First, I have to ask you: have you read Watchmen? Or at least seen the movie? If you haven’t, this is going to spoil the heck out of it; what I’m discussing is tied to the conclusion of the great story. Do read the original graphic novel first rather than reading this. If you’ve seen the movie, that’s good enough, but I would not recommend starting with it instead of the comic.
Watchmen is the graphic novel (ie. comic book) that always gets mentioned when talking about how comics or even superhero comics can be deep and can be art. I’ve already discussed philosophical questions raised in it in two articles, concentrating on the metaphysics around Dr. Manhattan. This time, I am going to use it to look at a central question in ethics. It’s one of the most important questions in ethics: do the ends justify the means, or, when do they?
Now, if you’re ready to hear more about this, read on.
Saving the world by killing millions
In the final chapters of Watchmen, the villain’s plan that has been driving the whole plot is revealed. It is also revealed who the villain is: it is the most idealistic of the heroes, Adrian Veidt or Ozymandias. And his plan is to kill millions of people, to blow up New York, in order to save the world.
Watchmen is set in an alternative history during the Cold War. In this history, “superheroes” are real, although only one of them has any superhuman powers. This one person, known as Dr. Manhattan, is so powerful that his existence and service of the United States has tipped the balance of power in the Cold War. It’s like the US has not only nuclear weapons but also a separate walking metaphor for nuclear weapons in its arsenal. Yet, this does not mean that the Soviet Union is giving up — or that the threat of nuclear apocalypse has been averted. It’s acknowledged that, even knowing they cannot win against USA, the Soviets might be willing to trigger mutually assured destruction. And, wouldn’t you know it, even Dr. Manhattan could not stop all of their nuclear weapons at once before they could reach America. He could probably effect total nuclear disarmament by himself if he did it in secret, but he’s become inhuman and doesn’t care enough to consider such things.
Now, Ozymandias. He’s an idealistic hero who wants to make the world a better place. He’s known as the smartest man in the world and is pretty much literally good at everything. He used to work as a costumed hero, but one day the Comedian opened his eyes to the impossibility of the world’s situation. The Comedian is in some ways his opposite, a supremely cynical, homicidal sociopath who thinks the world is a cruel, violent joke and only bears it by being enough of a total bastard to laugh at it. He makes Ozymandias see what is presented as inevitable: that the Cold War can only end in nuclear destruction.
How to avoid the inevitable? Ozymandias becomes convinced he must change the course of history, no matter what the cost. He hatches a complicated plot that involves getting Dr. Manhattan out of the way — which, incidentally, nearly leads to nuclear war by itself — and ends with dramatically destroying New York to shake people all over the world and make even the Soviets stand in solidarity with the Americans. (In the movie, he just pretends that Dr. Manhattan attacked the city; in the original, it’s more complicated and involves a fake giant alien. The end result is the same.)
And it works.
This is the dilemma: can you do that? Can you murder millions to save the whole world? If he had not done it, the result would have been much worse — so it seems. Yet, even so, what he did — deliberately killing millions of innocents — seems heinous.
The dilemma is illustrated in the reactions of the other main characters. Once they find that he has already realised his plan, and also see that it seems to be working, most of them are shocked but realise that they cannot do anything but go along with his plan and not expose it. To try to bring him to justice would mean that all those deaths were in vain. It would also mean that the world would still be on the brink of destruction.
But Rorschach doesn’t feel this way. He’s a zealot to his own intolerant, fairly twisted moral principles, so he goes out and plans to expose Ozymandias.
“Never compromise,” he says. “Not even in the face of Armageddon.”
Is this not monstrous in itself?
Of course, those are not the only options. Most of us would probably take the stance taken by most of the characters: not to kill millions to save the world, but once it was done, not ruin everything either. But that doesn’t answer the original question. What to do if the only way to prevent the greater evil is to do something bad yourself?
Two kinds of ethical theories
Rorschach’s dictum is similar to another one used by the philosopher Immanuel Kant: “Fiat iustitia, pereat mundus,” “Let justice be done, though the world perish.” Kant was apparently expressing his extreme deontological ethical stance: one must always do what is right by a set of rules, in Kant’s case supposedly dictated by pure reason, regardless of what the outcome will be. This stance is so seemingly absurd (and, if I may say so, genuinely stupid) that one might wonder whether Kant really held it, but it seems to be proven by his own example that one should not violate the rule “never lie” even when faced with a murderer who asks about the whereabouts of a person they intend to murder.
We don’t need to go to such extremes. Generally, deontology is the kind of ethics that emphasizes duties and rules, as opposed to utilitarianism (or consequentialism), which says that an act is right or wrong based on its consequences.
It seems that we normally think in terms of both deontology and consequentialism. Applying either of them too heavily seems to lead to absurdity. For deontology, we saw it above. For consequentialism, an example might be where someone is treated unjustly or cruelly but this is deemed justified because the overall result is still more beneficial. As a crude example, imagine a thousand people at a coliseum watching a handful of slaves being eaten alive by lions, and suppose that it was as simple as saying that the pleasure the thousand people derive from it is greater, put together, than the suffering of the slaves.
The question between deontology and utilitarianism is the same basic one as before: do ends justify the means? Can you do something that is wrong in itself to cause something that is more right in itself?
