So, the second essay in “The Avengers and Philosophy” is by Sarah Donovan and Nick Richardson and talks about the Dark Avengers, a replacement Avengers squad formed by Norman Osborn and staffed by rather … shady characters, to say the least. The point of the essay is that the Dark Avengers, in general gave and strove to give the impression of being moral and virtuous characters, but in actuality acted quite immorally, which can be compared to a number of times when the real Avengers did the right things despite them actually seeming like the wrong things, or when popular support turned against them. Spider-man is the ultimate example of someone who accepted the responsibility to do the right thing despite the fact that many, at least, thought he was a villain and a menace. The essay asks the question of whether it is better to be actually moral even if people don’t think that you are, or whether it is better to look moral even if you aren’t.
My focus here is going to be talking about a pretty popular new theory about morality, which is that morality is an evolved trait that is used to promote societal harmony. As we come together and work together in groups, to build a harmonious society we have to co-operate with each other. Co-operating with each other produces a more functional society, and so at the very least societal practices that promote co-operation promote more harmonious and better functioning societies, and morality is essentially just that.
The issue here is that this more supports looking moral than actually being moral. If others do not see me co-operating, I get no benefit from it. In addition, if I can cheat and yet still look moral, I get the benefits both of cheating and of looking like I’m co-operating. To return it to the framing context here, Osborn gets to both look like a hero and reap the benefits of that good P.R., while being able to take whatever measures he needs in order to get the job done and, ultimately, to get what he wants. Under such a model, even the moral need to make certain that they give the appearance of being moral, and sometimes have to put that over actually taking the moral path, because if they act morally in a way that looks immoral, they get punished for doing the morally right thing. This becomes even more of an issue when someone is trying to make it look like they are moral and you are not, because if they can convince everyone that you are in the wrong even when you’re in the right then they get the benefits and rewards and you get the punishments. Appearance matters more than actuality in such a system.
Now, a society that has all cheaters won’t prosper, so as a descriptive theory explaining our moral intuitions the idea might have some weight … and perhaps more weight given how things like politics generally works in at least democratic societies. But as a theory that gives us a justification for acting moral, it leads to the idea that it is more important to look moral than be moral … or, rather, that we should act just morally enough to get the benefits and avoid the punishments. If we think morality itself has intrinsic moral value, this story doesn’t seem to capture that at all. Which is, in fact, my major objection to that theory.