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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, August 16, 2012

Superman Rises

by Leonard Finkelman

There are two sorts of people in this world: those who draw arbitrary distinctions and those who don’t (1). Through thirty years of geek living, I’ve come to see the world through one particular bipolar lens. My view is that the arbitrary distinction most worth drawing is the one between Supermen and Batmen (2).

Those in the Superman camp tend to hold an optimistic view of human nature (Nietzsche notwithstanding). They believe that we’re all fundamentally kind and helpful, and always open to self-improvement. Despite the character’s alien background, Superman stands as this camp’s role model because Superman is a moral saint: he exemplifies all the best traits that a human can have, even if no human can ever hope to have them all.

By contrast, the Batman camp is pessimistic about humanity. Those in this camp tend to believe (to quote one of my favorite sitcoms) that people are “bastard-coated bastards with bastard filling,” and that it’s only through a great deal of discipline and training that our intrinsic fear, loathing, and selfishness can be overcome. These pessimists see Batman as their role model specifically because he’s a moral human rather than a moral saint: the character has shortcomings, but so too do we all. His is an attainable standard.

I would discourage you, dear reader, from turning to Hollywood for any sort of moral guidance; still, one need only to look at box-office receipts to see which camp has more followers. I’ve even heard apparently cogent arguments as to why this is appropriate. “Superman is too perfect,” say many of my fellow geeks. “Nobody’s perfect; nobody can relate to Superman.”

It’s true: there are no moral saints and it’s doubtful that there ever could be. It’s true: we owe our imperfection to deep-seated drives that must be overcome through willpower and discipline (if at all). But my allegiance on this matter should be clear (see attached photo), and I’d be a poor philosopher (or perhaps a good political commentator) if I didn’t make some attempt to justify that allegiance (3).

The relevant question here is one about the importance of role models. Certainly, not every moral theory recognizes any need for particular exemplary people. Deontological ethics demands only that people follow moral rules determined a priori; in principle, even the proverbial stepchild of wild wolves ought to be able to figure those rules out. Consequentialist ethics can also dispense with exemplars: when the only standard for moral right is the increase of utility, actors matter less than actions. Existentialist theories place greater value on the actor, but that actor is meant to determine moral right for herself; following another person’s example would only undermine whatever rational struggle the existentialist has undergone. In virtue ethics, however, the role model takes on unmatched importance.

In my own dealings with virtue ethics, I find it helpful to bear in mind the work of biological taxonomy. After all, the moral theory is most clearly associated with Aristotle (4), and Plato’s star pupil is often (inappropriately) blamed for what many evolutionary biologists see as an archaic practice (5). In classifying organisms into species, taxonomists first identify a type specimen which is meant to serve as a sort of standard against which other organisms are measured; those deemed sufficiently similar to the type specimen are then considered members of the same species. Virtue ethics defines virtues relative to types. This is why the virtue ethicist’s choice of role model is so vitally important. According to the theory, a person is judged as good or bad by their similarity to or dissimilarity from a standard role model.

The question at hand, then, is whether Superman or Batman — the moral saint or the moral human — serves as the better moral type specimen. Nobody’s perfect, so it can’t be the moral saint, or else none of us will ever measure up. Batman it is! Atomic batteries to power; turbines to speed!

Before we go and start practicing our best emphysema-addled voices, however, let’s pause to take stock of what it means to say that “nobody’s perfect.” We all accept it as a truism. But is it an explanation or an excuse?

In everyday discourse, we tend to see the difference between explanations and excuses as purely semantic. If I’m late for an appointment, for example, and say that the reason for my being late was a badly delayed train, your inclination to accept that reason as an explanation or to accuse me of using it as an excuse will depend largely on how charitable you are. Still: the difference is there. Appropriately enough, it has to do with moral content.

