trolley problem in marvel

If there’s one thing Marvel icons such as Captain America, the X-Men, and Spider-Man are known for, it’s their ability to stay noble even in the most hopeless of situations. With their vow to never kill and to always find a way to save every innocent—and the not-so-innocent—they definitely hold themselves to high standards. Yet, in a number of presented situations, saving the highest number of people means having to make sacrifices and crossing lines self-professed heroes never thought they would have to cross. Ranging from child murder to planetary annihilation, the answers to questions of morality aren’t always as clear to Marvel heroes as one would assume.

In moral philosophy, we refer to someone who’s willing to accept extreme measures—as long as they serve the greater good and overall well-being of everyone affected in the outcome—as a utilitarian. Utilitarians such as Jeremy Bentham believe that humans are governed by two forces, pleasure and suffering: we want to avoid suffering and gain pleasure. This is why utilitarian ethics are rooted in the minimization of suffering—and the maximization of pleasure. In Bentham’s version of utilitarianism, it’s permissible to make sacrifices as long as they are outweighed by the benefits. If you want to find out whether you think utilitarian when it comes to moral dilemmas, the Trolley Problem is a (fun) task to set for your own mind.

Imagine yourself standing next to a set of train tracks. In the far distance, you can see a group of five people tied up to those tracks, with no possibility of escape. There’s no way for you to set them free in time because a train is already rushing toward them. However, you realize that the lever you stand right next to could divert the trolley onto another set of tracks—tracks to which only one person is tied. Do you pull the lever? Will you actively murder an innocent human being, or do nothing and accept the higher number of innocent casualties? What’s the moral thing to do in this situation?the trolley problem sketch

Needless to say, the likelihood of this situation ever occurring in this exact way is staggeringly low, but the question remains—is it morally justifiable to take a person’s life in order to save the higher number of people? While we might all have been absolutely and 100% certain that murder is intrinsically wrong, the lines become more and more blurred when considering Trolley Problem-type situations, and there are a lot of situations like this that the protagonists of the Marvel Universe face.

The Trolley Problem: Making a Sacrifice—Individualism and Human Rights

An early example of moral dilemmas that demand the sacrifice of the few for the good of the many in Marvel Comics is a scene from X-MEN: ASGARDIAN WARS. As the X-Men encounter a magical fountain, they are introduced to the opportunity to do no less than possibly end world hunger, wars, and poverty altogether. Yet all of this would be at the expense of the lives of all mystic individuals, among them friends and family members of the protagonists (although it’s questionable whether they deserve a bigger moral standing just because they mean something to the X-Men personally).

ASGARDIAN WARS actually does a really decent job at fairly portraying both sides of the argument, and the discussion among these characters weighs the possible benefits against possible injustice and personal loss. Still, the writer portrays characters like Kitty Pryde and Wolverine, who oppose the sacrifice, as strong individuals who stick up to their ideals, and thus they appear more righteous to the reader. The narrative is, in a certain way, biased against the utilitarian approach.

This could very well be due to the fact that this is an American comic. Due to its history of individualism and mistrust of individual sacrifices for the sake of the greater good—both indivisible from the concept of the American Dream—the American mentality doesn’t necessarily favor ideas that outweigh the interest of the few for the interests of the many. The book actually spot-on characterizes Colossus as it has him come out in favor of collectivist ideas. From the perspective of an American writer, it would make sense for a character originating from the former Soviet Union to adopt these beliefs.

READ: We revisit 2014’s CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER

Another great example of America’s emphasis on individualism appears in 2014’s hit blockbuster CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER. S.H.I.E.L.D., corrupted by HYDRA, attempts to murder tens of thousands of citizens who could be more likely to commit crimes in the future in order to increase safety and well-being of mankind overall. The film’s villains make the argument that, given the greater good that could be achieved, this is a relatively small sacrifice. This time around, the individualistic perspective also serves as a protection from governmental arbitrariness, an awareness that’s deeply rooted in America’s history and mentality. We’re also starting to sense a pattern here. Writers, when implementing the Trolley Problem into superhero fiction, often raise the stakes—probably to make their stories more captivating to the audience.

trolley problem: captain america the winter soldier cap and fury next to helicarriers

The film’s narrative then makes the argument of individual human rights against this alleged utilitarian action. It also points out one of utilitarianism’s biggest flaws: organizations and individuals can create their own Trolley Problems in situations where the sacrifice wouldn’t even be necessary—and commit terrible atrocities in the name of the greater good. When there are no absolute moral rules to restrict the behavior of people and governments, this can be a problem. Rules of thumb are useful, as well as approaches on utilitarianism that accept absolute moral rules as a tool to increase overall utility in the long run, such as the rule utilitarian approach by John Stuart Mill.

