Spider-Man and Philosophy: “With Great Power Comes Great Responsibility”

Back in Final Fantasy and Philosophy, I discussed the game theory problem of deciding what topic to pick for a Pop Culture and Philosophy series essay when you don’t know what anyone else will be choosing. Do you pick B-list material relevant to the topic, confident that few, if any, of the other essayists will pick the same material? Or do you go for the obvious, A-list material and hope that everyone else went for the B-list material, allowing you to stand out, but risking being utterly smothered if the A-list material is indeed dogpiled?

Well, Adam Barkman took the A-list gambit and lost, being one of four essays that directly reference the Uncle Ben quote in the title alone. That’s nearly a quarter of the book before we even get into all the people who reference it in the text but not the title of their essay.

Also, Adam Barkman isn’t really endearing himself to me with this second paragraph:

We can appreciate the importance of this toward understanding Spider-Man if we consider the reason for the unpopularity of two manga adaptations of Spider-Man, in which this moral reason for his transformation, as well as other features of his moral depth and gravitas, are completely lacking. The main reason audiences were disappointed with the manga adaptations is that Spider-Man stripped of his Christian ethic is no longer Spider-Man at all.

I can’t wait to hear Adam Barkman’s explanation for how brown people were secretly responsible for the Clone Saga.

I’m exaggerating for comedic effect, certainly, but Adam Barkman’s cultural narcissism, his presumption that his interpretation of Christianity is so inherently correct that he can without argument call it “Christian ethics” and be understood, is definitely felt throughout this essay. This is hardly surprising, seeing as how he is specifically a scholar of CS Lewis, whose concept of “mere Christianity” is exactly that: An assertion made without evidence that CS Lewis’ brand of Christianity was totally pure, and that all other Christian sects were Christianity corrupted by being married to some additional motive or sub-culture.

Adam Barkman assumes without arguing for it that there is even such a thing as “Christian ethics,” which there is not. Christianity is so broad and different sects have so little in common across the entire nominal coalition that “Christian values” means something only in the context of the speaker’s frame of reference. If someone from Alabama talks about “Christian values,” I can be confident that they’re probably referring to either American Evangelism or Southern Baptism, which, while still including multiple individual sects, are more coherent alliances who do have some consistent ethics, although in the former case it’s increasingly clear that it’s actually a consistent lack of ethics. Maybe they’re legitimately unwilling to budge on the abortion thing? But they’ve betrayed so many other values whenever it was convenient, I don’t see any reason to believe that this one would be any different, its card just hasn’t come up yet.

The point here is, you can only know what someone means by “Christian values” if you are familiar with the narrow subset of Christianity that they, in their limited worldview, have decided defines all of Christianity across the world, to the point that no clarification on the term “Christian values” is needed. The contributors section puts Barkman as having got his PhD from the Free University of Amsterdam, and I am insufficiently familiar with the Netherlands to have any solid idea of what Adam Barkman means when he says “Christian values.” Probably European Catholic?

Here’s an example of the general quality of the philosophy in this essay, an explanation of what justice is prompted by the statement that God is perfectly just:

Justice means valuing each thing or person as they ought to be valued, wherein the value of each thing or person depends on either God’s creative choice (that is, the value God assigned each thing or person he made) or God’s own nature (where God’s own value is a sheer fact or a given that he himself can’t alter).

God is perfectly just. What does it mean to be just? It means to place the same value on things that God does. So God being “perfectly just” is just a tautological statement that he shares his own opinions, and has nothing to do with any sense of fairness or right and wrong at all. This argument is not that God, being omnibenevolent, always does what is just. This argument is that justice is by definition doing whatever God wants, regardless of other considerations. Which, uh, that’s not what justice means. Like, justice is a word with a definition and that definition doesn’t include obedience to omnipotent supernatural entities. The only people who can’t see this are people who are so deep into Christian apologetics that they can no longer communicate with people who do not already share their opinions, and that’s a pretty damning flaw for a guy whose actual job is explaining his philosophy to other people.

Or look at this:

Peter replies simply and yet profoundly, “Because it is right.” Osborne ridicules this sentiment because he denies the existence of a universal moral law, which Peter, helped by his belief in God, affirms.

Osborne sees morality as completely relative, claiming that the masses exist to lift “the few exceptional people on their shoulders.”

This is a total non-sequitir followed by something which is exactly wrong. For starters, Peter has no professed belief in God. The essay brought up Aunt May’s prayer earlier in the movie and apparently just skipped right from that to the assumption that Peter is also a Christian. More importantly, moral relativism has nothing to do with either Peter’s stated beliefs and directly contradicts Norman’s. Peter can plausibly be a moral relativist who is stating his own commitment to his personal morals, and isn’t necessarily claiming to speak for some universal moral law, but it’s left ambiguous. He says he saves people because it’s right and, in context, not for the sake of the people’s gratitude. Norman Osborn declares “here’s the real truth” before giving his “few exceptional people” spiel. Norman and only Norman explicitly plants himself on the side of moral absolutism in that scene. Seriously, watch the scene. It’s not his main point, but Norman Osborn is clearly claiming to be a representation of “the real truth,” of an absolute morality.

Now, being straight with you, this bit occurred about halfway through the essay, and I didn’t make it more than a few paragraphs further. Adam Barkman has clearly demonstrated that he has no desire to support his conclusions with any kind of evidence, and indeed that he’ll omit evidence that directly contradicts his conclusions. He uses Spider-Man as a vehicle to assert the supremacy of his very specific brand of Christianity over both other religions and other Christian sects, not by way of some argument he thinks is a knock-out against competing schools of thought, but simply by declaring his conclusions as though they were gospel, as though his words may as well be written into the New Testament alongside – if not above – Matthew and Luke. Adam Barkman’s philosophy is that no justification is needed for a statement beyond the fact that Adam Barkman spake it, and I’m not going to dignify that with a full review.

EDIT: Also, the schedule function doesn’t seem to be working properly? So this Thursday post went up like five hours after the Wednesday post and I can’t fix it. Oh, well.

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