During a fairly heated debate at my philosophical society last night, a friend posed the perennial question to me: “If you had a time machine, would you go back and kill Hitler as an infant?” Such is a rather intriguing variant of the Trolley Problem, a popular thought experiment which tests whether the responder’s moral intuitions lead towards a consequentialist or deontological ethos. Those of the former persuasion feel that the good end of a world in which the Holocaust never happened would justify the evil means of murdering an innocent infant. Those of the latter mindset argue that actions should be considered in a moral vacuum without respect to their (potential and uncertain) consequence, so that certain deeds – such as theft or murder – being intrinsically evil in and of themselves, can never be justified.
In the Trolley Problem, pulling a lever will redirect the runaway tram away from a track with five individuals tied to the rails and to a track with a single individual tied to the rails. The consequentialists do a moral calculation, figuring that the outcome in which five individuals live and only one dies produces the greatest good for the greatest number. The deontologists do no moral calculations, considering instead a qualitative difference between the passive inaction of allowing the train to proceed without interference and actively directing its path to run over an individual. It is this same question of whether or not to pull the lever, whether or not to kill baby Hitler, that’s at the heart of Action Comics #968.
Action Comics #968 (DC Comics)
L’Call the Godslayer and his associate Zane are archetypal of the consequentialist ideal, traversing through time to execute Lex Luthor prior to his ascension to the throne of Apokolips in Darkseid’s stead and subsequent subjugation and slaughter of numerous worlds. It is exactly identical to my friend’s 8 lbs. 6 oz. baby Adolf scenario, albeit with the foolhardy (but more dramatically engaging) decision by Zane and L’Call to attack Luthor after he received a Mother Box powered super-suit, instead of as a defenseless newborn. That villains should prove murderous can come as no surprise to any comic reader, but the genuinely shocking reveal on the final page is the mysterious Clark Kent’s assent to the consequential cause, arguing that Superman should indeed assassinate Luthor in order to avert seemingly certain genocide.
From a merely meta-textual perspective, Kent is clearly in the wrong. Superman as a character is defined, in part, by his refusal to kill, and any temptation to the contrary clearly cannot be considered the right course of action for him by either the author or the reader. But the character was first so-defined for a reason, that being there seems to be a more instinctively stronger case for deontology’s duty-based ethics. In Kingdom Come #3, Superman exhorts incarcerated supercriminals to turn from violent vigilantism, not laying out a well-reasoned argument, but rather appealing to their natural moral intuitions, saying “In this world there is right and wrong, and that distinction is not difficult to make… We cannot act as judge and jury. We adhere to a moral code based on the preservation of life.”
Superman offers no metaethical explanation for the source of this moral code or how humans have knowledge of such, but rather assumes every man’s conscience would convict him of the same set of moral truths. And of those truths, the most common across all cultures is the prohibition against murder. The program of philosophy is of course to closely examine such intuitions and see if they hold up to reason and conform to reality, but Superman’s own moral thinking seems not to be fully developed in that respect (for the definitive argument for deontology in comics, read Johnathan Hickman’s work in Fantastic Four, FF, Avengers, New Avengers, and Secret Wars).
Of course, Superman need not even appeal to ethics in retorting against Kent’s call to kill Luthor. Unlikely the classic trolley problem, the question of whether to assassinate the future Führer is as much a matter of metaphysics. If Zane and L’Call truly come from the future, then the future is as equally real as the past and the present – indeed, there is no “present,” or rather no moment with more realness than any other. But if there is no privileged present, then all events along the timeline have “always” existed (or more precisely, are atemporally extant), with no process of temporal becoming (or unbecoming). That there is a future for L’Call to come from and a past for him to go to necessarily implies that spacetime is solid and unchanging – in fact, immutable. But such would likewise imply that the future in which Luthor becomes as Darkseid is likewise fixed. Even were Superman persuaded by Kent or L’Call to take the consequentialist course of action, he’d either find himself unable to triumph over Luthor in combat, or else Lex would experience a resurrection of his own. Whatever happened in the L’Call’s past is determined to occur in Kal-El’s future, in accordance with Novikov self-consistency principle. (Even if the Godslayer is from a separate timeline, Superman’s actions in his own timeline would not prevent or alter the genocide that occurred in the other).
I don’t expect future issues of Action Comics to delve deeper into the ethical distinctions between deontology and consequentialism or the metaphysical implications of the Remnants’ time-travel. This issue is hardly the first in the medium’s history to dip the tip of a toe into the waters of morality and metaphysics, and hardly ever do mainstream comics wade in any further. This is unfortunate. Many other media have managed to tell utterly enthralling time-travel stories filled with morally complex characters while still working within the current concepts of spacetime; simply confer Lost, Oxenfree, Quantum Break, or The Last Question. And DC Comics have even managed such in the past, particularly Morrison’s Final Crisis and Return of Bruce Wayne – even his run on Action Comics! Jurgens is spinning an enjoyable enough yarn, but Superman comics could stand for more sophisticated storytelling.