Wednesday, November 16, 2005

DC's Ethical Trinity

The current clash between the Big Three -- Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman -- is interesting not just for its ramifications for the DCU, but for the ethical conflict it symbolizes.

For decades now, Batman and Superman have been presented, more or less, as opposites. Night and day, scary and inspiring, aggressive and passive, violent and pacificistic, anti-authoritarian and authoritarian, urban and rural, wealthy and poor, etc.

And, Wonder Woman was, um... a woman. And she stood for, ah, peace through ... strength. Or, or, something like that.

But Wonder Woman's recent murder of Max Lord has made crystal clear what we should have known all along: the Big Three represent different ethical theories.

Superman represents idealistic Moral Absolutism: what's wrong is wrong.

Batman represents pragmatic Rule-based Utilitarianism: we must all operate by universal rules that would keep society safe and workable ("Thou shalt not kill.")

Wonder Woman represents Situational Ethics: It's not that simple to figure out right and wrong, and it changes with each situation depending on how much harm is done to how many people.

These characterizations aren't unrealistic; in fact, most men are either moral absolutists or utilitarians and most women are situational ethicists. To women, men's understanding of "justice" seems narrowminded, hidebound, and simplistic. To men, women's understanding of "justice" seems fickle, subjective, and uselessly fuzzy.

I could expound on this observation about DC's Ethical Trinity (endlessly-- just ask any of my oh so patient friends...), but I would rather listen to YOU discuss this idea and whether it's dead on or dead wrong; please do!

In either case, it still contributes to my belief that DC characters are more iconic because they represent philosophical archtypes whereas Marvel character are less iconic because they represent psychological archtypes.


Shon Richards said...

I think you've nailed it, except I am not sure how Batman's paranoid "I need to make an AI that watches all of you because we know that will never turn out wrong" behavior fits into the idea of universal rules. Well, maybe he sees universal rules as something others have to obey.

Jeff R. said...

If Batman's an examplar of rule-based utilarianism, he's also one hell of a hypocrite, reserving the right to break the rule against vigilantism for himself and his cronies...

I'm also not so sure about the modern superman's category, considering the business with the pocket universe phantom zone criminals. But this entire conflict pretty much requires that everyone be forbidden to bring that up, so...

Let's complete my trinity of doubt by suggesting that Wonder Woman might represent pure utilitarianism rather than any situational system...

Harvey Jerkwater said...

My gut read of the modern version of these characters' ethical approaches is this:

Superman--Evil is an aberration and can be forgiven.

Batman--Evil is everywhere and forgiveness is impossible.

Wonder Woman--Evil is common and cannot always be forgiven.

Superman's morality is built upon strength and hope, and the idea that if something goes wrong, then dang it, we can make it better.

Batman's morality is built upon fear, and the idea that if you screw up once, you pay for it forever. It's inflexible and controlling.

Wonder Woman's morality is built upon, well, I don't know, I don't read her book, and she doesn't seem as consistently rendered.

But that's just off the top of my head. Hm. Must chew further.

Anonymous said...

Huh. And here I thought Superman was the nice guy, Batman was the prick, and Wonder Woman was the, uh, something.

I've never been a big Wonder Woman fan. If she's promoting peace and feminine ideals (which I admit to not being able to define), why is she fighting people while wearing a bathing suit? Wonder Woman is an icon because she's the quintessential super-heroine, not because she is a well-defined character. Really, she's a philosophical third wheel.

Superman could be the ultimate passive-resister. Who could move him? The only way to sway or defeat him is to prove he's wrong (or snag some kryptonite).

Batman could be an Objectivist; he is driven to be the best at everything, regardless of other people's wants or needs.
If those superpeople don't like what he is or get in the way of his single-minded goals, tough. Alliances are only formed out of necessity, and even then he thinks of his colleagues as underlings.

The dissolution of the JLA could only be solved by the character conveniently absent during Infinite Crisis. Martian Manhunter, the moral center of the Justice League, could pull those whiny jerks together in three panels.

Brian said...

You're wrong, Scip. At least in aligning each of the Big Three with a type of morality. No one but NO ONE, not even characters as gloriously iconic (static, if you're being cynical) as the Big Three, subscribe to a single moral philosophy.

Cases in point: Batman doesn't kill (at least not unless Miller's writing him). While you can read that as rule-based utilitarianism, it can also be read as an absolutist stance. Killing = Wrong, beginning, middle, end of sentence.

This is why I never liked moral philosophy in the first place. It's grounded in subjectivism. For all its talk of absolutism, utilitarianism, etc., all that matters is how the person thinks from the inside. Analysis of this can lead to some interesting theoretical frameworks (the city-state of Rousseau and Locke, the might-makes-right of Nietzche, the idealism of Kierkegaard), but the theory does no actual lifting. It's just talking in circles.

