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.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Superman Rises Some More (And Why That's Bad)

by Leonard Finkelman

After two years of writing a dissertation, I’m generally not a fan of continuity. Emerson was onto something when he advised that one should “speak now what you think in hard words, and to-morrow speak what to-morrow thinks in hard words again,” since “a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines.” Few experiences in my life have been more tedious than having to revise a section of chapter three because of something I’ve written in chapter four, then having to make changes to chapter one in turn because of the edits in chapter three (1).

In my last post, I extolled Superman’s virtues as a role model because of his moral perfection. This followed an earlier post wherein I off-handedly dismissed the character’s actions in the ending of Superman: The Movie as a crime against Man and Reason. I never intended any relation there. In retrospect, maintenance of a foolish consistency requires that I offer some further commentary, and so I offer this follow-up. Alas: despite my preference otherwise, I am a man who writes dissertations (2).

Last time, I argued that (in virtue ethics, at least) a perfect role model is preferable to an imperfect one, and so Superman should be a better role model than the more-popular Batman. Virtue ethics requires role models for us to imitate and a good life is one that includes continuous self-improvement; therefore, an attainable standard of excellence is actually worse than an unattainable one.

By that reckoning, the aforementioned ending to the first Superman movie — wherein Superman turns back time so that he can have a second chance at rescuing Lois Lane — ought to provide a perfect demonstration of why the character is such a good role model. The ability to go back in time at will sure would solve a lot of problems. I can’t go back in time. You can’t go back in time. How can my little mind’s hobgoblin take offense at Superman going back in time?

Similarly, I nearly started a row at one of Massimo’s periodic Meetups when I suggested that the beloved British spacetime traveler, Doctor Who, couldn’t serve as a good moral role model (3). Here’s a character with abilities that sometimes dwarf even Superman’s. Had my hobgoblin taken the night off?

I do think that this can all be made quite coherent. It just requires that we delve a bit deeper into moral philosophy. So strap yourselves in: we’re gonna make the jump to meta-ethics.

Immanuel Kant wrote in his Critique of Pure Reason that “the idea of an ought or of duty indicates a possible action,” and the vast majority of moral philosophers accept that the proposition “I ought to do such-and-such” implies the proposition “I can do such-and-such.” One’s moral obligations are therefore inextricably linked to her abilities: the less she can do, the fewer things she ought to do.

Far more controversial is the inverse of that last claim. If one can do more, does it follow that she should do more? I think there’s a case to be made along those lines. Consider one of the more famous works of philosophy written in the past century: Peter Singer’s “Famine, Affluence, and Morality” (4). In the essay, Singer asserts that “if it is in our power to prevent something bad from happening, without thereby sacrificing anything of comparable moral importance, we ought, morally, to do it,” and this does seem like an intuitively appealing moral principle. It’s also not very far from the inversion of the last claim given in the last paragraph. The more one can do, the more bad she can prevent; therefore, she has more obligations than those who can do less.

Suppose we combine these two propositions: first, if one has fewer abilities, then she has fewer obligations; second, if one has more abilities, then she has more obligations. Intuitively, then, the number of obligations one has can be expressed as a ratio of abilities to restrictions. Heuristically, and very broadly: (things one should do) = (things one can do) / (things one can’t do).

I think this heuristic fits a number of moral intuitions that we tend to share. If I have an obligation that can only sometimes be fulfilled, then I’m only bound by that obligation a fraction of the time. We don’t place a heavy moral burden on the severely disabled; contrapositively, our sense of fairness is violated when those upon whom Fortune has smiled do little (5). It works well enough, so I’ll go with it.

Returning now to Doctor Who and Superman with Time Traveling Action: it strikes me that someone who can travel backwards through time at will is someone whose power is entirely unrestricted. This is more obvious in Superman’s case: a being with the demonstrated ability to prevent earthquakes, turn back tsunamis, deflect meteors, and prevent kittens from getting stuck up trees — all with a wink and a smile, no less — has the ability to prevent all evil when he has free reign over time and space (as volitional time travel would allow). Such a being would be omnipotent.

Here’s the thing about omnipotent beings: there’s nothing they can’t do (6). If the above heuristic correctly captures our system of morality, then human ethics is completely insufficient to capture the obligations of omnipotence: the omnipotent being’s number of obligations would be undefined in our system. Omnipotence therefore represents a limit, in the mathematical sense, for human morality. An omnipotent being is necessarily removed from our moral concern, just as a function that approaches a limit can never have a value at the limit (7).

Remember that I’m approaching this all as a virtue ethicist. To recap, that means that I take it to be the case that moral virtue is type-relative, i.e., the word “good” is used differently when referring to good people and good dogs. People are all the same type of thing (at least in part) because they can share common concerns (8). Anything that doesn’t share our concerns isn’t the same type of thing that we are.

I can feel my hobgoblin tapping on my shoulder. He’s whispering in my ear, “Psst! You just wrote than an attainable standard of excellence is worse than an unattainable one!” He’s asking, “How could you have ever said that Superman, with powers and abilities far beyond those of other men, is a better role model than Batman?”

Very simply: the standard that Superman represents is practically unattainable, but not logically so (9), and this is why he can be considered the same type of thing as other people — at least until he starts flying fast enough to turn time backwards. That’s the point at which I’d say that Superman flies from the realm of human role model and into the realm of omnipotence. Even Aristotle was ambivalent about emulating anything in the latter realm (10).

