Given superpowers, becoming a superhero seems like the most ethical choice, but is it? I’ve been wondering lately, and here is my platform to espouse said wonderings. And before we get any further, I have read most of Superheroes and Philosophy, and while I’m sure it in part inspired my ramblings, my ideas here aren’t based directly off anything from that book, but I also didn’t go and check before writing just to keep myself pure. So if I overlap with what someone said in there, let me know in the comments.
Here’s how it started, there’s this question philosopher types like to ask when trying to talk people into corners. You find yourself driving down the road in a very expensive suit/dress worth at least $1,000. You see a car has gone off the road into a river. Do you dive into the river to save a total stranger knowing it will ruin your outfit? Most people will answer that they’d try to save the person, but what if you were asked to give $1,000 to help save someone dying continents away? Ethically, the situations are the same: it costs you personally $1,000 to save a stranger’s life either way. However, we all have the option to give $1,000 to charity right now. Most of us don’t. The faraway person doesn’t carry the same sense of urgency as the person drowning right in front of you. For some reason, I’d never thought about applying this idea to superheroes, but it makes a lot of sense.
This is essentially what superheroes do, right? Every time Spider-Man botches his real job to help others he’s costing himself money to help others. But does that really make any sense? I know the adage, he has power so he ought to help, but is it really ok that it costs him so much money? We have this weird distaste of people being paid for good deeds, but at the same time whenever there are doctors, soldiers, fire-fighters, police, etc. involved in a superhero caper, the hero is always quick to say, “Don’t thank me, I’m not the real hero here, these folks are the REAL heroes!” The real heroes being the people there getting paid. Even typing it, “getting paid” does seem somewhat diminutive, but I still can’t figure out why. If you’re good at something, especially helping others, I see no reason not to financially incentivize that passion. Couldn’t Peter Parker do even more good if he was just paid to be Spider-Man rather than having to find time to make rent AND patrol the streets?
The concept has been trotted out before in books like Heroes for Hire and Capes, but each in slightly different ways. In Heroes for Hire, the good guys were getting paid to take specific cases, but I never felt like they’d say no to helping out in an emergency. And I also feel like (though my memory may be faulty) that there was usually at least one scene where another hero righteously chastises them for taking money for their services based on the solid ethical principle of “well nobody else does it.” Think different, dude. Then in Capes, heroeing is a 9-5 job. You clock in, you clock out, you go home. Again, never got the sense they’d avoid actual emergencies, but it was the same as a doctor or a policemen. You might step up in a moment of crisis, but you’d still yield to the on-duty paramedics when they arrived at the scene. One of the hot new specialties in medicine is Emergency Medicine. Whereas other types of doctors have to be on call from time to time, designated ER specialists clock in and clock out. They still work insane hours, but you get my point. And do the other doctors give them crap about never taking call? Yes, they probably do, but hopefully you at least see my point.
Then I start thinking about whether or not being a superhero is the best thing you can do with your powers, but I’ve literally already written that column, so I’ll just let you go there and read that.
Eventually this line of thinking takes me back to Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns, because if you’re going to make a point, why not really make it, right? In both those books, some of the main heroes aren’t heroes for any
personal gain, but more because of borderline insanity. Both books paint pictures of people on the edge, driven beyond all reason to do something stupid and dangerous, but who are at the same time aroused by the thrill of it all. It’s an interesting argument, but borders more on the psychological as opposed to the philosophical. At the end of the day, no one really cares if they’re pulled out of the river by someone who should have been getting counseling, all that matters is that you’re out of the river. The psyche evals will have to wait for another day, unless Timmy gets tired of doing job evaluations and is up for a challenge.
So I have no answer. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with heroes getting paid, especially considering the high cost they pay to help us, but I can’t deny that there is something off about the whole idea. Have I just been brainwashed by years upon years of comics’ heroes who want no reward or am I missing some key piece of the ethical puzzle to make this all fit? Help me iFanbase, you’re my only hope.