Now, I think you bring up something interesting in the DC-as-philosophical vs. Marvel-as-psychological discussion. Marvel's characters are more "human" because they're grounded in personality types -- the troubled kid, the loner who secretly wants friends, the oppressed minority. It's harder to relate (and yet easier to look up) to a guy in a cape who can stand on nothing at all.

thekelvingreen said...

Also, the DC icons are 20-30 years older than most of their Marvel counterparts, so I'm sure that's part of their increased iconness/iconicity/icontasticness.

It's also part of why it's going to be hard to assign any moral systems to the trinity; they've been around so long, and under so many writers, that you can't possibly assign one consistent moral philosophy to each of them.

Besides, Geoff Johns is an idiot who never researches his stories properly, so to expect any kind of intellectual worth in his characterisations is a foolish endeavour. :)

Anonymous said...

I'm also not sure your classifications can completely represent them. I think Batman's morals, while maybe not as broadly defined as Superman's, are more absolute (if he decides you're evil, you're not going to be able to talk him out of it).

I think the three characters chief differences in the modern era is how they respond to human authority. Superman respects officials and laws until they blatantly prove themselves 'bad', Batman presumes authorites are untrustworthy until they prove otherwise (and makes his own mind up about the laws), and while Wonder Woman might lean towards trusting officials, she's far more willing than Superman to reject them.

I think its interesting that they're somewhat the opposite that you'd expect. Batman, born of our culture, the ultimate insider with large wealth, trusts society's structures the least. Superman, the ultimate outsider (coming from another planet) trusts society's structures the most. Wonder Woman, who comes from a human culture unlike any other, takes the middle ground you'd expect a diplomat to take.

I think your ethical theories work in the sense that Batman is far more likely to agree to commit a small wrong in order to prevent a greater wrong, which is fitting with the utilitarian principles. I think this is more a function of the fact that Batman is not nearly as powerful as Superman and has to make hard choices to do the most good on a daily basis. But I think he has a very clear view of what 'good' is in his own mind.

In short, I think the difference in the characters is whether or not they're optimists or pessimists with respect to human collectives.

Anonymous said...

I just thought of a concrete example to further illustrate the differences between Batman and Superman.

Let's say there's a raging forest fire and a hero has to save the forest.

Batman will likely resort to traditional forest fighting techniques, which includes cutting down a large section of the forest so the fires can't pass. This is certainly being utilitarian.

Superman, on the other hand, can use his super speed to suck all the oxygen from the air and put the fire out instantly without having to hurt any more trees. Superman himself might think of himself as a moral absolutist (you can't hurt the forest to save the forest), but what's really true is Superman has the luxury of more options. That was the whole point of the issues where he had to kill the pocket-universe kryptonians. He rarely faces having to make those decisions, while Batman has to make them all the time.

I realize you can use this to support your argument, because Superman broke down and exiled himself from Earth when he made this choice, while Batman goes on without looking back much when he has to make a hard decision. But I still think it's better to say Superman normally functions as an idealist because his powers allow him funtion that way.

I think you might identify Batman as a utilitarian moral absolutist (he has an absolute idea of right and wrong, and tries to maximize "right" even if that includes bringing in a little "wrong").
Superman you can call a rules-based functioning idealist (he idealizes Earth society and take its laws as his rules-set, but doesn't have to face the situation of doing a little "wrong" in order to bring about a greater "good").

Anonymous said...

Superman is an optimist.
Batman is a pessimist.
Wonder Woman is a pragmatist.

I think that captures the differences best.

Anonymous said...

"Most women believe in situational ethics"? Where do you get this? Is there a necessary connection between vaginas and fuzzy ethics? Most of the women I know embrace moral absolutism or some form of utilitarianism, and I doubt that either of those has to do with their having boobs and getting a period once a month.

In any case, Wonder Woman has tragically been the least consistently written of the Big Three, in part because she's been defined primarily over the years as "The Girl" instead of being allowed to take on more independent, iconic traits and characteristics. Perez wrote her pretty well, but he also gave her an ethical code that was both distinct from that of Batman and Superman and much harder to sum up - she's the only one of the "trinity" that's willing to kill in certain scenarios, but she also definitely has certain moral constraints (i.e., things she probably wouldn't do in any situation, like kill an innocent child). That's not situational ethics as I understand it.

Anonymous said...

Okay, what anonymous said.

thekelvingreen said...

