In a fantastic new interview at Newsarama, The Invincible Iron Man writer Matt Fraction discusses the future of the Iron Man title (including the mammoth #500 issue and the reflective #500.1 issue), previews Tony's role in the upcoming Fear Itself event, and--most interesting to me--compares Iron Man and Spider-Man in terms of their ethics.
From the interview:
Nrama: Another interesting thing about #500 was making Spider-Man — and Peter Parker — the co-star of the issue. What led you to that decision, and also, is that the first time we’ve seen Peter Parker and Tony Stark interacting since Tony forgot Peter’s secret identity post-”One More Day”?
Fraction: I believe so.
I kind of consider Peter Parker to be the moral center of the Marvel Universe, and I consider Tony to be the most morally flexible, the most morally unhinged hero in the Marvel Universe. So it’s nice from time to time to put Tony and Peter together in a room and look at how they measure up next to one another. See how they compare, see how they work together. It’s a fun relationship.
Having recently written essays on the ethics of both characters as represented during Civil War--"Did Iron Man Kill Captain America?" in Iron Man and Philosophy and "‘My Name is Peter Parker’: Unmasking the Right and the Good" in the upcoming Spider-Man and Philosophy--Fraction's statement really got me thinking. My immediate reaction was to disagree: to my mind, Captain America, not Spidey, is the undisputed moral center of the Marvel Universe, and Iron Man is by no means "morally unhinged," but rather is just more pragmatic (in terms of consequentialism, not American pragmatism a la Dewey, James, and Peirce) in his moral decision-making.
But casting Spider-Man as the moral center begins to make more sense to me if you cast Cap and Iron Man as polar opposites--principles vs. pragmatism, deontology vs. consequentialism--with Peter hovering in the middle, drawn to each side at various times. For instance, during the Civil War, Peter first sided with Tony (based on his consequentialist arguments based on safety and security) until Cap convinced him to cross over (based on deontological arguments based on liberty). But nonetheless, when Aunt May lay dying from a gunshot wound during "One More Day," Peter sought out Tony's help.
In fact, the topic of my Spider-Man essay is the constant pull that Peter feels between the "right" and the "good," which is one way that philosophers often characterize the contrast between deontology and consequentialism. For instance, when Tony asks him to unmask in Civil War, Peter is torn between his loyalty and gratitude to Tony (representing what he felt was the right thing to do) and keeping his secret identity to protect MJ and May (representing the good that he wants to maximize). His later decision to split from Tony and sign up with Cap was motivated by the same conflict, just recast in terms of his new opinion of what the right and the good were: now he felt that standing against Tony and registration was the right thing to do, even though it endangered the "good" of protecting MJ and May (against the authorities once he was an outlaw). (This also highlights the role of judgment in determining what course of action represents the right or the good in any given situation, which I discussed previously.)
In both cases, Peter chose the right over the good, indicating that ultimately he sides more with deontology (and Cap) than consequentialism (and Tony), but the fact that he struggles at all makes him unique among the three heroes. So I would agree with Fraction that Spidey is the moral center of the Marvel Universe, not because he is the most grounded, but because he resides in the middle between two proud traditions in moral philosophy: deontology and consequentialism, or the right and the good.