Captain America, Human dignity & Marvel-lous Ethics

Photo credit: Stingmedia for Disney

Be forewarned, this post contains spoilers on the plot of various Marvel branded movies and TV shows released to date (notably Captain America: Civil War). I have not read the comics, so this commentary relies entirely on the cinematic universe portrayed by the movie franchise. I’m not a scholar of film, media or popular culture, but I have been intrigued by some of the themes cropping up in the Marvel franchise and the way in which these themes are generally dealt with. In particular, I find some of the elements of narratives around superheroes interesting, as they reflect upon what it means to be human (or not) and what constitutes moral behaviour (or at least what separates the ‘good’ guys from the ‘bad’), especially among leaders or celebrities.

There are many interesting elements which appear in the Marvel franchise around the role of government, the implications of covert organisations and ties between wealth and politics. There are also underlying questions about the ethics of methods and outcomes; is it okay for the good guys to work in the same way as the bad if they catch the bad guys in the end? In Avengers: Age of Ultron the narrative revolves around the implications of delegating responsibility for judgement of criminal action to automated systems – the very same debates which surround the use of drones in real warfare today. In Captain America: Civil War the narrative continues with these themes and explores the difficulties of collective governance and responsibility versus the pursuit of an individual moral code.

In these narratives there is a fundamental question over the extent of law and central authority to safeguard the collective public. In the landscape of these comic book narratives, which originated in and related to satirical drawings as well as war propaganda in their earliest forms, this draws strongly on the cultural inheritance of a time where capitalism and democracy as forms of social order agonised over the threats of communism and fascism. The contemporary Marvel narratives also seem to query the consequences of relying upon single individuals, often male heroic figures, to take action or make a decision in a position of imperfect knowledge or resources.

I first became interested in the role of these heroes in the Marvel franchise in their first contemporary cinematic movie Iron Man. This is a tale of a successful scion of industry who has profited from unethical and unscrupulous business practices and who lives an unscrupulous and immoral playboy lifestyle yet, after experiencing a life changing event and developing empathy for the suffering of others, changes his ways. Throughout the movie, Tony Stark (aka Iron Man) is questioned and criticised for his drastic actions as putting his company’s  financial stability at risk.

According to Kantian views on ethics, those matters of action which constitute questions of right and wrong but fall outside of matters of compliance with the law, moral action should be decided only based upon maxims that are categorically imperative. This contrasts hypothetical imperatives to act (e.g. I wish to acquire riches, I ought to sell more products) where the action relies upon the pursuit of desires for what might be, with categorical imperatives for action (e.g. I know a product to be dangerous, I ought to stop manufacture of the product). The second action fulfils Kant’s notion of the Categorical Imperative, or ‘fair play’; a moral duty is only one that would be right for any and all persons in any circumstance. This is sometimes referred to as the test of universalisability. Kantian ethics is therefore a rule or duty-based system of ethics  (compared to other systems of ethics such as consequentialism that focus on outcomes).

This seems rather counter-intuitive, especially to those who point out that all business relies upon competition, to produce the best product, to command the highest price, to attract the best talent. The marketplace rewards outcomes, not intentions. Yet Kant makes this very point, and highlights that our intuitions are often unethical, that it is education, discipline and civilisation that teach us when to act on more than intuition, to act instead upon reason.

Dignity and Human Rights

Kant’s categorical imperative is sometimes expressed in a formulation which is foundational in human rights literature and in the literature on dignity in business and management studies.

Act in such a way that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of another, always at the same time as an end and never simply as a means.

This highlights the importance of universality in human rights discussions, because even when individual human beings or communities of human beings have differing beliefs or practices regarding what constitutes moral behaviour, Kantian ethics determines that practices which cannot be right if they are universalised, are not moral. And for Kant, it is the ability of the will to identify perfect duties (which must be performed all the time) and imperfect duties (which must be performed in certain circumstances) as different from preferences, which is the reason human beings have a special dignity.

Kant’s notion of dignity has been challenged on this basis, as has his views of ethics, for not being able to contend with the complex vulnerabilities of human beings; their need to be supported by others (as children or invalids, for example). Yet it is Kant’s formulations that underpin the contemporary legal framework of human rights legislation.

