(The underlined words or phrases in this article means you can click on them and they will redirect you to various sources where you can learn more about the respective words in regards to this topic)
There are a lot of highlights you can stretch and expand from Avengers: Infinity War. Aside from the unanimous heartbreak we get from the deaths of the major characters, one thing I found interesting from the movie is the moral view of the characters.
We can see a stark (ha!) contrast between Thanos and Steve Rogers (not only in how one is a purple lump and another is a hot daddy, obviously) that trancends a mere role of supervillain and superhero (although after Civil War, the title of superhero had failed Steve and an antihero fit better BUT this is a personal opinion and a totally different discussion), bringing to the table a discussion about moral justification. The difference is almost too obvious. Thanos believes wiping out half of the humanity is for the better; that it is okay to sacrifice 3.8 billion people to save humanity and its future. Compare it to what Steve said to Vision when he said he ought to die so Thanos wouldn’t get the mind stone.
“We don’t trade lives.”
Not even when it’s one to potentially save 7.6 billion. That’s a hardcore deontologist right there (and Steve just always has this tendency to be the “goody-two-shoes”, a proud moralist — untilyouputBuckyintotheequation — doesn’t he?)
Now you might cheer during that part and praise Steve for his moral compass. Or… Are there some of you who discreetly think that Thanos’ philosophy and purpose aren’t so wrong either?
If you do think so, you my friend, are a consequentialist.
Is a normative ethic that justifies an action based on the consequences derived by the said action. The infamous example of consequentialism, and one that is used as a moral justification to a lot of events is utilitarianism, pioneered by Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill. Before this sounds even more like a text book chapter, I’ll just provide an overused description to explain consequentialism and utilitarianism in a nutshell
Bringing the greatest amount of good to the greatest number of people.
So, consequentialists are concerned solely on the results of the action. We assume that once Thanos snapped his fingers, half of humanity was wiped out. It means no more problems caused by overpopulation (this might be another interesting topic I’ll write about later on…), and humanity can start fresh from scratch where the world is wealthy of resources, enough for everyone.
It obviously offers a great deal as a result, does it not?
Now let’s move on from a fictional war to an actual one. One of the most famous and controversial utilitarianist justification is the nuclear bombing of Nagasaki and Hiroshima. Japan that time had to be forced into surrender to end World War II, and (according to U.S.) had Nagasaki and Hiroshima not been bombed, more casualties would fall. The bombing in Nagasaki and Hiroshima killed 120,000 to 250,000 Japanese, in which President Harry Truman put those deaths in justification because the alternative option — not bombing Japan — would cause half a million American lives. Winston Churchill placed his bet on one million.
That, my friend, is the absolute utilitarianism, a moral justification held dearly by Thanos.
“I can simply snap my fingers, they would all cease to exist. I call that… mercy”
Hate Thanos all you want, but under the wings of utilitarianism and consequentialism, he indeeds shows mercy.
The concept of consequentialism and utilitarianism are not that radical in nature. We oftentimes use this view as a justification of our daily life decision. For instance, when you lie because you don’t want to hurt your friend, or when you help your classmate to cheat because you don’t want to fail. Such actions oftentimes lie on the grey area of moral standards, but if you focus on what your action results in — your friend being happy and encouraged, for example — you know you’re doing the right thing. That is consequentialism and utilitarianism in a nutshell.
It is of course, just as every other thing in life, never fair to see only from one side of the coin. If you still insist Thanos is wrong because killing and genocide are never right, you my friend, are a straight-a** deontologist.
Deontological ethics were introduced by John Locke and Immanuel Kant, arguing that what makes an action is right is solely its conformity with the moral standard. One of the examples of Deontological ethics is Kantian ethics (ha, guess who pioneered the theory!) which stated that a morally-correct action is based on the duty to execute such action, rather than the consequences. The total opposite of consequentialism.
In other words, wiping out half of humanity is a bad thing and nothing can make it right. Not even when you save the future by doing so.
A lot of examples, especially in policy-making, are based on deontological ethics. For instance, euthanasia. Those who are pro with legalizing euthanasia has a clear vision: that human beings should have full liberty over their own life, and that includes the right to end it. A lot of euthanasia cases told the stories of elderly people who were too ill to live, barely able to do anything and constantly go through each day in pain. All they want to do is to end the pain. No harm for others, absolute happiness for themselves. Yet, the law does not allow them to.
Because the act of ending one’s life, does not matter if it is for one’s own good, cannot be ethically correct.
A diehard deontologist there for you, my friend.
So, a little intermezzo. We were talking about Steve Rogers and his contradictary ethical view with Thanos. When Thanos is obviously a hardcore utilitarianist, does it make Steve a deontologist?
Not quite, I must say.
There is a third ethical view (which I won’t discuss much because of how philosophical and less applicable it is in my honest opinion) called virtue ethics.
Virtue ethics was introduced by Aristotle, and it is the most subjective normative ethics among the other two. That’s because virtue ethics does not merely see one’s action, but judge the person as a whole.
In simple words, ethics is not about action, but about whether the person, in their entirety, is a good person.
Our good ol’ Captain America (before Civil War) is the perfect personification of virtue ethics. Someone whose life is so virtuous that everyone’s moral standard (and even school’s P.E. standard) is based on his virtues. So when you can say skipping classes is not ethical because Captain America wouldn’t do that, congratulations! You’re a virtue ethician (ethician is not actually a word but that just sounds about right)
So class, what do we learn today?
Three ethical views? Well, yeah. That’s a bonus knowledge.
What I want to stress on here is that ethics is not black and white. It is far from definitive. If someone is not right, you cannot simply condemn it as wrong, and vice versa. This is because ethics and moral have different lenses with different people looking through each lens. What is wrong for one can be right for others, or not-so-right and not-so-wrong for another.
Our right and wrong do not apply for everyone, so we all don’t have the right to force our own moral standards on others.
I’m not saying I support what Thanos did, or any utilitarianists in that matter. I’m also not saying I’m a deontologist, nor do I aaply virtue ethics on my judgment. Rather than damning something as “right” or “wrong” (which in a lot of cases will remain debatable even after there is a legal guidelines about them), I prefer to label them as “stories”, told from different points of view.
Stories that sometimes, we do not have to judge or figure out, but stories that we just need to listen, accept, and respect.