Imagine you’re a leader in your community, fighting on behalf of a principle for which you are personally willing to sacrifice anything. Your own well-being is of no concern to you as long as your actions are protecting and promoting the ideal in which you believe so strongly. One day, however, you notice that your actions are hurting those around you, both those who are similarly invested in your cause as well as others who are not involved—including, perhaps, many whom you’re trying to help. You may even be winning the fight, until you notice that its costs, especially those borne by others, are simply getting too high to bear. Do you fight on, regardless of the cost, or do you stop, cutting the losses but losing the larger fight?
This sounds like the type of hypothetical situation that philosophy professors give to their students to work through. But it’s not hypothetical to people around the world who fight for social justice, gladly sacrificing their own livelihoods for their cause, while perhaps also inflicting collateral damage on others. It’s also a situation that the superhero Captain America faced in the Marvel Comics storyline “Civil War” in which he defended the freedoms of his fellow heroes against a law that would compel them to reveal their secret identities to the government and register as agents of the state.
When we think of complex and nuanced moral decision-making, comic book superheroes probably don’t immediately spring to mind. If they did, most people would choose the psychologically complex Batman rather than the flag-waving Captain America. “Cap” is often criticized, by fans in the real world as well as his fellow heroes in the Marvel Universe, as embodying old-fashioned, “black-and-white” ethical thinking that is anachronistic in our modern, morally ambiguous world. What Cap actually shows, however, is how values are of no use in realistic moral dilemmas without the essential faculty of judgment.
Each of the three major schools of moral philosophy needs the help of judgment to result in specific actions. Unique among them, virtue ethics highlights the importance of nuanced and contextual decision-making, such as in Aristotle’s emphasis on practical judgment (phronesis). Virtue ethicists recommend the cultivation of character traits such as honesty that promote moral action but stop short of formulating rules to guide it, leaving it to judgment to determine how to balance virtues in any given ethical dilemma.
Judgment is essential to the other two schools of ethics as well, although this is often minimized in favor of their rule-focused aspects. Utilitarianism seems straightforward once you get to the final step, adding up the effect of individual utilities and comparing this sum to alternatives. But the process of determining those utilities, as well as deciding whose utilities to include and which contingencies you want to account for, require judgment—and the result can have an enormous impact on whether the utilitarian calculation results in a “yea” or “nay.”
Deontology, which emphasizes duties and principles, seems more clear-cut, avoiding the messy empirical details of moral dilemmas. But it has no obvious way to deal with conflicts between two duties or principles, nor to decide when the costs of standing by principle become too great. Even Immanuel Kant, a strict deontologist, stressed the necessity of judgment, which he considered “a peculiar talent which can be practiced only, and cannot be taught” (Critique of Pure Reason, A133/B172). As Onora O’Neill wrote about Kant, “Discussions of judgment . . . are ubiquitous in Kant’s writings. He never assumes agents can move from principles of duty, or from other principles of action, to selecting a highly specific act in particular circumstances without any process of judgment. He is as firm as any devotee of Aristotelian phronesis in maintaining that principles of action are not algorithms and do not entail their own applications” (“Kant: Rationality as Practical Reason,” in The Oxford Handbook of Rationality, edited by Alfred R. Mele and Piers Rawling, p. 104).
While Captain America’s moral character is based on virtues and duties—giving the impression of simplistic, “right and wrong” thinking—he shows the importance of moral judgment in balancing these moral factors before making a decision. Take the example from the Marvel “Civil War” that led off this essay: at the end of the story (Civil War #7, January 2007), Captain America and his allies were winning the climactic battle against Iron Man and other heroes defending superhero registration. As Captain America was about to deliver the final blow against his fellow Avenger, a group of ordinary people pulled Cap away and showed him how the battle had destroyed much of Manhattan. After realizing how much the battle was costing the residents of New York, he signaled to his allies to stop fighting and surrendered. Cap didn’t abandon his principle of freedom; he simply decided it was no longer worth the cost it was imposing on others. His values didn’t change—but his judgment did.
Simple rules such as “stand by your principles” or “minimize harm” are no good in situations like this. Captain America had to keep both of these rules in mind and balance them using his judgment. As Kant emphasized, there is no way to explain judgment as a rule or algorithm; rather it is what a person turns to when rules or algorithms fail to solve a moral problem. In this way judgment resembles Ronald Dworkin’s theory of judicial decision-making, in which a judge balances the various principles relevant to a “hard case” according to the principles and ideals he or she believes best explain the broader legal system. Similarly, in a moral dilemma a person must balance his or her various principles and beliefs to arrive at a decision that maintains the integrity of his or her moral character.
Captain America’s core principles and virtues may be “black and white,” but the way that he balances them is complex, nuanced, and sensitive to context. In the dramatic, life-threatening situations he faces in his comic books and movies, Cap demonstrates how the basic ideas of ethics serve merely as guidelines that by themselves cannot determine the best or right action on their own. As the narration to Captain America, vol. 1, #184 (April 1975) read, "he thinks in principle... tempered on the forge of understanding, and honed to the edge of reality." Moral philosophy can help identify the critical elements of a problem, but each person’s judgment is crucial to finding what Dworkin called (in the context of jurisprudence) the “right answer,” the one that is consistent with his or her moral character. By doing so, we can craft our own character much like Cap’s writers craft his—with or without the red, white, and blue costume.
For more on Cap and philosophy, pick up The Virtues of Captain America: Modern-Day Lessons on Character from a World War II Superhero, available now.