Strictly speaking, explanations are devoid of any moral content. If I offer the delayed train as an explanation of my being late, then I’m not asking for any judgment one way or another. I’m merely detailing the cause of my lateness, and any moral content — praise or (more likely) blame — is added by others (you might say, for example, that I should have left earlier and deserve blame for that, and my explanation doesn’t militate against that). But if I offer the delayed train as an excuse of my being late, then I am asking for judgment of a sort. I am saying, in effect, that the delayed train is the cause of my being late, and that because of this fact I should be absolved from moral responsibility for the result.

The bottom line: excuses pardon actors from responsibility; explanations do not.

Meanwhile, back in Gotham City...

If we accept Batman as an appropriate role model — that is, as a standard of virtue — then the fact that no human is actually a moral saint excuses us all from trying to attain that higher standard of moral perfection. Since the purpose of a role model is to set a standard against which we judge ourselves, an imperfect role model (such as Batman) make imperfection exemplary. If I occasionally have lapses of judgment, or sometimes act selfishly, then that’s okay; in fact, since I ought to imitate Batman — who has similar lapses himself — then I’d be doing something wrong if I wasn’t imperfect to some degree (i.e., the degree to which Batman is imperfect). Using Batman as a role model therefore treats “nobody’s perfect” as an excuse: I failed to be a moral saint, but our moral standard isn’t a moral saint, so I shouldn’t bear any responsibility for my shortcoming.

Maybe this sounds hopelessly confusing. If it does, that would be because it is. (Go figure.)

The argument that Superman isn’t a good role model because he’s too perfect is very simply self-contradictory in the only moral context wherein role models mean anything. In virtue theory, the role model sets a standard that should be imitated by all other members of the same kind. That would mean that any role model is by definition a moral saint: the role model sets the standard for morality. Virtue theoretical role models are for all practical purposes perfect.

Batman is certainly a more tempting role model because his is an attainable standard, and many of our sins would be forgiven if the bar for moral perfection were lowered to a more human level. Everyone can be a saint when saints are made human (6).

But there’s something to be said for a standard of moral perfection sufficiently high that reaching it is a practical impossibility. After all, what’s left to do once one attains moral perfection? Does she hang up her tights, lock up the Batmobile, and call it a day? That seems anti-climactic (7).

Indeed, one of the primary points that Aristotle makes in his exposition of virtue ethics is that the quest for truth and justice is a never-ending one. As he wrote in the Nicomachean Ethics: attainment of moral perfection requires “a complete life. For one swallow does not make a summer, nor does one fine day; and so too one day, or any short period of time, does not make a man blessed and happy.” The good life is incomplete as long as it’s being lived.

At no point in our lives should we ever stop trying to be better people. That nobody is perfect should therefore only ever be an explanation, and never an excuse: I’m not a moral saint for such-and-such a reason, I may deserve some level of blame for falling short, and so I’ll pick myself up and try again. This is what the adoption of Superman as a role represents: a moral standard to pursue throughout one’s life, with the hope that one has come as close as one can despite the knowledge that one will never quite get there.

Look: I don’t want to denigrate the Batmen of my arbitrary dichotomy too much; after all, there are worse choices for a role model (see note 7). But, like Kant, I am continually filled with wonder by the starry heavens above and the moral law within, and to be a Superman is to bring the one closer to the other.


(1) Apologies to Parmenides, who was either trivially right or empirically wrong (the worst kind of wrong!), but fun to read in either event.

(2) Words are ephemeral, weightless; it’s due to that fact alone that our shared information network hasn’t collapsed under the weight of the commentary that followed the shooting in Aurora (and, to a disgracefully lesser extent, the one in Milwaukee). In light of the cultural context in which the Aurora shooting took place it may be tempting to read this essay as an attempt to pile on. I did originally intend to publish this essay in coincidence with the release of “The Dark Knight Rises,” but decided to delay after the tragedy. This essay is meant to be my final word on a debate that I’ve been having with fellow comic book enthusiasts for decades now; there’s nothing I can say about the recent spate of mass shootings that hasn’t already been said by thinkers more and less competent than myself.

