great burger perhaps]), is what's going on here the attempt to attribute ethical theories based on behaviour or reasoning? It seems that we say things like, such and such takes consequences into account so he must be a consequentialist, and sutch and sutch always does what's right and so he must be a virtue theorist or Kantian. But this is clearly confusing. How I act may not be representative of my reasoning. My lieing may merely indicate that I'm a bad Kantian, not that I'm a consequentialist (and even some Kantian's think Kant may have been a poor Kantian himself based on some of the claims he tried to support with the categorical imparative). Here, I think, an expert on comics would be extremely useful. We need to know why these superheroes do the things they do. And here I mean their reasoning, not an explanatory story of where they may have gotten that reasoning.

    Final note, I said "A moral theory that says we should act against our own interests would certainly be unaffective [sic?] if psychological egoism were true, but not inconsistent." You may worry about ought implying can here, but I have my doubts about that platitude.

  11. I'm not really an expert, but I do know "a lot" about many of these characters. A deeper problem, it seems, is that a character like superman or batman is an amalgam of dozens of writers' perspectives over decades. Thus, a single character will not be very consistent, and makes for very sloppy evidence when supporting a claim like "superman has an intuitive grasp of right and wrong." That said, there will still be themes and traits that remain consistent in a superhero character.

    About how we can judge the philosophical commitments of these characters, it is not merely by observing their action. It is common in comic books to have access to a character's thoughts and emotions in addition to their actions. Batman, especially in recent decades (at least since Frank Miller's "The dark knight returns"), has a habit of narrating his behavior, allowing the reader insight into his beliefs, desires, and values.

    The classic contrast between batman and superman (this is nicely depicted in "Kingdom Come" by Mark Waid and Alex Ross)is that superman has a talent for knowing the difference between right and wrong unreflectively (though he can back it up with reasons if need be). Intuitively, if you will. Considering the focus on Superman's midwestern "values education" I think this points to him being a model of a virtuous person in the aristotelian sense. Superman's a moral realist who is good at perceiving moral properties in the world. Batman, on the other hand, has no such perceptive skill. He thinks that superman is naive and shortsighted. Batman is a thinker and a planner (the world's greatest detective, after all). Batman is a calculating do-gooder. He has a retributivist strain running through his psyche, but I think that's a psychological fact about him, not where his ethical commitments lie. Batman is willing to let someone bad go free if it will lead to a greater good in the long run. Thus I think he is some form of consequentialist, though maybe not a utilitarian.

    Spiderman, especially in the two movies, is dealing with classical utilitarian dilemmas. The motto is "with great power comes great responsibility," and he's trying to balance his obligations to the world (as someone in a unique situation to help lots of people) and to his loved ones. In the second movie he reasons that being a utilitarian is too demanding (it is forcing him to ignore his loved ones) and that he'll try just being peter parker for a bit. Then he watches various events occur that he is able to prevent (as spiderman), and starts to realize that he can't ignore his utilitarian obligations to help others. Luckily, he's pretty much able to strike a balance.

    Some time I'd love to post about the graphic novel "watchmen." This is a stunning work of fiction, graphic or not, and brings up a lot of ethical (and other philosophical) questions. Has anyone else read it?

  12. Excellent Arthur, that's what I was looking for. You are now an expert in my book.

  13. I remember reading the Watchmen a while back. I don't recall it well enough to have a discussion about it though. Do you have a copy of it that I could peruse?

    Spiderman has always been one of my favorite characters. Batman is too dark for my taste and Superman has it too easy. Spiderman is a fantastic consequentialist. From the beginning of his crime fighting career he has had to balance the demands of his (self-imposed) obligations to other and those of his personal needs.

  14. Is Spiderman a maximizer or has he dabbled at all in satisficing?

  15. I think Cap't Kirk (from the old Star Trek) was a Kantian. Good ol' Spock would whisper good Consequentialist advice, but passionate humanitariam Kirk would never sacrifice the one for the many. Luckily for him, the exeedingly likely awful thing that was expected to happen if he did not sacrifice the one would never happen.

  16. yeah, kirk always manages to outwit or out-gun the "murderer at the door." Interestingly, through Kirk's responses to Spock's advise, we given a picture of morality where consequentialism just isn't the "human" thing to do. Maybe this points to some kind of intuitionism on Kirk's part.

  17. So glad I stumbled upon this.

    Since duty is a huge part of Kantian ethics, wouldn't Spider-Man make for a good Kantian?

    To be sure, hundreds of writers over dozens of years makes it difficult to pin a hero down to -one- moral theory...and it is also true that some moral theories overlap in some areas.

    That is why one-offs like 'Watchmen' are useful here. I would argue Ozymandias = Utilitarian, Rorshach = Kantian (poor one) and Nite Owl = Virtue Ethicist.