The Opportunity Cost of Being Superman


man of tomorrow

I’ve written before about Superman and morality.

In that piece, I wrote that

[L]ate at night, when Clark is enjoying a nice evening in with Lois, maybe a glass of wine, he’s making a choice to not hear any cries for help. He’s actively ignoring people who need him. He is closing his ears to the sounds of cars crashing, and oil pipes bursting, and boats sinking. No matter where you try to put his power levels in any given issue, it’s a given that he can hear crime and pain happening somewhere, but–he doesn’t [do anything about it].

It was a pretty critical look at a figure I consider central to the American cultural canon. To be clear, I’m not suggesting that Superman as he’s written is anything but the most upstanding figure–within the context of his stories, Superman is always Right, and that’s fine–I’d rather not slog through another dozen issues about whether or not the Man of Steel has to struggle with the nature of his quest, or whatever. Rather, I’m interested in using Superman as a metaphor. I concluded the earlier piece by saying

I’m typing this on a machine that would let me see anywhere in the world. I can find someone who needs my help. If I only looked, I would see people who needed me. I know this. But I don’t look. I allow myself to not notice.

It’s difficult, you see, to know what we can ask ourselves to do. For me, at least, it’s easier to ask “What would Superman do?” because, of course, we have as much power to help people as he does. Just as there is no excuse for him to not use his power, there is no excuse for us.


How Much Can We Ask?

I want to try to wrestle with a different question today. Maybe we’ll loop back to where we started, maybe it’ll lead to something else. I’ve got no idea. Let’s set aside the idea that we Superman is obligated to use his great power to help people. We’ll stipulate that as a given. In my earlier piece, I argued that Superman doesn’t deserve to be happy because he is making the decision to not use his powers to save people. But I think there’s an important question here: How much is he obligated to do, really?

I mentioned Peter Singer on this blog once before, specifically, what he says in “Famine, Affluence, and Morality:” how if you can help someone, or render aid, without harming yourself or reducing your own quality of life, you have a moral obligation to do so. I think we can take that as a given, at least for now. But how far does that go? When are you not obligated to help? I want to chew on that for a second.Screenshot (69)

Here’s what blog-favorite Rawls has to say about what he calls “supererogatory” acts, or things that you should do but you are not obligated to do (emphasis mine):

These are acts of benevolence and mercy, of heroism and self-sacrifice. It is good to do these actions but it is not one’s duty or obligation. Supererogatory acts are not required, though normally they would be were it not for the loss or risk involved for the agent himself. A person who does a supererogatory act does not invoke the exemption which the natural duties allow. For while we have a natural duty to bring about a great good, say, if we can do it relatively easily, we are released from this duty when the cost to ourselves is considerable. 

Singer has something similar to say. In his essay, he writes that:

If it is within our power to prevent something bad from happening without sacrificing anything of comparable moral importance, we ought, morally, to do it. By “without sacrificing anything of comparable moral importance,” I mean without causing anything else comparably bad to happen, or doing something that is wrong in itself, or failing to promote some moral good, comparable in significance to the bad thing we can prevent.

So both of them would seem to be arguing that Superman has a moral duty to prevent Bad Things from happening (with Rawls going further and saying that you have a moral duty to promote Good Things) up to the point where he would suffer some loss. So for Superman, his capacity is considerable: he can act, and save many, many lives without risk to himself. And I think we’d all agree that he does. But the question has always been “Should he be doing more?”

The answer to that question, for what it’s worth, is “Yes.” We should all be doing more, but we shall be expected to act only until the point of sacrifice, etc. In other words, we cannot expect reward for fulfilling our duty, but we cannot be condemned for going no further than that.

What Have You Got To Lose?

For Superman to be acting morally (and I want to believe that he is), the good he can accomplish must be balanced against what he stands to gain or lose. If he stands to gain, or if he stands to just not lose, he has a moral obligation to act; if he stands to lose from his action, he has no moral obligation to help. Acting when you stand to lose is supererogatory.

So whenever Superman chooses (because remember, he is making the decision here) not to help someone, the only way it’s not an immoral decision would be if he stands to lose something. So let’s bring it back to the previous example. Clark and Lois are enjoying an evening in. Clark can either hear crime and pain, or he’s shut them out–either way, he’s making a decision to stay in for the night. The question now is this: by staying in with Lois, is Superman “promoting some moral good”? Because if it isn’t–if date night isn’t as important as saving a family from a burning building–Superman is not acting morally.

