Virtue Ethics & The “Man of Steel”

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Screen Shot 2015-10-27 at 9.28.08 PMImagine a man who is powerful enough to enslave an entire planet of human beings and use them to satisfy his own desires, whatever those desires may be. Usually someone like this would need a military force behind him, but this man does not. The ‘Man of Steel’ (who everyone knows as Superman) is endowed with the strength of thousands of men, the ability to fly and shoot lasers out of his eyes, and breathe in space. Needless to say, Superman doesn’t need an army in order to become the slave-ruler of the entire Earth. But he doesn’t; in fact, Superman does the exact opposite. He decides that he will protect planet earth and its inhabitants. Why would Superman do this? The answer seems to fall squarely in the explanatory power of Virtue Ethics.

Right off the bat, it seems as though the directors wanted to make it  obvious that Superman’s home planet, Krypton, was an outworking of  Plato’s city analogy. Granted, Plato’s dialogue about the city was not  meant to be a political philosophy, but an analogy to the human psyche,  but Plato’s influence on Superman doesn’t stop there. In fact, some have  observed that the young Clark Kent was gaining some wisdom from  Plato in the movie. Additionally, Plato’s ‘Ring of Gyges’ story seems to  play a pretty significant role in the formation of Superman’s character. His actions are dictated by something other than the consequences of being caught behaving in a certain way.

Advocates of virtue ethics, like Julia Annas, have described it to be an ethical theory that deals with the moral character of someone, not necessarily about the consequences of that person’s actions. If an individual has a virtuous character, then they will not need to adjudicate between right and wrong when the time comes, they will simply behave rightly. The virtue ethicist maintains that a truly virtuous person, when given the chance to behave poorly without consequence (much like the Ring of Gyges situation presented by Plato), will behave in the same way that he would if he there was a consequence. This is due primarily to his fundamental character; who he is as a person dictates what he will and will not do.

Throughout ‘Man of Steel’, Clark Kent is presented with a variety of different situations where he must make a choice; he either maintains his secret identity as a boy/man foreign to this world or take matters into his own hands and reveal his identity. One very important example of this is when Clark’s father is in severe danger and Clark has to make a choice. He can either save his father’s life or watch his father die at the mercy of a tornado. Because of his father’s constant virtue-based training, he watches his father die, knowing that he could have easily saved him. However, he believes that there is a greater good in revealing himself (as superman) when the time is right. This perspective sets the mood for the rest of the movie.

A ‘decision procedure’, as Annas explains in her paper, “Being Virtuous and Doing the Right Thing“, is a moral methodology. It is an organized and systematic way of deciding what we should and should not do. According the Annas, it is “reasonable to think of the major aim of moral theory as being that of producing a theory of right action.” “This task is simple in principle, although difficult and technical in practice.” Virtue ethics offers a solution to this theory of right action; one that is not merely obeying rules in a consequentialist sense, but one that is focusing on right action as a outflowing of a virtuous character. In order have a virtuous character, an individual must internalize/take ownership of proper standards. For this reason, a virtue ethicist is able to incorporate consequentialist, deontological and other systems of thought while not exclusively holding onto one in particular.  Whether or not Clark Kent did this properly in ‘Man of Steel’ is a different question, but the obvious the goal of his father was to get Kent to internalize certain standards of moral behavior.

‘Man of Steel’ was essentially an outworking of what would happen if the most powerful man on earth embraced a life of humble servitude rather than self-serving dictatorship. Not needing a military to back him, Superman could have behaved in any way he desired. There were no jail cells that could hold him, no people (on Earth) who could defeat him. His actions were a direct reflection of his character, the standards taught to him by his father that he subsequently internalized. Imagine how differently the story would have gone, had superman not embraced a virtuous character.

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This was a short writing assignment for Contemporary Ethics (PHI314) in which I was instructed to compare one of our reading assignments to one aspect of popular culture.

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