Taking the high road in the Trolley Problem

Obviously, these are not the only instances of anti-utilitarian bias and criticism of unnecessary sacrifices in Marvel. In Dan Slott’s AMAZING SPIDER-MAN #655, after visiting Marla Jameson’s funeral, Peter is haunted by nightmares in which all the people in his life he was unable to save accuse him of not trying hard enough. The dream sequence features guest appearances by other, shadier Marvel heroes such as the Punisher, Wolverine, and the Sentry. They argue that outright murdering his enemies would be a more effective method to save the lives of innocents.

READ: Check out our piece about the utilitarian ethics of Spider-Man!

The Sentry brings up the example of Carnage—whom Spidey’s imprisoned over and over, yet would always escape and go on another killing spree—and directly links it to Peter’s concept of great power and great responsibility. If he’s able to stop these villains from murdering once and for all, and arresting them is not likely to be effective, how can he justify keeping them alive? This is an interesting conflict, since killing is an absolute “no” for Spidey. Though, the book then later implies that this line of thinking is dangerous and harmful to the legacy of Uncle Ben. As often, the comic portrays heroes who accept and employ murder as a means to achieve the greater good as shady, immoral, and, quite frankly, not in their right mind. This broaches the subject of mental health and its implications for morality: the power over life and death can corrupt individual humans, which is why Peter argues that nobody should possess this power in the first place.

These are not the only potential problems in the execution of utilitarianism that complicate Trolley Problems, as Rick Remender brings up valid points about moral dilemmas in his run on UNCANNY X-FORCE. The secret mutant assassination squad led by Wolverine and Archangel is faced with another highly emotional type of Trolley Problem. As they try to take down Apocalypse, arguably the most dangerous X-Men villain, they discover that their target has been reborn in the form of an innocent child.

LISTEN: Like the X-FORCE? Take a listen to Part 1 of our podcast series on Rick Remender’s UNCANNY X-FORCE!

psylocke protects kid apocalypse from deadpool wolverine and archangel

My hardcover Omnibus of Remender’s run reads “Would you kill a child to save the world” on its back—which accurately describes how the creators lead us to question our own sense of morality and ethics during the read. During the team’s discussion of whether this is a line worth crossing, given the immense threat this child could potentially pose in the future, characters like Psylocke and Wolverine come out in favor of a third option that doesn’t involve child murder. Instead, they want to take the young En Sabah Nur to the X-Men’s mutant school and try to show him the path of peacefulness. This is another example of the way American superhero comics emphasize the importance of taking the high road to save the highest number of people—and taking whatever risks are necessary.

The Trolley Problem: Ethics and Emotions

There might be another reason why Wolverine and Psylocke make this conscious decision against the sacrifice of young Apocalypse. Both characters barely seem hesitant to murder for the greater good throughout the rest of the “Apocalypse Solution” arc—or their entire career as comic book characters, for that matter—but the element of innocence the child represents is what makes the undeniable difference here. It just seems unfair to punish someone who has his entire life still ahead of him. This is an emotional reaction, rather than a rational one.

We could bring up the question whether these emotions should have their place in ethics. After all, decisions based on one’s personal emotions are often biased or egotistical or appeal to decisions that—in utilitarian terms—lead to more suffering for everyone affected. Consider Jonathan Hickman’s NEW AVENGERS #21, in which the Illuminati are facing a case of universes colliding. Destroying Earth 4290001 would save the lives of trillions at the expense of billions—yet characters like Mr. Fantastic and Black Panther just can’t bring themselves to do it. This might be due to their emotional response that instinctively tells them universal destruction is wrong, as well as their conviction that this is just a line that they shouldn’t cross.

marvel comics the illuminati don't want to destroy an earth

The idea that, regardless of the consequences, there is a strict set of rules that should never be violated, is called deontology in ethics. In deontology, as opposed to utilitarianism, we don’t judge an act based on its consequences, but on whether the act itself is intrinsically wrong. The most famous deontologist is german philosopher Immanuel Kant, whose Categorical Imperative might be one of the most important strict sets of moral rules:

“Act only according to that maxim whereby you can, at the same time, will that it should become a universal law.”