(3) I recognize that there are those among you who have no truck with discussions of moral obligation or any ethics broader than cultural etiquette. There are others among you who think that all philosophical questions were settled by Sam Harris when he conveniently skipped the past three centuries of philosophical progress. To those of you in both camps, I say: thanks for reading this far, and no hard feelings, but your blood pressure would benefit immensely if we parted ways here, and I’d certainly recommend reading that last link.

(4) Apologies to modern virtue ethicists such as Philippa Foot, Rosalind Hursthouse, Alasdair MacIntyre, and Martha Nussbaum, but it’s not as if any of them would deny that they’re carrying Aristotle’s torch.

(5) Sources that fancy themselves more enlightened will forgive Aristotle his purported sins against theoretical progress and blame Carl von Linné (aka Carolus Linnaeus) instead for what is known as typological essentialism. Those sources are wrong. Taxonomy’s intrinsic type-essentialism is most directly due to the influence of Hugh Edwin Strickland, a staunch typological creationist whose rules of biological nomenclature were adopted by the British Science Association in 1842.

(6) I was raised Catholic, so I know how that line would seem nonsensical to someone who believes in saints, but let’s not go there today.

(7) It also seems to be Spider-man’s solution to every single problem. I’m not a fan.


  1. Wow, I am so glad you turned that around. I was disagreeing with you from the outset. Superman wins hands down for me -- I want an ideal role model.

    It is this a main reason that Bhakti-ism (Hinduism), Jesus-ism, Lama-ism (Tibetanism) and other methods are valued: The idealized perfect human is motivating.

  2. I found this difficult to grasp though I'm a long time DC fan.
    Is the distinction that
    1) Batman's crime-fighting is cathartic for him by reason of his childhood trauma- i.e. it's a type of therapy and so his good deeds aren't completely gratuitous
    2) Superman's crime-fighting is gratuitous, supererogatory, and arises from a sort of noblesse oblige coz he's like just so much better at everything than us.
    In other words, the distinction is between gratuitous or supererogatory actions of general benefit performed by an agent in perfect psychic health- and similar actions arising from a psychic wound or trauma.
    The problem here, for Virtue Ethics, is that morbidity itself is a function of something good in itself- viz. the disinterested search for knowledge. However, that disinterested quest can perfectly legitimately include a depth psychological inquiry into one's own sub-conscious motives. Batman- or the Batman fan- knows that, but for his parents being killed, he'd have been the full-time Playboy Bruce Wayne. Does Superman know why he's pretending to be Clark Kent? Why is he not constantly zipping around the world at light speed stopping every bullet finding its mark?
    Gratuitous or supererogatory benevolence can only be said to exist in the absence of any possible depth psychological compulsion towards that course of action. Yet, since the investigation of deep psychological motives can be entered into for disinterested motives and, more importantly, is a duty that can't be avoided save from interested motives, it follows that, if depth psychology is not entirely shallow, the Superman/Batman dichotomy dissolves. Batman is always just a step away from discovering that actually his childhood trauma was just a rationalization to cover up his determination to serve Humanity; whereas Superman is always just a step away from realizing that he misses his Kryptonian Mommy and hopes that if he's really really good here on Earth then she'll come pick up in the Soccer Mom equivalent of a Flying Saucer.

  3. Like all things human, an opinion about something may require some background to the human who has it, which is good to see in the piece above. However, having diverse human motivations (political, sexual, or otherwise) we get into whether there are reasons or drivers of particular opinions in particular people. An example is the motivation to excuse oneself with reference to a cause, or merely state a cause. The former might simply arise from someone more affected than causal in their own lives; thus a recognition of powerlessness to some extent in their view of the same late train ridden by someone who stands tall before the man (but states a cause as background information).

