Childhood Carnage: The Ethics Of… Superman (and friends)

Good old Superman. Ever since his creation in 1938, Superman has (after a brief initial period of ruthlessness) come to epitomise what it means to be a superhero – massive overwhelming powers, which are only outmatched by his unyielding moral code. ‘Truth, Justice and the American Way’ are his watchwords, and while he may be a comparatively bland character compared to more edgy heroes (Batman being the obvious comparison) his simplicity and dependability is part of what makes him so compelling – no matter what you throw at Supes, you can always rely on him to do the right thing and overcome all odds, even if it costs him his life (which is has, approximately 5 times).

Now as with all comic book characters, there are a couple of hundred alternate version of each superhero in print, often with characteristic that are completely against their usual behaviours. Superman is no exception to this, and while it would be easy enough to dig up examples where he went power-crazy and conquered the world, or grew a bushranger beard and shot the Hitler twins, or in one particular case killed his own girlfriend and unborn child while hallucinating, the core character is what we’re all about here.

I really don’t want to have to try and explain this.

So who is Superman? Well we all know the backstory – baby sent from a dying alien world, found and fostered by the Clarks in Smallville in the US of A, he grew up, moved to Metropolis to work as a journalist – and fight crime on the side. Over the years his foes grew from standard petty theft, to an array of eccentric supervillains, and when these started to look a little underpowered against a hero who is essentially invulnerable, he started to face off against the closest things to God that the writers could come up with.

Or in this case, a creature specifically designed by the writers to kill Supermans. Not terribly sporting, really.

Superman bests these challenges again and again, and while he is aided by the odd story-specific-and-immediately-forgotten McGuffin, and the tendency for his powers to be written as juuuust enough to overcome the threat he’s facing at any given time (a truly invincible character wouldn’t be terribly interesting after all since nothing could threaten them), the one thing that is always involved in his victories is his unbreakable commitment to his values – you can beat him, you can kill him, you can threaten his life and the lives of those he loves, but you will never, ever break him.

So the obvious question then is; what is this set of values that drive the Man of Steel? Oddly enough there doesn’t appear to be any set list of rules written down anywhere, but a casual examination makes several clear:

Protect the innocent from harm – pretty obvious stuff; Superman saves people who are in danger, regardless of who they are.

Fight crime – Superman follows the law and stops any obvious criminal action wherever he can. Importantly, rather than dishing out justice himself, he hands criminals over to the police for their legal due process.

The Greater Good – if forced to make a choice between saving one person and saving a bus full of school children, the choice is obvious for Superman. Of course usually he’ll somehow manage to save both, but if he doesn’t then he generally gets extremely torn up about not being able to help them.

Never kill – this is the biggest one for Supes; he never, ever, EVER kills anyone. No matter what the cost may be, he will never allow himself to become judge, jury and executioner. So serious is he about this rule that on the rare storyline where he has broken it and murdered someone he has almost immediately gone insane, turned evil, or become a recluse. Of course none of these reactions make any sense logically, but they do demonstrate just how integral this rule is to Superman’s psyche.

The only way to make up for this is to BECOME WORSE AT MY JOB!

Long-time readers may recognise this sort of moral code as a Deontological approach to ethics – that is, a hard and fast set of rules that you must never ever break (with a big punishment for those that do). As I’ve written before, Deontological ethics have a lot of pros and cons; on the one hand they are very very good at taking human nature into account. By providing a clear-cut framework for how and how not to behave, they help us guide make the right decisions even when we don’t want to. Because codes like this are easy to write down, they are also easy to enforce, which adds the threat of punishment and shame our motivations to behave right.

Compare this to the far more flexible and situation-specific Utilitarian approach, which only tells us to take the course of action with the greatest benefit and lowest cost. Since it’s far more subjective and almost impossible to write down and enforce, it depends almost entirely on each individual to hold themselves to its demands – and we know for certain that many people do not, will not or simply cannot do that.

On the other hand, the great benefit of Utilitarianism (and the great weakness of Superman’s Deontological approach) is that Utilitarianism will almost always give a better result that Deontology, because it takes the specific situation into account.

This might not seem like a big deal, but take a look at Superman through this different lens and suddenly the Boy Scout of the superhero world starts to look, well… kinda thick.

This is not to say Superman is unintelligent – indeed every source of information on the guy proclaims he has well above average human brain power. Rather what I’m saying here is that that moral code he clings to so strongly that it basically defines him, actively gets in the way of him achieving his own goals. And since the major goal in his value structure up there is to ‘protect the innocent from harm’, this sort of self-imposed impediment is pretty darn unethical behaviour.

