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The Ethics of Batman and Captain America with Mark D. White

Dr. Mark D. White is the chair of the philosophy department at the College of Staten Island CUNY, where he teaches courses on philosophy, economics, and law. He is also a professor of economics at the Graduate Center of CUNY. He has written and edited ten scholarly books on the intersection of these disciplines, including the Oxford Handbook of Ethics and Economics. Additionally, Mark has written eight popular books about the ethical philosophies underpinning pop culture series. Today, we contrast the ethical philosophies of Batman and Captain America, and what these narratives might reveal about popular construals of morality.

APA citation: Cazzell, A. R. (Host). The Ethics of Batman and Captain America with Mark D. White (2020, January 7).  [Audio Podcast]. Retrieved from


Note: This transcripts was automatically generated. Please excuse typos and errors.

Amber Cazzell: 00:01:11 All right. Hi everyone. Today I am with Mark White. Mark, thanks so much for joining me. I really appreciate it. Of course, and Mark has done, he is a philosopher and an economist and also does some work with law. And so he's an interdisciplinary person who felt, which is exciting. And today we have a pretty fun topic. We're going to be talking about actually some of his pop work about the philosophy, the ethical philosophy of superheroes. And specifically I think we'll be spending our time talking about Batman and captain America and what these stories can tell us as human beings as well as scholars. So, Mark, thanks so much again for joining me. I do like to start these podcasts by hearing about the researchers backgrounds and how they became interested in the topics that they're interested in. So in your case, you've got a pretty unique story as far as being involved in multiple disciplines. So if you could back up and tell us about those multiple disciplines before moving on and then telling us about how you decided to kind of combine your childhood love of comics with your work in ethics and philosophy today. That would, that would be great.

Mark White: 00:02:24 Okay. thank you. In terms of my disciplinary background my PhD is in economics and after I taught a year and a visiting position as a professor of economics, I joined the college of Staten Island in New York city, one of the CUNY colleges in a department of political science, economics and philosophy. So we are a multidisciplinary department in which I was an economist, but I had a lot of interest in philosophy that I started reading in grad school. And so when I came to this department, I, I, you know, my, my economics colleagues were great, but you know, just, just in terms of the way I was thinking, I trended more towards my philosophy colleagues. And then years later when the department split up into the constituent disciplines, I was already chairing that large department at the time. And I just chose to go with philosophy because that's where my interests lay by then and also where my teaching had transitioned. You know, the nice thing about being in that multiple disciplinary department was that I could easily drift from economics. Then I taught, I developed and taught a course on economics and philosophy. And then I started teaching philosophy courses, you know, in, in and of themselves. And then you mentioned law. I also do law and economics and legal philosophy. So yeah. And from the last, ah, the, the, the department of philosophy officially formed in 2013 and I've been chair of that ever since.

Amber Cazzell: 00:03:52 What do you, how did you feel about the department splitting up? That sounds sad to me.

Mark White: 00:03:58 Well they, yeah, well we were, we were a great department. I mean everyone that visited the apartment, everyone that either came was a visiting speaker or came as a job candidate because we hired a lot of people back then and, and all the disciplines, all of them would say that we were the most collegial academic department they'd ever seen. And I think part of that was, you know, we're all fantastic people of course. But part of that was I think the fact that we didn't get into, you know, disciplinary squabbles where if you have everyone in the same discipline, then you get into, you know, shouting matches over methodology or focus or politics. And I think the fact that we were in three, actually four with geography, four different disciplines that, that kind of kept our discussions. Most of our discussions, especially in faculty meetings, department meetings, you know, above that.

Mark White: 00:04:49 And, and we got along greatest people and there were, you know, the, the reasons we split weren't personal reasons. There were, you know, there were several different things at play. I don't want to go into the internal politics of it, but there were forces at play both from within the department as well as from without the department that just just made the split. Makes sense. But, so we, we, you know, unanimously approved it, but you know, with some regret, because we did really miss, and I was just talking to one of my, one of my economics colleagues yesterday that we really miss being one cohesive department. But the nice thing is none of us left our spaces. So the three disciplines are still in the same hallway of the same building and it's just, there's three chairs now instead of one. Wow.

Amber Cazzell: 00:05:38 I mean, that's, that's cool. So why was it originally combined in the first place? Was it like as the university was becoming more mature or had the university been around a long time?

Mark White: 00:05:49 I think the department and many other multidisciplinary departments of the college were formed in the 60s when multidisciplinarity was a big shift from what I, that's what I've been told. At least I'm not that old. So but yeah, that's what I was told me. I mean, when I came to the college let me see, psychology, anthropology, sociology and social work all used to be in one department and it's like split off. And now they're one of the largest departments on campus. Social work split off a few years ago. A socio sociology and anthropology are still in the same department. So, so there were other large multidisciplinary departments on campus that gradually split. But usually it was one department that just got too big to, you know, to too big to really be a kind of a co equal member of the collective. If you, if you're in a department with four disciplines and you have half the faculty, then there's a threat that you'll dominate, you know, democratic proceedings and things.

Mark White: 00:06:50 So naturally you're going to want split off. And plus I think it's natural for disciplines to want to have their own identity as departments, you know, so when you go to a conferences you know, sometimes I would, I would go to conferences and I'd kind of make use of the fact that I was in a department of political science, economics and philosophy to, to leave my speciality vague. So if they wanted, you know, think of me as an economist, they could, if they want to think of me as a philosopher, they could. But there's definitely other people that are more, you know, singular in terms of their disciplinary focus. And you know, if there were, say a political scientist, they wanted to go to a conference and leave people with no doubt that they were a political scientist or an economist or a philosopher.

Amber Cazzell: 00:07:32 So it did it. How did you move from being in this rich interdisciplinary environment? You said you started to shift more towards philosophy. I'm wondering what your what your academic research generally focuses on and whether that is what gave rise to ultimately moving into this topic, writing about superheroes?