    Same train, same lateness, same consequences for people waiting, but a different oprientation of style that might be revealing as to motivation or accumulated past experiences. As cause, one has no need to excuse oneself, one stands only with the responsibility to account for time. That said, I would not value causal people over affected ones, as each approach may be an equal reality, and coexist equally across humans and nature generally in rather deep ways beyond explanation here. Actually, causal people could be less inclined to apologize when it might be due, and may be the type to take the prerogative (hog the road, so to speak), but all of that can be an argument for another day.

    As to Superman v Batman, this is a limited choice, which may be consistent with the writer being causal, which could be a black & white perspective rather than one with shades of possibilities and choices found in an affected view. I would go with Saint Francis of Assissi as our nearest example of Superman (although he doesn't really fit the pop culture image). Batman would be Everyman battling away in a world, and vengeful. I would refer Saint Francis over Everyman every day of the week.

    1. I probably should be more specific about the moral basis used to distinguish the causal and affected perspectives. It may be a prejudicial invention to justify the powerful position of responsibility over the powerless one. In fact, responsibility is a shared event. Every human both causes upon and is affected by other humans, and nature too. We can open up to affects (appearing as 'excuses') or close down to causes (and stay silent when it might be useful for others to know what caused it - even though you would hate to admit you were actually an affected soul rather than a powerful causal one).

      There is no moral weaknessm to the affected view; it is equal but different to the causal view. It is just opening up, rather than closing down to individual responsibility. No man is an island. Take personal responsibility, and take the pain, unlike recent Wall Street traders. Or, preferably, share the responsibilty, don't clam up, and find some better solutions. The tendency to invent to support perspetives is common in political societies, but in this piece of writing is it subtle.

      It's actually Randian, to refer back to a recent post. It's a lack of concern for the other, in pursuit of one's aims, except to the extent the other plays the same game, in which case they just respect each other's total independence. A nice fiction. The other might in fact be concerned about the one, for many reasons including the fact the one is often certain of follies (sometimes conveniently) and the other better keep the one in check if the one influences society or the other directly, lest the one screws up almightly!

      This happens every day in every level, and has got to go. Replace it, of course, with equal respect for those two sides of the same coin, and a personal awareness of how one can draw conclusions about values and morality from ones' own bias. We dealt with this topic in the one about Ayn Rand, and it will be many moons before we get anywhere close to getting it sorted in society, as shown in the piece above.

    2. PS Im not good with 'isms', 'ists', and 'ians', but I did chance my hand at Randianism. It's worth noting in case anyone wants to avoid my responses, load them in.

    3. I just found a much clearer example of bias listening to Jesse Prinz'a podcast on Cultural Evolution a couple of weeks ago. the discussion concluded that pair bonding for stable families (let alone copulation) is not a Biological regularity (despite Julia's protestations, to be fair). Then, 30 minutes later, Hume's view of Biology as laying a foundation of favored familial relations that is hard to apply to society beyond the family is roundly applauded. Clear humean bias and anti-ev psych bias, inexcuable.

      This is quite prevalent, strong bias this way and that in competitive academic fields to make your way by making statements. It descends into ticky tacking through controversial definitions in little, mostly pointless, jousts, leading more to confusion than settlement of argument. Blogs about bias in fact followed soon after (you can read my comments by using 'find' and my name) but the bias continues, as you will see from my reconciliation of psychology, evolutionary psychology, and evolution in the two threads preceding this one.

  4. Great reading and food for thought. I like the way the moral saint / moral human contrast is handled in the Dark Knight Returns graphic novel. The gritty, dark Batman we all know and love was really cemented in the public mind with this book. (mild spoiler ahead if you haven't read it, which you really should!) Batman's beef with Superman is partially based on his fundamental distrust of the 'too perfect' hero, but it goes deeper than that. Superman is portrayed in this book as the lackey of a cynical and reckless Reagan-like U.S. President. Batman, in his own view, is down in the trenches, hashing out justice at street level while Superman flies around serving as an enabler of, and a propaganda tool for, a profoundly unjust and inhumane regime. It's the *pretense* of moral perfection surrounding Superman which boils Batman's blood. It will be interesting to see how far the upcoming "Man of Steel" goes in addressing Superman's lack of depth -- maybe a scene where a young Superman crushes a mugger's head in his bare hand?

