Moral Calculus

I’ve had philosophy on my mind a fair amount lately. This may be because I’ve read, or listened to, a couple philosophy books fairly recently. But it brings to mind some moral dilemmas I’ve been trying to work my head around – not ones in my own life, mind you. No, moral dilemmas in comics. Big shocker there, huh? It’s just something that’s been bouncing around in my head, and I thought maybe if I was able to try and put it all down in my blog, maybe some of it would stop bouncing around quite so much and free up some much-needed headspace, so here goes.

Backstory: Some very intelligent people – perhaps the most intelligent people in the Marvel world – formed a group called the Illuminati a while back. They wanted to be more proactive about problems in the world, and the universe at large. Their track record… didn’t go so well. They sent the Hulk off Earth, because they knew he would just keep causing destruction – but they didn’t foresee that when he came back – and of course the Hulk would come back – he would be PISSED. They tried to scare off the Skrulls (shapeshifting aliens who have tried to mess with and/or conquer Earth several times), and in so doing set the stage for a terrible invasion. So, eventually figuring out they were causing more harm than good, and that they became something of an echo chamber – assuming that being smarter than everyone else meant they had to be right – amongst each other, they disbanded. Until recently, when they reformed.

See, parallel universe-Earths had started to intrude on standard Marvel Earth. The smart guys figured out that this was not just a one-time thing, but the start of a pattern. Eventually, each parallel Earth that standard Marvel Earth interacted with would have to be dealt with, because across the multiverse, parallel Earth were being forced against each other, two by two – and if one Earth did not destroy the other, then both Earths would end up annihilated. Knowing that the Illuminati had failed before, in part because they failed to include morality in their calculations, they enlisted Captain America in their struggle. They asked him what they weren’t seeing, because they knew he would want to find a solution where both parallel Earths survived. So they gave him control of the Infinity Stones – all six of them – when a parallel Earth intruded on standard Earth (designated as Earth 616 in the comics, so I’ll use that here). He used the Infinity Stones – which, when together, form a power greater than virtually any other in the universe – to push the two Earths apart, but in doing so, he destroyed, at least temporarily, all six stones.

Left without the Stones as a solution, the other Illuminati started immediate discussions of a weapon that could destroy the next parallel Earth that had an incursion with 616, because more would come. This terrified and disgusted Captain America, who found the idea of destroying an entire alternate Earth – whose inhabitants were, as far as any of them knew, entirely innocent – a monstrously evil act. Moreso, Cap knew that if they constructed such a weapon, it would soon not be a question of ‘if the weapon is to be used…’, but when – because as the Illuminati had done before, they would talk themselves into the necessity of using their weapon. He preferred to wait, watch, and hope that when the next incursion occurred, they would find another way to avoid destroying either Earth. The others could not help but see his hope as just a notional idea, with no real substance to it. And so, knowing that unless Captain America was taken off the playing field somehow, that he would interfere with the Illuminati’s actions, they took a drastic step – they had Doctor Strange erase his memories of ever being there, or ever taking part in the action against the incursion, so that they could continue planning to save the world.

The Illuminati went on to have their own moral troubles with destroying alternate Earths, splintering even further into those who wanted to build a weapon but then find ways around using it versus those who wanted to use the weapon for expediency. Eventually, all remaining parallel worlds would collapse into a single universe, which is the status of the current Marvel comic event, Secret War.

The conflict seems to be one that plays itself out frequently in Avengers comics – Iron Man (one of the Illuminati) prefers to pursue the path that leads to the most good for the most people, something of a utilitarian philosophy. He’s alright with getting his hands dirty, with doing things he sees as ‘necessary evils’ in order to obtain a greater good. At one point, when fighting against a villain, the Crimson Dynamo, he did something that stopped the Dynamo’s heart. He then restarted it, of course, but for a short period of time, he’d technically killed him, and Tony was alright with that. Captain America is staunchly opposed to this, having principles he sees as inviolate – less worried about the ‘necessary’ part than the ‘evil’. He’d be more deontological – that is, he feels he has a duty to uphold certain principles, and that he can’t be morally in the right unless he makes every effort to uphold those principles. Steve was terribly angry with Tony when he pulled the Dynamo stunt, noting that he could have, and did, see a number of other ways to stop the Dynamo without killing him – even if only temporarily.

Both of these guys are trying to save the world on a regular basis. Often, they work together, and most of the time they consider each other friends. So why do they see morality so differently? Is one of them right and the other wrong? Are they both right and both wrong at different times, morally speaking? It can be hard to say. In the case of Earths colliding, as a resident of Earth, I’d like to keep living. But would I be alright creating a weapon to destroy the other Earth, killing everyone and everything on it, just to keep on doing so?

Let’s simplify it further. Say I’m standing in the middle of a road. I know that there will be people coming down the road, not in control of their vehicles, that will, if they hit me, kill me. For whatever reason, I can’t get far enough off the road to avoid them – I’m, in danger wherever I go. Say I also have a weapon that will let me stop the vehicles, and keep them from harming me – but stopping them vehicle kills the occupants – who have no control over their vehicle. There may, in theory, be ways I’m not seeing to both avoid being hit and avoid killing the occupants of the vehicles, but I can’t know what they are until fractions of a second before they vehicle hits me – which may be too late. Is it wrong to kill the occupants, innocent as they are, to ensure my own survival? If it isn’t wrong the first time, is it wrong the second? The third? When does my killing of innocent people make me into someone who isn’t wroth saving, if at all? Should I let the vehicle hit and kill me – essentially sacrificing myself – in order to allow the vehicle’s occupants to live? What if my death means the death of everyone I know and care for – and the death of the occupants of the vehicles does the same for them? How does that change things?

If these questions don’t make your head hurt a little, then you’ve clearly got things more sorted out than me, because as much as I want to side with Captain America, I don’t know that relying on the hope of finding a better solution – and doing it over and over – is a fair thing to do when you are gambling with the fate of an entire world, perhaps even an entire universe. But I also don’t know that immediately blasting billions of innocents to death to save billions of lives on your side is going to be the right move, either, especially if it has to be done many, many times.

Man, sometimes I find comics are far deeper than I generally give them credit for.

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