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With great power comes marginally more responsibility: An ethicist looks at Spider-Man’s famous motto

Or: ‘Peter Parker can take a damn day off if he wants to’

In celebration of everyone’s favorite web-head, July is Spectacular Spider-Month at AiPT!. We have a series of amazing articles in store for the month. Movies, television, gaming, and of course comics will all be covered with great responsibility as we honor one of comics’ greatest heroes.

To kick off AiPT! Science‘s critical analysis of Spidey and his world, ethics professor Aaron Rabinowitz returns to tell Peter Parker to take a break every now and then. It might be what’s actually best.

In the pantheon of superhero cliches, few mottoes have attained the universality of Spider-Man’s “with great power comes great responsibility.” Accepting greater personal responsibility is the beating heart of Spider-Man’s origin story, which is such well-worn territory, the animated film Spider-Man:  Into The Spider-Verse made it a running gag.

It’s on Netflix right now. If you haven’t seen it yet, please go do that before anything else in your life | Credit: Sony

As with many cliches, Spider-Man’s motto replaces something accurate with something memorable. Increased power does increase responsibility, but even with great power, there are still important limits on personal responsibility. Spider-Man’s life, post-origin story, conveys the disastrous consequences of overestimating personal responsibility.

To be fair, it’s not just Spider-Man. Comics have a consistent problem making sense of personal responsibility, and I suspect the root cause lies in their cultural predecessors. Comics draw on a rich tradition of moral mythologizing that goes back thousands of years, to the epics of Homer and other ancient poets.

Norse mythology is genuinely this weird. | Credit: Disney

For both Homer and Stan Lee, stories about great heroes of mytho-history are tools for cultural education, giving us mere mortals a variety of virtuous exemplars to idolize and impersonate. It’s easy to understand why hero-based ethical education is pervasive and preferred by many cultural educators. We all want to see ourselves as the heroic protagonists of a grand narrative. Heroic art lets us fulfill that need vicariously, while inspiring us to act the hero in our everyday lives.

The problem is that hero-based moral education typically achieves its effectiveness through simplification and exaggeration. In comics, world-threatening problems have fist-sized solutions. Cosmic conflicts between foundational moral ideologies are “resolved” through the actions of paragons of virtue.

The lifting up of heroes like Spidey and the shrinking of the scope of problems until they are within his sticky grasp makes for cathartic climaxes, but there is a cost. We get the mistaken impression that we as individuals can also punch our way to a better world, and with that comes a sense of guilt and frustration at failing to do so. The hard truth is that super powers may upend the status quo, but they won’t actually solve the complex moral quandaries that life throws at us.

Left to right: Life, Moral Quandaries | Credit: Disney

So what is the relationship between power and moral responsibility? The reality is that the relationship can’t be expressed as a simple, straight line correlation. It seems true that a total lack of power over a situation absolves a person of responsibility, and it also seems true that omniscience might make one responsible for everything, but in between, things aren’t clear. A lot depends on the specific nature of the power in question.

Consider the power of wealth. A large amount of personal wealth gives one the opportunity, and therefore the responsibility, to do a lot of good in the world with relative ease, and not just in self-aggrandizing ways.

Maybe try some bat-themed infrastructure spending | Credit: Warner Bros.

Personal super powers and personal wealth aren’t really comparable, though. If I’m Jeff Batzos, I can higher a legion of Alfreds to dispense my wealth to the people. Spider-Man can’t delegate his powers, so he must always bear the brunt of the time cost of using those powers, even when the risk to him is trivial.

It seems inconsistent that Spidey has a moral obligation to save lives all day every day, just because he’s able to do so, when the rest of us aren’t required to spend all our waking time trying to help others. Thus, the nature of the power and the ability to delegate it plays a crucial role in determining levels of personal responsibility.

What we can probably say is that personal super powers increase responsibility up to a threshold, and that threshold is determined by how much the exercise of that power prevents an individual from engaging in other activities they find personally valuable. We all have a moral obligation to help others when the cost to ourselves is small, and having powers like Spider-Man’s is likely to mean there will be more times when we can do a lot of good at small personal risk.

It doesn’t follow, though, that Peter’s powers come with a special obligation to sacrifice all his personal relationships and goals. If Peter wants to go above and beyond to help others, that is a choice he can make, and we can praise him for doing so, but if he would rather focus on having healthy relationships, he shouldn’t feel guilty and the audience shouldn’t be left with the impression that placing personal goods above impersonal goods is always wrong. I hold out hope that the superhero genre can evolve on this front.

Please let this be the one | Credit: Sony

If so, which direction should it go in? Here, I think comics can benefit from a theory called care ethics. Care ethics arose as a corrective to the kind of maximizing ethical theories like Utilitarianism, that would have Spider-Man out there sacrificing himself for the rest of time. Care ethics argues that humans flourish most when we’re encouraged to focus on the deeply committed relationships that give our lives meaning.

Doing the right thing isn’t always going off to fight and die. Often, doing the right thing is expressing compassion and commitment. While these care-giving obligations have traditionally fallen disproportionately on the Aunt Mays and the Pepper Potss (Potsseses?) of the world, there is some hope for change, if Rocket Raccoon’s more tender moments in the last two Avengers movies are any indication.

No matter how things evolve in the comic book world, the challenge of how much we owe others vs. how much we owe ourselves will never get punched into submission. It’s a challenge we all have to wrestle with through our entire lives. Maybe that’s why it’s comforting to see that we would still struggle to find a balance, even if we could do whatever a spider can.

Aaron Rabinowitz serves as the Philosopher in Residence for the Rutgers Honors College, and teaches ethics through the Rutgers philosophy department. You can see him LIVE and IN PERSON, talking about the ethics and biology of the X-Men, on at New York City’s NECSS on Sunday, July 14!

AiPT! Science is co-presented by AiPT! Comics and the New York City Skeptics.

Thank you for joining AiPT! during Spectacular Spider-Month! Be sure to check back in every day for more Spider-Man content including interviews, features, opinions, and more!

Credit: Marvel

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