Comics and Moral Ethics, Part 1


Before I begin, I want to give credit to my friend Samantha LeBas and her blog: Comicsonice It reminded me of some thoughts I was kicking around in my own head about the role of moral ethics: particularly Kantian deontological and Mill’s utilitarian approaches.

Shout out to my Philosophy professor from my undergraduate, Dr. Snowden, for introducing me to these theories.

* Spoilers *

In Marvel Comics New Avengers #3, there is an impending trans-universe cataclysm coming and its up to Capt. America, Namor, Mr. Fantastic, Iron Man, Beast (in for the deceased Prof. Xavier, Black Panther, Black Bolt, and Dr. Strange – members of a secret cabal known as the Illuminati.

It’s quite obvious that Capt. America, being who he is, is uncomfortable with this whole situation (more on this).

Following their failed attempt to deploy the Infinity Gauntlet (well slightly successful but at a price), and its subsequent and apparent self-destruction (that’s right, they broke the Infinity Gauntlet but that might have been because they were no longer in their own universe and all), the group comes to a major turning point – after Namor goes nuts a bit and wails on Capt. America too.

The “turning point” leads to a major ethical dilemma.

Capt. America’s dilemma is one that forces him to confront the fact that there are those in his group (Iron Man, Mr. Fantastic, etc.) who are willing to do “whatever it takes” to make sure the outcome is one that favors the most amount of persons (particularly the humans and life-forms of “their” universe versus the intruding, dangerously squeezing in, parallel Earths).

The confrontation is one that leads Capt. America, in an impassioned speech to implore the others in the Illuminati, among them Black Panther who himself turns on Capt., to steer away from the courses of action they are moving towards – drastic and perhaps dangerous (morally) ones. This confrontation then leads to Dr. Strange, to prevent the escalation, wiping Capt. America’s mind, removing him from the argument and the group itself.

So, was Capt. America right? We don’t know. It does leave some questions on the perceptions at work though –

* The Theory *


Deontological Ethics

As espoused by Immanuel Kant and others, and accounted for by the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy…

“…is one of those kinds of normative theories regarding which choices are morally required, forbidden, or permitted. In other words, deontology falls within the domain of moral theories that guide and assess our choices of what we ought to do (deontic theories), in contrast to (aretaic [virtue] theories) that—fundamentally, at least—guide and assess what kind of person (in terms of character traits) we are and should be. And within that domain, deontologists—those who subscribe to deontological theories of morality—stand in opposition to consequentialists(

What is at work in this theory, in summation, is the idea that when faced with a moral or ethical situation, one prescribes to choose to do what is right. Action chosen is the right action, sometimes disregarding the value or minimizing the value of consequences.

To put it in every day terms, if you follow this theory and you find out something horrible, like a friend’s husband is cheating on her, you would tell her, hands down, regardless of perhaps the devastating consequences that might erupt because you are doing what is considered the morally right thing.

In relation to Captain America, one has to ask, is his feeling that other members of the group, who appear willing to “sell-out” their moral ethics to do what is best for everyone “or for the greater good” make him a deontological thinker?


I would argue that Captain America’s personality, as depicted fairly consistently in the Marvel Universe (can go back to the Civil War between him and Iron Man and still sees this) places him in the camp as a deontological thinker. Captain America believes that doing what is morally right is the best choice to create the best outcome, long-term for everyone. He is not one who is willing to give up his moral beliefs or views in order to achieve a promise of long-term possible outcomes.


You can say he has integrity and that he won’t sell out.

However, one must consider, in Hickman’s depiction of Capt. America in this situation, his unwillingness to bend may be something that could possibly jeopardize the entire universe.

So, perhaps Dr. Strange’s tactic of “removing” him from the situation was the best move after all. We’ll see.

Utilitarian Ethics

In opposition to deontological thinking there lies the theories developed by Jeremy Bentham and later John Stuart Mills in 19th century England.


“…though there are many varieties of the view discussed, utilitarianism is generally held to be the view that the morally right action is the action that produces the most good. There are many ways to spell out this general claim. One thing to note is that the theory is a form of consequentialism: the right action is understood entirely in terms of consequences produced. What distinguishes utilitarianism from egoism has to do with the scope of the relevant consequences. On the utilitarian view one ought to maximize the overall good — that is, consider the good of others as well as one’s own good” ( /entries/utilitarianism-history/).

In summation, this theory’s primary aim centers around the idea what is in the best interest, the “greater good” for everyone. One can think about the movie Hot Fuzz if you like your pop-culture movie reference and imagine Sgt. Nicholas Angel as Capt. America and the Town Council as Iron Man and everyone else.

Or, to put it in everyday terms take the previous scenario of you finding out that your friend’s husband is cheating on her. Instead of coming right out and telling her you would stop, take into account perhaps the best situation to approach this. How can you let her know in a way that does not blow things up? Perhaps, for the sake of better “consequences” you might not even tell her. Instead you might confront her husband, get him to tell her or knock it off. Ultimately, the aim is do what is best for everyone, the “greater good.”

This is where Iron Man and the others in the Illuminati are. I don’t think they like being here, but even the Black Panther (who was against all of this) acknowledges his role as a leader of a whole nation – other people he must do what is best for. This is why he turns on Capt. America. He is not willing to risk their lives to be “morally right” or “pure.”


By these standards the rest of Illuminati are not “immoral” people, but like modern political leaders they are forced to think beyond their own selves (not that Captain America is not) but with a realization that to achieve the “greater good” for everyone they may have to resort to methods and ideas that are not “above board.” They have to be willing to do whatever is necessary to achieve the best possible outcome – the saving of their universe, their Earth.

It will be interesting to see where this willingness on the part of Illuminati leads them. If, like in the past, Iron Man shows the willingness to go “wherever” the consequences could be damaging.

* Summation *

What is worrisome is that Hickman has chosen to remove Capt. America from the equation, the counter-balance to Iron Man. In Hickman’s other Marvel Comics title, The Avengers, at the end of issue #3 he labels, in a omniscient narrator mode Captain America as “life” and Iron Man as “death” setting them up in a cryptic but intriguing binary position to one another.

It should be interesting to see how this plays out.

Newspaper Comic


2 thoughts on “Comics and Moral Ethics, Part 1

  1. I completely agree with you that the removal of Captain America from the team is going to confront the series with a new darkness. Without a conscience what will the all powerful Illuminati be capable of?

    I expect to see a bit more of Kant’s sublime in the future issues if Hickman continues down the path he’s started. Three forms of the sublime described by Kant are the noble, the splendid and the terrifying. Wouldn’t those be great titles for issues? It is clear that Hickman is reveling in the chance to present classic philosophical dilemmas with a cast of earth’s mightiest heroes. I am absolutely hooked.

    • I agree, I think Hickman is really “opening up” a real different perception on superheroes. Are these characters, the Illuminati, are they even superheroes or behaving as superheroes anymore or have they blurred (has Hickman blurred) the line?

      Hickman really hooked me, I’ve read him before, with his run on The Ultimates that blew my mind out of the water with his “architecture.” I cannot WAIT to see what he does with both Avengers and New Avengers.

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