There is an saying that goes: “There are two things you should never talk about at the dinner table: religion, and politics.” The reason for this is that those topics tend to lead to heated debate due to the fact that everyone’s views on the matters of religion and politics are entirely subjective. Indeed, those topics encompass universal and important issues and need to be answered. There is a third topic, however, which also should not be discussed at the dinner table: ethics. A person’s views on the matters of the death penalty, helping the homeless, and abortion can be traced to that person’s ethical scope and background. The way one interprets the very controversial topic of ethics and morality greatly affect how one acts within the world as well as the choices he or she makes on a daily basis. The conflict between moral scopes, specifically between utilitarianism and pragmatism, is heavily explored in Watchmen, X-Men: God Loves, Man Kills, Transmetropolitan: Back on the Street, and Midnight Nation.
Ethics are a subset of the eternal philosophical discussion. Therefore, the terms of ethics need to be defined so that there is a clear understanding of the types of ethics that will be explored. The two primary forms of ethics explored in the graphic novels are utilitarianism and pragmatism. Utilitarianism is defined as “a moral principle that holds that the morally right course of action in any situation is the one that produces the greatest balance of benefits over harms for everyone affected” (Velasquez, 1989). The goal of utilitarianism is a net gain of happiness; as long as those involved receive the maximum benefit, any methods of obtaining that benefit are acceptable, even if those methods are reprehensible. Someone who follows a utilitarian approach to morality would not have a problem lying to someone, when the truth would only hurt both parties and lying would keep both parties happy. Utilitarianism is the contrasting moral philosophy to pragmatism. Pragmatism is the belief that “practical consequences are the criteria of knowledge and meaning and value . . . favoring practicality and literal truth” (Miller). To be pragmatic is to follow a strict set of rules based on immutable logic and truth. If something is considered wrong, the pragmatic man will not do that action, even at the loss of a potential benefit. Someone who follows a pragmatic approach would have a problem with the death penalty because killing is wrong, no matter whom is being killed. Pragmatic ethics relate well to Biblical ethics. Many people, regardless of adherence to their faith, learn a basic understanding of ethical principles from the Bible, specifically from the Ten Commandments. The first commandment reads: “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery. You shall have no other gods before me” (Exodus 20:2-3). From this, it can be understood that adherents of Biblical ethics follow the word of God, no matter what He commands; He is all-knowing and all-powerful. A follower of Biblical ethics does not bear grudges on others, but instead treats them as a brother. An example of where these three moral viewpoints come into direct conflict can be stated as follows: one has the ability to steal an apple from an apple cart, and because one has not eaten in a number of days, hunger is a factor. The utilitarian would say it is okay to steal the apple because it brings the benefit of happiness and sustenance to the person. The pragmatic would say it is not okay to steal the apple because the apple belongs to someone else and taking the apple deprives the owner of the ability to do with the apple what he or she wishes. The Biblical ethicist would say it is never okay to steal because God commands “You shall not steal” (Exodus 20:15). What makes the utilitarian viewpoint appealing is its adaptability. A utilitarian can make decisions on a case-by-case basis, which is not possible with principle-based ethics. However, utilitarian ethics can often be twisted and espoused dogmatically, to the point where the utilitarian’s goals and principles are corrupted, losing the benefits of adaptability. The Biblical viewpoint is appealing to the religious, who wish to follow the law of God in order to lead a moral life on Earth and be rewarded in the afterlife. These ethical viewpoints all aim for the same goal, namely a net good as a result of actions based upon those viewpoints, and they are explored extensively in the graphic novels Watchmen, X-Men: God Loves, Man Kills, Transmetropolitan: Back on the Street, and Midnight Nation.
