I wrote this in part for Kaylon Karrim and his inquisitive mind! A huge part of Anfield Index and a guy I call a friend.
Looking back over the three categories of normative ethics under philosophy – Virtue, Duty and Consequential – what fails to emerge is a clear-cut, definitive category that encompasses what we think of when we think of a superhero. Each category has heroes who adhere to its principles but also is easy to criticize each category for its incompleteness. Each category requires limitations because following any category too closely leads away from heroism. Virtue ethics emphasizes moral character in contrast to the approach which emphasizes rules (deontology) or that emphasizes the consequences of actions (consequentialism). Suppose someone is in need of help, well a deontologist will tell you it’s morally right to help someone in need but a utilitarian will tell you the possible consequences of doing so. All a bit confusing but I read a great book called “The Philosophy of Batman” which explains it greatly. Deontological Ethics or duty ethics is the normal position that judges the morality of an action based on the action’s adherence to a rule. Basically it’s a person blindly following rules because they were told so or that’s what you should do based on your civic duty. Consequentialism or Consequential ethics is the holding that the consequences of one’s conduct are the ultimate judgement about the rightness and wrongness of an act. The big question here is does the end justify the means? Without getting too deep into what ethics are which and breaking down what is better or best in any situation I just wanted to lay groundwork for this article.
No one demonstrated following any category too closely than Alan Moore (one my of personal favourite writers) in his classic Watchmen series. The revolutionary message of Moore’s work is that superheroes can just as easily make society less safe. It doesn’t matter what form of ethics each hero uses if they always do what they consider the morally consistent thing, weigh the ends against the means, or are virtuous people. Each path leads to ordinary people being less safe no matter how you look at it.
Knowing what not to do doesn’t get us much closer to being heroic either. For that we need an example. Some superheros seem to never do anything wrong. Captain America for example always follows the ideal, the World War II generation attitude, they take on any and all problems without fail. Other heroes like Tony Stark (aka Iron Man) have personal life’s in shambles, zero restraint and ethical shadiness to promote a greater good. A huge reason why they clash so much. Neither would be called the moral centre of the Marvel Universe; that title belonging to Spider-Man. Interesting in that because Spider-Man is also the hero I would use to describe the trait I consider most important in heroic ethics. Captain America and Iron Man are great examples of the two poles within the Marvel Universe but they lack any kind of relatability. Not many people on Earth were frozen in 1945 and later brought back to be a super-soldier while not many manage worldwide technology companies and are billionaires. Spider-Man though, he is the ultimate everyman. He takes care of his Aunt May, marries his high school sweetheart, and struggles to balance work, family and superhero tasks. He also struggles between various categories of ethics as well. In the Civil War comic series (the movie is quite different) he first sides with Iron Man, then later Captain America. He hesitates to determine what is the best place for him. As opposed to Cap and Iron Man who define either side of the argument of privacy, Spider-Man strives to with great difficulty determine what to do amongst the shifting factors in his life. He has to, unlike Cap and Iron Man, account for his family, job and relationships when he makes ethical decisions. He is constantly torn between Captain America’s staunch moral code and Iron Man’s pragmatism. Moreover, Spider-Man is always turning to others in his times of vulnerability. He understands he only makes it with the help of others, and unlike other heroes, he does not exist as an island. When his Aunt May was in trouble, he turned to Tony Stark. When he needed advice, he asked Steve Rogers (Captain America for those that don’t know). He’s also one of the very few superheroes we’ve seen pray.
As we struggle to be heroic, that’s exactly the type of hero we need. We need someone who has to account for their various personal responsibilities while also weighing their responsibilities as a hero. We need a hero who can inspire us to be heroic in all the aspects of our lives as we strive to be loving spouses, caring friends, dutiful children and nurturing parents. Spider-Man meets us in our everyday lives and encourages us within them, not despite them.
This is what makes a hero heroic. A hero shows the world that they can be heroic. In order to be a hero, you need to be a leader of men and women. Your job is to demonstrate that people can rise above what’s expected of them and do the right thing. They need to stand in the face of a world telling them to do what is wrong and do better. People need to know that hardship, trouble and pain do not have to defeat us as a society. We need to show them that failure does not mean surrender, that the world can be made better if we try, and that effort expended in the cause of what is right does not go unnoticed.
This is the ethic of a hero: that when you do something, it makes the observer better for having witnessed it. It’s why heroes exist in fiction and non-fiction and why their stories are still told today. We want to hold onto the good in the world because without the good we only see evil and then we lose our souls. My message is for all heroes, real or fiction, go out and inspire. Do things that others will see and make a difference in your community. Don’t worry about how people will see you if you do a good deed when other won’t. Inspire others to embrace what is good and feel that tugging in their hearts so that they too can do great things. That is the standard I hope you will apply to your future heroics. Spider-Man embodies exactly what we want as a hero, realness. The realness to believe we too can make a difference while following a moral and ethical codes.