Our Dramatis Personae under discussion

Steve Rogers/Captain America: His backstory from the films

Born 1918 to Sarah Rogers, a war widow and nurse who died in 1940. Rejected in 1942 for enrollment in military, but recruited for a secret military project and following administration of a mysterious compound developed extraordinary physique, strength and healing abilities. Undertaking numerous wartime missions against the Nazi-financed HYDRA, he led his own unit of POW survivors entitled the Howling Commandos which included his childhood friend James (Bucky) Barnes and blossoming love interest Peggy Carter. Bucky was believed lost in combat and Steve entered an involuntary hibernation following a plane crash in the Atlantic in an attempt to bury the otherworldly item conferring HYDRA’s technological advantage. When Captain America is recovered 67 years later he struggles to adjust to modern US life and culture, but remains under quasi-military supervision from SHIELD (a US intelligence agency). Working with other superheroes to prevent an alien invasion he meets a variety of people who act by a different ‘warrior’s code’ (such as Thor), have been more used to working for various government organisations as spies and black ops, or have not had any military training, such as Iron Man. In later films he also faces his childhood friend Bucky, who had been rescued by HYDRA and succesfully transformed into a mind-controlled super-soldier comparable to Captain America. Bucky recovers his memories with Steve’s help despite remaining opposed to him in combat and escapes.


Tony Stark/Iron Man: His backstory from the films

Born 1970 as only son to Howard Stark, who emphasises Captain America as a role model, having worked with him during WWII. Tony has a poor relationship with his father and is mostly raised by family retainers including their butler, Jarvis. Tony nonetheless performs well in education with a talent for invention, robotics and computing similar to Howard’s and becomes good friends with James Rhodes during studies at MIT. Howard and Maria Stark die in a car crash in 1991, leaving Tony to inherit the multinational Stark Industries, his father’s technology and weapon manufacturing company. Tony was not an attentive CEO, with most of the day-to-day operations being controlled by Obadiah Stane but he did establish contracts with the US military. He also develops an advanced Artificial Intelligence system to assist with household management he names JARVIS. Following kidnapping by a guerrilla fighting force who brand themselves as the Ten Rings, Tony designs and constructs the Iron Man armoured suit along with new power generation technology and stops all weapons production by Stark Industries. As Iron Man, he then proceeded to intervene in several conflicts featuring Ten Rings members when finding out about them on TV. Although approached by SHIELD to work more closely with (covert) US defence, Tony publicly declares his identity as Iron Man and does not pass the psychological tests to join the Avengers initiative (though he does some consulting for them). Despite disagreement with James Rhodes and armed conflict with Obadiah on offensive versus defensive technology, Tony continues to focus on production of defensive armour. Tony also develops a romantic relationship with his personal assistant, Pepper Potts, and eventually makes her CEO of Stark Industries. As his celebrity status draws critical global attention (including from disenfranchised Ivan Vanko) Tony struggles to cope with the strain. In later events, he is drafted into the Avengers’ defence of New York against alien invaders and embarks on a suicide mission which he narrowly survives. He later suffers from anxiety attacks and implied PTSD.

–spoiler break for those who haven’t seen Civil War on DVD yet!–

Avengers, Ultron, Civil War

By the events of Civil War, Steve Rogers and Tony Stark have become well acquainted and have worked together on multiple occassions to prevent attempts by powerful (and generally technologically more advanced) individuals from initiating global conflict with an aim to dominate the human peoples of Earth. While their attempts have been successful in thwarting these plots, they have often been publicly violent and aim to protect the general population by excluding them (often with limited success) while battle is fought between superhuman entities. At the start of Civil War, the most recent major conflict was with an entity unwittingly created by Tony Stark’s attempts to develop an artificially intelligent police keeping force that could supersede human forces. This conflict culminated in the destruction of a city in Eastern Europe.

The Avengers are now generally operating as an autonomous global anti-terrorism squad, as there are still various minor antagonists from their previous adventures ‘loose’. Tony Stark is focusing on philanthropy and technological development aimed at psychological self improvement. As public opinion has become less supportive of the Avengers since collateral damage from their skirmishes becomes more visible, a movement to agree an international treaty to regulate their action gains momentum. Stark is in favour of the treaty, while Rogers is unconvinced in the power of committees to make the right decision. The treaty signing is then attacked by a terrorist bomb, killing Black Panther’s father and the instigator frames Roger’s childhood friend Bucky Barnes. Rogers believes in Barnes’ innocence so tracks him down to warn him, but they are both captured. The true instigator, Captain Zemo, then activates Barnes’ mind control and, after questioning him for information about previous missions, sends him on a rampage.

