Spider-Man and Philosophy: “My Name Is Peter Parker”

This is another examination of Kantian deontology versus utilitarian consequentialism that does not understand even the basic premise of utilitarian consequentialism. Christ, what is it with these philosophy essays that the basic idea of “judge an action by its outcomes” is so goddamn difficult to grasp?

In this case, the failure is an inability to understand (or acknowledge) human ability to recognize and exploit patterns. Specifically, the argument is made that since consequences are unpredictable, you can’t use them as a guide to making ethical decisions. This is dumb. Just because you cannot flawlessly predict the future doesn’t mean you can’t make educated guesses, and then update your model of reality to account for new evidence when one of your predictions turns out wrong. The heart of consequentialism is not “always do what brings the best consequences,” it’s “do what brings the best consequences to the best of your ability.” Consequentialism doesn’t consider it wrong to ever do something that accidentally leads to poor consequences, rather, consequentialism considers it wrong to give up on predicting consequences because it’s hard.

The essay also uses the comics Civil War to frame this discussion, which is great in general, except we’re specifically talking about Spider-Man, which means this is actually a discussion about One More Day, in which Marvel Satan offers to undo an action that Spider-Man has taken in exchange for dissolving his marriage to Mary Jane. Not the relationship they had, just the legal marriage. The essay tries to frame this as “Peter Parker has to give up the love of his life to reverse the damage to his friends and family caused by unmasking himself,” but what actually happens is that some legal documents were destroyed and in exchange Spidey got his secret identity back. All the actual adventures Spidey had that were in any way affected by his relationship with MJ happened exactly the same, they just happened to not be married. A marriage is just a commitment to behave in a certain manner. If two people behave in that manner anyway without having technically made the commitment, nothing has changed!

But also this essay makes the same mistake that every criticism of utilitiarianism I have ever encountered makes: It uses the consequences of actions to claim that measuring morality by the consequences of actions is wrong. This is self-contradicting! Look at this:

Peter begins to doubt his deontological convictions— obeying the law is usually right, but not always.25 When Peter learns more about Tony’s activities implementing registration—such as the negative zone prison for antiregistration heroes, as well as the windfall profits Tony makes from no-bid contracts to build it—his doubts are confirmed.26 The death of Goliath at the hands of the clone of Thor (“Clor”) that Tony and Hank Pym develop is the last straw. At the funeral for the fallen hero, Reed notices Peter, MJ, and May hunched together and asks Leonard Samson, “Is it just me or is Peter Parker acting very, very suspiciously?”27

Spidey initially thought he was doing the right thing, but then the consequences of his actions convince him otherwise. The side he’s supporting builds a negative zone prison for anti-registration heroes and kills one of their enemies, and this convinces Peter that he’s taken the wrong side. This is consequentialism! Peter changes sides because he re-evaluates his model of reality: He no longer trusts that Tony Stark is doing the right thing.

The essay tries to frame this as Spidey acting with disregard for the consequences of his actions, but it only lists personal consequences: It puts Aunt May and MJ at risk, because the pro-registration side knows who they are and where they live and could have them arrested as accomplices, and since everyone now knows who he is, it would require Peter Parker to pretty much give up being Peter Parker because he’s now an outlaw. But consequentialism isn’t about personal consequences. It’s about all the consequences. This essay delivers an impassioned critique of Randian self-interest and tells us that it’s basically the same as consequentialism and hopes that the reader doesn’t know enough about philosophy to notice – and since this is a pop-philosophy book, they might be right!

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