It’s arguably one of the most popular and iconic comic book quotes, enjoying massive relevance in today’s pop culture and being an essential part of the origin story of one of the most important superheroes of our time. Almost everyone, even if they have never touched (or even seen) a comic book in their lives has probably heard it at least once.

With great power, there must also come great responsibility.

Today, I want us to take a closer look at the sentence that has retroactively been put into the mouth of Peter Parker’s deceased Uncle Ben. This is because – and this might surprise you – it can not only be applied to a super powered wall-crawler, but to every single one of us.

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First of all, I think the word responsibility is worth taking a closer look at. In the context of Spider-Man, it implies that Peter wanting to put on the costume again and again in order to save people is not a choice. It does not depend on whether he feels like fighting crime. On the contrary, it is implied that he has a moral obligation that results out of his powers, his ability to prevent suffering. In other words: because Spider-Man can save people, he has a moral obligation to do so. Uncle Ben believes in positive moral duties.

And he’s definitely not the only one who does. In fact, the extremely controversial Australian philosopher Peter Singer has delivered quite a similar statement in his work PRACTICAL ETHICS:

If it is in our power to prevent something bad from happening, without thereby sacrificing anything of comparable moral importance, we ought, morally, to do it.

Granted: the context these two quotes were said in are not very similar to each other. While Ben’s infamous quote is referred to in the context of a fictional character’s path to becoming a superhero, Singer’s quote is dealing with the question of whether we have a moral duty to help people that suffer from extreme poverty in developing countries. Still, they have the same gist: If we have the power to prevent suffering, we have to, even if that means accepting personal inconveniences or suffering, like Spider-Man has to, on a daily basis. Not only does his double identity make his daily life, his love life, and his financial situation extremely complicated, it also leads to the death of various people important to him.

Because of all these casualties, there are moments in Peter’s life where he barely has any strength to go on remaining. One of these moments is in the days and weeks after his Aunt May had been shot due to his unmasking during the Civil War. In SENSATIONAL SPIDER-MAN Vol. 2 #40, Peter has a conversation with what is basically God himself, admitting that he feels like being Spider-Man is some kind of burden or punishment. The One-Above-All then shows him a fictional place containing a beach full of thousands of people whose lives Peter has already saved.

We can see now that all the suffering Peter prevented by saving those people’s lives outweighs his own suffering. This is a very utilitarian way of thinking: accepting something bad in order to achieve the greater good. A more recent example for that kind of action is the way Peter Parker behaves as a CEO in AMAZING SPIDER-MAN Vol. 4 #1; by renouncing monetary success and an extravagant lifestyle, he ensures that the working conditions within his company are labor-friendly. This is another great example for how much influence his Uncle’s words had on Peter, and, again, it is very utilitarian.

(Utilitarianism: a form of consequentialist ethic in which an act can be considered morally good if it creates, overall, more pleasure than suffering for every person affected and vice versa. The aim is to create the most pleasure and prevent the most suffering possible.)

Peter Singer, being one of the most important representatives of utilitarianism, would go even one step further: according to him, if Peter had decided not to use his powers to fight crime and save lives, he could be held responsible for all these people’s deaths. For Singer, there is barely a big difference between refusing to help even though we are able to and proactively killing – except for the motivations: we don’t actually think we’re “killing” somebody by refusing to help because we/our society has a messed up definition of responsibility – which is why a person who refuses to help is not necessarily a bad person, but that doesn’t make the act of not helping itself any less questionable.

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One could argue that Spider-Man is not responsible for crime and murder, but criminals and murderers are. Yet, he has the possibility to prevent all those things and if he refuses to, that makes him responsible, as well. This is also why Peter feels responsible for the death of his Uncle: it would have been easy for him to stop the criminal that eventually murdered Ben, but because he refused to, he becomes responsible for the consequences. And he learned a lesson by that: to always stick to his Uncle’s definition of responsibility.

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But how can any of this be applied to our everyday lives? Clearly, none of the readers of this article have superhuman abilities that would allow them to fight crime and save human lives on a large scale (and if so, feel free to message our CEO, we’d be most happy to arrange some kind of advertising deal!). How can Uncle Ben’s words have any meaning for such… average human beings as we are?

Well, the point is this: I already mentioned above how Peter Singer debates whether we have a moral obligation to help people suffering from extreme poverty by donating huge amounts of money. The conclusion he comes to is that, in fact, we have to keep donating money in order to save as many lives as possible, until we reach a point where donating more money would harm ourselves more than it helps others. In other words: until the point where it is no longer utilitarian.

Now, let’s face the implications of that conclusion: in any situation where we could buy expensive new clothes that we don’t really need, or a new phone or TV we could live without, basically whenever we intend to spend money on any luxuries that go beyond what we need to fulfill our basic necessities, we have the duty to renounce those luxuries and instead transfer the money to a reliable charity organization. This is because our interest in those luxuries is outweighed by the interest of people in developing countries to survive and escape extreme poverty, and our power to help those people gives us the responsibility to do so. It’s not of comparable moral importance, so we have to sacrifice it to prevent something bad. Just like Spider-Man has to bear the pain in his personal life as Peter Parker to make his superhero existence possible in the first place, we have to deny ourselves the pleasure we achieve through these luxury items and save human lives with our money instead because we are morally obliged to.

You see, there’s a point I’m trying to make with this article. Many of us grew up reading superhero comics or watching animated series about superheroes. And I bet that almost every single one of you, at least once in their lives, wanted to be a superhero. Well, here’s the thing: we can all be. In PRACTICAL ETHICS, Singer argued that even an amount of 600 – 1200$ can save a human life if the right charity organization is chosen. Which, finally, leads me to the conclusion that we all have to take Uncle Ben’s words to heart. These words are meant for everyone. Because we all have great power. And with great power, there must also come great responsibility.

But don’t take my word for it. Read PRACTICAL ETHICS. If you’re interested in donating, check out givewell.org. And always remember: we can all be superheroes.

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