Social Ethics- How to Act in a Socially Heroic Manner

Greetings, heroes!

Now that we’ve covered one example of fighting crime without fighting, I want to point to a hero who has cleared the way for socially conscious heroes past and present.  Back in the early 40s, DC comics came up with an idea for a hero who was a billionaire by day, had a teenaged sidekick, was summoned by a signal in the sky, and had a specialized car and airplane. The character even had an arch-villain who had a clown theme.  His name was Green Arrow.

Not who you were expecting?


Of course, it took DC editors about 30 seconds to remember they had a hero exactly like that.

minus the rockin' Van Dyke, of course

Realizing that they had two characters who were exactly the same, DC made a bold move in the late 1960s to separate the two characters.  They decided to make the Green Arrow socially conscious and a defender of the rights of the poor and the oppressed as well as a street-level fighter of evil.

Although from an environmental standpoint, they really need more to talk about.


The Green Arrow thus became a streetwise character and relentless defender of the politically disenfranchised and oppressed.  Moreover, Oliver Queen (the Green Arrow’s real name) began not only stopping crime, he began to ask why was crime existed.  It wasn’t enough that he stopped a man from robbing a convenience store, he asked why the man was driven to crime as opposed to finding a meaningful life in the first place.  Queen’s questions broached new territory for heroes and demonstrated that a superhero could fight evil as well as the social causes of evil.

The Green Arrow really found his voice when writer Dennis O’Neil teamed the liberal social activist with the intergalactic police officer of the DC universe, the Green Lantern.  Needless to say, the two fought constantly over whether it was better to enforce the law by the letter or to allow the law to be broken when it led to injustice.  The two were often at each others’ throats.

It was a great series


One of the most impactful experiences of Green Arrow’s career came amidst his cross country adventure when he discovered his ward, Speedy, addicted to heroin.  In Green Lantern/Green Arrow #85, the title banner proudly proclaimed “DC attacks youth’s greatest problem…DRUGS!”  Regardless of the obvious hyperbole, DC’s strong stand against heroin use brought praise from many, including then mayor of New York John Lindsey.  It also highlighted another problem with the concept of the crusading hero: ethically some problems may require society wide contributions, while others require personal care, and still others a combination of the two.  Green Arrow’s passion for solving society-wide issues commends respect, but as Green Lantern points out on the cover of the issue, “You think you have all the answers, Green Arrow!  Well, what’s your answer to that–?” while gesturing to Speedy.

Despite the fact that, yes, Green Lantern is being a massive dickhead by pulling an “I told you so” at the expense of a teenager using heroin, Green Arrow let his passion for social justice override the care his family required.  Ethical responsibility to society does not override ethical responsibility to those who have been personally placed in the care of the activist.  For example, Dorothy Day, the leader of the Christian Anarchist Catholic Worker Movement, was one of the radical pacifist voices during World War II.  Despite this stance, she missed a protest marking the invasion of Italy in order to spend time with her daughter, Tamar.  Day was far from a perfect mother, but her prioritization of her daughter over the movement deserves admiration.

When you are that awesome, you get an icon, too.


O’Neal eventually canceled the run because he didn’t want the series to degrade into “Cause of the Month Comics.”[1]  The series was eventually discontinued, but by its very existence it showed that heroes could address social issues.  Furthermore, by integrating the social injustice along with the criminal injustice, the series emphasized the link between the two.  Since one of the ethical goals of a vigilante hero is to draw attention to a problem so the democratic mechanism can engage it, Green Arrow’s actions on behalf of those disenfranchised, as well as the comic book that told their story, succeed in heroic action.  Heroes like us can fight for political causes, but we eventually have to turn the issue over to the political mechanism so it can do its job.  But bringing an issue like drugs or poverty to the public’s attention allows the democratic mechanism to engage it, which is what the Green Arrow does.

You better do it, he’s got a bow!
But that’s not all a hero can do in the political sphere.  Next time, we’ll look at the ethics of gaining a political office to make a heroic difference.  See you then, superheroes!

[1] Dennis O’Neil, Green Lantern-Green Arrow, Vol. 1, p7, 2004.

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