Active versus passive harm
The form of the dilemma we started with was more pressing than whether you can sacrifice innocents for fun, or even whether you can lie to save a life. In the first, you are acting proactively to cause harm to an innocent and gain benefit, and it seems clearly wrong: in the second, your own act is very minor and not harming an innocent, and it’s preventing harm, and seems clearly right. In Ozymandias’s case, he was taking the active choice to cause harm to innocents in order to avoid great harm. This might be the most confounding form of the dilemma, because preventing great harm seems more valuable than causing some good but proactively causing harm to innocents seems more wrong than reactively lying to a murderer.
It’s in this kind of cases that we can also see people react seemingly illogically. The old “trolley problem” is a philosophical thought experiment in which people’s moral intuitions are short-circuited by presenting a very artificial situation, showing that the intuitions don’t form a coherent system. There are various versions, but here’s what I think is the basic one:
- Suppose there’s a trolley heading down some rails at great speed, and if it continues the same way, it’s going to run over five people on the track. The only possible way to prevent this is for you to reroute the track so that the trolley will go in a different direction — where it will kill one person. Would you do it? Here, people tend to say yes, showing utilitarian thinking.
- Now suppose instead you’re standing on a bridge above the track, and the only way to stop the trolley is for you to push down the fat man next to you, as being big enough (unlike yourself so we don’t have to think about that), he’ll stop the trolley. And die. Here, people tend to say they wouldn’t do it, which seems deontological.
The question is, what’s the difference between the two actions, if in both cases you are choosing to kill one person to save five?
I would say this: given that you know the consequences for absolutely certain, as is postulated in the artificial case, there is no difference. But that’s not realistic, and that’s why principles that don’t require you to know all the consequences have their place.
Actions, consequences and rules
Utilitarianism can be argued for on the basis that the only intrinsic good is pleasure and the only intrinsic bad thing is suffering. No matter what our opinions, we cannot avoid feeling that pleasure is good and pain is bad. That’s what they mean. So from this, you can derive the notion that we should always to try maximise pleasure and minimise pain. Similarly for whatever else may be held to be good and bad, we could form the principle that we must always try to maximise the good and minimise the bad.
All well and good, but that doesn’t mean that the way we can actually maximise the good and minimise the bad is by trying to make every single decision so that it will do that. Sometimes, being “rational” with every single choice will not get you the best results, but following a rule does even if it makes a single choice less rational.
Smoking is not good for you. But a single cigarette doesn’t really do anything; you won’t get lung cancer because of one more cigarette. So you can smoke one. But one more won’t hurt. So you can smoke one more. And even if you’ve been smoking cigarettes and think you should stop, there’s never the one cigarette that’s going to destroy you. But still you have to draw a line — to stop smoking altogether at some point (or cut down drastically or whatever makes for a sensible rule). You have to follow a rule, not even one more cigarette, because if you don’t, you can always smoke one more and have never stopped.
This is the general form of the paradox of rationality that means you have to follow rules sometimes instead of doing what seems rational just then. It’s a bit more complicated with moral rules, but I do think something like this applies: in some cases, where it’s important enough, you have to follow some rules rather than trying to maximise utility (maximise the good and minimise the bad), or you will end up causing worse results.
So, what rules? I think a central one is, don’t do direct harm. Not even if you think it will cause more good in the end. Because you can be much more sure about the direct harm than the more distant good. But of course this must be applied flexibly, not in the face of Armageddon.
This may also be why people get confused about the trolley problem and don’t want to do the “same” thing when it’s about doing things directly or indirectly.
Was Ozymandias right?
Ozymandias clearly would have pushed the fat man on the tracks, assuming the situation really was like in the example. Like I said before, without saying why, he seemed to be hyper-rational. He would do what was necessary even knowing how far he would have to go, because it was clear he was averting the worst of consequences. He claims to understand the severity of what he had to do, as well.
What’s significant is that I know. I know I’ve struggled across the backs of murdered innocents to save humanity… but someone had to take the weight of that awful, necessary crime.
But was Ozymandias right — not in moral terms, but in terms of how he expected his plan to go? On the one hand, it does seem like he succeeded, and like the world might have been doomed otherwise.
But there were so many things that had to go right for his plan to succeed. In fact, Watchmen itself might be saying that he couldn’t take everything into account. Rorschach never makes it back to implicate him. (In fact, one might wonder whether he really chose to follow his principles thinking it would cause Armageddon — or just knowing it would mean his own death.) In the ending, however, it’s hinted that Rorschach’s journal which implicates Ozymandias might find its way to publicity. This could be read to be saying that Ozymandias was not right in thinking he could control such a complex plan, and thus was not right in terms of consequentialism to inflict such great harm under the supposition that he could prevent greater harm. Not that the authors had to mean just that…
But there’s an even bigger reason in hindsight to question whether Ozymandias was right to sacrifice so many to prevent nuclear war. Because the war never happened in real life, did it? Watchmen was written during the Cold War, so you could get away with showing the super-intelligent character concluding that war was inevitable. But in retrospect as seen from the real world, he looks foolish — and his sacrifice of others, totally unjustified.
The reason that you can’t think that the ends justify the means is not that they don’t but that you can’t control the ends the same way as the means, the consequences the same way as your direct actions. You must be very careful about doing direct harm because you think it will bring greater indirect good. Extreme consequentialism might be right in theory in some cases — not the “feeding slaves to lions for fun” kind of examples, but at least for preventing even greater harm than otherwise — but in real life, it doesn’t work like it does on paper.
Yet there is no absolute final rule.