Is the World’s Smartest Man an Act Utilitarian?

Okay – since everyone else on teh t’interwebz seems to be blogging about Watchmen, I thought I might join in.  Especially because, if I don’t, David will: I think he’s more of a geek than I.  (Most people are.)  So, yeah.  Long, violent, extraordinarily faithful to the book except for the improved dénouement, I’d’ve shot the final scene differently, and so on.  But what struck me was the way in which the lead characters seem to embody certain moral archetypes almost perfectly.

***I don’t think that there are any spoilers ahead, but if you’ve not read the book or seen the film, you might want to take care…***

Rorschach is, quite obviously, Kantian: he’s all about defending a principle, no matter what the contingency and the cost.  His decision at the end of the story is, in many senses, a souped-up version of the “murderer at the door” scenario, and he chooses as Kant would have done, though the world be lost.  By contrast, Ozymandias seems to be straightforwardly act-utilitarian – which troubles me, because I don’t want the world’s smartest man to be a utilitarian at all.  Nite-Owl, faced with the dilemma at the story’s climax, seems to me to display a kind of virtue-theory: he has no principles that push him dogmatically either way, but is willing to make pragmatic sacrifices for the sake of a world that reasonable beings would, presumably, admit was the better.  I’m struggling with Silk Spectre – I don’t want her to end up with Care ethics by default, but she does struggle with family commitments and emotional attachment in a way that’s not true of the other characters and in a way that’s roughly in line with aspects of Care ethics.  That just leaves Dr Manhattan.  What are we to make of a 50-foot glow-in-the-dark naked tachyon bloke?

Well, he’s clearly Greek, because there’s a whiff of virtue ethics about him.  But he’s not Aristotelian – Aristotle understands people, and Dr Manhattan clearly doesn’t; indeed, he seems to be largely indifferent about individual lives, able as he is to see them in their true significance.  Indeed, he sees the world in a manner that’s incomprehensible to the rest of us, removed as it is from all contingencies of time and space.  But, nonetheless, he’s willing to make a tremendous personal sacrifice and be unjustly condemned for a crime he has not committed, and to do so for the sake of an ideal the virtues of which he can see and appreciate irrespective of his indifference.  Moreover, he does so with a tremendous humility; and he refuses to acknowledge that he is anything like a god.  Dr Manhattan is Socrates.

I think I’ve got a whole new set of teaching resources.  If, that is, my future students are nerds.


UPDATE: Oh, and I wonder also about Dr M’s failure to act when The Comedian murders that woman in Vietnam.  For what is he blameable?  (It seems that there must be something.)   Is it for the murder?  Is a failure to act to prevent it as bad as committing it?  Or is a failure to act to prevent a bad thing morally different from acting to bring it about?  And, if so, how bad is a failure to intervene to prevent a bad thing?  An interesting slant on the acts/ omissions debate…

  • David Hunter

    1. Lets not have a biggest geek contest. Though I admit I will probably win it, I do try to hide it gracefully… That said I’ve managed to restrain myself from seeing the movie thus far, though no doubt I’ll snap soon. Glad they did away with the giant squid ending though.

    2. Sadly the world’s smartest man being a utilitarian is nothing new in the entertainment industry, just remember Spock the archetypical smart guy poster boy for utilitarianism. Of course picking what Kirk is is harder, I tend to go for a Rossian intuitionist or perhaps a follower of some fairly fuzzy principles (maybe even four of them).

    3. Looks like you are already working on your paper for when the inevitable “Watchmen and Philosophy” book is put together…

  • Iain Brassington

    Ahhh – of course: I’d forgotten about Mr Spock. It’d be interesting to know how he bases his utilitarianism, though – when he says that the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few, what’s his assessment of need? Presumably, it boils down to an account of the good rather than of the right – and that makes him look rather more fluffy than he’d like us to think.

    I say it’d be interesting to know… I am, of course, lying.

  • Tom Moberly

    Unfortunately, Iain’s been beaten to the ‘inevitable “Watchmen and Philosophy” book’. That was Irwin and White’s ‘Watchmen and Philosophy: A Rorschach Test’. I’ve not read it, but I think it riffs on similar issues. See:

    [IB edit: Paternalism is alive and well – I’ve fixed the link for you. And – gah! I might have known!]