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Anti-Heroes: Is There a Goodness of Purpose?

Confused heroics leads to an uneasy relationship with the rest of society.

In our literature and films, the term anti-hero has come to mean a fictional character with characteristics that are antithetical to those of the traditional hero. Anti-heroes perform acts that are heroic but only do so through methods or manners not appearing heroic at all.

Scholarly definitions of anti-hero are few and far between. When listing it for the first time in 1940, Merriam-Webster's New International Dictionary, Second Edition, the term "anti-hero" was printed without a definition. By 1992, the American Heritage Dictionary defined anti-hero only as "a character in a narrative work without heroic qualities." The 11th Edition of Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary defined anti-hero as "a protagonist lacking in heroic qualities." In each account, not much attention was given to the actual performance of heroic acts; anti-heroes were only portrayed as villainous.

Scholar Richard Reynolds offered, "The negotiation of a character's heroism (or villainy) is fleshed out, as in all narratives, by the examination of moral choices made under pressure" (Zimmerman, 2004, p.34). A classic pop-culture look at the anti-hero came in 1971, with the film Dirty Harry.

Published in the 1985 edited work, Moral Issues in Police Work, University of Delaware professor Carl Klockars explained the character of Dirty Harry as a representation of noble-cause corruption. "The Dirty Harry problem asks when and to what extent the morally good end warrants or justifies an ethically, politically, or legally dangerous means to its achievement."

In one scene from the film, a psychopathic killer kidnaps a young girl, buries her alive, then fails to provide information as to her location after demanding and receiving a ransom. Clint Eastwood's character, Inspector Harry Callahan, illegally searches the suspect's room, identifies him as the abductor, then proceeds to track him down. Upon locating the suspect, Callahan shoots him in the leg and stands on it—as if putting out a cigarette—until the man discloses the girl's whereabouts.

In this situation, Klockars explained the problem was not what Dirty Harry should have done. Audiences polled following the release of the film actually wanted Harry to do something "dirty." They approved of his tactics, despite the fact that the killer was released due to an illegal search and seizure. To what extent, then, does noble cause and sensitivity by a hero cross the line?

Theoretically, Clint Eastwood's character was justified in his actions by the goodness of purpose. A possibility that the victim was still alive in conjunction with the failure to provide information supported his actions. Criminal investigators typically use the sliding scale of criminal culpability to gain a suspect's confidence in eliciting a confession, however, Dirty Harry went from asking a question at gunpoint to torture. This behavior questioned the foundation of moral integrity and necessity found most commonly in the "slippery slope" argument.

Klockars further explained that confusion abounds, as it's not whether a right choice can be made, but that the choice must always be between two wrongs. In choosing to do either, the hero inevitably taints or tarnishes himself.

Criminologist Edward Delattre argued, however, that the incompatibility of one moral theory over another taints no one. In fact, a person may act in accordance with two theories, both of which are seen with a measure of rightness and thus forces a decision between them.

In her 2004 doctoral dissertation, Leslie Erickson explained, "Anti-heroes are protagonists that live by the guidance of their own moral compass, striving to define and construe their own values as opposed to those recognized by the society in which they live. Ultimately, their methods may depict how they alter over time, either leading to punishment, un-heroic success, or redemption" (p.7). Caught in the tragedy of noble cause corruption—a confusing moral paradox—we see the same thing over and again within our cultural belief systems, religions, and systems of government. All of us understand it as a significant phenomenon because we are tested on it every day. We are forced to make choices that we must justify as an end or a means to an end.

Over the years I've heard men speak of exacting their own brand of justice if their daughter or wife were to be raped or hurt in any way. I've seen ordinary people take matters into their own hands and good cops do bad things when their morality is relative and, further, predicated on a broken system of law and justice. Replaced by the commandment of "an eye for an eye," their moral perspective seeks harmony and restoration through vengeance and suffering. Themes of retributive justice are widespread and carry the anti-hero traits that force us to personally examine our own ethical boundaries.

Copyright © by Brian A. Kinnaird

References and Suggested Reading

Delattre, E.J. (2002). Character and Cops: Ethics in Policing (4th ed.). Washington D.C.: AEI Press.

Erickson, L. (2004). "The search for self: Everyday heroes and an integral revisioning of the heroic journey in postmodern literature and pop-culture." Ph.D. dissertation. University of Nebrasksa.

Klockars, C.B. (1980). The "Dirty Harry Problem." The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, 452, pp. 33-47.

Reynolds, R. (1992). Superheroes: A modern mythology. University Press of Mississippi: Jackson, MI.

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