Civil War: The Ethics of Logic

So I saw Captain America: Civil War last night. Let me tell you, it was great—probably somewhere in the top ten superhero movies ever. It delivered the thrills and laughs that Marvel movies are known for, as well as giving us two exceptional fight scenes and some darker, more somber character arcs to ponder.

But who cares about the movie? In preparation for this cinematic treat, I decided to read the comic book event—yes, they’re called “events”—that the movie was based on. It was a grand endeavor, demanding I read over 100 issues spanning several titles. It was not a good use of my time. But the Marvel event ended up being a surprisingly rewarding read.

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The plot for the comics and the movie are similar only in their broadest strokes—superheros fighting superheroes, a Superhero Registration Act exists, etc. In the comic universe, the entire ordeal is set off by an incident in Stamford where a team of young heroes, being filmed for a reality TV show, rush headlong into a battle, resulting in the villain Nitro self-destructing and killing hundreds of civilians including a nearby elementary school. In response to the tragedy, the U.S. Government introduces the Superhero Registration Act to draft all superheros and deem any unregistered as rogues and outlaws. Tony Stark (Iron Man) and Dr. Reed Richards (Mr. Fantastic) lead the side of the pro-registration superheroes while Steve Rogers (Captain America) heads up the underground, anti-registration movement, “The Secret Avengers.”

The rest of the story is concerned with the external and internal conflicts for all those involved. Spider-Man, for instance, initially sides with Tony Stark who has convinced him that if someone with such a precious secret identity were to publicly register it would help end the conflict. Yet, when he witnesses one of Stark and Richard’s coolly-calculated schemes end up killing Goliath, a hero that they have all fought alongside for years, Spider-Man is convinced he must switch sides. In a dramatic escape, he flees Stark Tower and joins up with Captain America and the noble rebellion. Other heroes deal with similar dilemmas as each side gears up for a final showdown.

Iron Man and Captain America, in this story, embody the very real tension in many a soul. Should I do what I think to be right or what I feel to be right. A man of science, Tony Stark can calculate with a fair degree of certainty that the Superhero Registration Act will optimize the superhero business—particularly in saving lives. On the other hand, Steve Rogers has been taught and has taught others the importance of freedom—and in general, of principle. It is something he feels very strongly about. It’s similar to how we feel about giving books to children—even though there is little scientific support that it enlightens them, or how we feel about eating perfectly edible beef—even though there’s a billion people who find it morally repulsive.

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There are plenty who have taken this tension, intelligence versus intuition, and transposed it into impressive ideological claims. Utilitarianism and Objectivism—the ideology championed by Ayn Rand, and subconsciously adopted by libertarians oddly enough—hold that moral correctness can be determined by reason. Peter Millican, an Oxford philosopher, holds that any decision or belief must be founded on adequate knowledge and logical necessity.

On the other hand, social psychologist Jonathon Haidt (someone we’ll look more at in later posts) claims that our logic really is subject to our feelings, and the ever-popular Malcolm Gladwell wrote an entire book on our guiding intuitions. There’s plenty of dissension on what does and what should guide our moral decision making.

Aside from these debates, I’d like to posit that Objectivism and a morality purely based on what can be reasoned is entirely incompatible with Christianity. That’s a punch in the gut for a lot us—which probably means that logic has been raised to an unwarranted position. Logic—mathematics, even—is a property of the created world, and as such, it would be nothing short of unnatural to exalt it above transcendent principles. And the importance of principle is something that is well known by the Cap’.

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2 Comments

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  1. Civil War certainly eschewed logic.

    I question, however, whether the story — the comics or the movie — really pitted logic/thinking against intuition/feeling. It seems more to me that it pitted consequentialism against deontology — an ethic focused on outcomes versus an ethic focused on right or wrong actions. If we divide the discussion this way, Objectivism is actually more on the Captain’s side (notwithstanding Rand’s excessive objections to charity) because it is an ethic devoted entirely to the ideal of personal freedom instead of calculating outcomes. The main distinction is that you can approach both of these ethical positions from a place of logic OR intuition — neither is particularly associated with one mode of evaluation.

    In the movie, at least, Iron Man seemed far more motivated by emotional reasoning than did Cap’, so we might be saying the same thing here, I just don’t like the “think/feel” dichotomy defining their positions.

    It’s been a while since I read the comic series, but I remember most of the pro-registration movement being fueled far more by emotional responses to catastrophic events. Captain seemed more utilitarian in the comics too — saying that even if people feel more safe because of registration, the legislation actually restricted them from accomplishing the best results. Not so much about the value of freedom, but the utility of letting this group remain unfettered.

    Thoughts?

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    • Thanks for the comments, JP!
      To begin, I think you’re exactly right to say that the battle is between utilitarianism and deontology. (In fact, I think Mark Millar has said precisely that?)

      It was my intention however to tease out this secondary dichotomy in order to 1) introduce some thoughts from Haidt and 2) see how logic merely describes reality and can do no more. This tension between reason and feeling doesn’t have to line up with the aforementioned ethical systems as you said, the consequentialist side happens to line up with “thinking” and the deontological with “feeling.”

      Also you’re right to say there’s a lot of emotion in the Civil War event; there is the outrage at the Stamford accident and the writers work hard to humanize each character. However Stark and Richards (particularly Richards) are shown to be very methodical in their reactions across multiple issues. That’s the characterization I was hoping to key in on for this post.

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