Mark White: 00:08:01 Well, I think that's really two separate topics. Well, one, one leads to the other. Okay. I can put it all together. Well when I was doing my economics PhD I had the benefit of spending the summer before my graduate program at the American Institute for economic research in great Barrington, Massachusetts, which is an economics think tank with a generally libertarian bent. But the, the most important thing was that they focused on methodology when an economic methodology is a topic that is regrettably neglected and most graduate programs in the, in at least in the U S so I, I went into my graduate program already thinking about methodology and the way economics was done and, and you know, that, that, that prepared me to have kind of a critical stance on what I was learning. And it wasn't so much what I was learning was wrong. It's just that I was able to think about we were being taught this particular content and why this approach was taken.

Mark White: 00:09:00 And in particularly, that led me to question the ethical foundations of economic theory, which is why I started reading philosophy. And then when, and then when I came to CSI into our large department with philosophers there, I had colleagues to help me in my investigations and support me and listen to my talks. And that's, that's generally, you know, around the time I got tenure was around the time that I started, you know, really dedicating myself to reading philosophy and applying it to economics. So what, what, where are your philosophical reservations with the economic, say you are being taught? Well the, the foundations of economics are basically utilitarian. Whether it's in terms of the, the models that we use for individual choice or business choice or the policy models we use to advise governments. They're all essentially based in utilitarianism. So individuals make decisions according to economic theory to maximize their utility within their constraints or satisfy their preferences.

Mark White: 00:10:05 Utility being a measure of how much, how much those preferences are satisfied. Businesses of course maximize profit, which is their own version of utility as well as any other goals they have besides profits, such as if they have a social justice orientation or or anything like that. And then governments are, are understood by economists to maximize welfare. That could be, there could be a proxy such as GDP or the currently trendy gross domestic happiness measures or just some other policy instrument that that reflects welfare in a general sense. And I, I, I view because of the grounding I got at air and methodology and my, in my, you know, gradual readings and ethics, I realized that this is a very constrained approach, that this sort of puts blinders on. Economists as far as the range of ethical perspectives they can incorporate into their work.

Mark White: 00:11:02 And in particular, it ignores more qualitative, ethical concepts such as rights and justice and equality and dignity for the sake of the easily quantifiable things like utility and welfare and income and constraints and prices. So I really, you know, just part of that, that side of my work, the more academic side of what I do in ethics and economics is to really just show economists that, you know, what you're doing is great, but it could be broader and it could, it could encompass more behavior and encompass more evaluative criteria than just the utilitarianism that, you know, to be fair, I don't think most economists even realize they're doing, they're just taught these techniques and taught, you know, all the, all the different models and theories and equations and perspectives we learn. But I don't think most economists are exposed to the fact that these are based on a very narrow ethical paradigm. And if they agree with that ethical paradigm, great, but they don't have to. And there are other alternatives. And so I, I just just this year I had a, a book I edited the Oxford handbook of ethics and economics, which is 20 some essays by fantastic people around the world, exploring different facets of this, not only how different ethical theories can fit into economics, but also how ethics can be applied to different topics. In economics such as employment and finance and government policy, et cetera.

Amber Cazzell: 00:12:39 Yeah. So the, I mean this is a little bit of a side note, but I, as I was telling you earlier, I'm, I'm trying to get some more economists on the podcast. And so I've been doing just my very, very initial newbie reading of some work on ethics and economics. And do you think that Adam Smith, like, like it sounds like we're talking a little bit about this concept of incommensurate goods, that there is some goods that don't lend themselves easily to just this, this utilitarian comparison. And I'm wondering if you think that Adam Smith like had in mind that goods work commensurate or not because I know he had a, a fairly Mmm, well, spelled out ethical position that was the foundation of a wealth of nations and capitalism. And my understanding is that he separated like the economic man from the moral man in some way.

Mark White: 00:13:42 Yeah. There's, there's an entire literature in economics and ethics called, you know, the Adam Smith problem, which is basically how do you reconcile you know, he, he wrote two major works in his lifetime. The theory of moral sentiments was as major moral work cause he was known as a moral philosopher at the time. And the wealth of nations is more economic work and to a lot of people for a long time they seemed inconsistent because the theory of moral sentiments is all about sympathy and fellow feeling while the wealth of nations can seem at a cursory reading to be very kind of nakedly economic. And you know, so a lot of work over the last 10 or 20 years has been to reconcile these perspectives and my opinion in the, you know, my, my take on it in what I've published has been that, you know, Adam Smith was a, of course a moral philosopher and that's really how I ground my work in ethics and economics is trying to bring us back to Smith, trying to bring us back to, to, you know, thinking about both the individual market oriented perspective.

Mark White: 00:14:50 But in in ethical framework. And so I think what he was doing in the wealth of nations, this is just how I interpret it, is that, you know, in in the theory of moral sentiments, he gave a much richer, you know, broader view of human motivation, not only the self interest but also the altruistic, the fellow feeling, the sympathetic impressions and you know, developing, you know, either a sentimentalist or, or in a, in a broader terms of virtue ethics perspective as Deirdre McCloskey has argued you know, his [inaudible] in that, in that context. Then you look at the wealth of nations when he's talking about, you know that, that actors work in their own self interest and through the invisible hand, it benefits everybody. And I think what he was talking about there was kind of a worst case scenario that even if you have people acting purely out of their own self interest without any fellow feeling, without any sympathetic impressions, even if they're acting purely out of their own self interest, they will still through the invisible hand, be guided to help society.

Mark White: 00:15:53 He wasn't saying that that was the way it should be. He wasn't saying that that was the way it was. He was just saying, listen, let's take worst case scenario. Let's say everyone's selfish. The invisible hand is still going to, you know, transfer those selfish inclinations to help the broader mankind. Okay, interesting. But you know, again, you know, he was saying that's the worst case scenario, but people are much more complex than that. People have moral motivations as well as self interest and motivations. So I take in the saying that though, that, you know, the invisible hand will, will funnel the self interest and motivations and to helping society. And then of course people's altruistic impulses as far as those are well directed and well intentioned. We'll boost that even further. Yeah. That's how I interpret the whole Adam with problem.

