Category Archives: Social Ethics

Is the Hulk a Moral Agent? Also, intro to Subculture for the Cultured

Greetings fellow heroes,

Before we begin, there’s a reason the latest few posts are so far apart.  I’ve started writing for a second online source, the Subculture for the Cultured.  Its a great site, and I encourage you to check it out, especially if you love superheroes, comics, and taking these things seriously.

That said, enjoy the following, which is posted here, too.


Warning, spoilers abound.

Greetings, heroes!

After returning from viewing The Avengers this weekend, we decided to put aside our planned post and discuss the Hulk instead.

He made a compelling case

Joss Whedon’s interpretation of the Avengers is second to none (seriously, go see it), and the Hulk’s character is likewise amazing.  Whedon brilliantly captures the terrifying power of the Hulk and contrasts it with the demur and frightened Bruce Banner’s struggle to contain that power.  Because if Dr. Bruce Banner, brilliant physicist, becomes angry, he transforms into the Hulk and places all those around him in danger.  Any attempts to stop the monster directs the Hulk’s deadly fury against those who try to contain it.  While the Hulk is on his rampages, he lashes out at anyone and everything he perceives to be a threat while providing clumsy protection to those he loves.  But Whedon gave the Hulk a telling moment in The Avengers.  In the climactic battle, Captain America gives orders to each member of the team.  He concludes by turning to the Hulk and saying,

“Hulk, Smash!”

To which the Hulk smiles and proceeds to smash.  Effectively.

If anyone has the ability to give the Hulk an order, its Captain America.  And without denigrating Cap’s superlative leadership, telling the Hulk to smash is like telling a dog to sniff or a clock to tick; its in his nature.  But the moment the Hulk smiled and acknowledged the order, it implied that the Hulk had a choice, accepted it, and was pleased by the choice.

And that, fellow heroes, presents a dilemma.

If the Hulk has the ability to make decisions based on morality, he is what’s known as a “moral agent”.  This means that he can examine a situation, consider actions which are “right” or “wrong”, and understand and act based on that decision.

On the other hand, the Hulk may not have the ability to make moral decisions.  He may simply react to stimuli and respond without thought, in which case Cap’s order to him made him happy for the same reason a dog is happy when its master throws a ball.  He is like an animal, and at most his will follows the philosophy, as Arthur Schopenhauer wrote, that

“Man can do what he wills but he cannot will what he wills.”
in other words, the Hulk can “make decisions”, but simply doesn’t have choices: he makes the obvious decision available to him at any given time.
Determining the Hulk’s moral status may be impossible, and the consequences are tragic if he turns out to be a moral agent.  That would mean it is fully aware of its actions, and is thus responsible for the death and destruction it causes.  But in addition to being held responsible for ruining billions of dollars of military grade equipment, leaving thousands without homes, causing his part of the $160 billion to New York, and the collateral civilian casualties caused by his smashing, it also means that the Hulk is also being held as a prisoner by another individual: in short, the Hulk is illegally imprisoned inside Bruce Bannner.  Moreover, Banner is forced to serve as a caretaker to another moral being, regardless of his desire or ability.  This is problematic, as our society goes through great pains to remove moral beings from those who are incapable of caring for them, think of unfit parents. Thus, if Hulk is a moral agent, it creates a whole host of moral problems which would require the patience and wisdom of a saint to untangle.  This one may be beyond even Reed Richards’ genius.
Fortunately for human rights lawyers in the Marvel Universe, a group which includes Bruce Banner’s cousin, She Hulk, it would appear the Hulk is not a moral agent.  The Hulk has always served as an analogy of the nuclear age, and just as a nuclear weapon cannot be blamed for the damage it causes, the Hulk is merely a weapon which causes massive collateral damage amongst both friends and foe.  The Hulk means well, but like a bomb dropped with the best of intentions the devastation wrought is tragically more than predicted.  And there is no doing away with the Hulk.  There is no putting the nuclear genie back in the bottle, and the best the scientists like Bruce Banner can hope for is to contain the monster in as dispassionate a manner as possible.  The tragedy is that they will not always succeed.
Peter David’s Hulk: The End neatly illustrated this point.  After humanity was wiped out by, of all things, nuclear war, only the indestructible Hulk remained, suffering as a modern Prometheus for the decision to unleash nuclear fire into the world.
From Incredible Hulk: The End, 2006   From Incredible Hulk: The End, 2006
From: Incredible Hulk: The End

The story ends with Hulk, alone, without Banner or any living human anywhere.  The Hulk is finally by himself, the remnant of humanity’s nuclear ambition and a symbol of the uncontrollable power which destroyed it. But this decision, though satisfactory, does leave us with a moral problem.  If the Hulk is not a moral agent, who is responsible for what he does?  Do we blame Bruce Banner for being in the way when the gamma bomb went off?  Do we blame the military in the form of Nick Fury (and thus, the government) for not ridding of or at least containing the danger?

