Spider-Man and Philosophy: With Great Power Comes Great Culpability

Is Spider-Man responsible for Uncle Ben’s death? He let the thief who ultimately shot him escape. Had he done the right thing, Uncle Ben would be alive. But, like, come on, how was Peter Parker supposed to know that this thief was violent enough to kill anyone, let alone specifically Uncle Ben? Is Peter really culpable for Uncle Ben’s death due to what amounts to dumb luck?

That’s how the law works. Not in the sense that Peter is legally responsible for Uncle Ben’s death, even under Good Samaritan laws (which I don’t think New York even has, but I didn’t check), but in the sense that if you do something that could have resulted in negligent homicide and nothing happens, you’re off the hook, but if you do something that does result in negligent homicide, you’re going to prison for at least a year. Even for intentional crimes, we hand out lesser sentences for trying to kill someone and failing than for actually making it work. This seems weird no matter how you slice it. In terms of both retribution and rehabilitation, someone who tries to do a murder and just isn’t very good at it is equally disturbed, whether we want to punish them for their wickedness or heal them of it, for deterrence, the action we’re trying to deter is, in fact, attempting the murder, since obviously the would-be murderer cannot know in advance whether or not they’ll succeed, so attempted and successful murder should be deterred equally, and for incapacitation, murder frequently carries a life or even death sentence, which are the only two sentences that make any kind of sense from the perspective of incapacitation (assuming we’re unwilling to hack off limbs), whereas attempted murder almost never does, so what gives.

But look at the negligent homicide example again. Someone fails to get their brakes checked, even though they’ve been acting up for a while. After a few months, they finally roll into the mechanic and get them fixed. The mechanic tells them that they could’ve really hurt someone due to being unable to brake, and the driver shrugs and gets on with their life. No crime has been committed. Someone else does the exact same thing, accidentally kills someone, and because the brakes were a known issue that they intentionally ignored, they’re going to jail for at least a year (depending, I’m sure, on jurisdiction). Putting them right next to each other, it doesn’t seem fair, but what’s the solution? Do we let the guy who killed someone because he couldn’t be bothered to get a mechanic to check his failing brakes for months off the hook? Or do we punish everyone whose actions could have resulted in negligent homicide with a minimum of a year in prison? Granted, you might think the American prison system is sufficiently barbaric that subjecting someone to a year of it (possibly many) is disproportionate, but substitute whatever punishment you think is justified for actually killing someone through negligence. Should everyone who could potentially have killed someone through a negligent action be punished this way? Most people wouldn’t say so.

Also, although it’s only relevant to a minor detail of the article that I’ve glossed over in my summary, TIL that in the comics Aunt May got in an argument with Uncle Ben that led to his leaving the house, which resulted in his fateful encounter with the burglar. She actually blames herself for Uncle Ben’s death as much as Peter. I won’t say this redeems undoing Aunt May’s death, which is, like, the only good part of the Clone Saga, but hey, at least in the twenty years since hitting that reset button we have had one moment that was actually at all useful. Did you know that reversing Aunt May’s death was apparently a signing requirement for a creator who turned out to suck anyway? First clue should’ve been that he insisted on reversing a really well done death scene to bring back a character that Spider-Man had outgrown.

Anyway, ultimately Peter Parker’s culpability in Uncle Ben’s death is an open question, because while you could reasonably predict that letting an armed robber go might result in violence, it’s hardly a straightforward chain of causality, Aunt May is definitely just guilt tripping herself because the connection between arguing with your husband and him being murdered could not possibly have been predicted by any given reasonable person, and John Byrne should be tried at the Hague.

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