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
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.