I haven't had much time to read comics the last couple weeks, so I caught up on a few today, including Superman #707, which continues the "Grounded"... well, "storyline" doesn't seem like the right term... "theme," maybe. Whatever. He's walking. (If he wanted to connect with the common man and woman, he'd realize that most of us really want to fly, and he's just rubbing it in our faces by walking instead. Hmph.)
At least Hal and Ollie drove a pick-up truck... and didn't wear their costumes while they were driving across the country... just sayin'...
Oh, yeah, my point... the issue contains an excellent illustration of moral conflict, and the importance of moral judgment in making all but the simplest of ethical decision.
SPOILERS to follow the jump...
In the issue, Hal and Ollie Superman and (earlier) Lois come along a factory emitting chlorine into the local water supply, endangering fish but with little negative effect on the (human) residents. He's told, by a former employee who has gotten Lois' ear (and therefore Supes'), that the factory pays off the inspectors from the EPA and continues to pollute, and Lois wants to get action by writing a story on the case for the Daily Planet. Superman seems ready to crack down on the factory when one of the current employees stresses its importance to the local community, being the last remaining signifcant employer in the area. The rest of the employees agree, saying the harm to the local fish is lamentable, but they need their jobs.
Superman is torn--he's found himself in a tragic dilemma, from which he cannot escape with "clean hands." If he shuts the plant down (by endorsing Lois' story), many people lose their jobs, but if he discourages Lois' story, he allow environmental degradation. As my friends at EcoComics would put it, there is an unacceptable opportunity cost to either choice, which is just another way of describing a tragic dilemma.
What is a Kryptonian to do? As with any tragic dilemma with only unacceptable options, none of which seem obviously "right" or "best," he must use his judgment. If we cast both stopping environmental harm and saving jobs as duties, than he faces a conflict of duties--his heart tells him to do both, but he can only do one. No simple rule is going to give him an answer.
Even Immanuel Kant, he of the categorical imperative and duty, emphasized the importance of judgment, for which there are no rules to guide a puzzed superhero. As he wrote (in the Critique of Pure Reason, of all places),
though understanding is capable of being instructed . . . judgment is a peculiar talent which can be practiced only, and cannot be taught. It is the specific quality of so-called mother-wit; and its lack no school can make good (A133/B172)
While he derived simple duties from the categorical imperative, such as "do not lie" and "help others," putting them into practice requires sensitivity to circumstances and context; as Onora O'Neill, a prominent modern philosopher and expert on Kant's ethics, wrote,
Discussions of judgment . . . are ubiquitous in Kant’s writings. He never assumes agents can move from principles to duty, or other principles of action, to selecting a highly specific act in particular circumstances without any process of judgment. ("Kant: Rationality as Practical Reason," in The Oxford Handbook of Rationality, edited by Alfred R. Mele and Piers Rawling, 93–109, at 104. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004.)
So even if Big Blue holds these two moral duties to be of paramount importance, he must choose between them, and there is no simple algorithm for doing so. (Well, consequentialists may argue that there is, but they'd have to place a common way of measuring harm to the environmental and to families' livelihoods--good luck with that.) As he says (so originally), "I don't know, it's not all black and white." There is context to every moral decision, and any reasonable system of ethics has to--at least--acknowledge it, if not contain a way to deal with it. (Shameless plug: in my forthcoming book, Kantian Ethics and Economics: Autonomy, Dignity, and Character, I summarize a more elaborate model of Kantian judgment, which I hope to develop more in future work.)
In the end, Superman tells the factory that they can stay open but they have to clean up their act, and he'll keep an eye on them to make sure they do. Of course, this plan requires cooperation from Lois, who is understandably none too pleased when Supes repeatedly tells her she "can't run" the story. (No "please don't," or "I don't think it would be wise," or "don't make me look bad in front of fellas"--just "don't run the story." The nerve...)
But marriage is another tragic dilemma for another day... just ask Ollie and Hal Dinah...