Ethics and the Incursions (New Avengers 21)

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owie

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Edited By owie  Moderator

I want to talk about the ethics involved in the whole Incursion situation in New Avengers.

For those who don't know, this is how the Incursions work: 2 parallel universes come into contact with each other, with the contact point being Earth. This process takes 8 hours. If the 2 Earths touch, both Earths, and both of their entire universes, are destroyed. But, if one Earth is destroyed, then the other Earth, and both universes, are saved (until the next Incursion, which will take place between the saved Earth and a new parallel universe).

The Illuminati (currently Reed Richards, Dr Strange, Black Bolt, Black Panther, Namor, Tony Stark, Bruce Banner, and Beast) fully understand this situation. They have, just in case, built a bomb that can destroy another Earth, but have avoided using it. They have managed to save our Earth several times without having to destroy another Earth directly by themselves, and so have avoided the crux of the ethical question at hand: is it worth it to destroy another planet in order to save your own planet as well as your universe and the other universe?

However in New Avengers 21 they finally have to decide whether to destroy another Earth. They now have no other choice: either destroy the other Earth, using their bomb, or do nothing, in which case both universes are destroyed.

After lots of hand-wringing throughout the series, all the Illuminati say they can't actually pull the switch to set off the bomb, offering various ethical arguments for why they can't. Finally Namor says he'll do it, and in fact he does, thus destroying the other Earth, but saving our Earth, our universe, and the other universe.

I believe Namor made the correct ethical decision, and the rest of the Illuminati are fooling themselves and even being selfish. Here I'd like to examine their arguments, and point out a classic case from ethics and philosophy that is a very similar situation.

The classic case is called the Trolley problem, and you can read about it here. Also, This American Life did a great piece on it, here.

The original version goes like this: a trolley is going down the tracks. If it keeps going on the same track, it will run over 5 people who are tried up on the track. However, if you turn a switch so it runs down a different track, then those 5 people will all survive--but instead it will run over 1 person who is tied up on that alternate track. Do you turn the switch and run the trolley down the alternate track?

An alternate version goes like this: The trolley is going down the track, and there are 5 people tied up like before. But, you can stop the trolley by dropping a large weight on it. As it happens there is an enormously fat man next to you. If you drop the fat man on the trolley, it will stop the trolley and save the 5 people, but kill the fat man. Do you throw the fat man off the bridge and stop the trolley?

In surveys, most people choose to flip the switch in the first example, but less people choose to throw the fat man over the bridge in the second example, even though in both cases they are making a choice to sacrifice one life instead of 5 lives. This is usually because people feel much more active and involved in the second case, like they are doing the killing, whereas in the first problem they are just flipping a remote switch and they feel less personally responsible for the single death.

I would argue that the Illuminati don't see that these two problems are basically the same problem. Let's look at what they say:

Reed says, "I don't think I can. I know it's a necessary evil. I know I would be saving hundreds of trillions of live at the cost of mere billions....But even with all things hanging in the balance...there is a line." So Reed is basically looking at the Trolley question directly through the lens of the Fat Man version, and saying that he won't flip the switch/push the fat guy: he would rather have 5 people die than be part of killing the one, or to put it in the case he's actually facing, he'd rather both universes die than be part of killing the one earth and saving the other earth and both universes.

Stark, Beast, and Banner all agree they don't want to use it without explanation. Beast and Banner have in the past however agreed that they feel like using the bomb would somehow make them lose their humanity. Beast says in 19: "What if this isn't an exercise in survival, but a question of humanity? You tell me--who here knows better than you and I the reality of that struggle...and how easily the human gives way to something less moral and more primal."

Strange won't do it, but only because he had already tried to destroy the planet through magical means, and the Illuminati stopped him, so he's mad at them.

Black Bolt doesn't say, but the implication is that he won't do it.

Then Black Panther, an ethical utilitarian if ever there was one, says he'll do it. He is backed by the spirits of past Black Panthers who say that he needs to do whatever it takes to keep his own Wakanda alive. This is a different argument than the trolley question; it's saying that our Earth, with our Wakanda, is actually more deserving of life, regardless of the numbers question. That's a whole different point and less defensible.

However Panther balks. He says, "The horror of it--the inhumanity. Murdering all those people. Killing a world. ...It's wrong." Then: "Shouldn't such [an act] be beneath us? The very nature of it...the ignobility of it."

Reed follows up with him: "When we got to the end of ourselves, we found that there were things we would not do. And you know, I am not ashamed of that. You shouldn't be either....It matters."

