Civil Blood and Civil Hands: Captain America, Iron Man, and the Ethics of Superhero Regulation

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(This is hopefully the first of several blog posts I’ll write about this movie.  It was just that good.)

If you’ve been on Twitter at all for the past month or so, I’m sure you’ve seen promoted tweets urging you to “pick a side” for Captain America:  Civil War, either #TeamCap or #TeamIronMan.  Is this an effective marketing technique?  Absolutely.  But it also does a huge disservice to the movie itself.  One of the things I loved most about Civil War was the sheer complexity of the ethical debate at its core.  If I got into the finer details of superhero ethics, this post would turn into a monster, but for now I’ll just say this:  Civil War complicates the divide between utilitarianism and Kantianism.

I’ve written before about the ethical structure of (the first two seasons of) Orphan Black.  I like how that show does ethics, make no mistake, and generally I’m more inclined to favor Kantianism than utilitarianism, but the fact remains that it was almost ridiculously easy for me to break that show down into ethical “camps,” so to speak.  Civil War, on the other hand, doesn’t take the easy route and shove Team Cap or Team Iron Man into one school of thought or the other.  Steve’s side mostly maintains a delicate balance of utilitarianism and Kantianism, whereas Tony’s side engages in selective Kantianism, and if that sounds like an oxymoron?  Well, it totally is.

To go into a bit more detail:  Steve is very much cognizant of the bigger picture in every single battle they fight.  In the first few minutes of the film, the Avengers finally get the better of Crossbones, who almost certainly would have burned the whole world down, whether metaphorically or literally.  By most metrics, the mission was a success:  all the hostiles were taken care of, Crossbones is nothing more than ash, and Natasha kept that unknown biological agent from wreaking untold havoc, and the Avengers are to thank for that.  For Steve, there is absolutely a greater good to be working towards–that’s worth working towards–and he doesn’t lose sight of that.  I might even go so far as to say that not losing sight of that is the only thing that keeps him from completely succumbing to guilt (which, side note, is exactly how he tries to console Wanda after the events of Lagos).  So in that sense, his point of view is utilitarian.  However, things get more complicated once the Sokovian Accords come into the picture.  Steve’s primary objection is that the accords strip the Avengers of their autonomy–a Kantian argument.  The exact phrase he uses is “right to choose.”

Meanwhile, the match that sets Tony off is the story of Charlie Spencer.  Charlie is very much a microcosm of the larger impetus behind the Sokovian Accords:  the everyman with big talents and a bigger heart who just wanted to do some good in the world and got killed in some random superhero crossfire for his trouble.  And the whole issue of innocent powerless bystanders in a superpowered world is legitimately a difficult, pressing one.  As much as Vision’s whole correlation-versus-causation mixup irritated me (you’re a WALKING COMPUTER, you should KNOW THE DIFFERENCE), he does raise a valid point–the more powerful the heroes are, the bigger their battles are, and the more people get killed.  You could make a convincing argument for Tony’s camp being either utilitarian or Kantian in spirit; utilitarian because the Accords aim to assure the greater good for the most people, or Kantian because… well, let’s just say people can’t exercise much autonomy at all when they’re dead.

That argument isn’t wrong per se.  Tony’s motivations are actually pretty noble–a much-appreciated moment of character growth for him–and heck, if we’re getting into motivations, Steve definitely acts more selfishly because his first priority, far and away, is saving Bucky.  But Tony’s position still falls apart on closer examination, and it’s precisely because of the Sokovian Accords.  For starters, please tell me I wasn’t the only one flabbergasted that the Accords were developed without input from the Avengers themselves.

Did anyone even think to ask the Avengers if they wanted to sit at this political table?  Did they seriously expect to shove this document at the team, a document which profoundly reduces their autonomy, and have all of them sign it without any fuss?  I seem to recall a little country called England pulling the same kind of crap on the thirteen colonies, with the Stamp Act and the Tea Act and probably a couple others I haven’t thought about since AP US History–how did that turn out again?

Oh, right.

Seriously, though, this is exactly where Tony and co’s argument goes down the drain:  this idea of selective Kantianism that I mentioned earlier.  Just as one example, take that line of Tony’s from midway through the movie, concerning Wanda:  “They don’t issue visas for weapons of mass destruction.”  That single line completely dehumanizes Wanda, completely ignores the person behind the superpowers.

That’s what the Sokovian Accords in general do, as they’re presented in the movie.  They reduce the Avengers to weapons.  Objects.  Things, rather than sentient human beings with the right to autonomy.  Which kind of completely goes against the very Kantian ideal they’re supposedly trying to defend, doesn’t it?

I’m on Team Cap, ultimately.  I think that while the idea behind the Sokovian Accords isn’t a bad one at all, and that while there are certainly merits to having the Avengers allied with the UN rather than just the US, the idea was too poorly executed to be of much value.  But I had to think so hard about the situation before I arrived at this opinion, because everything in this movie is so thorny and the path to a right answer isn’t at all clear.  Some people are wrong for the right reasons, some people are right for the wrong reasons, and not everybody’s motivations and justifications are exactly the same.  “Picking a side,” therefore, is ultimately a reductive, simplistic way of looking at things–just like with the Professor X vs. Magneto rivalry, or bisexuality, or real life in general.  Funny how things work out that way.

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