Superhero Ethics and what it can teach us

I read superhero comics since I was a kid – more than 30 years now – and wouldn’t be and exaggeration to say that a good portion of my moral values comes from superheroes – mixing, of course, with values that was given to me by my parents, which did not contradict anything that superheroes defended back in the day. Not that I have the uber-sophisticated ethics of the superherores in the real world, but usually this is my reference point and my aspiration. Too naive? Too childish? Maybe. But I believe we can learn a lot from superheroes.

One of the things I learn right away, even in such early age was how proportionate the responsibility is in relation to superpowers because, the more powerful a superhero is, the greater the consequences of any decision that he/she makes. This responsibility is not just social; it is especially moral. It’s necessary that super powered people have a level of ethical refinement that is proportional to the damage that they can cause with their decisions.

One example: in a Flash storyarc called “Flashpoint”, the hero goes back in time to prevent his mother from being killed when he was a kid. The history is remade and follows a different path, creating a world where his mother is alive and he is not the Flash, but the rest is much, much worse than the original timeline. Of course everyone would be tempted to save his or her own mother and no one would judge someone for doing that if they can. But a “small" selfish act by a character capable of something as time travel simply rewrote the entire history of the world. That’s why it’s necessary that the superhero puts himself (or herself) in a more sophisticated ethical position than an average person that has no superpowers. Anyone would do what Flash did, but the consequences of doing it would be disproportionate bigger for someone who can actually do it.

Although superheroes exist only in fiction – as far as we know – the concept behind the relation power/responsibility is very real and I don’t need to think too much to find real world examples. Think about a doctor or an airplane pilot, whose actions may result in death; or even a teacher whose mistake – a character one or a teaching one – may have deep implication in the future life of the students.

Superpowers in real world do exist, but they are more subtle. You can’t fly or throw energy out of your hands, but you are in a social position where your decisions may impact someone eventually. Everyone has a “superpower” in the real world, for good or bad. Of course, we have many levels to this “superpowers” and, therefore, variations in moral responsibility. A doctor has to have much more responsibility than a factory worker – in relation to other humans, I mean.

The problem is, there’s no “level” in moral behavior. I know, if you are paying attention to this article you will think: “wait, but don’t you just said that, the greater the power, the greater the ethics?”. That’s not what I said. I said that the greater the power, more “ethical refinement” is necessary. Unlike power, or authority – which is also a kind of superpower in real world if you think about it – ethics doesn’t increase or decrease over time; it’s something that we learn through culture and specially education – formal or not – and that can only be refine with knowledge but especially with empathy.

And that’s the most amazing thing about superheroes: it’s not the superpowers that makes them a superhero (super villains have powers too), it’s what you do with this those powers. In other words, superheroes are, in fact, the totality of moral values of his alter ego. And the conclusion of that is obvious: it’s not superpowers that give superheroes their values, this is something that comes from the person him/herself. It’s something that comes from how they were raised, their education, their culture. The way a hero uses his or her powers depends of his previous moral values.

This is also true for you. Your career, income or privileges in this society – your real world superpowers – are not capable, by themselves, of transforming you into an ethical person, and can’t generate refined moral values; that’s got to be there before.

At this point – if you had the patience to read until here – you must be wondering what the hell this has to do with anything. Well, everything. Let’s use corruption as an example. Corruption is not a merit or demerit just of a political body of some country; it’s a cultural aspect of a society, often rooted in the own fabric of the country. Many people – if not everyone – did something that can be considered corruption. Giving someone a job just because he’s your friend and not because he’s capable. Taking advantage of any position you have in society for your own personal gain. Keeping the extra change that someone wrongly gave it to you.

But those comparisons can’t be fair. A person who keeps the extra change given to him by mistake it’s not the same as the politician who takes millions from education or health funds. This can’t be the same thing, right? But, as a matter of fact, they are indeed the same thing. The key in understanding this is superhero ethics.

Remember in the previous paragraphs, what I’ve said about powers, responsibility, consequences and moral values? We conclude that, with more power comes greater responsibility. But we also conclude that this moral values doesn’t come from the powers; it’s already there. That is exactly the point. If a person keeps the extra change someone gave him by mistake, do you think he won’t take millions “extra change” if he becomes a politician when he has the chance? Imagine that I often park in a spot reserved for people with disability when there are no other spots left in the parking lot. If I think I have that right to do that, what makes you think that I’m not do a similar thing – or worse – with the privileges I will gain from being, for instance, a judge?

I could talk about a bunch of other examples, but I think the main idea is very clear. Yes, crime and corruption has different levels of impact depending on how much power you have in society. But the moral and ethical values that allows – or prevents – you from commit a morally wrong act doesn’t come with your social position, your authority or your privileges; it comes with what you learn up until then. And, if we commit acts of corruption in a day to day basis, we most certainly will commit acts of corruption in positions of power. The difference is that, in those upper positions, the consequences of your actions are much, much greater. Great powers, great responsibility. Without previous moral values, there’s no stopping this from happen.

So, yes, keeping the extra change that it was given to you by mistake is, morally, as wrong as to take millions from the constituent. It’s not because the consequences are less severe that the act becomes morally right. It’s still wrong. It may be an uncomfortable truth, but it’s the truth.

It’s also true that it’s possible to have a counter-argument saying that, even if it is a valid point, someone who crosses the red light in traffic is not the politician who takes millions from health funds because the first harms less people than the second – despite the fact that the driver may actually kill people in an eventual accident. It’s a valid point. But that doesn’t make you better, doesn’t it?

There’s no “more” or “less” corrupt person. At least, it shouldn’t be. This is a comfortable lie that we tell ourselves to stay away from responsibility and ignore the fact that maybe we are part of the problem. Corruption, like ethics, doesn’t have “levels” that you can achieve, but consequences, big or small, based on you power level. But corruption is corruption. And if we want a corruption free world one day we must, of course, criticize the politicians when necessary, but also we need to keep in mind that we can’t get rid of the cockroaches on our house and not cleaning the house. Other cockroaches will find the way and nothing is gonna change.

What we need is to remind ourselves is to create better moral values for the society that we want to build so that, when new politicians arrive at the congress, they have the necessary ethical refinement to deal with the powers that was given to them. Just like the superheroes from the comics and movies that had parents that taught them what’s important, in a world where living with others is the core, we all have this responsibility to each other.

Of course that we will never completely eradicate corruption. But I’m sure that we can turn corruption into the exception and not the rule. But it will be necessary that we stop wanting superheroes to be more like us and instead to seek to be more like them.

Rafael Algures is a Bachelor of Philosophy specialized in Neurosciences of Language. He is also a copywriter, content and science writer, and a comic book creator. His latest work, “Gutter of Horror: Transition”, a short horror comic about Philosophy and Artificial Intelligence are available at Amazon – digital and print.
Further reading: Supergods: What Masked Vigilantes, Miraculous Mutants, and a Sun God from Smallville Can Teach Us About Being Human, by Granr Morrison