Unfortunately, neither answer satisfies, as neither can control the monster.  The nuclear problem is such that, just as in The Avengers, it would only take one decision maker, either government or scientist, one moment of unrealized anger and passion to unleash nuclear death on the world.  And this may be the ultimate message of the Hulk: the key is not to make the holder of the weapon angry, and if we are the ones holding the weapon, not to become angry ourselves.  While emotions have their place, when dealing with a Hulk or a bomb that has no moral agency of its own, we need to exercise our own moral agency to the absolute best of our abilities.  Because all of the Hulk’s strength ultimately lies in our hands.

And as Bruce Banner’s struggle for control demonstrates, the greatest strength is avoiding the power until it is truly needed.


Business Ethics #4 Keeping up with business

Greetings heroes!

As we mentioned in the last post, there are three ethical options for superheroes trying to succeed in business.  The first is attempting to keep up as best as possible, obeying the rules and conventions.  Unfortunately, there aren’t many superheroes who own their own business (Iron Man and Batman being notable exceptions), and those that do don’t seem to face this problem all that often.

This site also accuses them of being the same plot line. They have a bit of a point...

Before providing illustrations, a little background first:

Continue reading

Rationalizing Super Villainy- The problem of Individual Pragmatism

Greetings fellow superheroes!

After fighting crime and standing in the moral good for some time, you may get to thinking that this superhero thing is great, but there are some real drawbacks.  You never have the money to buy nice things, you’re always tired, and just once you’d like to be able to buy your spouse or significant other a nice dress or a night out.

You took me to the moon last month.....

None of these motivations are evil in and of themselves.  Heck, most of them are considered downright noble.  So maybe, you think to yourself, maybe I’ll do just a little supervillainy.  You know, on the side. Continue reading

Social Ethics- How to make the best of it

Over the last few posts, we’ve discussed how to act in a socially heroic manner in regards not just to addressing the effects of social ills, such as crime, but also their causes.  The answer lies in being a superhero both politically and on the street.  Sometimes that means being a politician, and sometimes that means being a superhero.

Shown: Political Superhero

This naturally leads to the question: how do we make the greatest effect, where we are, given the resources we have?  This may be the greatest arguement for superheroes, or possibly the best arguement against them.  For example, let’s look at the ethics of being batman. Continue reading

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. Continue reading

Social Ethics- How to Stop Violence…without Throwing a Punch

In the course of your heroic adventures, you may be forced to use violence.  That’s ok, after all, there are times and situations when violence is not only ethical, but necessary.

"A gentleman is one who never hurts anyone...unintentionally."- Oscar Wilde


We’ve written before about the necessity of violence in certain situations, but this doesn’t mean violence is a panacea, or a cure for all that ails society.  And there are situations where violence is certainly acceptable.   But to be a true hero, you will not only respond bravely to situations that call for violence, you will respond heroically to prevent violence when possible.

Believe it or not, this guy is a Mennonite


There are two ways you can stop violence without throwing a punch, and both of them are so effective they are changing the way the police in the United States opperate. Continue reading

Social Ethics-or how to punch poverty in the face!

As heroes, we are called to battle evil in all forms.  When we do this on an individual level, its pretty easy.  After all, when there’s a guy in black with superpowers holding up a bank, its easy enough to know that he needs to be stopped.

Not what you were expecting, eh?

But some problems go beyond individual actions.  For example, what if there was a law banning one race or gender from voting?  Or if only a few people were allowed to vote?  Or if hospitals were paid based on the number of visits, not the number of patents, so that patents were dismissed without proper care?  Or if they valued a gender only for its looks?

It's shocking how easy it is to find these

Since you, as a superhero, must fight evil in all its forms, it means you need to take on problems at both the individual level and at the societal level.  Continue reading