Sunday, March 15, 2009

The Watchmen: Moral Philosophy Face-Off

Stories featuring super-heroes, like the ancient myths featuring gods, can be an excellent medium for exploring broad issues through allegory. The super-human characters can personify competing ideologies and forces. The movie Watchmen, as well as the comic book by Alan Moore which it was based on, is a superb example of this. I will explore some of the competing ideologies portrayed in the film as a conflict between the characters who are the chief representatives of those ideologies.

Comedian vs. Nite Owl: Nihilism vs. Belief in Good

Nite Owl wants to be a hero’s hero. He believes in the American dream: doing good in the world, and establishing peace through justice. When he sees his attempt to quell a riot descend into a savage beating of the rioters by the Comedian, he wonders aloud what happened to the American dream. The Comedian responds that, what happened was that it came true, and that he’s looking at it. The Comedian derives his name from his “realization” that the story of humanity was one long joke. When Ozymandias professes his ambition to save the world, the Comedian scoffs. He proclaims that humans have been trying to kill each other off from the beginning, and that now that they had nuclear weapons, they had the means to “finish the job.” For the Comedian, the inevitable nuclear armageddon was going to be the punchline of the joke that is humanity. The “humor” which pervades the joke is that, for all their moral pretenses, in the Comedian’s mind, humans are thus basically savages. He seems to use this “insight” as justification for his own misdeeds: murder, attempted rape, etc.

To my mind, Nite Owl is right to be concerned with justice; but he is wrong to put his faith in the American way, or the “way” of any;state, which, by its nature is antithetical to justice. As for the Comedian’s philosophy, while it is true that many humans throughout history have been murderous, that by no means defines us. We can rise above our self-destructive tendencies. We might not. We may destroy ourselves in the end. But it would be irrational and pointless to assume that we will and resign ourselves to our fate. And it makes to sense to use lapses in morality as evidence for the non-existence of the very morality it is a lapse of.

Silk Spectre vs. Dr. Manhattan: Anthrocentrism vs. “Scientific” Humility

When the Silk Spectre tries to convince Dr. Manhattan to save the world from nuclear annihilation, he responds that he feels no need for that. He uses the example of Mars (on which the conversation takes place) to argue that humanity bears no special importance. He notes that Mars does perfectly well without life. Why should not the Earth? Dr. Manhattan finds the subtleties he can see in the fabric of the universe far more interesting than the petty squabbles of humans. When confronted with the possibility that he may have led to the death of one of his former friends, he notes with “scientific” detachment that a dead body has exactly as many atoms as a living one.

We can see this “scientific” detachment in many people today. It is a banal habit of scientists and science enthusiasts to muse on how brief and boring is human history when compared to the history of the earth and the universe entire; and how tiny and “meaningless” our little lives on our little orb is when compared to the vastness of the cosmos. Such self-indulgent idleness even gets book length treatment, as in Alan Weisman’s The World Without Us, in which the author speculates about how the earth would quickly “recover” from humanity like a bad flu, should we go extinct. This kind of self-conscious anti-anthrocentrism is a key undercurrent for the environmental movement, which in its most benign public faces only seeks to preserve nature for the sake of preserving a home for humankind, but which, under the surface contains a virulently anti-human Gaiaism which goes so far as to think of humanity as a disease afflicting the earth.

All this is pure nonsense. Humans who eschew anthrocentrism are only (A.) putting on airs to gain kudos as novel and interestingly iconoclastic thinkers (B.) furthering their own careers by fostering a false morality which will promote their own organizations and professions or (C.) both. We as humans have no inherent tendency to espouse non-sentient nature for its own sake. Any such useless moral code would have long ago been cast aside by Darwinian forces. It makes no sense to attach greater “meaning” to things like stars and galaxies, simply due to their greater size, age, or complexity in comparison to us mortals. “Meaning” itself is a purely subjective and rational concept; and as such, it can only be honestly given to the subjective concerns of rational beings. It makes no sense to say that a universe or a planet without rational beings has “meaning”. Meaning to whom? To what?

Rorschach vs. Ozymandias: Deontology vs. Utilitarianism

Ozymandias, at the end of Watchmen, kills millions to “save billions”. This is an excellently illustrative case of utilitarian ethics. Outright mass murder can be justified, if the “utility balance” is greater than it would have been otherwise. In the movie, Ozymandias’ plan seems to work, and global peace does seem to be in the offing. But of course this is a work of fiction. Unfortunately killing millions to purportedly save billions is a very real world concern in that America has been doing this for a whole century. Utilitarian ethics has always been a chief justification for war. The problem is that our political leaders are not perfect geniuses like the fictional Ozymandias. Indeed no man is. So, even if you accept utilitarian ethics, we have no way of knowing if our military ventures are actually resulting in greater utility than would have a peaceful foreign policy. Rorschach embodies the very opposite of utilitarianism. For Rorschach, morality is act-based, not consequence-based. If he kills a man, it is not to work toward maximizing global utility, it is to enact justice. To Rorschach, Ozymandias’ mass murder is not a necessary evil; it is simply evil.

Utilitarianism is bankrupt; it is nothing more than a toy model for moral philosophers, and a powerful tool for the elite. Who is to say “maximal utility” is the “best” goal, and why? What justification is there for it? As I argue elsewhere, David Hume was right in pointing out that it makes no sense to “reason” a morality into existence. Moral principles are either in us emotionally or are not. “Maximal utility”, needles to say, is not a natural moral end to be found in the human psyche. The moral precepts of “don’t murder,” and “it is justified to kill those who murder innocents” are to be found naturally residing within us, however. According to Wikipedia, Jackie Earle Haley, the actor portraying Rorschach in the movie, “‘almost went nuts’” trying to reconcile his understanding of complex human behavior with Rorschach’s moral absolutism, stating the character made him wonder if people generally just make excuses for their bad actions.” People in government and in the voting booth who use utilitarianism to justify murder, theft, and enslavement are doing just that.


Chao Ren said...

Great film and great analysis!

Royal said...

The review is well written but I cant say I agree with your conslusions or any of those chracters in the movie.
They are all wrong and all right which is perhaps the intention. I read this comic book years ago and found it deeply disturbing on many levels
Night Owl is the only character remotely worthy of empathy. His only real flaw is to be a confused empathic idealist in a world full of focused amoral socipahts certain of their own righteousness in a way only sociopaths can be. Nothing is more admirable than a person who does what they believes they are in the right after careful or empathic understanding study and Nothing is more dangerous than a person who knows he is right

Anonymous said...

david hume is right there in the movie at least, don't know if the shot corresponds to frames in the original comic, but wouldn't be surprised if they did.

in the scene where the comedian beats and tries to rape sally jupiter senior, he throws her upon a billiard/pool table, scattering the balls. One of Hume's examples regarding the ontological inadequacy of past experience, however well researched, to predict the future is based on the collision of one billiard-ball with another.
Just because past experience, as formulated in the Newtonian dynamics of Hume's day would predict the balls scattering into so-and-so directions (and not shoot straight up for instance), isn't PROOF that the "miraculous" occurrence cannot happen in the future. A somewhat remarkably prescient stab in the dark at the random, anything goes model of quantum mechanics come to think of it. Tying this history of philosophy together in his tract of art, Alan Moore and Zack Snyder his cinematographer trace the "human miracle" that is Miss Jupiter jr. from the humble beginnings on the pool table to the post-humanity of dr. Manhattan on Mars.