However, Namor counters: "'It matters.' The way you people talk about your lives---like they mean something. 'It matters.' I am the greatest man I know...but compared to this, I'm nothing. Just as you...are nothing...."

Reed tells him "it's not worth it."

Namor returns, "These lines you won't cross...these things you won't do..they SHAME you. How dare any of you put yourself--your damned morals--above the lives of every living thing? The truth is, you people aren't worth that...and neither am I. Our lives are a pittance." Then he sets off the bomb.

I would argue that Namor sees this problem correctly. (As he says, hilariously, next issue, they should thank him for doing it.) Among the others, Richards, Panther, Beast, and Banner are all arguing that their own personal feeling of sin/shame/humanity/self-worth are more important than the lives of everyone in both universes. In other words, they don't want to kill everyone on the one earth, thereby saving the rest of both universes, because they would feel bad--for the ten remaining minutes before they themselves are destroyed!

Namor explicitly points this out--he says they're putting their morals over others' lives. What would all the dead people in both universes care about how badly one person feels, compared to the fact that their own lives are ended?

And note that the other Illuminati aren't even necessarily trying to stop one of their compatriots from setting off the bomb for most of this conversation--Reed keeps trying to pass it on to someone else for a while. No one tries to stop Black Panther, for instance, although they do tell Namor to stop. By implication, they are OK with the other Earth dying, they just don't want to be the one to pull the trigger themselves.

I believe the Illuminati in this situation are completely off their ethical rocker, and Namor is the only one of sound mind. Basically I'm annoyed because Hickman is trying to present this as a legitimate ethical dilemma for the heroes, and I don't think it is. If the situation was, you kill one earth to save just your own earth, I could see it. That could seem selfish, although selfishness can still be defensible. But it not only saves your earth, it saves both universes. The choice is obvious. And for making it, Namor gets attacked by Panther and blamed for his actions by all the Illuminati in the next issue.

Anyway. Thoughts on the ethics of the Incursions? Does anyone agree with Reed/Panther/Beast/Banner? Any thoughts on the Trolley problem?

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I would have done what namor did. Its them or us, so its them. No one deserves to live more than anyone else, but I would most definitely save earth. By refusing to destroy the other planet you are destroying two planets and universes, which is even worse. By destroying the one planet you are saving two entire universes full of people. Someones morals aren't above billions of lives. That's my take on it at least.

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#2  Edited By PhoenixoftheTides

Namor was right. This is one of those situations that shows the hypocrisy behind most superhero ethics. Many of them aren't willing to make the hard choices or sacrifices that actually defines a hero, so the only reason they are "superheroes" is because they fight "supervillains".

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RideASpaceCowboy

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#3  Edited By RideASpaceCowboy
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Namor was wrong.

In your defense of him you assume a utilitarian ethos which pursuits “the greatest good for the greatest number.” If such were the correct moral principle, then such a conclusion would indeed be correct.

I argue, however, that a deontological ethos should be followed in moral decision making, in which all moral actions are considered in a vacuum. Thus the question “Is it wrong to murder a populated world” can never be qualified with “in order to….” The action is wrong, in and of itself, and therefore ought not to be committed.

A deontologist solves the Trolley problem by distinguishing between active and passive deeds. The act of preventing a trolley from running over five individuals is morally commendable, but not morally obligatory. The active deed may be praised, but the passive deed of allowing the individuals to die cannot be condemned. Inversely, when the active deed itself constitutes murder, as in the cases of switching the lever or dropping the fat man, then the active deed becomes morally condemnable, while the passive deed remains morally neutral, as in the first case.

When the Illuminati save one or more worlds, their actions are morally commendable.

When the Illuminati murder a populated world, their actions are morally condemnable.

When the Illuminati fail to save or murder a world, their actions (or lack thereof) are morally neutral, on the exact same moral level of everyone else on Earth-616 who failed to act in regards to the incursions.

The fate of the world is NOT in their hands, but the state of their souls IS in their hands. And the latter is infinitely more valuable than the former.

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#4  Edited By RideASpaceCowboy
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Namor was wrong.

In your defense of him you assume a utilitarian ethos which pursuits “the greatest good for the greatest number.” If such were the correct moral principle, then such a conclusion would indeed be correct.

I argue, however, that a deontological ethos should be followed in moral decision making, in which all moral actions are considered in a vacuum. Thus the question “Is it wrong to murder a populated world” can never be qualified with “in order to….” The action is wrong, in and of itself, and therefore ought not to be committed.