Rogers goes after Bucky and manages to trap him until he returns to his senses. Learning the information he gave to Zemo he believes Zemo intends to recruit a number of super-soldiers like Barnes hidden in Siberia. As none of Rogers’ actions have been approved by the council, he recruits Falcon, Clint Barton, Wanda and Scott Lang to help him capture Zemo before he reaches the hidden Siberian base. Meanwhile, Stark gains approval to return Captain America to custody and recruits James Rhodes, Natasha Romanoff, Vision, Black Panther and Spiderman. A major battle between the two forces ensues at a European airport and Rhodes is left paralysed from a fall caused by an accidental blast from Vision. Rogers and Barnes escape with help from Romanoff (the remainder are arrested) and Stark, though distraught, uncovers evidence to vindicate Barnes.

In the final ‘act’ of the film, Rogers and Bucky reach Siberia after Zemo to discover he had no intention of releasing the super-soldiers, but rather killed them to attain vengeance for his family to bring the Avengers into conflict. Stark arrives and Zemo plays a video showing Barnes as the killer of Tony Stark’s parents. Rogers confesses foreknowledge of the evidence of Barnes’ guilt and he and Stark fight as Stark attempts to kill Barnes.  Barnes is incapacitated but distracts Stark and Rogers almost kills him, but settles for disabling his suit. Meanwhile Black Panther overcomes his thirst for vengeance and arrests Zemo rather than killing him as he had intended.

Stark returns to the US to assist in the recuperation of Rhodes, while Rogers breaks the remaining Avengers out of prison and sends Stark an apologetic letter. In the letter Rogers emphasises his commitment to the individual rather than any institution, and promises to come if called in need. The post-credit scene shows Rogers take Barnes into hiding with Black Panther.


The human and the superhuman

The story of this movie can be understood as a commentary on the rights and responsibilities of the human, but also the powerful superhuman. In Classical and Renaissance debates over the dignity of human beings, the value of humans is often set in relation to ‘lesser’ beings such as animals or ‘greater’ beings such as gods, and the story of the comic book superhero can be seen in the same tradition. In these debates, the value of the human often lies in their potentially superhuman capacities of perception, such that they can comprehend the workings of the world beyond mere sensory response or reaction. It is the extension of this reasoning in Kantian thought that identifies the reasoning capacities of human beings, their ability to identify moral behaviour through application of rationality, as the main feature of their dignity.

While the characters of the Marvel movies are ‘super’ in their physical abilities or sensory perceptions, it is more difficult to portray any ‘super’ morality. The very notion of super-morality is usually employed instead to indicate hubris, or an alien perspective in contrast to valuing the human. In the historical period in which many of these comics emerged, this alien perspective was often correlated with fascism or communism. In our contemporary time, it seems that the point of contention is not tied to these particular frames, but instead to state or corporate bureaucracy and secrecy.

“We are not soldiers”

Kant’s Categorical Imperative can be employed to good effect to examine the moral matters and decisions taken throughout the contemporary Marvel Cinematic Universe. Despite Captain America’s origins, the setting of the contemporary tales do not place the protagonists in a state of declared war. Kant, as an advocate for ethics based on reason and rationality, argued that a state of war did not invalidate universal laws of justice whatever politicians might claim necessary or expedient. Kant also argued that ensuring the power to declare war was only held by a collection of democratic representatives rather than a powerful state executive would increase the likelihood of perpetual peace. These arguments emphasise prioritisation of duties to others as well as oneself enshrined in Kantian thought.

The superheroes of the Marvel Cinematic Universe often have in their origin stories a moment of recognition, where they acknowledge the importance of duties to others and this spurs them to become the character. In Civil War, this is most notable in Black Panther’s move to subject Zemo to the force of law rather than execute him. For most of the characters, they have considered whether their actions comply with the Categorical Imperative at some point, but they often struggle when considering persons in combination or in relationships. This is where the difficult decisions around what might be necessary or expedient appear and undermine them, demonstrating their all-too-human faults.

In the first stage of the narrative in Civil War, the characters are criticised for acting as a stateless military unit. While a country’s actions might be held to account through political action, the Avengers act independently based on individual judgement. In principle, whenever such actions are in accordance with the Categorical Imperative they are ethical in the Kantian sense. Yet in each of the cases mentioned in the film there is some element of ‘forgetting one’s duty’ evident in the expressions of the characters. In the proposal of the Accords, the case is made for a legal process that will ensure rational decision making on interventions by the collection of superheroes.

“He’s my friend”

Rogers raises a fair criticism, that the legal process of regulation being proposed is unlikely to be neutral or transparent, as those involved are powerful and likely to be corrupted by interests in maintaining that power.

