The Moral Philosophy of Man of Steel

by Benjamin Studebaker

Yesterday, I went and saw Man of Steel, the new Superman movie. The movie is itself a missed opportunity. It has a fascinating moral dilemma at its heart, but one which it chooses ultimately to ignore, to its detriment. Nonetheless, the moral question at the center of the movie is worth thinking about, so today I seek to do what Man of Steel failed to do–imagine its hypothetical world to be real and take seriously the moral consequences of that imagined reality.

The principle issue at hand is that we have two groups, the Earthlings and the Kryptonians. The Earthlings are a nascent civilization presently occupying the planet Earth, while the Kryptonians are a highly advanced civilization whose home planet has been lost. They require a new planet for survival. The trouble is that the Kryptonians discover that the only suitable planet is Earth, the planet which, at present, belongs to the Earthlings. The Earthlings and the Kryptonians cannot share the planet, because the two species require incompatible atmospheres. The Kryptonians are consequently in a rather uncomfortable position–if they do not eradicate the Earthlings and take the planet, they will themselves go extinct.

Or at least, this is the morally interesting way to consider Man of Steel‘s plot. The movie itself uses cheap plot devices to avoid this interesting and complex moral position, choosing to simplify it down to a traditional black/white, good guys versus bad guys narrative. The chief way the movie does this is by indicating that the Kryptonians are capable of acclimating to the Earthlings’ atmosphere, that the two species are capable of sharing the planet. In this way they make eradication of the Earthlings an unnecessary element of Kryptonian survival. Combined with the natural emotional bias an audience of human beings is likely to have for the Earthlings, this sets the movie up to easily vilify the Kyptonians, avoiding any serious consideration of the much more interesting moral question it otherwise would have posed.

This is typical of Hollywood summer blockbusters, which desire to be uncontroversial and universally appealing so as not to undermine their box office receipts. It is also not the first time a Christopher Nolan project has backed off on the political and moral questions it could have presented in order to remain in safe territory. Bane’s egalitarian disgust with Gotham’s inequality in The Dark Knight Rises presents a plausibly complex moral quandary, but the movie escapes dealing with it by supposing that Bane is determined to destroy Gotham regardless of whether or not that moral question is resolved. While both movies are more morally interesting than The Dark Knight, in which the villain is simply an insane anarchist whose moral and political views are just about universally loathsome, in both cases Nolan takes the easy way out. He makes movies that are interesting enough to draw large crowds, but never interesting enough to offend any large portion of those crowds.

But enough ragging on the movie itself–what about the moral question? Is it permissible to cause the extinction of a fellow intelligent species in order to prevent one’s own species from going extinct? The movie makes every effort to get us to identify with the cause of the underdog human beings, making the Kyptonian culture very different and much more difficult to identify with. We need to separate out these emotional attachments. We must think of the Earthlings not as “us”, but as just another civilization. As soon as we identify with one of the belligerents over the other, we lose objectivity.

At the heart of the issue is the problem of demandingness–expecting a species to commit willful suicide in order to prevent harm to a foreign species with which they have had no significant prior contact or relations is fundamentally too demanding, too unreasonable. It is a behavior we can only see in fiction. No real-life group is capable of choosing the strangers over its own brethren. If morality asks people to do things they are incapable of doing, it is self-defeating. I don’t know anyone willing to murder every human being on the planet, including friends and family, in order to avoid murdering unknown beings on some distant world. It is beyond our capacity.

One could suppose that this just means that we’re fundamentally flawed beings, that of course it’s wrong to kill another species so that one’s own can survive, that if people can’t resist doing it, it just means they’re bad. But this seems to entail confirmation bias–when our moral thinking contradicts our capacities and we jump to the conclusion that this means we’re just awful people, we’re assuming our moral thinking correct rather than taking seriously the possibility that we could be wrong. It also entails a repression of our nature, the propagation of a permanent sense of guilt or inadequacy. It can’t be more reasonable to argue that all people are fundamentally bad than it is to argue that the ideas that led us to this conclusion might themselves be flawed. To say otherwise would be the height of philosophical arrogance.

So we must ask the question–could the actions of the invasive species be justified? There are a few ways we could try to do it:

  1. Animalism–only beings that are genetically similar to us are morally valuable.
  2. Psychologism–only beings that are intellectually or psychologically similar to us are morally valuable.
  3. Reciprocity–only beings that are willing and capable of contributing to our moral community are morally valuable.

In the past, I have argued for psychologism, but interestingly, psychologism seems fundamentally incapable of doing the job here. In the Kryptonian/Earthling case, both species are intellectually and psychologically fairly similar. Psychologism would lead to the largest civilization by population prevailing morally, but I do not think the smaller species by population would be willing to accept the psychologist answer. It would once again be a moral standard which people would be unable to meet.

In the same piece, I discussed animalism, a position I disagree with. Animalism strikes me as fundamentally arbitrary and speciesist. Being genetically similar to human beings is not itself intrinsically valuable. If I met an intellectually and psychologically complex reptile, I don’t think it would be inherently ridiculous to find that reptile morally valuable. If the reptile was a friend of mine, if we were in some kind of relationship in which I relied on him and he relied on me, I might even think the reptile more morally valuable than most human beings with whom I don’t have that kind of relationship. In addition, if both species adopt animalism, both species will simply have morally contradictory positions in which each species views the other as essentially vermin. While this makes both species’ behavior justifiable from a third person point of view, neither of the contestant species would be able to make sense of the other’s position. The Kyptonians would claim that only Kryptonians matter, while the Earthlings would claim that only the Earthlings matter. It would be a matter of assertions and counter-assertions, and fundamentally arbitrary and indefensible ones at that.

This brings me to reciprocity, which I think poses our best bet. If we only have duties to those willing and capable of contributing to our collective welfare, the behaviors of each species make sense morally yet are entirely comprehensible to their opposites. In the Kryptonian case, invading earth is permissible because reciprocal relations with the Earthlings are impossible. In the Earthling case, defending the planet is permissible for precisely the same reason. Both species can justify both themselves and their opponents with the same idea. While one would inevitably defeat the other, they could mutually respect one another’s positions and behavior, knowing that, were the fortunes reversed, each would act much the same way as the other presently does.

Unfortunately, you don’t get all of that by going to see Man of Steel. But it was certainly fun to think about, and the movie can at least be credited for bringing the hypothetical to my attention, even as it chose to avoid addressing it directly. There’s another debate in the movie that gets pushed to one side to keep it appealing to all viewers–the functionalism and eugenics used by the Kryptonians in an attempt to make the best collective use of their population for the benefit of all. But that’s a topic for some other time.