In Watchmen, a group of ex-vigilante crime fighters investigates the murder of one of their former members, only to discover a plot which endangers the entire world. Alan Moore’s famous graphic novel is, at its core, a deconstruction of the classic super-hero trope. None of the vigilantes is truly a heroic characters, each with their own severe mental instabilities and psychological problems, darkening the already dystopian world in which they reside. Even within the distorted reality of the graphic novel, there are characters who still adhere to a moral code, specifically the protagonist, Rorschach, and the antagonist, Ozymandius, each of whom adheres to contrasting ethical outlooks. Walter Kovacs, better known by his alias Rorschach, follows a twisted version of pragmatism. While investigating the disappearance of a young girl, Rorschach discovers that the kidnapper had raped and butchered the young girl before giving her bones to his dogs. In a fit of rage and revelation, Rorschach slaughters the two dogs, ties the man down, sets him on fire, and burns his house down (Moore, VI.21-25, 1987). The young girl’s death had disillusioned Kovacs, but now, reborn as Rorschach, he is free to enforce his morality on the world. Rorschach’s pragmatic mindset empowers him to kill those who have committed evil acts, in order to ultimately keep the world safe. However, his ethics are not utilitarian because Rorschach does not harm innocents for any reason, even for his own benefit. He only delivers retribution upon evil men and women, which is, at its core, pragmatism. Adrian Veidt, known as Ozymandius, on the other hand, abides a different moral view. In an attempt to save the world from engaging in nuclear war, Veidt creates a fake alien, unleashes it on New York City, kills millions of innocent human beings, and causes the rest of the world to fear an imminent alien invasion and unite in order to prevent it (Moore, XI.26, 1987). Ozymandius has an archetypical utilitarian outlook on the world. He is willing to do anything to prevent the countless deaths of billions. This approach is similar to the United State’s stance on the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The United States government believed that dropping the atomic bombs on those cities, even though millions of people would be annihilated, prevented more deaths than would have occurred had they not bombed the two Japanese cities. Ozymandius wants nothing more than to protect the world, even if doing so partially destroys it. Veidt informs Nite Owl, Rorschach, Dr. Manhattan, and Silk Spectre, who have invaded his facility, that if any of them reveal the truth behind Veidt’s actions, the world will most certainly plunge into war. They all agree, except for Rorschach, who vows to “Never compromise” and attempts inform the world of Veidt’s actions but is killed by Dr. Manhattan in order to keep the truth unknown (Moore, XII.20.9, 1987). This conflict highlights the inherent existential struggle between pragmatism and utilitarianism. Rorschach values the truth above all else and will do anything to make the truth known, even if it causes the deaths of billions, while Ozymandius would rather directly contribute to the deaths of millions than have all of humanity destroyed. In this case, utilitarian ethics leads to the net good within the world of Watchmen. Although the death of innocents is reprehensible, Veidt’s actions prevent the complete annihilation of humanity, meaningful efforts can now be made towards peace and progress. In the future, perhaps, the truth might be revealed, but for now, utilitarian ethics has led to a net benefit.
Within X-Men: God Loves, Man Kills, the three conflicting ethical viewpoints are represented by the three faction leaders in the graphic novel. The pragmatic stance is held by Professor Charles Xavier of the X-Men, the utilitarian stance is held by Magneto of the Brotherhood of Mutants, and the Biblical stance is held by Reverend William Stryker of the Stryker Crusade. Xavier believes that “Mutants are not a monolithic group possessing one set of attitudes or goals. They are individuals – as are we all – and should be judged as such” (Claremont, 10.2, 1983). To Xavier, mutants are simply humans with more-defined genetic variations; all humans have genetic variances that make each person unique, such as hair color, eye color, height, and weight. He wants mutants to be judged based on their own individual merits and actions. To be lumped together and judged as a single group, in Xavier’s view, is equivalent to racism and stereotyping. His ultimate goal is for humans and mutants to coexist within society, working together for a common future and mutual respect. Magneto, on the other hand, does not believe coexistence is a possible or desirable goal. His goal is “the conquest of Earth—but solely to create a world where [his] race, Homo superior, can live in peace” (Claremont, 47.5, 1983). Magneto has seen the cruelty inherent in the nature of humanity while being imprisoned in Auschwitz as a child for the crime of being Jewish. This persecution based solely on his ancestry and genetic variation caused Magneto to realize that mankind will always oppress those who are considered to be different. All he yearns for is that mutants not be condemned for being born with rare gifts. He will do anything to achieve that goal, including slaughtering innocent humans. Stryker’s stance is the stark opposite to Magneto’s. A devout Evangelical Christian, William Stryker believes that “The Lord created man and woman in His image blessed with His grace. Mutants broke that sacred mold. They were creations, not of God, but of the Devil” (Claremont, 32.9, 1983). Stryker sees mutants as the embodiment of pure evil and makes it his goal to eradicate all mutants. Stryker is not above espousing perverse, hate-fueled propaganda, torturing others, and having young children murdered, as long as it fuels his goal of a world inhabited only by humanity. Within X-Men: God Loves, Man Kills, the pragmatic stance, in the end, leads to a net good. Xavier’s goal of peace is not reinforced by persecution or a desire for war; he wants the most amount of lives to be saved in order to create a peaceful coexistence. Each individual is different and must be judged as such, otherwise stereotyping would lead to conflict and unavoidable violence.