A deontologist solves the Trolley problem by distinguishing between active and passive deeds. The act of preventing a trolley from running over five individuals is morally commendable, but not morally obligatory. The active deed may be praised, but the passive deed of allowing the individuals to die cannot be condemned. Inversely, when the active deed itself constitutes murder, as in the cases of switching the lever or dropping the fat man, then the active deed becomes morally condemnable, while the passive deed remains morally neutral, as in the first case.

When the Illuminati save one or more worlds, their actions are morally commendable.

When the Illuminati murder a populated world, their actions are morally condemnable.

When the Illuminati fail to save or murder a world, their actions (or lack thereof) are morally neutral, on the exact same moral level of everyone else on Earth-616 who failed to act in regards to the incursions.

The fate of the world is NOT in their hands, but the state of their souls IS in their hands. And the latter is infinitely more valuable than the former.

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@rideaspacecowboy: damn nice answer. You pulled some philosophy on us real quick. No saying I agree but its definitely something to think about

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#6 owie  Moderator

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Namor was wrong.

In your defense of him you assume a utilitarian ethos which pursuits “the greatest good for the greatest number.” If such were the correct moral principle, then such a conclusion would indeed be correct.

I argue, however, that a deontological ethos should be followed in moral decision making, in which all moral actions are considered in a vacuum. Thus the question “Is it wrong to murder a populated world” can never be qualified with “in order to….” The action is wrong, in and of itself, and therefore ought not to be committed.

A deontologist solves the Trolley problem by distinguishing between active and passive deeds. The act of preventing a trolley from running over five individuals is morally commendable, but not morally obligatory. The active deed may be praised, but the passive deed of allowing the individuals to die cannot be condemned. Inversely, when the active deed itself constitutes murder, as in the cases of switching the lever or dropping the fat man, then the active deed becomes morally condemnable, while the passive deed remains morally neutral, as in the first case.

When the Illuminati save one or more worlds, their actions are morally commendable.

When the Illuminati murder a populated world, their actions are morally condemnable.

When the Illuminati fail to save or murder a world, their actions (or lack thereof) are morally neutral, on the exact same moral level of everyone else on Earth-616 who failed to act in regards to the incursions.

The fate of the world is NOT in their hands, but the state of their souls IS in their hands. And the latter is infinitely more valuable than the former.

Nice, I appreciate the in-depth answer.

I'd argue that stopping a trolley from running over 5 individuals, when the possibility to do so is in your hands, is in fact morally obligatory, looked at from a moral vacuum point of view. If life is important, and you are capable of saving a great number of lives, why would it not be the case that you are at fault if you do not work to save it? In other words, it is both a praiseworthy thing to save lives, but also a condemnable thing to not save lives when possible. If death is going to occur in either case, with or without your intervention, is it not your responsibility to minimize it? I don't see it as neutral.

It may be wrong to kill a world, but is it not also a greater wrong to allow even greater loss of life when it is in their hands to stop it? In other words, I would agree that Namor has committed murder, an immoral act. But he also saved many people, a moral act that I would argue is of greater scale due to the greater number of lives. Whereas the other Illuminati refused to kill, which is moral, but refused to save other lives, which is immoral. I think it's important to recognize that an act can be both moral and immoral depending on which consequences we are talking about. Actions may not fall into categories where they are simply right or wrong, but are right in some ways and wrong in others.

Of course, discussing the scale of the morality partly depends on whether we feel that one death is just as important as the death of many, in the sense that if a life has infinite worth then many lives would just be multiples of infinity. Personally however I think many lives are worth more than one life.

The question of the state of their souls is also important, since it depends on whether we think there is such a thing as a soul in a religious sense. If not, then one's bruised moral state is basically meaningless compared to the continued life of others.

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#7  Edited By force_echo

@rideaspacecowboy: Really? Their souls are more valuable than the lives of two planets? Seems pretty dang selfish to me.

People like to make complex ethical issues of things that are not. It's a numbers game. Kill 1 Earth or have both die? It literally makes no sense whatsoever to not do something. It's not even a case like in the trolly car scenario where it's "kill one guy who would have otherwise been alive", you're not choosing between the two Earths, if you don't act, the Earth you didn't destroy is dead ANYWAY and it takes your Earth along with it. It's a sucky choice, but a completely inevitable one. Inaction is the same as action. There is no difference between "active and passive deeds". If you have the power to save someone, and you do nothing, then you are guilty. Those people in the apartment block who saw the murder of Kitty Genovese and did nothing? They are guilty. Maybe not on the same level as the murderer, but "morally neutral"? Sounds like a crackpot philosophy to me.

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#8  Edited By Cave_Duck

This is a pretty tough choice that was put there for the Illuminati, and I'll have to admit to agreeing with Namor's choice- up until he asks for thanks for doing it.

