About Rationally Speaking

Rationally Speaking is a blog maintained by Prof. Massimo Pigliucci, a philosopher at the City University of New York. The blog reflects the Enlightenment figure Marquis de Condorcet's idea of what a public intellectual (yes, we know, that's such a bad word) ought to be: someone who devotes himself to "the tracking down of prejudices in the hiding places where priests, the schools, the government, and all long-established institutions had gathered and protected them." You're welcome. Please notice that the contents of this blog can be reprinted under the standard Creative Commons license.

Thursday, January 03, 2008

On the (im)morality of Captain America

When I was a kid growing up in Italy I occasionally read the adventures of Captain America, one of Marvel’s super-heroes (he was not my favorite, I preferred the Fantastic Four and Spiderman). At that young age I saw the world much more in terms of black and white, having little trouble distinguishing the “bad guys” from the good ones, and therefore reflecting little on the moral implications of the origins of Captain America.

Recently, I had an opportunity of reexamining the issue, thanks to an article by Todd Burkhardt, a Major in the US Army stationed at the West Point Academy, written for a special issue of Philosophy Now that explores pop culture from a philosophical perspective. Burkhardt’s aim is to examine the question: “Is the intentional creation of super-soldiers [such as Captain America] ... morally permissible?” His answer is “yes, we should assent to such experiments, if our right to autonomy is in grave jeopardy from a supreme emergency.” Not so fast, Major.

First, a little background. According to the Marvel web site, CA started his life as “a scrawny fine arts student” named Steve Rogers, who was turned down for military service at the beginning of World War II (the first CA adventure was in fact published in 1941). However, he was given an opportunity to serve his country by enlisting in a secret project code named “Operation Rebirth,” during which Rogers was injected with a “Super Soldier Serum” and a “controlled burst of Vita-Rays,” the effect of which was to alter his physiology and turn him into an optimal fighting machine.

Burkhardt considers this equivalent to somatic cell engineering, and asks whether a fundamental redesign of a human being for military purposes is morally permissible. Let us set aside the fact that somatic cell engineering cannot be done by either the injection of serums or exposure to electromagnetic radiation. The real question is whether it is moral to use genetic engineering to alter a human being solely for purposes of war. Burkhardt states that two conditions have to be met for a positive answer: a) “if the enemy we oppose can be easily recognized as evil objectified in the world which negates our right to autonomy”; and b) “if the situation must be considered a supreme emergency.”

I suppose it is easy enough to argue that the Nazi were “evil objectified” (whatever that means), though recent events in Iraq should remind us that sometimes it isn’t that obviously clear what constitutes a “supreme emergency.” Moreover, and despite Burkhardt’s claim to the contrary, it is far less clear whether the Nazis actually limited our (meaning the US’s) right to autonomy, although they clearly did represent such threat for European nations. (Notice that this is not an argument for non intervention during WWII, just a possible problem with Burkhardt’s criteria for justifying human genetic engineering for military purposes.)

All of that, however, is besides the point, because even if one agrees with Burkhardt’s criteria, one has at best established that a nation has a right to use special defenses in response to a special threat, but we are nowhere near justifying the physical and mental alteration of a human being to turn him into a fighting machine. Indeed, it is rather surprising that at one point Burkhardt uses Kant’s categorical imperative (never to treat others as a means to an end) to justify his conclusion, on the dubious ground that Kant’s imperative applied to nations would compel us to “stop people from preventing other people from being autonomous.” It is difficult to argue that the US Military did not, in fact, use Steve Rogers as a means, rather than treating him as an end in himself.

Burkhardt recognizes the problem to some extent, and claims that Rogers gave a “rationally informed consent” to the operation. He goes so far as stating that “A man who was fundamentally recreated to kill enemy combatants efficiently and effectively would be changed forever ... This situation seems somewhat analogous to a soldier who enlists to serve his or her country then finds himself or herself in combat.” In other words, for Burkhardt, post-traumatic stress disorder is on par with human genetic engineering, a position that is hard to take seriously. Moreover, I doubt Kant would agree that anyone can give rational consent to be used as a means to an end, because to do so would be irrational. Even if that were possible, for someone else to actually use that person for whatever end would still be immoral from a Kantian perspective, regardless of consent.