“It’s the United Nations we’re talking about, not the World Security Council. It’s not HYDRA. It’s not SHIELD” – Rhodes

“No, but it’s run by people with agendas, and agendas change” – Rogers

Yet the debate is fuelled by a focus on the issues of practicality and expediency, not principle which Rogers claims the individual capable of upholding, and for which Rhodes calls him ‘dangerously arrogant’.

This debate focuses on whether organizations can prioritise rational judgement more effectively than the individual. While Rogers puts his faith in the ability of the abstract individual, in this instance the heroes themselves, the other characters contest this. While it is not discussed explicitly, the theme of Rogers’ reasoning draws on Kant’s idea that every individual has the potential ability for moral reasoning and good judgement, and implies that the context of certain organizational agendas corrupt that ability. Rhodes’ comparison between the UN and the other organizations emphasises their different goals, for peaceful relations as opposed to dominting ones. While Kant would no doubt agree with Rogers’ critique of a controlled position where the heroes are treated as dangerous tools, as means, there is a distinction to be made about the potential ability of the individual to make a moral decision, and the personal (or ‘gut’) feelings of the individual.

Kant takes issue with the idea that we feel things to be ‘naturally’ right or wrong. His position is in close alignment with religious beliefs which question the ‘animal urges’ of the individual as motivations to be closely guarded against. Kant persists in the pursuit of logical reason to a number of conclusions on morally right action which seem paradoxical. Most well known are the examples of when it might be acceptable to deceive. For Kant, deception is never morally valid. Yet contextual circumstances arise that we feel to be justified all the time, such as lying to protect a friend. In the movie, the search for Bucky is one such circumstance, as Rogers fears that his friend will not receive a fair trial. For Kantian reasoning, however, it is not morally justifiable to act on what we might suppose will happen following our action (an outcome approach), but only to focus on our action alone. So while Rogers’ decision to defend his friend from accusation may be morally right, to engage in physical combat with an arresting force of humans who have done no more than their duty in preparing for a possibly resistant individual is morally wrong. His actions demonstrate loyalty to his friend and their bond, but not to a higher principle of universal justice.

Immanuel Kant didn’t write about superheroes

While Kant did prioritise the individual’s rational moral judgement in determining the right course of action, he did not claim that this ability is naturally-occurring. Rather, Kant acknowledges that our ability for moral reasoning requires certain conditions, such as freedom from coercion or dependency, and also careful discipline and schooling to avoid the temptations of our ‘natural’ reason to prefer solutions that gratify our own interests.

Kant was not writing about superheroes, but the importance of the required conditions for our reasoning to be independent crop up regularly in the stories of Marvel’s comic book heroes. For most of these characters, their special ‘abilities’ allow them a level of power and independence beyond that of normal human beings. Yet the narratives also show how they rely upon these normal human beings for support and advice, as well as upon learning and self-discipline; for their special abilities to fight, fly, move through objects, shoot arrows or build super robots do not confer upon them a super-judgement or super-morality.

The theme of self-discipline in Captain America:Civil War is a strong one. As I outlined in the backstory of the two major characters above, each has had a history in particular organisational and social contexts which have had an effect on their ability for and need to limit their behaviour. Steve Rogers’ history reads as a narrative of escaping the limits of poverty, of physical inadequacy and (in recent events) of organizational bureaucracy while Stark’s tale focuses on his discovery of the need for limits and the continuing costs of those instances when social, moral and organizational rules are bent or broken. Both characters experience personal trauma from their histories, notably loss of friends or lovers. Yet the moral tale being told is that these heroes make mistakes in judgement, and that for them just as for the rest of us the greater good is sometimes served by the pain they bear. In Kant’s formulation, the acceptance of personal detriment is the morally right course if the alternative is beneficial only to the individual but would undermine everything if the same action were upheld universally.

It’s only a movie

As I stated at the beginning, I am not a scholar of popular culture and do not make claims about this particular cultural product as an examplar of anything in particular. However, the narratives present a particular view on ethics, the individual and organisation which is of relevance in numerous contexts in business and in private life. Kantian ethical thought is not without its criticisms, but the issues it addresses around universal rules of right and wrong and how people interact with one another when they have very different abilities and positions in society are matters we encounter every day. As such we can sometimes learn as much from looking at Kantian ethics in the context of a fictional movie narrative as we might from looking at a contemporary business case study.

If this has sparked some interesting thoughts for you, why not reflect on this question; do these fictional superheroes have human dignity (and as such a right to be seen as ends in themselves not only a means to an end) or is it something that their near-godlike abilities takes them beyond?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: