Spider-man and Morality

by Brian on July 12, 2004

Jonathan Ichikawa, who’s been doing an excellent job maintaining the “philosophy papers blog”:http://opp.weatherson.net while I’ve been gallavanting around the world, recently posted the “following comment”:http://www.brown.edu/Departments/Philosophy/Blog/Archives/cat_ethics.html about _Spider-Man 2_. (Warning mild spoilers ahead)

bq. _Spider-Man 2_ is a hell of a movie. It was better than I’d expected, even after all the hype. And I think it illustrates better than any philosophers’ works I’ve read that there really is no plausible way to posit a morally significant difference between doing and allowing. Peter is morally required to be a hero, because sometimes morality is just that demanding.

As has been pointed out here and elsewhere, it’s part of the moral framework of the _Spider-man_ movies that sometimes morality requires you to do things not just to avoid doing what’s wrong. But this is a long way from Jonathan’s suggestion that it somehow illustrates that there’s no difference between doing and allowing.

Consider, for instance the scene where Peter Parker sees a guy getting beaten up in an alleyway and doesn’t stop to help. It’s true that in the movie this is presented as being the wrong thing to do. But if there were no difference in the movie’s morality between doing and allowing, this would not only be wrong, but would be just as wrong as if Spiderman had beaten up the guy himself. And surely this isn’t true. Even in the movie some allowings are not as morally loaded as the matching doings.



roger 07.12.04 at 5:52 pm

Actually, I thought Spider Man 2’s main philosophical jones centered around the arch-Kierkegaardian relationship between Spidey and the woman he loves — who he feels that he must convince he doesn’t love, shades of Regina, because the pull into the ethical realm of marriage would interfere with the realm of faith (belief in himself as Spiderman). Notice how the Spidey powers decline as he is pulled into the human world. Of course, since the realm of faith isn’t really outlined beyond the ethical, this doesn’t quite work the way it works in Kierkegaard — which is perhaps why the two realms (faith and ethics) can happily conjoin in the end.
Or maybe that is Hollywood.


sacha 07.12.04 at 5:59 pm

Wow. I never really thought Kierkegaard’s love life could be a perfect metaphor for a hollywood movie. Well done.

On the other hand, at least from the feeling I got from the movie, the conjunction isn’t going to be a very happy one.

It seems to me that the argument form of the movies so far is guaranteeing what the premise of number 3 is going to be:

a) Don’t want to hurt the ones I love
b) Do you have eyes for God’s sake? Look at her!

Conclusion: Hot girl ends up in harms way.


Jonathan 07.13.04 at 5:05 pm

Maybe I wasn’t very clear. Obviously, it’d be worse for Peter to beat the guy up than it was for him to stand and watch. But other factors would, presumably, be different between those two cases than the doing/allowing distinction. For instance, Peter’s motivation would likely be different — and a person’s motives, plausibly, do figure into a moral assessment of their actions.

What I’m claiming is this: the doing/allowing distinction is not morally significant. I’m not claiming that every case of doing is morally the same as every case of allowing.

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