The US Military has already behaved unethically toward its troops by forcing much longer and repeated tours of duty on people who did not sign up for them. It has also clearly behaved immorally in several matters regarding its conduct with civilians and prisoners in Iraq. Do we really want to give the US Military the power of fundamentally re-engineering a human being for use as a fighting machine? Does it not the very term “fighting machine” applied to a human being smell of fragrant immorality?

No matter, Marvel must have decided that CA’s lifespan had exceeded profitability, since they killed him rather unceremoniously with a sniper’s bullet, while on his way to an arraignment for fomenting civil unrest in New York City. That’s the problem with superhumans who start thinking of themselves as being above the law.


  1. Ah, in the great Red Dwarf episode "DNA" (Season IV), having accidentally brought a curry to life as a killer beast, Lister decides that his only rational option is to have himself turned into a super-soldier. Sadly, he ends up only about 9" high. Fortunately, that's tall enough to (with his super muscles) hurl a can of lager into the mouth of the curry-beast, and shoot it, thereby killing the creature...

    I'm not sure if it was ethical...

    Bart: How would I go about creating a half-man, half-monkey-type creature?
    Ms.K: I'm sorry, that would be playing God.
    Bart: God shmod! I want my monkey-man!
    -- ``Bart's Friend Falls in Love''


  2. Massimo, I think your examination of Steve Rogers's motives in all this is somewhat lacking. I don't think Steve signed up to the Super Soldier project out of selfless patriotism; what scrawny kid wouldn't jump at the chance to become an invincible muscleman? As such, if you ask potential recruits "Would you want to undergo this process?", you'd find more takers than not among the pool of potentials. For me, a more interesting pop culture take of superhumans would be to look at the $6 Million Man from the 1970s, the Bionic Woman (both the 1970s and modern versions), and the short-lived Jake 2.0. In all of these, the supersoldiers created were not offered the choice; they were presented with a fait accompli. Examining the ethics of that might actually prove more fruitful.
    Oh, and happy new year!

  3. Most people who theorize (comic book ethics or whatever) about the glories of passivism have likely never had to live under the constant threat of attack. Where ever there are democracy loving folk, there are inevitably going to be counter forces that want to take them out. Benazir Bhutto, comes immediately to mind. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/

    My hub, who spent some time in Gaza in 07 (under rocket attacks, yes) said that he lives by the not-quite -so super human idea that "God will not going to keep you one minute longer than you are supposed to be here, and not one minute less".. May sound simplistic in a sense, but for those who constantly live in fear of losing this one life that they think they have, not quite so simplistic, really. But this is only possible because of the power of the One who created heaven and earth is in fact behind what he is able to accomplish.

    "Supernaturalism", your fav topic, I know. :) But I think if we are able to discern what it is we are looking at or observing, we will see more of it in the not so distant future.

    Where ARE all the open minded folk on this blog, anyway?


  4. Cal, any god that doesn't save people in distress (take 9/11, for example) is the ultimate supervillain.
    BTW, do you have any evidence that the universe was created?
    No, I didn't think so.

  5. kimpat,

    And likewise YOU do not know all (or any) of the events that happened on the day you were born, yet none of us wonders if you were in fact born.

    I think based on the fact that you do not remember the day of your birth (tho a lot of people participated in it and knew about it) means that the burden of proof is on you to prove that the universe was something other than "created".

    A baby is born and in an earthly and spiritual sense essentially "created".

    It is likely that no one saw the beginning of the universe, except possibly some spiritual sorts of beings. But it does not mean necessarily that the beginning of the universe or the entities that created the event do not exist.

    one ought to consider anything less flimsy reasoning.


  6. "Cal, any god that doesn't save people in distress (take 9/11, for example) is the ultimate supervillain."

    Or so you think.

