On Philosophy

December 13, 2006

The Philosophy of Superman (And Other Superheroes)

Filed under: Ethics,The Philosophy of — Peter @ 2:03 am

Superman is in an odd position, he has the power to know when anyone is in danger and the power to do something about it (at least the older superman did). Does being superman bring any special ethical responsibilities with it?

I think the natural response is to say that yes, superman does have additional responsibilities. Specifically he has the responsibility to save from harm everyone that he can, which in his case literally means everyone. We arrive at this conclusion simply from extrapolating from our normal ethical responsibility to help those that we can. But superman’s duty to help people would be more demanding than ours is. We don’t have to help every person we meet, because sometimes helping them would result in harm to us, so that the net result is more harm than good. We are also allowed to take “time out” from watching out for other people, by which I mean that we don’t always have to be out looking for people to help, if we want we can stay home. This is because there is a benefit to us in staying home (or doing anything else besides actively looking for people to help), and since we are unlikely to actually help someone even if we are looking to, we can justify that choice. But superman doesn’t have this leeway. Superman is only inconvenienced in the slightest when he helps people, and certainly there is never any danger to him (we are considering the real world here, one without supervillains). And even if superman could use a day off once in a while he can’t justify taking it, as a normal person might, since the amount of good that he could do far outweighs any benefits to him from time off.

But the ultimate foundation behind the moral “rules of thumb” I have extended to cover the case of superman is that society as a whole is better when we all live by such rules. But is a society containing a superman who lives by these rules better? Certainly in many ways it would be. Crime and wars would become almost non-existent. But there might be downsides too. People would live dangerously simply because they know that they can. You wouldn’t need to fly by plane, you could simply strap yourself to a rocket and wait for superman to catch you. This downside I think we could live with, but there are more serious problems. For example, superman would use his powers to feed and house the poor, which seems like a good idea, but it might also drive farmers and builders out of jobs. Why pay for a house when you can get one from superman for free? Now eliminating these jobs isn’t necessarily a bad thing, and if we could build food and housing producing machines I think we should. The problem is that people would become, in general, dependant on superman. Now we could argue that we are dependant on our machines too (for example our fictional house building machines), but the difference with machines is that we made them, and thus we can strive to improve them or make better machines. But superman is out of our control, and I think a world that was taken care of by a real superman would quickly stagnate.

However, the solution is not for superman to do nothing either. He simply must limit his good works so that they avoid stagnating society. This would mean that he should still fight crime and save people from disasters. However he should keep his feeding and housing of the poor limited (although not non-existent). Likewise it might be best for him to help only people in trouble who have taken every other precaution. This would encourage people to look after themselves and still let superman save most people (since, knowing that taking every precaution is a perfect guarantee of safety, most people would probably be even more cautious). Perhaps the way superman is portrayed in the comics really is the best possibility, he helps those in need but mostly stays out of the affairs of common people.

Now of course I could make the analogy between superman and god, and argue that if god is good he should behave in basically the same way as superman. But I won’t, because the analogy is so obvious. Instead I will mention that superman, having been raised like a normal person, might be unable to stop himself from interfering too much. After all, if you could really hear everyone’s problems, how could you not?



  1. I’m not a religious man but, superman if you’re out there! – Homer

    He’s not as stupid as he looks.

    Comment by Greame Egg — December 17, 2006 @ 5:48 pm

  2. I would not say, exactly, that being Superman carries with it extra moral responsibilities. Although Superman will have more particular responsibilities, the basic responsibilities are the same. The difference is that Superman is capable of much more than a regular person and so the extent to which those responsibilities can be actually carried out will be different. More in particular will simply be expected of Superman. For instance, take the responsibility to promote well-being, i.e. to do most good. This is a responsibility that applies equally to every moral agent. Of course, there are physical/social/etc. limitations to the actual amount of good one is expected to do. This is known as the Ought-Implies-Can Principle: One only ought to do something if one can actually do it. Now, everyone can promote the well-being for others. Superman, however, can do it to a greater extent. Whereas an average person would not be obligated to stop an asteriod from destroying a city, since the average person simply could not stop the asteriod, Superman could stop the asteroid, and so he is obligated to doing so. ON THE OTHER HAND, helping to end global poverty is something that everone can do, and so every one is obligated to doing so, NOT just Superman.

    Thus, relative to what each individual is actually capable of, morality demands the same of every moral agent. Morality would NOT demand more from Superman than it would from an ordinary person. Whatever we CAN do in order to help others, we should do. Superman is simply capable of doing more, and, so, there is more which he should do. But when it comes to such things as being inconvenienced, morality would not demand Superman to be any more inconvenienced than any of us, it simply takes more to inconvenience Superman than it would to inconvenience us. If morality demands that Superman sacrifice himself or someone he cares for (e.g. Lois Lane) for some greater good, than morality would demand the same from each of us.

    I don’t think it is true that Superman is never inconvenienced by helping others. Like so many of us, he could be pursuing selfish ends all the time. Instead of stopping an earthquake in california, he could have just focused on saving Lois Lane. But no, in Superman: The Movie, Superman chooses to help a greater number of people rather than someone he personally cares for. He lets lois die in order to help a greater number of people. Fortunately, he’s capable of reversing time, even though by reversing time he goes against kryptonian law.

    Comment by Aaron Wilson — December 21, 2006 @ 4:28 pm

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