Amber Cazzell: 00:16:45 Okay. all right, well let's, let's shift into the topic of the day with superheroes and ethics. I don't have a smooth transition for anyone. I guess I could try to tie yeah, utilitarianism and Batman. But, but anyway, let's, let's actually go ahead and start with captain America. So captain America in fortunately as a superhero, I'm not very, it's actually just showing my cards up front. I'm not as familiar with superheroes as I think they're cool. So yeah. So I've only seen like most of the recent Marvel movies that have come out, but even probably not all of those. So could you give me and other listeners who might be academics who don't have time to go watch superhero movies, watch broad brush strokes of who is captain America guy is and what his story is.

Mark White: 00:17:45 Wow. Okay. Well, captain America, Steve Rogers, who a who I grew up in the 30s, and he was driven by, you know, love of his country to join the army when world war II started, but he was scrawny and frail. And so he was declared for F every time he tried to go to recruitment center. And he tried so often that he got the attention of some government agents who were behind a project called project rebirth, who wanted to find a, you know, good, virtuous, patriotic young man and do an experimental treatment on him with radiation and injections that would transform him into the physical, physically perfect human being. So boost his strength, his speed his, his responses. And so creating what they call it, a super soldier. And so Steve Rogers was drafted into this program again because they saw in him the character traits that they wanted in a super soldier.

Mark White: 00:18:51 They just didn't want to take anybody and give them enhanced strength and power. They wanted to find someone who was already a good person, who already exemplified the virtues they wanted in a soldier, and then just make him physically a better soldier. And so the, the treatment was successful in his case and he eventually became captain America. He soon acquired a teenage sidekick named Bucky, and he fought supervillains as a superhero as well as fought along and the allied forces in world war II. He was presumed dead at the end of the end of world war II as well as Bucky. And then in the 60s, at least in the comic book cannon, he was found floating in the waters by Newfoundland, was fished out of the ocean and found by the Avengers who revived him and he became a member of the Avengers and has been a superhero ever since.

Amber Cazzell: 00:19:48 Interesting. Okay. So now with captain America, it sounds like you think that the overwhelming kind of philosophy that guides that is a virtue ethics philosophy, is that right?

Mark White: 00:19:57 Yeah. Yes. You know, with, with some slight modifications, you know, virtue ethics traditionally is all about character traits and how you translate those character traits into action. Captain America does, you know, through his appearances, you know, focus on duty a little more than most virtue ethicists would. So he brings in some of the deontological perspective, but there are some virtue ethicists that admit the imp the importance of duty as well. So I, I kind of represent him in, in my work as a mainly influenced by virtue ethics, but also with the taste of deontology.

Amber Cazzell: 00:20:33 Okay. And now actually, let's go ahead and maybe we can just talk about about captain America and, and Batman is foils to each other. So the story of Batman is dark, darker in some ways. Could you give us also just a brief background on Batman?

Mark White: 00:20:54 Okay. Well, Bruce Wayne as a young boy sky on of the Wayne family, a wealthy family in Gotham city, his father was a prominent surgeon, a philanthropist in the city, all one of the leading families in the city. He was leaving the movie theater with his parents when he was a young boy and his parents were shot by a mugger who left the boy alive. And he was so traumatized by this experience that he swore he never let this happen to anyone again. So he's, you know, it's vague when he made this decision, you know, some, some show making this decision as a young boy saw them when he was older as a teenager or a young adult. But somewhere along the line he swore to dedicate his life to fighting crimes. So no one would suffer the way that he did. As a young boy, and then he was inspired by a bat crashing through the window of his salon that that dressing up is about what a little would allow him to strike fear into the hearts of criminals who are cowardly and superstitious lot. And so he became Batman and you know, just adopted a mission with 100% dedication to fight crime. Hmm.

Amber Cazzell: 00:22:02 Yeah. And now the story of Batman, you paint as largely a man torn between deontological and consequential. Ethical compass is, yes. Okay. so yes, you're right. Well, so, okay. So I think it's, I think it's interesting just because I think of these two characters as pretty, pretty different from each other, right? Cause captain America is captain America, a very tortured soul. I'm, like I said, I'm less familiar with him.

Mark White: 00:22:37 He's not, not in the same way that man is. I mean, he's tortured. He's all one aspect of how Kevin, I mean, the most obvious way the captain America's tortured is when he was revived in the 60s when he was found frozen in the ice and revived by the Avengers. And then he realized that Bucky did not survive his teenage sidekick from world war II, did not survive. He later he found out he did, but that those decades later he found that out. So he had survivor's guilt basically. He had tremendous remorse that he lived in his, his teenage sidekick didn't. And so I think that the creators in Marvel who worked very hard to instill all their characters with human flaws to separate them from the, the golden gods of DC at the time the, the, the creators really wanted to give all their character, all the, you know, the creators in the Marvel universe really wanted to give all the superheroes flaws, so they'd all be human, even if they weren't human, literally.

Mark White: 00:23:38 And, but when they brought back captain America, who was a character from the forties when characterization was less developed and he was just a patriotic symbol at the time, they wanted to give him sort of a, you know, a psychological complex. And I think that's why they had the death of Bucky weigh on him so heavily. So going forward, that was kind of his albatross, you know, that was, you know, every time he thought of getting a new partner, he was, he was, he was, you know, uneasy about this because he was afraid he didn't want to let another partner die. He didn't want to let another partner get hurt, which I, which ironic, you know, coincidentally is also something Batman goes through with his sequence of Robbins. You know, his young boys that he adopts into service with him that inevitably get hurt. And he goes through a soul searching about whether I should ever bring a young boy in the service with me again.

Mark White: 00:24:31 And then he inevitably us and you have to wonder why. So, but that, that back to captain America, that's, that's the most obvious way in that he's tortured. And, and again, I think that was introducing those character mainly to give him a complex rather than being this kind of ideal person. He's also torn, he's also torn on a deeper level. And this is one of most interesting aspects of the character to me is obviously he's the symbol of the United States of America. And obviously he serves the country, but he, he struggles with what exactly that means. You know, does he serve the government of the country regardless of the actions they take? Or does he serve the more fundamental principles at the core of the country as he interprets them? And you know, pretty consistently through the comics, he, he supports principle over politics. So, you know what a lot of people who don't read the comics don't realize is that he has gone up against the government many times in the comics so far has giving up the captain America identity when he didn't want to be identified with the policies that are people in power at a, at a certain time.

Mark White: 00:25:38 He speaks out against unjust government policy when he feels that is in contradiction with the principles that he regards at the core of the country. Liberty equality opportunity.

Amber Cazzell: 00:25:48 Yeah. Yeah. It's interesting to me that the virtue ethics that you want is also is also the one that has, that works inside the law at least more so than Batman and is like concerned with being a good citizen because that's so classic virtue ethics, right? It's so much based in the, in the, in the States back in, in city-states, way back in the day. Right. So

Mark White: 00:26:18 Yeah, if you, if you tie it explicitly to that version of virtue ethics and in my book at least, I, I use a very, very general version of virtue ethics, mainly just based on, you know, having virtuous character traits. I, I don't, I don't make, you know, some people have unfortunately read this into my book, but I, I don't link it with, you know, the classic Greek version of virtue ethics.

Amber Cazzell: 00:26:43 Yeah. Well, do you think that that captain America writers have done that on purpose or just coincidentally have done what have made captain America about captain America that he's tied? To some extent with a, it's like a political identity.

Mark White: 00:27:08 Oh, sure. Oh, sure. And writers have gotten a lot of good stories out of that, you know, and again, I, I think that's one of the central struggles of the character is how does he represent a country that sometimes he doesn't agree with.

Amber Cazzell: 00:27:20 And yet, to me, it's interesting that it seems like captain America is a less popular figure because a lot of people kind of cringe or feel weird about this idea as you would said, of, of being.

Amber Cazzell: 00:27:35 Yeah. You know, jingoistic toady. Yeah, yeah. And even you had pointed out like, okay, he's not always that way. Like, what, what is that hesitation say about what's going on in our collective moral conscience today?

Mark White: 00:27:52 Oh, right, right. Well, you know, before the movies, before the current line of Marvel movies, I mean, I think captain America was misunderstood by much of the non comics reading public, which is most of the public. And I think he did have, you know unfortunately, but you know, fairly, I have to admit and just the reputation of being a I said it before a jingoistic toady a flayed flag-waving symbol of the us government, a tool of American imperialism or whatever you want to say. And, but that was never the conception and the comics, I mean, in the forties when he was basically a symbol to, to, you know I lost my word there for a minute, just to, you know, as a patriotic symbol during world war II to help rally the people in support of the war effort and the great reading material for the, for our fighting forces overseas.

Mark White: 00:28:50 And I mean, he wasn't really given much depth back then. There were fun stories, but that was about it. And then again, when they brought him back in the 60s and you know, the Marvel universe was developed in the, in the mid and late 1960s. So was a time of incredible political turmoil comparable to today. And so, you know, Stan Lee and Jack Kirby and the other early creators of the character instilled this political ambiguity in him from the start. And there were, there were stories in the, in the later sixties written by Stanley where he would, captain America would visit a campus during campus riots. And his first impulse would be, you know, these students are defying authority. But then when he realized why they're saying, wow, maybe I should listen to these students, maybe they have a point, maybe everything's not as clear as I thought it was in my day.

Mark White: 00:29:38 And so he really starts to, to, you know, his opens up pretty quickly. And again, this was due to the, to the writers and artists at the time who, you know, were, were challenged with taking a character who could easily be a parody of American values and just, you know, be a flag waver. And actually made him a more of a commentary on America. So much so that in the mid seventies, there was a storyline that was literally being written parallel to the Watergate hearings that culminated in revealing that the president of the United States who they didn't name as Richard Nixon, but it was clear that's who they meant was actually the leader of a global conspiracy fighting to bring down captain America and use propaganda to turn the American people against him.

Amber Cazzell: 00:30:25 That's interesting. I love that there's that interplay between comics and what's actually going on in the real world. So like a

Mark White: 00:30:38 Very much so. I mean the I can jump forward 30 years. The civil war storyline, which was from 2006 to 2007 where the Marvel superheroes basically split over the issue of superhero registration and having to reveal their identities to the government and submit the training with half the hero saying this was necessary to reassure the public that the heroes were on their side and we're going to be held responsible for mistakes. And the other side, including captain America saying it was an infringement on the Liberty of people who were trying to help. And that was a response to post nine 11 America and the introduction of the Patriot act, which of course many feel and fringe on civil liberties. So they basically wrote an analog to all of this where the superhero registration act also a reaction to a tremendous tragedy was regarded by some including captain America as an overreaction and, and the, the, the heroes on the more authoritarian sides, you know, led by iron man, Ron, the side that this, you know, this is unfortunate but necessary. So they took a very pragmatic approach to it. And so that, that, that to me, I wrote an entire book on the storyline alone. To me the story is, is one of the, the, the greatest reflections of political circumstances. I mean, you know, I, I'd put it on a level of Watchman. I mean Watchman wasn't, re wasn't referring to any one particular act or circumstance.

Amber Cazzell: 00:32:10 Yeah. Tell me about, tell me about Watchman. It's one of those things that I've never read or watched, but has been kind of on my bucket list. Wow. I know. I'm sorry I don't get out much.

Mark White: 00:32:25 No, it wasn't a common, and that's just, wow, I didn't think I was going to talk about Watchman here.

Amber Cazzell: 00:32:29 Oh, well we don't have to, if you don't feel prepared. I was just curious because I know like who watches the Watchman? And that's the thing I always hear and I intrinsically like that, sensitive that I don't actually know what the context is.

Mark White: 00:32:41 So yeah, well we'll Watchman, I mean very briefly. Watchman was a 12 issue series in I think 1985 to 1986 by writer Alan Moore and artists, Dave Gibbons, which is now Harold. It is a classic graphic novel. And even just as a novel, as a, as a literary work, it's, I think time included as our a hundred greatest novels of all time or something. And it's revered by common scholars as well as literary scholars is a fantastic piece of art. And basically it was, it was a, you know, a rumination on kind of what would superheroes be like in the real world if they weren't endlessly noble and virtuous and ethical. But there were real people with you know, real motivations. And even compared to the Marvel heroes, real flaws and you know, we couldn't always count on the do the right thing.

Mark White: 00:33:38 And that's where, who watches the Watchman? You know, we have these superhero beings, actually most of them in, in the Watchman comic court's super powered, but their costume vigilantes and you know, you know, we, we kind of trust these people to watch over us and protect us with who's watching them, which has been a theme now that has been revisited time and time again. I mean the boys comic series and series on Amazon currently as the same idea. And so I think much darker you know, some people interpret the whole enterprise that more than givens were doing was as a cautionary tale that this is not what you want to do. This is, this is what happens if you treat superheroes like real people. You know, you shouldn't do this. Comics could be fun. Superhero should be inspiring. You know, this is really what you shouldn't do.

Mark White: 00:34:28 But the comics industry took the success of Watchman is saying, wow, we can do this, we can have superheroes be nasty and horrible. And unvirtuous and you know, and unfortunately, you know, some feel including me that, you know, the industry took the wrong signal from the success of this and kind of didn't get the point then get the lesson. And that's led us that led into, you know, 30 years dominated by grim and gritty comics and superheroes, which has leaked more into the DC movies, the Marvel movies to their credit I think have pushed back against this and, and, and more retained the, the, the Nobel virtuous while imperfect version of heroism that, that Marvel comics are known for. And that allows me to come back to what we were saying about captain America being misunderstood as a simplistic jingoistic figure before the Marvel movies.

Mark White: 00:35:28 But thanks to the Marvel movies and which I think I've done a fantastically nuanced job, which, you know, I have to give credit to the writers, directors as well as Chris Evans for giving just a fantastic portrayal of the hero. I love and have really shown this nuance, especially in the captain America civil war movie where he is pushing back against the government and he is pushing back against shield. And when he sees their militaristic surveillance program, he says this, this isn't, I think the line is this isn't freedom. This is fear. Yeah. That's where you, that's where you really see him have the same, you know, Don emphasis on principle over politics that he has in the movies. And that in turn I think has led to the broader public having a much better appreciation of who the character is always been because he's been very well represented in the movies.

Amber Cazzell: 00:36:26 Yeah. So what about, what about Batman? Let's go back to Batman. Is there, like, can you see historical trajectories of like political strife or just moral movements reflected in the comic strips of Batman as well?

Mark White: 00:36:40 I don't see that so much in batman. You know, definitely there are different national moods and trends and comics and society that kind of filter into the comics. But that man has never been an explicitly political character. So I think of Batman as much more of a street level. You know, a man trying to fight crime and protect his city. And, you know, the, the, the only, you know, I mean, they're, they're, you know, the dark Knight returns, kind of Frank Miller's dystopian future version vision of Batman has a political edge to it. There was a several year long storyline through all of the Batman related titles, which were numerous called no man's land where often city was struck by a series of earthquakes and basically destroyed the city and the government abandoned it. The U S government abandoned the city and cut and demolished all the bridges going into it. So, you know, Gotham city was transformed into a no man's land, basically an anarchy where different mobs formed and the police were one mob and different villains had their own mobs and Batman abandoned it for a while and then came back. But even that didn't have, I don't think, direct political overtones. I mean, this was years before, you know, some, when hurricane Katrina hit in new Orleans was, was devastated. There were some illusions made back to no man's land, but that was before.

Amber Cazzell: 00:38:08 So could you give me a couple of examples from Batman in which utilitarianism and deontology deontological decision making were kind of hit it against each other?

Mark White: 00:38:21 Oh, sure, sure. That, that's really the focus of my book. Well [inaudible] his overall mission is, is basically utilitarian, I would say basically in case there's any philosophers listening to this and, you know, and what I mean by that is he's, he's deaf. He's basically trying to do good. He's basically, he's sworn to save the citizens of Gotham city from crime. And you know, this, it's a, it's a very narrow mission. He's not trying to, you know improve global welfare or save global warming or, or improve global hunger. You know, he's focused on Gotham city. He's, it's a very negative mission in terms of he is, he's trying to stop crime. He's not really trying to help in a positive way though, to his credit. Many people bring this up. Bruce Wayne, through his philanthropic efforts. He said several times in the comics that he donates most of his fortune and most of his annual income to charity.

Mark White: 00:39:20 Because many people criticized, you know, we're showing really wanting to help people. Why does he spend so much money on being a caped masked vigilante instead of just, you know, donating to causes or argument. It is very much just kind of the, the effect of altruism or, yeah, effective altruists argument is this, is this really the best way you can do good. And I, I confront that in the book. I say, Oh, well, I may not be the best way, but certainly I think he does enough good through his philanthropy that he has some leeway to decide what to do with the, with a little bit of money he has left. If he wants to do it, to put a mask on and beat up monger's fine. Know it's not as if that's all he were doing. But anyway, this, this is his general mission to, to, you know, help the people of Gotham city by fighting crime.

Mark White: 00:40:09 And there's, you know, I into the, you know, the first half of my book is discussing this and the different ins and outs and criticisms of this mission, et cetera and things he does, I make compromises, pursuit of the mission. But then the second half of the book is about the deontological rules that either follows or breaks in pursuit of this mission. And most of the rules are rules and he happily breaks, such as there's a chapter about violence. You know, he's very violent, which most people know constantly beating on criminals or beating on informants, trying to get information to find the criminals. This, this violence lapses in the torture on many occasions. And I talk about that. I don't go into that as much as some critics of, of media torture have, but I definitely reference them and allude to them because, you know, people don't usually don't notice it, that he does this.

Mark White: 00:40:58 I mean, when you dangle somebody off the side of a building, threatening to drop them, unless they talk, even if they know, Oh, you're Batman, you're not going to drop me. You don't kill people. Still. I mean, you know, even if you know that waterboarding isn't going to drown you, you still have that definite sensation. It's going to have a psychological effect. And I'll torture is ultimately psychological. So I, I, you know, but, and all of these things, his general attitude towards law, breaking his child endangerment, all these, you know, deontological prohibitionists that he basically dispenses with justify by saying the, the justify the means. You know, I do all these things that in themselves might be wrong, but they're serving a greater cause. I accept, I accept the criticism, but I believe that all these things are worthwhile doing to save the citizen Gotham city, which I mean, you, you, you know, you don't have to agree with, but it is in itself a consistent approach.

Mark White: 00:41:52 It's very utilitarian. But there's that one moral preset that he refuses to violate. And that's his ban against killing or taking a life. And this is problematic mainly and reflection on the fact that many of his villains are extremely homicidal. You have the joker who's killed thousands of people. You have a rails, Roz out Google of who's an environmental extremist, who wants to wipe out humanity. You have other villains that just, you know, murder people with impunity. And that man refuses to take any of their lives, even though they always managed to get out of jail or get out of our [inaudible] and kill again. And he knows this. And in fact, the second young man that took up the mantle of Rob and Jason Todd was killed by the joker. And he came back. That's what happens in comics. You die, you come back.

Mark White: 00:42:50 But he came back, he was very mad about man because he says, you know, I can't believe that all the time I was gone when I was dead after the joke or killed me. You didn't kill him. I mean, I understand you don't want to kill him, but he killed me. You killed your Rob and he killed your, your, your sidekick. How, you know, what, what, what's it gonna take for you to finally end this person? And he's also killed or hurt other people close to Batman as well as thousands and thousands of citizens of Gotham city in the world in general. That Neo Batman doesn't know. But he keeps doing this and you know, in the face of that man's cost to refusal to kill him or even refuse to save his life when the joker falls off a cliff, Batman risks his own life to save him.

Mark White: 00:43:37 Certainly a few would blame him if you've just turned away and you know, let them go. And there's only one time in the comics where you can say he did not. So I mean, one more thing, it's just, you know, the, this is the central conflict and inconsistency in Batman's moral code that I focus on in the book. Cause that, you know, he does so much, you know, prima facial wrong in the face of his mission, you know, to serve his mission. But he won't violate this rule even though this is the rule that if broken would probably further the mission more than anything else. I mean, if you're trying to save lives and there's one person that's taking many, many lives, you know, the, the obvious solution that shouldn't be dismissed immediately is you take that one person out of the picture. I'm not, I'm not saying he should, but I'm saying the conflict is irreconcilable and, and, but I mean in the, you know, if we step back and think about the drama of the comics, that's, that's some intense drama.

Amber Cazzell: 00:44:38 Absolutely. Yeah.

Mark White: 00:44:40 A lot of great storylines and discussions and arguments, you know, the such as the one between the revived Jason Todd and that man who refused to a hold his killer to account and other characters that I've said the same thing to him, other characters that have been hurt by the joke or, and say, you know, why do you PR? You're basically protecting this man.

Amber Cazzell: 00:45:00 [Inaudible] Yeah. And as I was reading the introduction to this book, and you're thinking about it, and you had said as well, like this is, I think a lot of people relate to Batman because they also feel this, this, the tension, the tension between, between doing the best you can. And doing what's right as a principal in any given situation.

Mark White: 00:45:24 Exactly. Exactly. There's not that he's ethically flawed, he's, you know, one way to look at it is that he's actually trying to be do, he's trying to do too much in two different, in too many different ways that aren't consistent with each other.

Amber Cazzell: 00:45:37 Yeah. I, and, and that, so as I was reading it, it just made me think a lot about Alasdair MacIntyre's conclusion that the enlightenment project was a failure. That it just seems like these, these sorts of principles are irreconcilable and I just wonder what you think about that as Batman is potentially kind of proving Alasdair McIntyre's points.

Mark White: 00:46:04 Yes. Yes. I would agree. I would agree, but, but, but you know, it, it's inescapable. I mean, it's just part of the human condition. Unless we're just going to abandon morality altogether.

Amber Cazzell: 00:46:14 Well, how fun. I, I'm not super, I'm working on understanding the history of morality more, but like way back in the day when character was conceptualized quite differently, do you think that people still felt that kind of a moral tension?

Mark White: 00:46:31 Well, yes, yes. Because virtue ethics, you know, it, it embraces the same tensions and I really think they're, they're resolved in much the same way. I mean, you know, whether you know, VR, the virtue ethics, this sort the first ones to explain that judgment was necessary to make moral decisions that there are no, you know, clear and fast rules or guidelines. That was really, you know, the, the enlightenment project that McIntyre's was talking about where utilitarianism and deontology came along with their rules and formulas, guidelines, you know, virtue ethics didn't give any of that. It just said, you know, be, be a good person, be honest, be courageous, be just, you know, try to lead the good life and make it a solid contribution to society. But though that's not necessarily easy, if anything that's more vague, that doesn't give any firm guidance either. And that's why you needed to use judgment to translate these general character traits and to, you know, specific action.

Amber Cazzell: 00:47:27 Okay.

Mark White: 00:47:27 So you know, you can, to be honest, you can try to be courageous. You can try to be kind, but you're going to have situations where you can't reconcile those. And in fact that's, that's the way I approach it in the captain America book was he, you know, he exemplifies all these virtues, but that doesn't really tell you what to do when specific circumstances. You have to filter all those virtues, balance them, weigh them against each other to issue in a, in a decision, in a specific situation. Yeah, that's true. That's true in the sense of virtue ethics. And then that's true in the sense of Batman who, who, you know, I, I referenced virtue ethics very little in my book on that man. You know, he's basically balancing these, you know, trying to do good and trying to do right or not trying to do too much wrong. And again, it's the same thing as, you know, he has to make decisions and the STS judgment because he, he can't do it. All right. Are all good at the same time. And so again, you have, you have different ethical materials. You start with, you know, you have a bunch of rules and guidelines instead of character traits. But at the end, you still have to combine all this through faculty of judgment, which you know, by definition can't be stated in a rule or formula that's going to get you to a final decision.

Amber Cazzell: 00:48:40 Yeah. and I mean, in a way I think that that does represent a limitation in and of itself. Like, like, you know, Superman has kryptonite. This is kind of an unusual limitation, but it's one that seems to be common across superheroes is the inability to be morally perfect, you know? And I wanted to kind of return to this idea that, that it seems like superhero is always, do you have some sort of a limitation? What do you make of that? Is that just to make us feel like we relate to them a little bit more? Or do you think that that's actually integral to providing moral dimension to the character?

Mark White: 00:49:26 Well, there, there's several types of limitations. One, like you mentioned before, the kryptonite thing. I, that's just a tool to, to allow the writers to write stories. I mean, you can't write stories about it completely, you know, all powerful being there's, there's no, there's no conflict there. There's no, you know, they, they have to confront some limitations and the more powerful the hero is such as Superman or Thor or wonder woman, you know, you have to provide greater, greater limitations. So, you know, Superman was, was limited by kryptonite is limited by magic. They were limited by a red sun. So, you know, you had to have those because there had to be something for a Villa and to use against them. Now you're, you're more human superheroes like that man or, or even captain America besides being, you know, boosted to the love of human perfection still is just a human being.

Mark White: 00:50:17 You know, with them, the, the, you know, they, they can, you can easily imagine a villain stronger than them or faster than them. So that's not really as much of a factor. But one thing I've before, you know, I in my edited book on Superman of philosophy, my chapter and that is about that, that judgment, again, that's a constant recurring theme here is judgment is the power that makes the most human because even Superman, you know, confronts moral dilemmas. And really, I think this is in the nature of a hero that is trying to do good by some definition is going to find him or herself in a situation where they can't or they have to make choices or I have to make sacrifices. It can be a simple decision, you know, like a Sophie's choice decision. The, I've used the example of Superman, you know, let's say you have Lex Luther threatening to hurt Lois lane on one side of the world and then they, they orchestrated a bus disaster of children on the other side of the world.

Mark White: 00:51:12 And you know, ha ha, Superman, which are you going to do? Are you going to save your, your, your wife or girlfriend? Or are you going to save this bus? Loach school children, right? You know that, that's what foster called, called tragic dilemma. You know, you can't escape with clean hands. You have to choose one or the other, like the Sophie's choice example that everyone uses. But it's the nature of superhero comics that Superman finds a way to do both. Yeah. And that's because they're superheroes. You know, the normal people would have to make a choice, but Sophie had to make the choice. But you know, superheroes don't have to make that choice. They can find a way around it. But you know, the, the really interesting, you know stories are where they can't and where, where they are confronted, they have to make a choice.

Mark White: 00:51:56 You know there's a great story from the, I think the late eighties and the captain America comics written by Mark Grunewald, who unfortunately is not with us anymore, who were SU captain America was confronting a cell of terrorists. And I mean, you know, many, many terrorists, I can't remember, dozens or hundreds, you know, all armed and he just had a shield and he realized I can't do anything. And there was a rifle standing next to sitting next to him and he had to think about it. And he had to think about it quick and he decided to get the rifle. And I mean he didn't kill any, I think he actually did kill one person, but you know, he basically use it to create chaos and scare the terrorists so he could go in and beat them up normally. But he, I think it's been a long time since I read the story, but he did in the end, kill one of them.

Mark White: 00:52:47 And this was a major ethical dilemma for him, not only justifying what he did to himself afterwards cause this is a split decision in the heat of the moment. But actually it became public and he had to defend this decision to the public and he wasn't sure whether he should, he wasn't sure how he felt about it. Now be captain America traditionally doesn't have as much of a thing against guns as Batman traditionally does. But that man has also, you know, I think, I think the whole thing about that man hating guns is blown out of proportion because he does use guns occasionally when he has to. He hates them. The gun was used to kill his parents obviously, but he has had to pick up a weapon and use it when necessary. He just doesn't like to, he likes to find any other way to do it. You know, captain America, captain America, being a, a soldier in a previous life literally doesn't have that same antipathy towards guns, but he still doesn't like to use them. And so this was a major conflict for him.

Amber Cazzell: 00:53:49 So what do you make? Like why, why are superheroes such a big thing? Like it seems a little bit odd because usually you do want to relate to the characters in a story and super powers make them a bit unrelatable. And I understand that we can add back into it like these intractable moral dilemmas that they still can't get around and we can add to it potentially other sorts of emotional or physical limitations. But if we have to temper it back down anyway, like what, I dunno. Do you have any insights as to why?

Mark White: 00:54:25 I think, you know, that, you know, again, for most superheroes that have super powers or are gods or aliens, you know, that's, that's just fantastical storytelling. Like that's, that's just, you know, entertaining. But again, as, as your idea, I think you answered your own question. To make them relatable, you have to give them in security's moral quandaries, personality quirks. Yeah. I mean, super. I mean, Superman's, you know, main theme over the years is that, you know, it's kind of like Pinocchio. He wants to be a human. You want, you grew up with us but not one of us. And he wants to be one of us. He wants to help us at the same time that he wants to be one of us as flight. Traditionally he's maintained the Clark Kent identity is because he doesn't want to be a God among men and women. He wants to be one of us at least.