    As a 411 on 911 there were zero innocent people who perished on nine/eleven. (there were probably even some that abused or cheated on their spouses, (children), etc.) Not that anyone should have thought it their duty to rush them into eternity either. But the fact is no one was there that should not have been there. Period. Some were sent instantly into God's presence. And for those souls it was the best day of their lives. Others.. anything but a fantastic day.

    And that situations like this remind us of or mortality, that is not bad either. We are better off reminding ourselves that we are not super-human and will not get the chance to redeem ourselves indefinitely.


  7. At that young age I saw the world much more in terms of black and white, having little trouble distinguishing the “bad guys” from the good ones, and therefore reflecting little on the moral implications of the origins of Captain America.

    Funny how it seems like most people do not outgrow that phase, eh?

    There's even people who think 9/11 was good and just, mind you. I'd never heard that. Why go to war against those pesky terrorists then, if they are just an instrument of god's plans?

    Bring those heretics back home!

    No, of course not. The conformists will say that going to war is ALSO part of the plan after all, as any and everything else...

    Ah, one must behold the beauty of faith, saving you the trouble of actually thinking and doing something.

  8. Cal, the burden of evidence lies with you, as anyone who's studied logic 101 will know. And the claim that no innocents died on 9/11 is crass, stupid, and insulting. Get over yourself and admit that your god is a tyrant, and you are condoning genocide.

  9. "As a 411 on 911 there were zero innocent people who perished on nine/eleven. (there were probably even some that abused or cheated on their spouses, (children), etc.) Not that anyone should have thought it their duty to rush them into eternity either. But the fact is no one was there that should not have been there. Period. Some were sent instantly into God's presence. And for those souls it was the best day of their lives. Others.. anything but a fantastic day."

    This is why religion is evil.

  10. Sumatran "coffee". Does the DEA know?

  11. IMHO, bombarding people with the advertising/brainwashing as today's media does isn't any less crueler than turning a human into a "fighting machine".

    We can even examine a more specific example, such as the advertising for US armed forces. They blatantly lie, promising to make every soldier into "an army of one" (among other things which I don't remember so well because I tend to tune out advertisements.) But aside from that, every soldier is used as a means to an end, as a fighting machine. It's not so apparent and isn't so visible in every case, but the people who come back from war are changed forever - no thanks to genetic engineering.

  12. http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk/7174431.stm
    Looks like the British are arguing the toss on this one, too.

  13. "This is why religion is evil."

    Ridiculous. Only people can be evil.

    Every life ends, joseph. Why on earth should one person have it better when they die than any other? You are seeking for a just and fair world in one that simply is not. A person may on occasion use some odd view of their "religion" as an excuse to do something inane, but all in all we know it is just what they wanted to do (that person basically followed the wicked desires of their heart) and their "stated beliefs" did not have terribly much to with the injustice that they carried out.

    It is "easy believism" to pin everything you don't happen to understand or like on religion. It is not caring enough to seek out the cause. It is also distancing the person from the beliefs that they hold (ie the "beliefs" are responsible, not the person) instead of holding the individual responsible for the beliefs that he holds.

    There are times when one thing does necessarily have to come before the other and the order of addressing the issues matters greatly.


  14. "Sumatran "coffee". Does the DEA know?"

    Yeah, I do need to give that up and already have. Around the holidays, I just got into too much coffee consumption. I think it starts out as a social thing and then turns into a little bit of an addiction.. (that you take home) And you know, when one starts to feel a sensation like power line hum traveling up from your feet to your hands, that's just way too much coffee. ;)

    And surprisingly, darker beans are not neces. the more caffeinated beans. People always seem to think that they are.

  15. cal: "As a 411 on 911 there were zero innocent people who perished on nine/eleven."

    That reminds me of these lyrics:

    "Now we all deserve to die
    Tell you why, Mrs. Lovett, tell you why.
    Because the lives of the wicked should be made brief
    For the rest of us death will be a relief
    We all deserve to die."

    From the character Sweeney Todd himself.