  5. So then, a batman is what we each as fallible human beings can reasonably expect to become as we strive to be supermen and superwomen.

  6. Choosing Superman as an ideal is similar to choosing Jesus since his powers are essentially god-like. You are choosing as an ideal something that isn't human and doesn't suffer human constraints or failings. It would be similar to choosing a tireless machine as an ideal of work. I think looking inside toward your 'own best you' is a better strategy. Asking yourself 'Is this the best that I can do?" is a more productive strategy than asking 'What would Superman do?" It will also save you all that hand wringing time that you would otherwise spend trying to figure out why you failed to live up to a non-human ideal.

  7. Interesting. I am a huge fan of Batman and I dislike Superman almost as much--but I am in the perfect-role-model camp. Let me explain; I see Batman as the perfect role model. Put all thoughts of Supermen out of our heads for a moment--in order to be the supremely effective crime fighter Batman is, he has to train himself to the peak of human ability. He is smarter, stronger, faster, and more resourceful than anyone who has ever lived--that's the point of his story. You can take the view that he does this because he is insane/damaged, or you can take the view that nothing will stop him from becoming superhuman, in the only way a mortal can. Through discipline. Hence, Batman as my ideal-human role model.

  8. Superman by far represents the better moral ideal. Given his immense abilities, he can be a near perfect global maximizer of personal utility -- but he refrains and rather does good for others not because of a deity, social pressure / norms, or whatever, but because it *is* good. Superman is the embodiment of the Kantian ideal.

  9. I like your argument– it was great reading and thought-provoking.

    To me, Batman is far more interesting because of his internal struggle to be a hero; whereas for Superman it's an innate trait. Batman has to work at it, fighting his own demons along the way. It's more dynamic and makes for a better role model.

    1. Superman is tormented far more than Batman: When Superman flies into low earth orbit and listens to those in need (as depicted in the most recent movie) he hears everyone! He hears one person who is screaming for help because the tractor fell on their child and he hears another person screaming at the same time because they are trapped in a car underwater and are going to drown. Superman can't save all; in fact, he can't save most. Each night he has to live with the decisions he has made on whom to save. Batman can find solace in not being aware of the suffering of the masses.

  10. While I have always loved comics (and SF&F), I find it somewhat hard to believe that anybody would see a comic hero as a role model. As protagonists, I don't like Superman - as a humanoid alien with physical abilities far beyond human, yet still on a human level in emotional evolution, that stretches the willing suspension of disbelief too much for me. Batman is completely human and quite believable in the setting. (Not that he is my favorite comic protagonist either - that would probably be Obelix, but I don't think that one is very popular in the US ;-) )

    Btw @bipolarity, as one of my favorite authors (Jim Butcher) writes in his most recent novel: "This is the post-nerd-closet world, Harry. It is ok to like both." He meant Star Wars and Star Trek, but that also goes for Superman and Batman - or the Beatles and the Stones... ;-) (I know, I know...)

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  12. People may differ in what they consider to be a perfect role model. For some, moral saints are the motivation to do better or be better, for others, moral humans are the best motivators or role models. I prefer moral humans to moral saints, mostly esthetically. Absolute perfection is disconcerting, and frankly, a little boring. Like perfect smiles. Give me Batman, and slightly crooked teeth, any day of the week. He was my first love as super heroes go, and who knows? Maybe I developed my imperfect but always-seeking-improvement moral sense from Batman. Viva el hombre murciélago!
    Fun read, Leonard.


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