On the other hand, a system like that can be restrictive and lead us to ignore the suffering of those affected. In NEW AVENGERS, Namor argues that putting one’s own morals above so many lives is arguably egoistic. In X-Force’s case, rescuing the child due to a lack of rationality (or a too strict conviction to moral rules) could lead to thousands of deaths – including children. On the other hand, though, X-Force (at least for the most part) doesn’t consist of emotionless robots, but human beings with flaws and feelings. The same counts for the Illuminati. Suppressing one’s emotions in ethical dilemmas like the Trolley Problem can be incredibly hard, so “taking the high road” and wanting to save the child is perfectly understandable.

Although it could be argued that, while this “blind idealism” might be of use in the majority of situations, there will be exceptions in which the stakes are simply too high to take this risk. As Archangel argues later on, killing the child, as terrible as it is, is arguably better than the alternative–a pretty likely scenario that involves millions of people (including children) dying. Which, rightfully, brings up the questions whether there is a morally relevant difference between killing and letting die. Ethicists such as Peter Singer would argue that there is not, as pointed out in his work PRACTICAL ETHICS.

The Trolley Problem and “Minority Reports”

Then again, there’s a certain danger to this line of thinking. Firstly, it’s impossible to calculate exactly what the consequences of one’s action could be. Killing young Apocalypse later leads to Archangel becoming the new heir to Apocalypse, resulting in the death of thousands. Secondly, again, it could lead to a scenario in which the powerful and corrupt create their own Trolley Problems in order to eliminate alleged dangers. Remender later comes out against these methods of preemptive murder: the book’s main characters end up stranded in a dystopian future, in which their older selves are the leaders of a totalitarian regime that uses telepathic thought policing to assassinate anybody with thoughts labeled as “dangerous.”

Although this is not always a typical Trolley Problem, this critique of the very MINORITY REPORT-esque punishment before the crime appears rather often in Marvel comics, just recently in the case of Marvel’s latest crossover event, CIVIL WAR II. A powerful new Inhuman called Ulysses possesses the power of clairvoyance, and helps the Marvel Universe’s heroes in preventing catastrophic events several times. The book’s protagonists on the Iron Man side of the conflict argue that assumptions about future events are too uncertain to justify jurisdiction. Captain Marvel, on the other hand, makes a fairly utilitarian point as she assumes this is something that needs to be done for the sake of the greater good.

READ: Take a loot at our piece about the political “Freedom vs. Security” conflict in CIVIL WAR II!

trolley problem: civil war II captain marvel and iron man debate

Things get more complicated and more similar to our Trolley Problem as Hawkeye assassinates Bruce Banner. He does this after finding out via one of Ulysses’ visions that Bruce would likely go on a rampage as the Hulk. Again, he makes the moral decision to murder, one of his friends even, in order to save the higher number of people. What makes this particular scenario stand out from the others is the element of consent: Bruce gave Hawkeye permission to take him out in emergency situations beforehand. Which almost makes this more of a debate about assisted suicide, but it also brings up the point that in Trolley Problem-type situations the consent given by those affected has, at the very least, some moral weight to it. The way CIVIL WAR II writer Bendis implements this into his narrative almost makes Hawkeye’s actions seem permissible.

READ: Want more about ethics in comics? Check out our piece about vegetarianism in superhero comics!

Conclusion

As we’ve seen, the Trolley Problem surfaces surprisingly often in Marvel comic books and movies—often with the stakes raised to a point where decisions affect millions or billions of people. Yes, due to cultural and historical reasons, there is a certain anti-utilitarian and pro-individualistic bias. And yes, due to a narrative that wants to portray its main characters as heroically as possible, most superhero characters will always take the high road in an effort to save everybody, as unrealistic as that might be.

It should be acknowledged that the writers went out of their way to consider both sides of the discussion and take many different arguments on the matter into consideration. It’s almost ironic that immaturity and stupidity are stereotypes the superhero genre is still often associated with. One could argue that this cliché is refuted by the fact that a highly complicated ethical conflict such as the Trolley Problem is dealt with from so many different angles and with so much sincerity and maturity.

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