Mark White: 00:55:12 At least if he has to pretend to be you know, and even the, even the, the non-super powered heroes. I mean, you know, I, I've written many, many times about why Batman is relatable and every time I have to put a qualification in there that he's a billionaire, you know, not a lot of us can relate to being a billionaire. And given the, the tenor of the national conversation at this time, many of us may think twice about becoming one if we could. But, you know, iron man, the same thing. Tony Stark's a billionaire. So you know, there's not that, you know, there, there, there's a lot of things that make superheroes more or less relatable. But I think, you know, the, the, the, the, the balance that comics creators have to have to find is, you know, giving them enough extraordinary characteristics to make them interesting as superheroes to people who like superheroes, but then also give them, you know, weaknesses, flaws, dilemmas, et cetera, to, to make them relatable.

Mark White: 00:56:14 And that's, this was, you know, the, the contract, the intent of the creators and the Marvel universe, Stanley and Jack Kirby and Steve Cole and her colleagues, was to create that both entertained kids as far as having super powers. Our people flying around shooting beams out of their eyes and also [inaudible] have them be people they can relate to. I mean Spiderman is the best example of this. He was almost designed to be the, the, the, the schlub the, the, the kid who gets picked on at school, the kid who never gets the, the, the, the girl he likes, you know, at the same time goes and risks his life to save people under the mask but then doesn't get any credit for it because no one knows who he is. And that, that was kind of the ultimate, you know, even in other stories, like he's a, the central figure in the comic version of civil war, but he's very much the point of view character. He's the person watching the gods fight above him and he's trying to decide which side am I on. And he makes arguments for both sides, the sides with one side and then he switches to the other side and it affects his life more than anybody else's. And that provides, that makes him a an excellent point of view character. Cause he can see the sides. You can see the flaws. He's not ideologically split like captain America and iron man are, but he can talk to both of them. He can be a sounding board for them.

Amber Cazzell: 00:57:31 Yeah. So for just our last few minutes here, my last question is how has, thinking deeply about the philosophies of superheroes and the development of these comic strips and movies over time, how has that informed your own scholarship? And is there any way that you would hope it could inform scholarship of others, whether in philosophy or other social science disciplines?

Mark White: 00:57:58 Well that that's hard to answer because I don't consider what I do regarding superheroes to be scholarship. I consider this to be pop philosophy. I write these, these books and articles and blogs for wide audiences, you know, to use their, their, you know, preexisting love of these characters to show them a different side of them that maybe they didn't think about or maybe they thought about but didn't know the terms for. So introducing them to the philosophical terms and concepts behind what the superheroes do. So I make a point that everything that I referenced in these books is drawn from the comics. And that's why there's hundreds and hundreds of references to the comics in them. I don't, I don't impose anything on the comics, you know, I, everything I get is drawn from them. And that's, that's the show that all of that is in there already. Whether or not it was in the intent of the creators, it's just concepts that are in the air. Philosophers didn't invent these concepts, they just, they just categorize them and define them and analyze them. So I don't really consider what I do scholarship. And there, there certainly is a very rich vein of comics, scholarship of people, you know, looking at comics through a scholarly lens or the scholarly approach. And I love that work and I read a lot of it, but I don't do it.

Amber Cazzell: 00:59:14 Have you ever heard of like character education programs that are designed around superheroes?

Mark White: 00:59:20 Definitely, yes. Yes. I, I love that. I love that. I've, I've never been involved in that. I w I would honestly like to, but I've never been involved in that. But I, I, I think that's great. That shows the, the, the positive impact, the thinking about these things. Can do, I mean, I've heard of, of of psychologists that you superhero stories in therapy to, to give people, you know, I mean, you know, I, I think it's, it's become a cliche, but deservedly so that superheroes are true extent. Our modern mythology, you know, not in a theological sense, but it just in, you know, these are our collective stories. I mean, you know, and, and they can provide, they can teach more or lessons, you know, and I, you know, that, that's what I hope I do when it comes down to it, is I hope that people who read my books and articles and blogs, you know, they, they, they get something out of it either to not necessarily learn about ethics, but, you know, give them a mirror to look at their own.

Mark White: 01:00:22 You know, both my captain American Batman books, I wasn't just writing about the superheroes. I was writing about us. And you know, especially the Batman book where I focus on the inconsistency of his moral code and how he can't reconcile all these things he wants to do. And I said, that's exactly how most of us feel. Most of us are trying to be good people trying to do right. Try not to do wrong and, but it's hard to do it all. And you know, we, we often conflicted. I mean, when we have to, you know, it can be a very banal situation such as you, you promised your best friend, you'd go to the movies with them, but then your mom calls and needs you to help out at the house, moving some heavy furniture and you have to make a choice. And you know, [inaudible] not, there's not much of a tragic dilemma, but you know, it's a more common tragic dilemma than, than what you'd find Superman.

Mark White: 01:01:18 But still you're going to have to disappoint one of them. And which one do you do? And you know, how do you weigh that versus each other, you know, versus the one versus the other. And there's no easy way to do it. But you know, that, that just on a smaller scale, those are the same things, the same moral dilemmas as superheroes encounter. There's are just blown out of proportion because it's a fantastical story. But again, it's kind of that myth. We learn all these lessons from say the, the, the ancient Greek myths about, you know, the God-centered interfering in the world of, of man and humanity. And, and, you know, the, it's, it's kinda the same idea. These, these stories about how Superman or captain America or wonder woman are interacting with normal people. You know, we're not superheroes. But you know, many of us can be heroes, but not superheroes.

Mark White: 01:02:06 But, you know, we can, we can see how they're confronting moral dilemmas and if we kind of admire these heroes or admire the characters they're representing, then they can serve to some extent as moral exemplars for us and teach us these moral lessons we see out. We like captain America, we see him doing good. We want to be like him. We see wonder woman doing the same thing. So that that's, that's, you know, if I, if I, you know, create any good of my own with what I do, that's, that's kind of what I hope for.

Amber Cazzell: 01:02:37 Awesome. Cool. Well, thank you so much, Mark. It's been a lot of fun to chat heroes. It's not a thing I get to do every day.


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