Warning: this article contains spoilers.
Watchmen, written by Alan Moore and illustrated by Dave Gibbons, is the go-to example of a graphic novel when people want to show that comics—even superhero comics—can be a profound art form. (There’s been a movie adaptation and a forthcoming new HBO sequel sounds promising.) Written during the Cold War, Watchmen describes a world in which superheroes emerge in real life and have an impact on world history. It deconstructs the idea of superheroes and examines what they would be like in a realistic setting.
But it does much more than that. Watchmen has many layers. It explores a number of philosophical ideas—among others, the question of utilitarianism versus deontology, or whether the ends justify the means.
Saving the World by Killing Millions
In the final chapters of Watchmen, the villainous plan at the center of the plot is revealed. We also learn that the villain is the most idealistic of the superheroes: Adrian Veidt or Ozymandias. He plans to kill millions of people, to wipe out New York City, in order to save the world.
Though Watchmen‘s alternative history features superheroes, only one of them has superhuman powers. This one person, known as Dr. Manhattan, is so powerful that his involvement in the service of United States has tipped the balance of power in the Cold War. It’s as if the US had not only nuclear weapons but a walking metaphor for nuclear weapons in its arsenal. Yet, this does not mean that the Soviet Union has given up the fight—or that the threat of nuclear apocalypse has been averted. Even though they know they cannot win against the US, the Soviets might be willing to trigger mutually assured destruction. And even Dr. Manhattan could not stop all their nuclear missiles before they reach America. Given the extent of his powers, he probably could bring about total nuclear disarmament by himself, if he did so in secret, but he’s become callous and no long cares enough to do so.
Ozymandias, on the other hand, is an idealist, who wants to make the world a better place. He’s the smartest man in the world and is good at literally everything. He was working as a costumed hero when a character called the Comedian opens his eyes to the nature of the historical crisis they are living through. The Comedian is, in some ways, his opposite: a supremely cynical, homicidal sociopath, who thinks the world is a cruel, violent joke, which he is only able to bear by laughing at it. He makes Ozymandias see that the Cold War can only end in nuclear destruction.
How to avoid the inevitable? Ozymandias becomes convinced that he must change the course of history, no matter the cost. He hatches a complicated plot to get Dr. Manhattan out of the way—which itself nearly leads to nuclear war—and ends up destroying New York City in the guise of an imaginary enemy, in order to shake people all over the world out of their complacency and encourage the Soviets to side with the Americans.
It works. The Cold War ends.
So this is the dilemma: should you murder millions in order to save the whole world? If Ozymandias had not destroyed New York, the entire planet would have been obliterated in a nuclear holocaust. Yet deliberately killing millions of innocents seems heinous.
The nature of this dilemma is illustrated by the reactions of the other costumed hero main characters. Once they find out that Ozymandias has already realized his objective, and that it seems to be working, most of them are shocked, but decide to go along with his plan, rather than expose him. If they brought him to justice, all those deaths would have been in vain and the world would still be on the brink of destruction.
The one exception is Rorschach. A vigilante anti-hero, he adheres zealously to his own intolerant, fairly twisted moral principles, which prompt him to attempt to expose Ozymandias. “Never compromise,” he says. “Not even in the face of Armageddon.” Is this not monstrous, too?
Most of us would probably agree with the other superheroes: we wouldn’t kill millions to save the world, but, once the act had been committed, we wouldn’t expose the truth either. But that doesn’t answer the original question. What if the only way to prevent a greater evil is to do something bad?
Two Kinds of Ethical Theories
Rorschach’s dictum is similar to that of philosopher Immanuel Kant: Fiat iustitia, et pereat mundus —“Let justice be done, though the world perish.” This is an extreme deontological ethical stance: one must always act in accordance with a set of rules—in Kant’s case supposedly dictated by pure reason—regardless of the outcome. This is so seemingly absurd that one wonders whether Kant really believed it—Kant even argues that one should not violate the rule never lie, even when faced with a murderer asking for the whereabouts of a person he intends to kill. Of course, Kant is difficult to interpret.
We needn’t take things to such extremes. Deontology more generally emphasizes duties and rules, as opposed to utilitarianism or consequentialism, which argue that an act should be judged right or wrong depending on its consequences.
We normally think in terms of both deontology and consequentialism. Applying either of them too strictly leads to absurd consequences, by the light of our typical moral intuitions. If we apply consequentialism too rigorously, for example, we might argue in favor of treating someone unjustly or cruelly because the overall result is beneficial. Imagine, for example, a thousand people watching a handful of slaves being eaten alive by lions. A strict consequentialist might calculate that the pleasure derived by the thousand people outweighs the suffering of a few slaves. However, even if there were a way to measure such emotions, this does not seem right. Of course, the fact that there is no way of measuring utility presents a further difficulty.
The question here is do the ends justify the means? Can you do something that is wrong in itself in order to produce a beneficial result?