‘Fighting crime’ is easily the least effective way of fighting crime

Whatever your opinion on Supes, the fact is that he’s a reactive kinda guy. Your standard storyline for the guy generally goes: ‘

  • all is well,
  • bad guy turns up,
  • Superman fights him, Superman (eventually but inevitably) wins,
  • all is well once again.

Yeah this sort of structure describes about 95% of all stories ever told, but nonetheless it does sort of demonstrate a lack of foresight in our hero. You’d think after thwarting a couple of thousand criminals, you start to wonder why there are all these criminals running round in the first place and why none of them seem terribly put off by the 999 before them getting creamed by a virtually invincible alien they know patrols the skies above them.

Fuuuuuck that. At least minimum wages jobs don’t involve the near-certainty of having a CAR thrown at you.

Rather than just running about stopping petty crime when you’re not masquerading as a journalist (and thereby cutting down your crime fighting by like, 8 hours for some god damn reason), you might want to use those titanic powers to prevent crime? Maybe talk to some experts on the various causes and then overcome those? It’s a challenge us mere mortals are indeed still struggling with to this day, but I’m going to go out on a limb here and say it’s probably not that tough for someone with super-speed, super-vision, super-hearing, and if all else fails, the ability to punch things out of existence.

Sure you’ve got the big nasty super villains to worry about, but discounting the normal human ones that could probably have been prevented with access to good quality psychiatric care, Superman isn’t all that proactive about defending Earth from them either. You’d think after the first time Supes only barely saved the planet from some monstrosity from beyond the stars, we’d put some god damn effort into our planetary security? Or maybe Superman could just, y’know, pretend to move planets since about 99% of these epic villains are after him in the first place?

But this is only scratching the surface. The renowned comic strip Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal put it best: if Superman was serious about protecting the most innocent people possible, preventing crime, improving our security and improving the quality of all human beings as much as possible, hiss course of action is simple – turn this wheel until we say stop.

Superman energy

But what if the supervillains don’t stop just because Superman goes incognito? It’s a pretty reasonable assumption given his version of Earth seems pretty thick with the crazy bastards, and eldritch horrors hardly need a reason to curb-stomp Earth. Well in that case Superman has an even bigger ethical hurdle to get over:

Superman really needs to start killing people

Yeah, that one massive principle that Superman absolutely must not break? The one that inevitable causes him to collapse psychologically if he does break it? Yeah he really needs to get over himself and do that more often.

That might sound brutal, especially from a deontological, code of rule approach, but seriously – a rampaging psychopath is loose in the city you are sworn to defend. It is absolutely NOT responding to reason and appears completely incapable of doing so. Do you:

  1. Spend a lot of time and effort trying to subdue it without killing it, often having to employ various McGuffins that take time to find and use right, or otherwise having to go toe to toe with the maniac at great risk to your own safety?
  2. Throw him into the sun?

Problem solved. Credit to Penny Arcade.

There’s no denying that a commitment to preserving life is a good thing in-and-of itself, and the fact that the living-god who lives among us has abhors killing is undebatable a good thing given we have zero chance of stopping him if he decided a bit of ethnic cleansing was due, but there are definitely exceptions to this otherwise excellent rule. One of the most obvious? Lex Luther.

Lex is Superman’s arch enemy, one of the most intelligent beings in the universe and absolutely hell-bend on killing Superman at any cost. You know what Lex’s other talent is? Each and every time Superman defeats him, he gets away with it. Whether by buying the legal system, garnering public support, or by good old ‘you’ve got no hard evidence’, he always gets away with it and it’s ready to start scheming against Superman anew by the next issue.

You know what would really improve this perpetual cycle of mayhem, destruction and abuse of the legal system? Throwing him into the sun, that’s what. Yes Superman, your commitment to due process is very admirable and in most other circumstances I would salute you heartily. But right now you’re holding the unconscious body of your greatest nemesis, who’s just destroyed an entire city worth of people to attack you again, and who will based on all previous experience weasel his way out of it in the courts again. You know he’s guilty and you know he’s never going to stop if you release him (or let the corrupt courts do it for you).

Frankly Supes, if you choose not to kill him right now, you’re basically saying you’re cool with the next disaster he causes. Unless you kill him and end this here and now, YOU are the supervillain bud. Each and every innocent life lost will be because you let him go, knowing he would only attack again. So grow up, pull up your shiny red pants, and get over yourself you idiot. Sometimes killing isn’t just necessary – it’s the only ethical path.