  16. Just to be pedantic, Cal, caffeine isn't an addiction, it's a dependence.
    Religion is an addiction.

  17. Cal said,
    "It is "easy believism" to pin everything you don't happen to understand or like on religion".

    I suppose that the diametric opposite would be true in Cal's world. If everyone was believer there wouldn't be anything to dislike. Bliss forevermore!

  18. What if we modified someone's genes to make them a better rocket scientist? Would that be less reprehensible than making them a better soldier? Some of the decisions that we make today that we consider to be the height of morality will in the future be looked back on as ill-conceived and immoral. Which things are they?

    Let's say that there's some vector that can insert modified genes into your cells (say using a virus, a prion or maybe carbon nano tubes, who knows?) and it works well, unlike today's gene therapy which frequently has lethal side effects. If you could get a shot that would alter your genes such that you were a better golfer or a better WoW player, would you do it? We give our children vaccines which train their immune systems to recognize disease organisms and be prepared to fight them. What if a shot were available to alter their genetic structure such that disease recognition was built in rather than 'trained'? Would you give such a shot to your child? What about a genetic change to boost their IQ by 20 points and increase their attention span? Would you do it? Should you do it? And now we get to Massimo's question. What if it were a genetic 'shot' that made them stronger, more agressive, more amenable to a militaristic life style? Would you take it yourself? Would you give it to your child? What if your enemy was doing it in large numbers?

    I expect that questions like these will become reality within 20 - 30 years. And the way we answer them then will be different from the way we answer them today.

  19. Brilliant comment, Die Anyway. The only thing missing are your answers :)

    Though, I would probably answer 'yes' to most of them today.

  20. Only people can be evil.

    Exactly. And religion is made up by people, as every other concept we have. Ergo, religion can be evil too. Duh moment.

    Die Anyway,

    Great post, and it even was on topic, differently from most! :-)

    I would answer YES to certain improvements to ME. For example, I have allergies and asthma (and they often accompany each other), both of which can be quite debilitating, sometimes in life threatening ways. If one day someone would come up with some treatment, whatever type, that was scientifically shown to be effective and "safe enough" (I don't think there are many totally safe things... any?), and not affect the germ-line, I would be first in line. No doubt about it, as I see it now. As to improving my memory or intelligence or physical strength (no "capt America" type of thing, though), on the other hand, I would be less eager, but would consider it, why not? I should be able to do to myself whatever I want and can, if I have reasonable information about the consequences.

    Now, my (hypothetical) children, that's a tougher situation. They cannot give informed consent to a fundamental change of their hereditary material. OK, it's hard to see why someone would consider all but eradicating asthma, for example, as something bad. But nonetheless, it's something quite different from giving them antibiotics or treating their cavities or giving them a leg prosthetics -- although logically there is no reason, in my opinion, to consider one type of body modification the "right" one and the other "wrong". Now, if it was a life threatening situation -- a bubble child type of thing, for example -- then I'm sure I would do it to my child. Otherwise they would die young anyway. Complex issue, of course.

  21. J wrote: "...although logically there is no reason, in my opinion, to consider one type of body modification the 'right' one and the other 'wrong'."

    That was pretty much where I was going with the idea. As for my own answers, I'm not entirely sure. However, both of my daughters have, or have had, life threatening diseases. Ones that would seem to be good candidates for a gene therapy type cure. For that I would certainly go with it just like any other medical treatment. But what about altering a gene (or genes) for growth or hair color or nose shape or personality? I don't think I would but it might depend on how society viewed it (try as I might to be independent, I am ruled by social expectations just like everybody). But those are relatively trivial aspects. I've always said that life would be more convenient if I had a third arm (or maybe even four). Ever stood at a party holding a drink in one hand, a plate of food in the other and wished you had a free hand to hold a fork? Well maybe with the right gene manipulation your kids could have that handy extra arm. How cool would that be? And how ethical?
    Well I ended with more questions than answers again but that's how I go through life.

    Eat well, stay fit, Die Anyway!


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