Active versus Passive Harm
The questions posed above have obvious answers: it is immoral to sacrifice innocents for fun; it is moral to lie in order to save a life. Ozymandias’ case is more complicated. He actively chooses to harm many innocents in order to prevent an even greater harm.
Cases of this kind often provoke seemingly illogical responses, as we see with the well-known trolley problem. People’s moral intuitions are short-circuited when presented with a highly artificial situation. This shows that such intuitions don’t form a coherent system. Suppose a trolley is about to run over five people unless you reroute it, such that it will kill one person instead. Would you do it? When the question is posed in this way, people tend to say yes, demonstrating utilitarian thinking: it is better for one person to die than five. Now, suppose instead that you’re standing on a bridge above the track, and the only way to stop the trolley is to push the fat man next to you down into its path. When the question is posed this way, most people say they wouldn’t act, which seems deontological: it’s wrong to kill someone, even in order to save others.
So what’s the difference between the two actions, since, in both cases, you would be choosing to kill one person in order to save five?
The difference is that, while in the artificial scenario above you know what the consequences of your actions will be, in real life you do not. That’s why principles that don’t require you to know the consequences of your actions have their place.
Actions, Consequences and Rules
Utilitarianism can be justified on the basis that the only intrinsic good is pleasure and the only intrinsic evil is suffering. It’s almost impossible to avoid feeling that pleasure is good and pain is bad: that’s what the words mean. This perception can lead to the notion that we should always to try maximize pleasure and minimize pain. Or, similarly, always try to maximize the good and minimize the bad.
This is all well and good, but we cannot necessarily maximize the good and minimize the bad by attempting to use that as a rule in every individual decision. Sometimes, a single rational choice will not produce the best results and it is better to follow a general rule, even if that leads to some less rational individual choices.
Smoking isn’t good for you. But a single cigarette won’t do you any harm: you won’t get lung cancer from a single cigarette—at least, the odds are negligible. So you could smoke one cigarette. But, after that, one more won’t hurt. So you could smoke one more. Even if you’ve already smoked a number of cigarettes and think you should stop, no one cigarette alone is going to destroy your health. But you still have to draw a line somewhere—you need to stop smoking altogether, cut down drastically or follow some other sensible rule because, if you don’t, you can always justifying smoking one more cigarette—and never stop.
This is the paradox of rationality: sometimes you have to follow rules, instead of simply doing what seems most rational in the present moment. Moral rules are a bit more complicated, but a similar principle applies: when the stakes are high enough, you may have to follow a rule, rather than trying to maximize utility (maximizing the good and minimizing the bad) on each individual occasion—or the end results will be worse.
So, what rules should you follow? Here is one: don’t directly cause harm. Not even if you think it will cause more good in the end. Because you can be much more sure of the direct harm than of the more distant good. Of course, this rule must be applied with a little flexibility—it may not be appropriate when faced with potential Armageddon.
This may also be why people are confused by the trolley problem. They are unwilling to directly cause harm, even though they may be willing to cause harm indirectly.
Was Ozymandias Right?
Ozymandias would clearly have pushed the fat man onto the tracks. He is hyper-rational. He will do whatever is necessary to avert the worst consequences. He claims to understand the severity of what he has to do: “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 expected results? On the one hand, his plan seems to have succeeded and saved the world from an otherwise inevitable doom. Yet so many things had to go right for his plan to succeed. Watchmen seems to suggest that he couldn’t possibly have taken everything into account. Rorschach, for example, could have made it back and implicated him. (Would Rorschach really have chosen to follow his principles, thinking that this would cause Armageddon—or did he think it would simply cause his own death?) In the end, however, it’s hinted that Rorschach’s journal, which implicates Ozymandias, might be published after all. This suggests that Ozymandias was wrong in thinking that he could ensure the success of such a complex plan—and was therefore wrong to inflict such great harm, under the supposition that he could prevent greater harm.
However, there’s an even more important reason to question whether Ozymandias was right to sacrifice so many to prevent nuclear war—the war never happened in real life. Watchmen was written during the Cold War, when many believed that war was inevitable. But, in retrospect, this assumption seems foolish—and the sacrifice of others therefore seems totally unjustified.
The reason that the ends don’t justify the means is that you can’t control the ends in the same way as you can control the means. You can’t foresee the consequences of your actions. You must therefore be very wary of causing direct harm because you think it will bring about a greater indirect good. Extreme consequentialism might be the right approach in theory, in some cases, on paper—but real life doesn’t work that way.
There are no absolute final rules. We must weigh up consequentialist and deontological considerations in each new situation. However, the fact that we cannot predict what will happen shows that deontological rules are necessary, even from a consequentialist viewpoint. The ends cannot justify the means if there is an unavoidable uncertainty about consequences. Ozymandias was wrong because even a superhero can’t control the future.