I want to introduce a new consideration, maybe where I should have started. Let’s assume that Superman always acts morally–therefore, whatever he is doing is by definition the most moral choice. At the very least, he always fulfills his moral obligations. That would mean that whenever we see him not saving people, he has no moral obligation to do so. And according to Rawls and Singer, we are released from moral obligations when the cost to ourselves would be significant. That means, ultimately, that the moral cost of skipping date night–by which I mean any time Superman is not using his powers and abilities to prevent suffering– is greater than the moral obligation to save lives.

Intuitively, that sounds really weird. But I want to keep pursuing it for a little bit. Singer writes that “I…ought to give as much as possible, that is, at least up to the point at which by giving more one would begin to cause serious suffering for oneself and one’s dependents–perhaps even beyond this point to the point of marginal utility, at which by giving more one would cause oneself and one’s dependents as much suffering as one would prevent.” So, and follow me here, skipping date night would lead to Superman suffering.

Okay, so,  maybe it’s about relative happiness. Skipping date night would cause both Lois and Clark emotional pain–they’d both be disappointed and unhappy. But it’s pretty ridiculous to say that Lois’ disappointment that Clark didn’t get to try the tuna casserole is greater than the happiness generated by even the most trivial heroic act; saving a kitten out of a tree would still end up generating net happiness, if we can dip our toes into utilitarianism.

But if it’s about capacity, we have to approach it differently. Consider: we know that Superman is powerful, and that he has the ability to save thousands, maybe even millions of lives. Maybe billions, depending on how many meteors he destroys before they hit the planet. Over the course of his life, or his career if you will, there are potentially millions of theoretical people that Superman will save. I think it’d be pretty straightforward to say that when Superman has to decide who to save and where to act, he has to choose the option that would lead to the most lives being saved, both now and in the future. If he hears a car crashing at the same time an oil tanker is sinking, we’d expect him to choose the oil tanker.

So if we can expect Superman to weigh outcomes and consequences, we would also expect him to recognize his own limitations. Yes, Superman has limitations–the resources he can bring to bear on any given problem have limits, either physical or emotional. He gets tired just like we do, albeit way slower, and here’s the point: every expenditure of resources on one problem necessarily means that there are fewer resources available for the next problem, and so on. There is a point during every crime-fighting, cat-saving day where the next person Superman needs to save is harmed by saving this person.

Think about it–if we acknowledge that Superman gets tired, that he has resources that he has to use rationally, then every heroic action consumes some of those resources. Pulling a plane out of the sky now means he will be less able to pull a plane out of the sky in twenty minutes–just as we expect Superman to choose the oil tanker over the car, we would understand that he has to weigh the lives he could save later against the lives he can save now.

So, to bring it back to date night, maybe it isn’t about Lois’ disappointment if Clark has to zip out. Maybe it’s a recognition that Superman’s humanity. He needs to be saved, just like everybody else. It’s not that he’ll be less happy than the new widow whose husband he doesn’t save; it’s that his reduction of happiness means he’ll have less capacity to help everyone.

To Bring It Home…

By now, you’ve read close to two thousand words on Superman’s morality, so you’re probably pretty sick of me. So I’ll start to wrap up by reminding you that the whole point of this exercise is to try and understand the morality of our own actions. Remember, this all started when I wondered if Superman deserved to be happy. In the same way that I couldn’t understand the justification for Superman not using his powers all the time, I couldn’t understand the justification for people like us–Americans, the wealthiest people in the world–to not spend every penny we have on Syrian refugees or Against Malaria.

If I’m right about Superman–and I’ve got very little confidence in that, but let’s hope–it’s about application of resources. Just like how Superman knows that choosing to save the oil tanker means that he has to ignore the crashing car, every dollar we donate means a dollar less to donate to another cause (opportunity cost! Economics, hell yeah!).

So the moral thing to do is to give all we have up to the point that it would reduce our capacity to give in the future, and that makes sense, but remember what I said earlier: there’s what we should do, and what we shall do. I might make a bigger deal about that in the future, and I expect I’ll use Superman to do it then.

I focus on Superman because I want Superman to be better than me. But I also want to find the human part of him–I want to see me inside of him just like I want to see him inside of me. I believe he’s the best of us, and I want to believe we can be the best of him, too.

Categories: Pop Culture

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2 replies

  1. Thought provoking and well written.


  2. From learning your ABC’s to this provocative article! Makes an old teacher proud! Well done, Ross!


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