That goes double for you Batman! Jesus.

And don’t give me any of that crap about ‘sinking to their level’ or ‘it’s what they want me to do’ either. For a media that practically worships soldiers and cops, you’d think comic book heroes of all characters would appreciate that killing a person under extreme circumstances does not automatically make you like them. And the circumstances don’t get a lot more extreme than when you have a psychotic creature of world-destroying power in front of you, who also happens to be a repeat-offender!

This guy is not a prime candidate for rehabilitation.

But then again, maybe that’s the point…

Superman is a warning to us all

Never has the phrase “Absolute power corrupts absolutely” been more applicable than it is with Superman. Consider what we have here – an alien being of incredible speed, near omniscient hearing and vision, and with enough strength to literally throw something into the sun. The creature has appointed himself guardian of Earth, asks no reward, and hold himself to a stringent moral code – and every time this creature breaks that code, everything goes to hell in a hand basket.

Remember how I said that the great strength of a hard-and-fast Deontological rule book is that it’s far easier for individuals to hold themselves accountable to it? Well perhaps then Superman is the perfect example of why a simple set of rules are sometimes necessary, even if they’re flawed. Because every time Superman loses control and strays from his self-imposed rules, he very quickly realises that there is literally nothing to stop him from doing anything he wants.

Want to impose a totalitarian state to wipe out crime and corruption for good? He can do it. Play god-emperor and wipe out anyone he deems unworthy of his empire? He can do that to. How about we just exterminate the human race and start over with some clones? Totally within his power. And there is nothing any human being can do to stop him. Sure there are other superheros in the DC Universe, but they’re going to find their various powers fairly hard to use when he literally throws them into the sun.

The more you centralise power, the less accountability there is for the use of that power. And when you have a being with so much power that literally nothing can stop him doing anything he wants, there is absolutely zero accountability for him doing just that. So why not abuse it? Why not indulge every fantasy, thought and whim? The only thing that can keep Superman accountable for his vast power is himself, and once his core values are compromised, how much more of a push would be needed until the only thing left is his desires?

Not good.

Ultimately this is what makes Superman such a compelling character – his greatest nemesis is not a villain, but rather himself. His strong but simple code is not just part of his identity, but a shield against the temptation to misuse his power. Ideally, Superman would grow beyond the need for such a simple approach to life and learn that while compromise may indeed come with the risk of corruption, a wise mind can ensure his decisions are just. But when that risk of corruption could mean a virtually omnipotent being going feral, better safe than sorry.

For us mere mortals, the message is the same – while we have many social and legal constructs to keep us accountable, at the end of the day the one thing that we can always rely on to keep us ethical is always the same: ourselves.



10 thoughts on “Childhood Carnage: The Ethics Of… Superman (and friends)

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  2. As I was reading this I was all with you in terms of the “Superman needs to do some killing thing” and then I started thinking about it a little and am not so sure. Well let me say that obviously in the case of a psychopathic super villain it’s a no-brainer, but if god-like being did kill someone in sight of everyone, does it not open the door to the idea that “Superman will kill if he believes he has reason to”. Then what are those criteria, and then we get into maybe a bit of a sliding scale. And I am sure there have been plots where Superman thought somebody was behind something really bad and then it turned out to be someone else. As I was reading this I started to think about the show Dexter. Not sure if you have seen it. But it’s about a psychopath who only serial kills bad guys. Sort of vigilante justice. He lives by a very strict set of rules too and one of those is to be sure of the guilt. When he has accidentally killed someone when not sure, that is when trouble usually follows. And too many of those kinds of killing would also leave fans questioning how much they should like this character. Perhaps that is the fear with Superman is that if he starts making all these decisions with his power it just starts to spread a little doubt. Personally I think it’s just a comic book world and getting rid of Lex Luther sounds like a pretty good idea. Or at least make Superman’s extreme goodness lead to something like Lex Luther reforming and saying “Superman you’ve been so merciful, I am going into a legitimate business and opening up a tuxedo rental shop”. lol

    • Yeah the vigilante justice comparison is a very good point – the justice system is clunky, but it’s like that for a reason. The only way we can ensure justice is by cutting the emotion out of it and focussing on evidence and a consistent process. One dude with the powers of a god, acting as judge, jury and executioner isn’t really going to cut it.

      I think my favour for Supes killing more often is more because of the ludicrous evilness of his villains. Obviously in the real world, Lex Luthor would be in jail forever, the Joker would have been given the death sentence, and lower level super villains would have been given cushy government jobs. But that doesn’t exactly make for a good story, does it?

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