In the end, this is why I’m offended by time-traveling Superman, and why I’d advise against turning to Doctor Who for moral guidance. These are beings whose infinite power elevates them above all human concern; consequently, they can’t be good role models for humans. Knock them down a few pegs, though, and the story changes.

Through it all, I hope that we can agree on one thing: Spider-man is pretty lame.



(1) If you think that was tough to read, just think about how tough it was to live. Before going any further, I’d like to take this opportunity to thank my sister and brother-in-law, who recently provided the company and conversation that was not only a welcome distraction from dissertating but also the inspiration for these last two posts of mine.

(2) Yet here I stand blissfully free of any existential despair. That ad in the subway was right: philosophy works!

(3) My own preference is for Inspector Spacetime.

(4) Really: consider it. While I disagree with Singer’s ultimate conclusion — slavish devotion to a principle of utility strikes me as both irrational and unreasonable, and therefore not virtuous — I can’t deny that his paper has proved to be one of the two or three most thought-provoking works of philosophy I’ve ever read.

(5) Please register all political objections at your local polling station in November (assuming, of course, that you’re an American eligible to vote; if not, the odds that you agree increase exponentially, anyway).

(6) At this point, there would normally be a student of mine who pipes in with the question: “Could he make 2+2=5?” I prefer the answer most recently given by Richard Swinburne (among others): no, because that’s an impossibility, and to prevent one from doing the impossible does not impose any restrictions on her. Put it this way: if the only rule of Fight Club is that you can’t fight if 2+2=5, then there are no rules in Fight Club.

(7) This also provides an easy rejoinder to anyone who responded to my last post with the well-worn geekism that “Batman always wins.” Superman sometimes loses, and so is clearly not omnipotent. I am willing to grant, however, that Batman does have one thing over Superman.

(8) Kant’s categorical imperative uses this very idea to determine our moral obligations, as does Rawls’ veil of ignorance. What each of those heuristics asks of us is to imagine the entire range of concerns we might have under all practically possible circumstances.

(9) It’s logically possible that biotechnology could develop the means for humans to defy gravity (to some extent, at least), or see in the x-ray spectrum, or lift things with the proportionate strength of an ant. By contrast, can you imagine climbing the social ladder high enough to make $1 billion per year? “More realistic,” indeed!

(10) Aristotle didn’t believe in anything like the Abrahamic God, but his description of unmoved movers in De Caelo would be appropriated towards consideration of that deity by Jewish, Muslim, and Christian thinkers. While the theologians clearly endorsed adoption of the Unmoved Mover as the one true moral standard, Aristotle was less clear in Book X of his Nicomachean Ethics. Although he admitted that his unmoved movers (he posited several), as beings of pure thought, should be emulated on an intellectual level, he also admits that humans have other concerns; the life of philosophy is the best kind of human life, he argued, because is was the closest humans could come to divinity. But this is a case for philosophers, not the unmoved movers, to serve as humanity’s moral standard. (Seems like a good idea to me...)


  1. Surely omnipotence alone doesn't give one infinite responsibility. Without sufficient information, one could easily spend eternity caught in your first minute, constantly revising it. Superman is certainly not omniscient and probably not immortal.

    More damning is the fact that he chose to tamper with the fabric of space-time, to ultimately unknowable consequence, for entirely selfish reasons - to service his own sentiment.

    To me, Batman is Adam West. So, way better than superman.

  2. I think there should be an explicit distinction made between what one can do (esp physically, as we're often discussing with superman - and, as you say, 'with a wink and a smile'), and what one can do at significant cost to oneself. As Singer contends, it may be true that if one can prevent something bad from happening "without sacrificing anything of comparable moral importance," we ought to do it. However as you point out in your notes, there's also a case to be made that this line of reasoning commits one to a 'slavish devotion to a principle of utility' that is 'irrational and unreasonable." If what you contend there is true, then it should also be true for an individual who is super-powerful. If not, why not? That is, Superman may be physically capable of doing anything, but just like us, that doesn't necessarily entail that he ought to do so even if it means sacrificing everything of himself. Why is a Superman, even one that can traverse time to revise things until perfect, any more morally bound to have his own projects, identity, etc, subsumed by moral obligations than we are? You argument is based on the premise that Singer is right. You say, 'If the above heuristic correctly captures our system of morality,' but perhaps it doesn't - for the very reason you point out in your notes. If that's the case, then can't even a time-traveling Superman, or other fictional characters like Dr Who, or God, still be suitable role-models?

    That said, haha, isn't the moral ideal of Superman a little too close to Singer's ultra-utilitarianism for comfort, given your objections? I'm fairly new to exploring Virtue Ethics, but shouldn't one choose a role-model whose philosophical position dovetails with ones own general conception of morality? Or is that just nonsensical, because if you're a virtue ethicist then you shouldn't or needn't be bothering with those other systems at all anyway? In any case, isn't it possible that one of peoples' objections to Superman (over Batman) is that Superman himself would indeed espouse a moral philosophy that leaves no room for the self and its projects? He may not always live up to those standards, (see Stuart's comment above on his time-traveling being selfishly-motivated), but wouldn't total selflessness for the sake of maximal utility be pretty close to Superman's moral position? Not only does that make him less easy to relate to, it more importantly means that if one fundamentally disagrees with it on philosophical grounds, then surely he isn't the person to be emulating?

    sorry if that's an unhelpful morass of shoddy thinking on the topic haha

  3. Why is this blog called Rationally Speaking if it's about moral philosophy?

    1. Why, is moral philosophy not a rational endeavor?


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.