Transmetropolitan: Back on the Street follows gonzo journalist Spider Jerusalem and his adventures in the metropolis known as The City. As a gonzo journalist, Spider constantly places himself in situations where he can fully analyze the goings-on of events around The City, in order to have a full grasp on the truth. In pursuance of more information for his first story in five years, Spider enters the transient district of Angels 8 and intimidates and assaults his way to his target Fred Christ (Ellis et al, I-II.37.3-5, 1998). Spider does whatever he must in order to achieve his ultimate goal of discovering the truth. His obsession with the truth leads him to follow adopt a utilitarian worldview. He is willing to do anything and everything in order to fulfill his ambition. When he discovers the truth of a situation, “all [he] can do [is] Write it down” and make it known to everyone (Ellis et al, III.61.3, 1998). Spider risks his own life with his portrayal of the truth, including unhappiness and ire in many people with his reporting. As a safeguard, Spider’s editor hires “an assistant to keep [him] on the straight and narrow” (Ellis et al, IV.78.2, 1998). Spider’s new assistant, Channon Yarrow, represents the “pragmatic-esque” foil to Spider. While no one in the universe of Transmetropolitan follows a strict pragmatic lifestyle, Channon does her best to keep Spider from being completely reprehensible and continuing to put his life at risk in his quest to discern the truth. Channon’s pragmatic viewpoint is defined by her respect for other people, with the exception of Spider. One such example of the conflict between Spider and Channon is when, on their way to a religion convention, Spider vocalizes his hatred of religion by remarking that he is “sick of The City’s loose change and spare sanity [being] sucked up and lived off by an ever-increasing pile of parasitical shit-ticks incapable of standing up and dealing with the world on their own”. Channon, in contrast, defends religious viewpoints, by saying her boyfriend, Ziang, is “a Gaian-Bias Buddhist, and he stands up on his own okay” (Ellis et al, VI.128.2-4, 1998). Spider is not afraid to insult people and their beliefs if it means revealing the truth, while Channon defends belief as long as it does not harm the believer. Spider values the truth above all else and disregards Channon’s respect of others. Spider’s utilitarian outlook leads to a net good within The City, if such good can be found. His quest to constantly make the truth known helps end a riot within the Angels 8 district and lead to less discrimination against the transients within it.
Midnight Nation follows Detective David Grey, who is helped by his guide Laurel, an agent of God, as he undergoes an odyssey to reclaim his stolen soul from The Other Guy and his army of Walkers. As David begins his long trek from Los Angeles to New York, he falls in love with Laurel, the only person in his life who cares about him and doesn’t want him to completely fall between the cracks of reality. Near the end of their journey, David and Laurel encounter The Gauntlet, a path where they must fight a large group of Walkers. Upon ascertaining that Laurel will eventually have to fight and potentially get hurt, David tells her, “No freaking way. I can handle this. I’m not calling you in. I can do this,” going as far as fighting ten Walkers in a row before he is too injured to continue on his own (Straczynski, 165.5, 2003). Influenced by both his background as a detective and his love of Laurel, David is spurred to protect those who cannot protect themselves. It is revealed, earlier in the graphic novel, that David drove his wife to leave him because he constantly worked to keep the streets of Los Angeles safe (Straczynski, 87.3, 2003). In this way, David is pragmatic. He values the safety and protection of the greater population above everything else, including his own happiness. After arriving in New York, David meets with The Other Guy to discuss the return of his soul. The Other Guy reveals to him the inherent misery in the world and how hope only adds to that misery, asserting that “The only way to be free, to be truly and totally free…is not just to set aside blame and responsibility. You must move beyond even hope . . . only then are you free of all the rules and the expectation and the blame and the guilt” (Straczynski, 207, 2003). The Other Guy is the embodiment of the Devil, who is able to free mankind and enable them to follow their base desires; the counterpoint to God and His agent Laurel. While Laurel espouses that The Other Guy’s goal is to enslave the human race into his eternal servitude, he merely aspires to set humanity free in order to grant happiness to all humans. The Other Guy and the Walkers follow a utilitarian ethical viewpoint and do whatever they must in order to achieve happiness and unity. David is then given a choice: he can either give Laurel his soul, or he can keep it for himself. It is at this point that The Other Guy informs David that “Everyone who works in [his] service…has regained his soul . . . The markings of a Walker say that [David] belong[s] to [him], that [he] belong[s] somewhere” (Straczynski, 228.2-3, 2003). David must make a choice between fulfilling his own desires and acting for someone else. Does he allow himself happiness at the cost of another person’s happiness, or will he act selflessly and give up that which he has so tirelessly worked for? The conflict presented here is the apex of a choice between pragmatism and utilitarianism. David makes his choice. He gives his soul to Laurel and, at long last, she receives her humanity (Straczynski, 234.3, 2003). In his life as a detective, David always worked to serve and protect others rather than helping himself, even to the extent of driving away the woman he loved in order to keep Los Angeles safe. Ultimately, when faced with the truth that the only way he can achieve happiness is to live for himself, David does not compromise his ethics. Even at the cost of a maximum benefit towards himself, he does what he believe is right. This grants hope to those who fell between the cracks in the world of Midnight Nation and gives Laurel the life and humanity that she desires. David’s pragmatic choice leads to the net good in the graphic novel and the overall benefit of happiness for Laurel, the forgotten, and even himself, as he is content with doing the right thing.
It is impossible to completely prove which ethical stance constitutes the best morality. Morality, the choices one makes, and also an analysis of the consequences of those choices are all purely subjective. Utilitarian ethics are shown to bring about a net good within Watchmen and Transmetropolitan: Back on the Street, while pragmatic ethics bring net good within X-Men: God Loves, Man Kills and Midnight Nation. Regardless of whether one lives life with adaptable ethics or principle-based ethics, what is shown to be most important is bringing about an overall benefit via those ethics. If no one can benefit from a particular viewpoint or action, then that viewpoint or action is useless, or even detrimental, and must be eliminated. No matter whether it is through utilitarianism or pragmatism, one should work relentlessly to bring about the greater good.
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