The Ethics and Moral Dilemma of Superheroes

Essentially, the question for every superhero is whether the ends justify the means.

 

Both Batman and Superman refuse to kill their enemies, thus allowing them to cause even more havoc in the future. Batman pushes away those who care about him the most, Superman hides his true identity by lying to his friends and loved ones. Superheroes face a slew of ethical dilemmas, not the least of which is the fact that most of them are vigilantes—breaking the law even while saving the day.

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We often view comic book stories as simple cases of hero vs. villain, but such a perspective takes for granted the idea that superheroes are the good guys. In fact, moral virtue is a complicated concept, and what doing the right thing means depends on your perspective. There are nonetheless two main schools of thought on what makes an action right or wrong:  deontology, which categorizes actions as good or bad in themselves, and consequentialism, which classifies each action based on its results. Essentially, the question for every superhero is whether the ends justify the means.

There was quite a bit of controversy around the amount of destruction caused by Superman in the film Man of Steel. Many felt such destruction could have been avoided, and it was also left unclear how many people perished as a result of his battle with Zodd, whose death also left people questioning Superman’s moral foundation. This issue will probably inform the plot of the upcoming film Batman v Superman where Batman will question Superman’s regard for human life.

Superman destruction

 

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Take Oliver Queen on Arrow, for example. He starts out as brutal vigilante who kills his enemies without hesitation. His mission is to avenge his father by taking out the criminals who had plunged Starling City into lawlessness. After the death of his best friend, Oliver decides to rededicate himself to saving the city, but he believes that in order to do so, he must become a hero called the Arrow and give up killing.

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On the show, this shift is presented as a positive decision, but is it really? He no longer murders people, but many of the criminals he puts away end up escaping and hurting more people. Is it more important for the Arrow to provide a positive example or for the villains to be stopped permanently?

Oliver himself realizes the shortcomings of his no-kill rule: when faced with a choice between allowing a villain to harm one of his loved ones and killing the culprit, Oliver invariably chooses to compromise his principles in the name of protecting his family and friends. This inconsistency reflects the tricky questions superheroes face as well was the difficulty of putting ethical principles into practice.

What do you think? Should superheroes strive to do the right thing or focus on protecting innocents no matter the cost? Or should they try to find a balance between the two?

Media

Some media may contain mature content. Discretion is advised when viewing with students.

Lesson Plan

LEARNING OBJECTIVE: This lesson will teach students about basic schools of ethical philosophy and help them develop analytical skills by applying those ideas to the activities of superheroes.

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Lesson tags: Batman, Comics, Eleventh, English, Ethics, Featured, Language Arts, Movies, Ninth, Social Studies, Superheroes, Superman, Tenth, TV

Alex Heimbach

Alex Heimbach Alex is a writer and educator in California. She is a pop-culture fanatic and an experienced tutor. After several years as an educator and tutor, she has taught everything from the Pythagorean theorem to Dickens. Alex is also a freelance writer who routinely covers pop culture, writing for publications such as Slate and Thrillist.