By Pundrikaksh Sharma
The superhero film Watchmen, which on release had garnered mixed reviews, is the quintessential cult film. You can hate or love it, but you can’t stop talking about it.
There are multiple ethical questions that not only resonate within the sequence of the events (the opening with the question “Who watches the watchmen?” or the question whether ends justify the means, which is asked by but are also reflected on by such complexly written characters.
What’s best about The Watchmen though, is that its complex cast allows for a very detailed introduction to philosophical schools of thought that seek to explain certain methods of moral reasoning.
Ozymandias: The Utilitarian
Veidt is a consequentialist, which is to say that he believes that actions should be judged by their consequences, which implies that sometimes, ends justify the means. As evident by the fact that he’s okay with the demise of a lot of people for the sake of future peace, he’s a Utilitarian. He is the kind of guy who, when he has to make a decision, carefully lists the pros and cons and goes with the option that has the most pros on balance.
That’s the crux of Utilitarianism, the belief that the proper course of action is the one that maximizes utility, usually defined as maximizing happiness and reducing suffering.
“A world united in peace… there had to be sacrifice.”
Utilitarianism fails to answer the question, “Who matters and how much?” Why should the people of New York and all other places which are struck by Veidt’s plan suffer? It fails to consider basic justice or fairness. The means for preventing this kind of unfairness is typically the doctrine of human rights, which tells us that there are some things the individual cannot be asked to do against his or her will, even if it is for the greater good.
One of the most common criticisms of consequentialist doctrines such as utilitarianism is that they are unable to embrace a doctrine of universal human rights.
Rorschach: Deontological but not quite Kantian
Rorschach is a deontologist, but not a Kantian. Deontological thought is directly at odds with consequentialism, because it judges the morality of an action by the action itself rather than the consequence it has. Kant would never advocate breaking and entering, torturing, murder without due process, etc. Kant also said that you shouldn’t use people as means, but Rorschach torturing people is using them as a means to the end of “justice”.
It’s sort of terrifying being Rorschach, having seen things for what they are and having an entirely cynical view of everything that is. Optimists can call his view pessimism, whereas pessimists could perceive it to be realism, truth be told, there isn’t a neat box for such an ideology. Yet, his crusade against what is wrong definitely falls into the box of “Retributive justice”. You must have heard this term around the Juvenile Justice bill recently. The key edict is pretty simple, you get what you do. Rorschach maintains that wrongdoers must be punished for no other reason than that they did wrong.
His pitfall though is his insistence on black and white, his inability to see the bigger picture, as some may argue.
The Comedian: Your Friendly Neighborhood Absurdist!
The Comedian is an absurdist and a nihilist. Absurdism is the philosophy which states that the human quest of finding meaning will ultimately fail because no such thing exists.
Blake laughs at the world, because he recognizes that the world is meaningless. This is much like Albert Camus, whose work “The Myth of Sisyphus”, a key essay which deals with Absurdism begins with the lines, “… the only question of philosophy that matters: Does the realization of the meaninglessness and absurdity of life necessarily require suicide?”
“Once you realize what a joke everything is, being the Comedian is the only thing that makes sense”
The “joke” the comedian constantly refers to is that ultimately your actions do not matter, the universe is going to do what it wants. This sort of thought is also behind most sci-fi horror, wherein humans are forced to confront the idea that we’re just specks of dust on a blue speck, unimportant to the world at large. (If this thought intrigues you, do check out the Adult Swim show Rick and Morty)
For an absurdist, the only way to escape the futility of life is to laugh at it, to recognize how everything is absurd and be amused by it than to be destroyed by it.
“A live body and a dead body contain the same number of particles. Structurally, there’s no discernible difference. Life and death are unquantifiable abstracts. Why should I be concerned?”
Dr. Manhattan’s narrative embodies the nihilistic thought, a nihilist based on science. Moore wanted to add the extreme naturalist point of view to this debate. In this way, Doctor Manhattan is a nihilist, but I doubt he’d even take that seriously. The psychic world holds no sway for him at all and is mere illusion. His interpretation of human life is nothing more and nothing less and he doesn’t over romanticize anything. Everything’s an equation waiting to be solved. (For people interested in humans being forced to not take themselves seriously, check out Gantz, a manga that does pretty much the same)
So, what are you supposed to take from the movie? The supremacy of one ideology? No.
Much like how Rorschach’s journal end up at the press, what the movie suggests is simple.
Veidt is unapologetic of his plan till the end.
The Doctor doesn’t care and leaves for another galaxy, for the sake of humans.
Rorschach forces the Doc to kill him, in order to stay true to his morals.
Take your pick, make your choices.
Yet live by them.
Image Sources: Google Images
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