Jonathan Hickman thinks big. He took the reins of Marvel’s flagship Avengers series in 2012 with a three-year plan in mind, one that’s brought readers to the outermost edges of the galaxy and back again. Hickman’s semi-related parallel title, New Avengers, stretches the mind to imagine entire other universes crashing into our own and destroying all that we’ve ever known.
New Avengers also manages to turn its focus inward, to analyze not just questions of fantastic physics, but of human morality. The recently released issue #21, in particular, has gotten people thinking–and talking–about a concept ethicists and cognitive scientists have been examining for almost 50 years.

When Worlds Collide

In New Avengers, the dastardly do-gooders of the Illuminati are faced with a mind-numbingly horrific problem. Infinite parallel universes are slowly crashing into each other, two at a time, and when their respective Earths come into contact, both realities are completely annihilated. If those Earths can be prevented from meeting, however, the reaction is thwarted. The Black Panther learns this when the mysterious Black Swan arrives in Wakanda and promptly destroys the planet from which she came, another Earth hanging above.


New Avengers #1

When it becomes apparent that these “incursions” will continue, the clandestine group duplicates the destructive anti-matter bomb the Swan employed, with the hopes that they’ll find alternate solutions and will never have to activate the devices.

Eventually the Illuminati’s luck runs out, and they’re faced with an oncoming, populated world defended by its own mighty heroes. Once the alternate Earth’s defenders are defeated, Panther and crew are forced to confront the ultimate decision.


New Avengers #21

Despite Iron Man’s heart of palladium and Dr. Strange’s demonic possession, our heroes can’t find it within themselves to pull the trigger, so it’s left to the Marvel Universe’s first super-villain, Namor the Submariner, to sully his soul and kill the billions of one planet to ensure that a billion billion more will live to see the next day.


New Avengers #21

It’s a choice that a seemingly large number of comic fans have taken exception to, even though the thought experiment devised by philosopher Phillipa Foot in 1967 suggests that most people would make the same decision.

Planet on the Tracks

Of course what’s commonly called the “Trolley Problem” isn’t quite as grand in scope. The query supposes that a train is barreling down on a group of five people tied to the track. You stand next to a switch that would divert the train onto another track where only one person is trapped (how or why a moustache-twirling villain went to all this trouble is usually overlooked). Would you flip the switch, dooming the otherwise safe individual to save the five in the train’s current path?

Studies tend to find the answer is “yes” for almost 90% of people (PDF link). Wanting to do the most good in a bad situation seems to be the norm. But those convictions don’t always hold when the experiment is modified. Imagine instead of being on the ground, you’re standing on an overpass next to a decidedly fat guy. Instead of simply flipping a switch, you could PUSH him in front of the train, killing him and stopping the speeding locomotive before it mows down the unfortunate five. Would you do it?

Only 11% of us would, although most respondents have a hard time articulating what the difference is. Maybe the physical effort feels more like getting your hands dirty than just pushing a button. But that’s all Namor did, remotely detonating an explosive from hundreds of miles away. Is it the sheer numbers, then, that boggle our minds? Killing several billion people, for whatever reason, just feels monstrous on some level, and it’s hard to conceive of the trillions and trillions you’d be saving.

Deo/Teleo

Or is something else at work here? Maybe something more fundamental. Most philosophers argue that when a person makes an ethical decision, he is arriving at that choice through one of two classes of thought.

Deontologists, perhaps most famously represented by 18th century thinker Immanuel Kant, typically create a stringent set of rules for themselves that must be adhered to at all times. Once set, to deviate from this self-imposed rubric would be seen as abandoning one’s principles, a fate worse than any other. Deontology eliminates a lot of pesky decision-making and thus leaves its practitioners with a clean conscience; just do what the rules tell you to, even if the outcome is undesirable. Although a deontologist will have to apply some thought if several of his rules apparently contradict each other in a certain situation, as long as he behaves consistently going forward, he’ll still be able to sleep at night.


Immanuel Kant, developer of the “Categorical Imperative” that everyone should freely choose to live by rules they’d want to see all others live by.

To a deontologist, a teleologist is more wishy-washy. Teleologists prefer to consider each individual problem on its own and not constrain themselves to black and white, rote requirements. Utilitarianism, a common form of teleology, offers that whatever decision does the greatest good or causes the most happiness is the ethically correct one, and all possibilities should be considered to identify that outcome. Utilitarians often consider the goal to more important than how you get there, and may be more willing to bend the rules if the anticipated result is just.


New Avengers #21

Most people tend to lean toward utilitarianism over deontology, but you wouldn’t know that if you read a comic book message board within the last couple weeks, where Namor is pilloried as the greatest villain there’s ever been. Why the discrepancy?

Even in the Face of Armageddon

Probably because most of our heroes are straight-up deontologists. Batman, Spider-Man, etc. simply will not kill. No matter how many times the Joker breaks out of Arkham Asylum to go on yet another murder spree, the so-called Dark Knight won’t put him down for good. Batman adheres to his code and thus fulfills his deontological duty, but a strict utilitarian might instead think the correct and moral action is to eliminate the cause of so much suffering, beliefs be damned.


“Finish it already!” – A utilitarian. Image by Bentti Bisson on deviantart.com

As Jonathan Hickman presents him, Namor is the ultimate utilitarian, having been called both a hero and a villain at times. He sees the others’ inaction as weakness and selfishness, not wanting to taint themselves in exchange for the lives of the countless that could be saved. Namor is willing to do what’s best for the most, even if it’s through a less than heroic act.


New Avengers #22

Dilemmas

Both the trolley problem and the plot of New Avengers can be (and have been) criticized for the artificially binary nature of the decision, a “false dilemma” as author Chris Edwards put it in a 2012 Skeptic magazine article. There’s really no other way to stop the train? How do you know the fat guy would even land in the right place?

And despite all this agonizing over decision-making, some neurologic research suggests that our conscious choices, even our moral ones, aren’t as up to us as we’d want them to be. A famous set of experiments performed by Benjamin Libet in the 1970s showed that an electrical process in the brain called the “readiness potential” can be observed in a subject a significant fraction of a second before the subject is aware they’ve made a decision, implying the thought was an after effect of a deeper, unconscious cause.

Of course the validity and meaning of the Libet experiments themselves are hotly contested. More recent fMRI tests, though, seem to back up the original conclusions, and might even extend the time between decision-making and conscious acknowledgement to several seconds.

But all that reality doesn’t matter much if you’re just telling a story and trying to get people to think a bit. The nature of morality and how one decides what’s just are big ideas, ones you don’t see in your average superhero comic.