More Truth and Justice than You'll Ever Protect

March 1, 2005

By Jeff Dubbin (

Consider a man with ability profoundly greater than our own to act morally. My question is: does the idea of Superman diminish our own (unenhanced) ability to do so? A normal man can never turn the tide of a tsunami or intercept a terrorist-highjacked plane, and if we assume that these would be moral things to do, and that Superman could do them, should we just accept the fact that mankind is inherently limited from being as moral as possible? The inevitable conclusion is that we just can't be as moral as Supes - most people would assent to that without hesitation. But I ask, is there any use in being merely half-way morally decent people? What good is morality if we can't even fulfill it fully?

First, one might reply that 'Superman is not real, but merely is a fictional character.' I respond: that is irrelevant. For there is no such thing as a perfectly moral human living today, and I would even go as far to say as there was never a perfectly moral human being. That does not mean it's impossible to be perfectly moral, and it does not mean that just because moral perfection is a fictional notion, we should not aspire to that height of moral achievement. Indeed, I do strongly believe that morality is a fundamental idea in society, necessary for its continued functioning. Thus, we should all still act morally, even despite our physical limitations. The implication is that none of us will achieve higher moral heights, being limited by the laws of reality.

One might make this second reply: 'we ought only to act as morally as what's within our physical ability. We should not be expected to do the impossible, like stopping a runaway locomotive.' But to me this solves nothing. If a person could achieve moral perfection by doing only what's in his capacity, then wouldn't that justify purely evil people, with no capacity for good in their warped mind, never doing anything moral? Surely there is not a single moral fiber in Lex Luthor, and thus his moral potential is naught; are Superman and Luthor equally moral insofar as they both maximize their potential? No, I am not convinced that our capacity places a cap on moral growth.

One truth (as I see it) that I will come back to often is that capacity does not determine morality. If it did, then there would be no morally compelling reason to ever better oneself. That is, everyone's moral capacity can grow throughout life - I know CPR now and I didn't four years ago, so now I can save a life that I could not before. But if you think that my morality as a human being is determined solely by my capacity, there's no reason for me (or anyone) to learn CPR if we don't already know it. The only reason why anyone would want to increase their moral capacity is to become a more moral person. But if you don't accept the truth I named at the start of this paragraph, you have to relinquish any idea of one thing being "more moral" than something else. If one person is not currently doing a moral thing, it is either because they lack the capacity for any morality right now (in which case you, if you disagree with me, would praise them for achieving their maximum capacity, which is zero), or they lack the will power to actually get up and do something moral. But since will power is a component of capacity, it's no different then the situation I just described (fulfilling capacity at Zero). So I hope you buy into this first premise. If not, please respond!

Now, I want to proceed with my original question: does the idea of a more moral being, namely Superman, diminish how moral you are and I am? I believe the answer must be yes, because of the earlier argumentation - but the implications might be hard to swallow.

First, and easiest to deal with, is the implication that Superman's exceptional moral strength undermines the moral fortitude we praise in his supporting cast. For example, Perry White's dedication to exposing Luthor as the deviously underhanded criminal the world doesn't see is paralleled by Clark Kent's - but Perry does not often personally and physically foil Luthor's plots by arresting his cronies in the act. If Superman's superiority brings down his friends, might it also not bring down real life heroes for whom many people have deep respect? A fire fighter risks his life to save a child from a burning building, but loses his life in the process, and so cannot save that precious life; whenever Superman enters a burning building, he emerges with every living person - and when he is unsuccessful, he blames himself (see JLA #101, "Pain of the Gods"). This firefighter who risked so much more than Big Blue, but accomplished nothing by comparison, by the same logic as before, would be doomed to be less moral. Like I said, hard to swallow.

So, even if Superman doesn't exist, is our moral quest, as lowly mortals, still diminished? Let me evaluate one more thought before we end this discussion in despair. There is a popular argument among philosophers that the outcome of an action does not determine its moral value, but rather the intention of the action. The philosopher Immanuel Kant insisted that the goodness of moral action depended solely on motive and not its effect (for more on this, consult Kant's Grounding for the Metaphysics of Morals, specifically the First Section). Thus, the unfortunate Fireman and Superman would be placed on equal planes of morality for their actions, which were intended to save children from a burning building. But be careful: doing an action only for one's duty to do so means that they can't be doing it for any other reason, or that would automatically taint their duty. So if a Fireman is working for a paycheck, and a stipulation of his salary is that he has to do his job (which is saving children from fires), he'll have a hard time making a case for intrinsically altruistic motives. The truth is, anyone who 'feels good' after doing a good deed immediately runs into this problem. One could even argue that it precludes ALL morality, since no one's intentions could be 100% pure.

After all, some accuse Superman of acting the way he does only out of survivor's guilt. Could you convince yourself that he doesn't enjoy the good he does, that he doesn't treasure the smile on a child's face when they learn that their mommy will live because of Superman? The real question is, if the public ever turned on him, and spat at his feet for being different, and resented him for being so much more moral than they were - would Superman still dedicate himself to the maintenance of Truth and Justice? Would you?

Perhaps this issue of intention gets us nowhere. After all, a fire fighter's intention is to save people from fires. Superman acts with intentions to do that, but also to stop crime, and deliver food to starving countries. No one acts with as many good intentions as Superman, because no one has the means to even contemplate that much good. So it seems like we're still in the same boat in which we started. Way below Superman.

This concludes the first installment of what I hope will be many great contributions to the world of Superman. I did not manage to answer any questions, but raised quite a few, so not all's lost. I'll spend some time working on my own response to these problems, as I hope you will, too. In perhaps a week or so, I'll post another question, probably on a wholly unrelated section of Superman philosophy - perhaps on why it was that Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster decided to name the Man of Steel after a phrase thought up by Nietzsche.

Philosophy is its own Never Ending Battle.

Jeff Dubbin