I think we'd all like to say we'd do this or that if in that person's shoes, but until you are actually in a situation like that you'll never know. Hindsight or even distance are always massive modifiers or arguments.

Not having read the actual comic involved though, how you mentioned that a few Incursions had already been avoided without world-killing, may have also made the choice to destroy the world in question harder. In the back of your mind you'd always be thinking "what if I waited a second longer and it fixed itself?"

Anyway, I agree with Namor's stance on choosing the world you know and live in over the other one. But the part where the Illuminati start attacking him for using the device they all conspired to make and to use, seems a bit weak. Sure the group would have most likely gone their own separate ways due to guilt/shame/disgust/sorrow at the situation they'd just experienced. But all turning on the one guy who chose to shoulder the burden they couldn't/weren't willing to, seems like the old superhero plot device no. 467 "when in doubt, fight it out."

(Hope all that makes sense...)

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#9  Edited By Lordhuck

I'm with Namor.

I don't think Panther can immediately see through his rage lust to realize that Namor just saved the life of everyone in Wakanda.

According to Reed there were Hundreds of Trillions of lives at stake. I know it's Reed Richards I'm talking about but I think he was under estimating the amount of lives in 2 entire universes. The math is staggering.

There are an estimated septillion stars in our Observable universe. that's a "1" with 24 zeros 1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000

But there could be more than that.

It’s been calculated that the observable Universe is a bubble of space 47 billion years in all directions.

It defines the amount of the Universe that we can see, because that’s how long light has taken to reach us since the Big Bang.

This is a minimum value, the Universe could be much bigger – it’s just that we can’t ever detect those stars because they’re outside the observable Universe. It’s even possible that the Universe is infinite, stretching on forever, with an infinite amount of stars. So add a couple more zeros. Maybe an infinite number of zeroes.

That’s a lot of stars in the Universe. Just one universe and the Illuminati are talking about 2

Its like if pushing the fat man in front of the trolley wouldn't just save the 5 people in the trolley scenario but all 7.2 billion people on earth. The Trolley isn't that great of a comparison scenario really for multiple reasons.

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#10  Edited By RideASpaceCowboy
@owie said:

The classic case is called the Trolley problem, and you can read about it here. Also, This American Life did a great piece on it, here.

The original version goes like this: a trolley is going down the tracks. If it keeps going on the same track, it will run over 5 people who are tried up on the track. However, if you turn a switch so it runs down a different track, then those 5 people will all survive--but instead it will run over 1 person who is tied up on that alternate track. Do you turn the switch and run the trolley down the alternate track?

An alternate version goes like this: The trolley is going down the track, and there are 5 people tied up like before. But, you can stop the trolley by dropping a large weight on it. As it happens there is an enormously fat man next to you. If you drop the fat man on the trolley, it will stop the trolley and save the 5 people, but kill the fat man. Do you throw the fat man off the bridge and stop the trolley?

In surveys, most people choose to flip the switch in the first example, but less people choose to throw the fat man over the bridge in the second example, even though in both cases they are making a choice to sacrifice one life instead of 5 lives. This is usually because people feel much more active and involved in the second case, like they are doing the killing, whereas in the first problem they are just flipping a remote switch and they feel less personally responsible for the single death.ow, I am not ashamed of that. You shouldn't be either....It matters."

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#11 owie  Moderator

@owie said:

The classic case is called the Trolley problem, and you can read about it here. Also, This American Life did a great piece on it, here.

The original version goes like this: a trolley is going down the tracks. If it keeps going on the same track, it will run over 5 people who are tried up on the track. However, if you turn a switch so it runs down a different track, then those 5 people will all survive--but instead it will run over 1 person who is tied up on that alternate track. Do you turn the switch and run the trolley down the alternate track?

An alternate version goes like this: The trolley is going down the track, and there are 5 people tied up like before. But, you can stop the trolley by dropping a large weight on it. As it happens there is an enormously fat man next to you. If you drop the fat man on the trolley, it will stop the trolley and save the 5 people, but kill the fat man. Do you throw the fat man off the bridge and stop the trolley?

In surveys, most people choose to flip the switch in the first example, but less people choose to throw the fat man over the bridge in the second example, even though in both cases they are making a choice to sacrifice one life instead of 5 lives. This is usually because people feel much more active and involved in the second case, like they are doing the killing, whereas in the first problem they are just flipping a remote switch and they feel less personally responsible for the single death.ow, I am not ashamed of that. You shouldn't be either....It matters."

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Ha, I saw that comic a while ago and thought of this post too.