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What Can We Learn From Watching a Superhero Civil War?

Fictional characters can show us different ways to think about ethical problems.

Marvel Studios (advertisement)
Source: Marvel Studios (advertisement)

As moviegoers flock to see Captain America: Civil War, the latest entry in the wildly successful Marvel Comics film franchise, some of the themes may seem familiar. As in the movie, we live with potentially catastrophic threats from mysterious forces, some from outside our borders and others from within them—and sometimes the resulting tragedies are made worse by those we trust to handle them. At the same, in the face of those threats, more and more invasive measures are adopted in the name of increasing safety. We don’t see the threats that never realize, but we do feel the restrictions of our basic freedoms, especially from heightened surveillance.

In other words, we have to deal with the timeless conflict between liberty and security, which every modern society deals with in one way or another. This conflict has also worked its way into our fiction, including superhero comics and films in which the typical good vs. evil set-up is given a twist: the superheroes now represent the threat, given their tremendous power and lack of accountability. In turn, the “normal” people want to limit the heroes' activities and hold them responsible for their mistakes, which puts the heroes in the strange position of arguing for their own civil rights while at the same time fighting to keep people safe.

This is the general background of Captain America: Civil War and, more significantly, the Civil War storyline that dominated almost the entire Marvel Comics line in 2006 and 2007. Taking place primarily in the seven-part Civil War comic by Mark Millar and Steve McNiven, and also in almost a hundred tie-in issues of other titles such as Iron Man, Captain America, and The Amazing Spider-Man, this story showed how the various Marvel superheroes dealt with the issues of liberty and security through the lens of their own individual moral codes. By doing so, Civil War (and the book I wrote about it) gives readers a crash course in how different people—with capes or without them—look at this perennial conflict of ideas and use their individual faculties of moral judgment to decide what role each was going to play during the superhero conflict.

As in the film, Iron Man and Captain America are the two main protagonists in the comics, which began with a tragic catastrophe involving young, inexperienced heroes. This was just the latest in a series of superhero-related disasters, which prompted popular outcry and led the US government to pass a law requiring superheroes to register with the government, which involved revealing their identities to the authorities, submitting to training, and being held accountable for their actions.

Iron Man and Cap split over the issue of registration, each leading a group of heroes in support of their respective causes, which corresponded to their core ethical positions:

  • Iron Man is ever the pragmatic utilitarian, trying to bring about the most happiness or well-being possible for the greatest number of people. He was the first of the heroes to hear about the impending legislation, and he argued in front of Congress against it, assuring them that heroes could police themselves and their freedom for government oversight helped them protect people better. But once the law was passed, Iron Man adapted to the new situation and decided that supporting it—and eventually taking charge of it—was the best way to move forward, both to make the people feel safer with their superpowered protectors, as well as to make sure his fellow superheroes were treated as well as possible under the new law.
  • Captain America has long been the stalwart defender of principle over pragmatics, consistent with deontology, which focuses on issues of right and wrong rather than better or worse. He saw registration as a threat to essential civil liberties of people who had devoted their lives to protecting others, as well as a danger to their loved ones if their secret identities should ever be leaked, so from day one he opposed any effort—including that of Iron Man—to enforce registration. Cap agreed with what Iron Man said to Congress about the importance of heroes being free to help people without being tied up in bureaucratic red tape, but his decision to resist registration was grounded more in the idea that it was wrong, representing an illegitimate restriction of the rights and liberties of individuals who are trying to protect people.

Through the storyline, we see the weakness in both heroes’ absolutist positions. Iron Man’s simplistic utilitarianism leads him to take actions that some—not just Cap!—would think wrong, such as building a secret prison in an antimatter dimension to hold unregistered heroes indefinitely and without trial (a clear analogy to Guantanamo Bay, just as the registration act itself was a parallel to the PATRIOT Act). This illustrates the “ends justify the means” reasoning that is a major critique of utilitarianism.

At the same time, Cap failed to appreciate the costs of his principled stance, both in terms of physical losses to life and property as well as the faith and will of the American people he swore to protect. This corresponds to a strong criticism of deontology: that it sanctions the idea of “let justice be done, though the heavens fall,” ignoring consequences in the pursuit of what's right. Note that this is almost the mirror opposite of saying “the ends justify the means”: in both, either consequence or principle takes absolute precedence over the other, revealing the extreme nature of utilitarianism and deontology when understood very simplistically and without sufficient nuance.

As I’ve pointed out in many of my ethics posts here, general moral philosophies such as utilitarianism and deontology rarely settle ethical issues, but instead give us tools to think about them. Most of us want to do the best thing and also the right thing, but sometimes we can’t do both, and in those cases we have to use our moral judgment to decide how those two imperatives such be balanced.

Throughout the Civil War storyline, we see Iron Man and Captain America—as well as Spider-Man, who’s caught between the two older heroes and feels the conflict more personally than either of them—struggle with these very questions, and this gives us examples of how we can deal with them in the real world. This struggle is especially visible when it comes to heated debates over liberty and security, two concepts that are both of central importance. Our task as a society is not to choose between them, but to decide together how we are going to balance them to achieve the benefits of both—and I hope we do it more peacefully than Iron Man and Cap did!


Ockham Publishing
Source: Ockham Publishing

If you want to read more about the ethics and judgment of the main characters in the Civil War storyline, check out my new book, A Philosopher Reads... Marvel Comics' Civil War: Exploring the Moral Judgment of Captain America, Iron Man, and Spider-Man, available now. You can also read more about it here and listen to this Nerdsync podcast about it.

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