Let's say there's a raging forest fire and a hero has to save the forest.
Pshaw! Superheroes don't do that kind of thing! What a silly idea! ;)

I find it kinda funny that the Authority, who are often lambasted as being the originators of this ultra-violent trend in superheroics, actually spent a lot of time doing exactly this kind of disaster management. Perhaps they're not all bad.

Ragnell said...

I think it's telling that most of us can't quantify Wonder woman. She is truly the most complex of the three, but to me she's representing the clearest moral ground. Superman is on the shakiest.

Superman has killed, but only after the battle has stopped, and when he was the only available representative of justice (As the last Kryptonian, he was the Authority) to make the decision. He seems to believe that the action is forgiveable, so long as the killer repents. His disgust with Wonder Woman, remember, was her complete lack of regret over her action. He would accept her killing, he couldn't accept her being so nonchalant about it.
On the other major sin in this crossover -- Altering soemone's mind in order to protect loved ones. Superman finds this acceptable, and turned a blind eye to it.
He's actually an "Ends justify the means" person, but seems to beleive that emotions factor heavily into the decision. Fear for your loved ones physical safety overrides a criminal's right to his own mind. Massive guilt and repentances makes having killed acceptable.

Superman's morals are muddy and based on emotions. He feels that feelings justify actions.

Batman will not kill, under any circumstances. He will die before he allows the Joker to. His entire existance is about staving off death, because he seems to feel that every person is valuable to at least one other person. He wants to avoid emotional pain. He also seems to feel that everyone, including the Joker, has a basic right to exist. It could have something more, however, to do with his need to control. His life fell apart as a child because of a situation he had no control over. He has spent his entire life since trying to bring order to chaos, and have power over the most uncontrollable of unpredictable forces: Death.
In the case of the other sin, the mind-altering. Because he was frozen in Identity Crisis before he had a chance to weigh in on his opinion about Dr. Light, we don't know how he feels about the solution in general. His reaction may have been because he thought they were executing Light, he had no way of knowing what they were up to. The Power Pact freaked, and wiped him. So now, his opinion on mind-wipes is formed entirely from having experienced one himself. This is obviously a control thing (and I don't blame him). His peers are this ultra-powerful beings that can just do this to him, and he can't prevent that. That's pretty terrifying.

Batman's morals are based entirely on personal experience and empathy with the victimized. He places himself on the "losing side" of an action, and judges it by how badly he would be hurt.

Wonder Woman is the only true reasoner here. In the heat of battle, she made a cool calculated decision to remove the element that was causing the most harm -- not Superman, but his controller (who, if Superman were kileld, would simply control another person). She felt totally justified, and feels no regret. She generally believes killing is wrong, but is flexible enough to allow for exception, when she can't reason out a better solution.
As for mind-altering, she seems to feel it's morally wrong in any circumstances, probably because it obscures a person's true personality. The one defining characteristic all fo her writers have agreed upon is her dedication to absolute truth. This is more reasoning on her behalf, because in her mind it's far better to have everything clearly laid out. Honesty is the best policy, because you can make the best decisions with the best information. A murderer is a murderer, a rapist is a rapist. These are truths. A criminal who acts respectable because his mind has been altered is still a criminal in his true self, and is made worse by the obfuscated personality. She would sooner kill a person, because it's a clearer, more truthful situation. The wisdom of Athena is not helpful at all, when you have all the wrong facts.
A third situation, brought up here, the forest fire argument with the Flash. Faced with a raging fire, the Flash and Wonder Woman team up to fight it. They manage to save all of the local homes, and remover hapless innocents from the reaches of the flames. Then Flash wants to coordinate and stop the firs,t but Wodner Woman stops him. These fires happen for a reason, she explains. To consume old waste and make room for new life. All of the people are protected, and there is no reason not to let nature run its course. It could be harmful not to. Flash, like most other heroes, dismisses her as insane, but doesn't challenge her further. No lives are in danger, after all.

Diana's morals are flexible, yes, but I wouldn't label them "situational ethics"
I'd call her a student of truth and reason. She will make the a decision, with all available facts, that will have the most beneficial result as she can see. She will remove the greatest harm in the most effective way posssible. If there is no harm, no real danger, she will stand back and observe what comes of a situation.
And she won't feel bad about it. Her ethics, unlike her male contemporaries, are unclouded by her emotions.

Makes her rather unstereotypical, actually.

S Bates said...


I haven't a clue,
What this post is all about.
Perhaps I'm stupid?

Thankfully, the next post is another Heroclix one. Yay!

David C said...

"And she won't feel bad about it. Her ethics, unlike her male contemporaries, are unclouded by her emotions."

I like this take on Wonder Woman, though my main sense is that she's inconsistently written, and nobody has that good a handle on her.

