Superhuman Ethics Class with the Avengers Prime

I swear I didn’t plan it this way … both it taking two weeks for the next installment (I’m aiming for once a week) and the specific topic of this week’s essay.

Two weeks ago, I talked about Peter Parker having a good life, and pointed out that it demonstrated the difference between some of the candidates for various moral principles, albeit imperfectly because it focused more on the ultimate value of a human life rather than specifically about what the right moral view is. And then we have today’s essay from “The Avengers and Philosophy”, which just happens to be next on the list of my Philosophy and Popular Culture books, which is “Superhuman Ethics Class with the Avengers Prime” by Mark D. White, which is about … looking at the differences between the Big Three views in moral philosophy by looking at the differences in the moral outlook of the Big Three Avengers, or the “Avengers Prime”, who are Iron Man, Captain America and Thor.

I love it when a non-plan comes together.

Anyway, White argues that Iron Man represents Utilitarianism, Captain America represents deontological morality, and Thor represents Virtue Ethics. And what’s interesting about this is that we can tie at least the first two to an actual value clash in the Marvel Universe, which White also makes a reference to: The Civil War, where Iron Man comes out in support of the Superhuman Registration Act — after opposing it, for the most part, originally — while Captain America opposes it. Iron Man’s main reason for supporting it is indeed Utilitarian, as he thinks that even with the abuses that the authorities and even he engage in that it’s still better than the alternative, while Captain America sees it as an unacceptable violation of basic principles even if it would turn out better overall. So, if you’re a Utilitarian but supported Captain America in the Civil War, maybe you’re more of a deontologist than you think. (Thor wasn’t available in the Civil War, but he was unimpressed that Iron Man would do such things to his friends).

So, we can identify some of the problems with each view, and how they balance against each other. Utilitarianism can allow for horrible means to the end of overall happiness and has a hard time ever making any kind of absolute moral principle (Rule Utilitarianism is an exception, but it starts to look a lot like a deontological moral system). Deontology runs the risk of getting out of date and not being able to adapt, and also may not produce a very happy life for anyone. Virtue Ethics has problems defining what the virtues are, and has issues when virtues clash.

So, let’s take the scenario of One More Day (slightly tweaked) to show these problems as well as the benefits. Imagine that these three heroes find out about the deal, but Peter Parker himself doesn’t remember it, and they are put in a position where he asks them if the deal had happened. What would they do?

Iron Man would weigh the benefit of the deal being broken to all people against the detriments, and if he concluded that it would be better for the universe that Peter know, he would tell Peter even if that would devastate Peter. Peter’s well-being is taken into account in the calculations, and if the outcome is to destroy Peter to make things better for everyone else, that’s what Iron Man must do.

Captain America, likely, would have a deontological rule that says he shouldn’t lie, and thus he would tell the truth, again even if it would devastate Peter. However, this is too simplistic for Captain America because unlike Kantians he likely has rules that would allow him to lie under certain conditions. If this is one of them, then he would lie, and if it isn’t then he wouldn’t, but note that unlike Iron Man he would do it even if the total utility works out to be against his principles.

Thor would likely be torn between two virtues. Honesty would demand that he tell the truth, especially to a comrade like Peter … but friendship would demand that he not do anything to deliberately hurt Peter. He’d likely have to jump through a number of argumentative hoops to come to an answer, or else simply refuse to answer at all so as to not have to choose.

So, if you find that you don’t like the morality of one of these heroes but claim to support the view they’re attached to, you might have to reconsider what moral view you actually support.


One Response to “Superhuman Ethics Class with the Avengers Prime”

  1. Criticizing Fiction … | The Verbose Stoic Says:

    […] that was ultimately supposed to win because of the bad things they were doing. You can analyze it as a clash representing the three main competing philosophical positions in ethics. Or you can ask about the political and social implications superhumans would have on a society, […]

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