Wednesday, May 07, 2008


So I'm rereading The Watchmen and calling it work, because, well I can, and I've had a couple thoughts one of which made me a little dizzy.

I've been wanting to say that the real critique of consequentialism comes from Dr. Manhattan, esp with his comment to Veidt implying that the ends can't justify the means because nothing ever ends. I took this to embody at least two standard critiques of consequentialism. The first is simply the law of unintended consequences, which is illustrated well by events in the book. The second, and more interesting is the idea that since the future is infinite, outcomes in the distant future will always swamp (infinitely!) good outcomes here and now. More broadly, it is impossible to reason consequentially with an infinite time span. So you have to add some sort of discount rate, something that lowers the utility of outcomes as they recede into the future. But any discount rates are artificial and post hoc. So consequentialism doesn't work.

Re-reading the issue Watchmaker, however, I remember just how hard it is for Dr. Manhattan to embrace any moral worldview. He can only critique consequentialism to the extent that he critiques all human morality. Perhaps this fits with the general thrust of my essay, since I want to say that the book has small critiques of consequentialism and deontology which it uses to get to a critique of authority. Mostly, though, re-reading Watchmaker gives me that dizzy feeling you get when objectivity sucks away morality and feeling, the feeling Nagel writes about in The View from Nowhere. It leaves me unable to decide what to do at all, let alone write in my silly essay.

Other, less dizzying thoughts:

1. I hadn't noticed before that the history of superheroes in the fictional world of The Watchmen mirrors the history of the comic book in the real world, with a lively golden age in the 30s and 40s, a dead period in the 50s caused by public distrust of nonconformity, and a revival in the 60s.

2. What is the technical term for the kind of transition in movies and comics where a phrase or image is carried over into the next scene, acquiring new meaning?


Brock said...

hrrm, indeed.

"Unintended consequences"?

But Veidt's plan succeeded. The intended consequences - the death of millions in Manhattan and the aversion of a much worse nuclear holocaust, came to pass.

What struck me as a reader was how forthrightly Moore defied traditional expectations. Watchmen could have easily become a traditional morality play about unintended consequences, in which Veidt's plan goes horribly wrong, or in which the others stop Veidt, but manage through their own heroism to avert nuclear war.

But it's not. And that's what leaves the reader so reeling and disoriented at the end.

Rob Helpy-Chalk said...

But did it succeed? No one seems to pay attention to what happens on the last page. Seymour, the dumb assistant at the New Frontiersman is asked to pull a submission from the "crank file" to fill some empty space in the magazine. Sitting in the pile of submissions, is Rorschach's diary, which explains all of Veidt's plans. If the diary is revealed, the whole scheme to end the cold war collapses.

The last panel is great. It has the editor saying to Seymour "I leave it entirely in your hands" and we see a close up of Seymour's hand, the crank file, and his smiley face t-shirt, which now has a ketchup in the exact location of the blood stain on The Comedian's smiley pin that we saw in the very first panel of the comic.

The panel thus hits the theme of the role of dumb chance in history and the delirious contingency of the universe we have seen repeatedly. Also in a comic dense with intra-textual visual allusion we get a reference back to the very first panel, tying everything together. It is a great moment.