But your take is how I think she *should* be written. For me, Superman and Batman essentially represent different strains of modern American democratic culture. But Wonder Woman essentially comes from *Ancient Greek* democratic culture! (Or, well, a variant thereof - the ancient Greeks weren't all that keen on females.)

But I think Wonder Woman, or at least a part of her, finds the whole notion of going to great lengths to avoid killing people who are trying to kill you, as rather absurd. Not that she's the Punisher or anything, but sometimes mortal combat is mortal combat.

Anonymous said...

Funny, that description of WW sounds like situational ethics to me.

If I were to choose a 'Wonder Woman's ideals are built on--', as one of the above described Superman as built on hope, Batman as built on fear, I'd choose 'community'.

As long as she has a society backing her views and heroics, she seems to have no problem in what she does. Paradise Island, international law, Justice League bylaws, etc.

I think a good barometer of what heroes' characters are based on is what happens when they are pushed over their personal lines.

In Kingdom Come, a disintegrating moral society that advocates lethal vigilantism drives Superman to abandon his fight for justice to complete moral solitude on the farm.

Flash and Batman, both 'neighborhood' heroes in a sense, retreat to their cities. But Flash is the 'good neighbor' who helps everyone with their problems to the point of being taken for granted, while Batman is a feared overlord.

Although Green Lantern is, supposedly, Alan Scott rather than Hal Jordan, I believe Alan's 'taking up the mantle' might paint a portrait of Hal as well. His 'neighborhood' is space and regardless of everything else, he has a duty to perform of protecting earth from invasion.

Wonder Woman has been ostracized from her Paradise Island community, considered irrelevant by modern America and young herodom and this seems to have left her directionless while she attempts to reform one of her old societies (the JLA).


Anonymous said...

ragnell wrote:
Her ethics, unlike her male contemporaries, are unclouded by her emotions.

Makes her rather unstereotypical, actually.

I think the stereotype has changed in the last several decades, so that *stereotypical* males are seen as more impulsive than steroetypicial females, who are seen as more prudent. Pay attention to gender roles in TV ads to see what I mean.

As for "situational ethics", as a situational ethicist (who happens to be female) I see SE as not so much "fuzzy" as "making decisions using a broader range of data" -- as described in this randomly-googled article on male/female morality.
Indeed, statistically speaking women (at present) do tend to be more "situational" than men, using a broader ethical palette than black-and-white. It would be really interesting to see how WW's character and moral decisions have changed over the decades, because she does have fewer distinguishing personality traits than Supes or Bats. It's still all too true that in comics "men have characters, and women have breasts" -- and it was always my feeling that WW started out that way, though she's gained a personality over the years.

Chris Arndt said...

Frankly I think all of the characters are somewhat identical in various essences with some situational ethics thrown in to fit the comics era at hand.

Canonically speaking there are sharp differences to the backstories and the whys and wherefores, but Superman and Batman are essentially the same character and have been until 1987. Prior to that they applied the same philosophies and fought crime with the same absolute moralities with simply differing motivations and techniques. They even had the same moral limitations. The only time one could say it differed truly was.... the late thirties and early forties as one was a Nietzchean crusader and the other a lethal vigilante character.

More later.

Chris Arndt said...

One more thing....

with the exception of recent stories, all three heroes see and know the distinction between killing and murder; yet they have redrawn the rules to fit their own powers and abilties. Any death which a normal human would see as justifiable homicide or self-defense is something that Superman or Batman would see as murder if one of them does it simply because they supposedly powerful enough or smart enough or simple just plain able enough to find another way, and that other way is dogmatically called "a better way".

In real life if a flying dude zoomed up and used heat vision to kill the dude about to shoot your wife in the chest the courts would call it justifiable homicide. In the comics world Superman would banish himself to Mars because he could have disarmed the bastard without kakking him.

Frankly Greg Rucka screwed up this whole morality discussion, IMO.

Ultimately the problems Superman had with executing the Phantom Zoners in the Pocket Universe wasn't that the Zoners deserved to live, but simply that he should have found another way, given his power. If Ronald Reagan did it he would not have a problem. Superman's problems with Diana killing Maxwell Lord stem from the event occuring in an issue of Wonder Woman and not Superman or the relevent OMAC mini-series.

Scipio said...

"Diana's morals are flexible, yes, but I wouldn't label them "situational ethics"
I'd call her a student of truth and reason. She will make the a decision, with all available facts, that will have the most beneficial result as she can see."

That's pretty much exactly what "situational ethnics" means. And that fact that you see that as truth and reason is because women are, on the whole, situational ethicists.