Sunday, March 30, 2008

Means, ends, and the critique of pure superheroes

Article Proposal.
Rob Loftis

Means, ends, and the critique of pure superheroes

The most prominent theme of The Watchmen—the one alluded to in the title, the one most clearly signaled by the development of the characters and the history of the alternative universe the comic takes place in—is the easy corruptibility of the guardians of society. This easy corruption is shown to transcend political lines: it afflicts both the cosmopolitan liberal Ozymandias and the right-wing loon Rorschach. For different characters, this corruption is enabled by the abuse of different ethical theories. Ozymandias, with his grand, murderous scheme to end the cold war, represents consequentialism, the belief that all action should be judged by their consequences, so that the ends will sometimes justify the means. Rorschach, with his unbending principles in the face of apocalypse, represents the contrasting idea, deontology. The deontologist says that we should not think of morality in terms of ends and means at all, and instead only act in ways that express moral rules.

The comic contains a clear critique of consequentialism, indicting Ozymandias’s worldview not just for corrupting him, but for being ultimately futile. This critique is embedded in the structure of the story and in the perspective and explicit statements of Doctor Manhattan. It is significant that this critique does not come from the deontologist, Rorschach, as The Watchmen has a less obvious but still real critique of deontology. Rorschach’s actions are not just futile, they are genuinely counter-productive, especially his potentially world ending act of sending the details of Ozymandias’s plan to the New Frontiersman magazine. Rorschach, too, is a corrupted figure.

The ultimate target of the comic’s critique is authoritarianism, the idea that anyone should set themselves up as a guardian of society, an idea captured by image of the superhero. The critiques of consequentialism and deontology, and indeed of liberalism and conservatism, are supports this anti-authoritarianism, which is a more central theme throughout Moore’s work. The comic is not a purely negative work, however. It provides a positive moral image in the person of Hollis Mason, a rather ordinary man who used to dress up in a very corny costume and, when the book opens, is running a car repair shop (“Obsolete models a specialty!”)

This essay will highlight the critiques of consequentialism and deontology in the comic, focusing on the parallels to the classical philosophical arguments from people like Mill and Kant. I will also touch on the possible relationships between normative ethical theories like consequentialism and deontology and political theories like liberalism and conservatism. I will finally suggest virtue theory as a way to understand the positive moral images of the comic and its underlying anti-authoritarianism. This framework is probably not explicitly intended by either Moore or Gibbons, but provides the best philosophical understanding of their deepest themes.


Julian E said...

One other thing I sort of feel should be explored from a "morality of politics" perspective is, if we take consequentialism as a given, what is the world we're aiming for? To be more specific, I'm broadly thinking of utility-based conception of a good world and a desert-based conception of a good world. Desert-fulfillment consequentialism often gets mixed up with deontology, in my view. (I think that Kant mixed them up too; IIRC, he saw deontology and desert-fulfillment as being equivalent. It's been a while since I've read Kant, though.)

My sense is that conservatives tend to (crudely) view the best world as one in which all deserts are fulfilled, and liberals tend to (crudely) view the best world as the one in which all people are as well-off as possible. Other people have tended to be skeptical of my views, though.

Rob Helpy-Chalk said...

Interesting idea. I think I agree with Kant: desert-based consequentialism does wind up being equivalent to deontology. How could you specify desert without naming a lot of rules? And wouldn't acting according to a rule you would wish to see universalized amount to trying to create the world where those rules are universal?

Julian E said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Julian E said...

Whoops. Forgot to get back to this thread. Anyway, as an example, suppose there is someone you know is guilty of some crime and deserving of retribution, but against whom you cannot prove the case (or the statute of limitations has run out or the like).

Say that she is accused of some other crime, which you know that she did *not* commit. However, your testimony is critical, and could convict her if you lied. The punishment she would receive for being convicted of this crime would be equivalent to what she should have received for her real crime.

It seems to me that the deontologically correct thing to do here is to tell the truth, but if you are a desert-fulfillment consequentialist, then lying to see her convicted would be best. (Note that I'm speaking here purely from a retributive perspective -- I'm not stipulating that there's any higher social good such as deterrence or incapacitation to the punishment, just in case this seems utilitarian.)

Of course, one might ask where deserts come from in the first place, if not from duties fulfilled or violated. Still, even if it's not a complete, stand-alone view of morality, I think that what I'd call "desert-fulfillment consequentialism" is seen fairly often in practice, and I think it's a fairly important component of right-wing politics.

If one does try to use desert-fulfillment consequentialism, with fulfillment or non-fulfillment of deserts being the cause of further deserts, as a closed, complete moral system, it leads to an "original sin" multiplying those guilty by association. Someone regarded as guilty who continues to be supported by his family, tribe, state, etc, implicates his associates, since they help someone who deserves to be harmed. Likewise, those associated with people who do some "original good deed," who support that individual, also become good through association. This leads to a sort of division into good communities and bad communities through a sort of self-referential recursive process, based on some original "seed" of good or bad. This also strikes me as quite consistent with right-wing politics.

Rob Helpy-Chalk said...

Good example.

I'm reluctant to attribute any viewpoint to a large group of people that requires a carefully tailored hypothetical to distinguish from other views.

It seems more psychologically accurate to simply say that many on the right are retribution-obsessed and tribal.

In terms of cognitive psychology, normal humans have mental modules that promote retribution and tribalism which probably have distinct but intertwined evolutionary histories. For some people, these modules dominate others (in less technical terms, those emotions rule). People like this are attracted to right wing politics.

Julian E said...

Well, if we speak of evolved mental modules, then isn't everyone's behavior, right, middle, and left, determined by which mental modules are dominant (retributive modules, empathetic modules, etc), and your original speculation on "possible relationships between normative ethical theories like consequentialism and deontology and political theories like liberalism and conservatism" unlikely to be productive?

Or am I missing something?

Rob Helpy-Chalk said...

You're right. In fact, I don't really believe high level normative theories say much about our ethical lives.

I wanted to investigate the issue for my paper for the Watchmen and Philosophy volume because I thought it would be an interesting topic for a non-philosopher getting an introductory lesson in deontology and consequentialism to investigate. That's the audience these books are aimed at, and when I write these proposals, I'm mostly just playing along with with game the editors want to play.

Brock said...

The comic contains a clear critique of consequentialism, indicting Ozymandias’s worldview not just for corrupting him, but for being ultimately futile.

But Ozymandias did put an end to the cold war, right? His crazy murderous scheme was a success, and saved many more lives than it ended.

I thought Ozymandias was the hero of the work. But an unrepentant Benthamite like me would think that.

Rob Helpy-Chalk said...

But Ozymandias did put an end to the cold war, right?

Well, maybe. The last page of the book shows the dopey assistant at *The New Frontiersman* reaching for an article from the "crank file" to fill some empty space in the magazine. Among the manuscripts in the box he opens is Rorschach's diary, exposing Ozymandias's whole plot.

I think the real last word belongs to Dr. Manhattan. When Ozymandias asks him, "I did the right thing, didn't I? It all worked out in the end," the big blue man says, "'In the end'? Nothing ends, Adrian, nothing ever ends."

You have to be Krishna-blue to put down consequentialism like that.