In his analysis of the ethical disagreement between Black Widow and the Defenders over torturing the Hydra goon, Ehlers uses the term “moral relativism,” but I wonder if that’s quite the right term for what’s happening in SE #4.
“Relativism” usually describes a moral position that states that all moral opinions and systems are equally valid, or that moral positions are true only relative to the people who hold them, the societies that teach them, or the situations that give rise to them. It’s a position that my college freshmen and sophomores often hold without realizing it. For example, more than once I’ve had classes tell me––to my horror––that racism is wrong for some people and not for others, and that both positions are equally valid. Since college students are in general very sensitive to racism, it always strikes me as odd when they tell me that racism isn’t really wrong in some objective sense, but only wrong if you live in a community where it’s considered wrong. But I suppose that shows just how committed many students are to relativism.
At any rate, I think that moral relativism seems so attractive to young people today because they’ve grown up surrounded by seemingly contradictory moral positions. Rather than trying to sort through the competing ethical claims that confront them every day, maybe it’s easier just to conclude that no moral position is more true than any other.
Secret Empire #4 confronts readers with just such competing moral claims, but while moral relativism might be an individual reader’s response to what happens in the issue, nobody in the story itself seems to be a moral relativist. Black Widow doesn’t just believe that torturing the Hydra goon is morally right for her; she believes that it is the right thing to do regardless of what anybody else thinks. She reasons that a) the only way to save the world is to stop Hydra, b) the only way to do that is to kill Steve Rogers, c) the only way to kill him is to find out where and when he’s most vulnerable, d) the only way to find that out is to properly motivate the Hydra goon, e) torture is the most efficient way to do that. In other words, she’s thinking like a utilitarian or a consequentialist. She thinks that the right choice is the one that will yield the best results for the majority of people. She believes that killing Steve Rogers and ending Hydra will result in a greater amount of good for a greater number of people than trying to save him from himself, so that’s the choice that she makes.
The Defenders, too, are far from moral relativists. When they object to Widow torturing the Hydra goon, it’s because they believe that torture is always and everywhere wrong, that it’s not justified by circumstances or by the environment in which it happens. In other words, they’re thinking like deontologists. Deontology is an ethical system that depends upon universal moral rules that are discoverable by human reason, and it’s about as far from relativism as you can get.
So a moral relativist might read Secret Empire and say, “See, here’s why I’m a relativist. The heroes of the story can’t even agree about whether or not it’s right to torture a Hydra goon. That’s because all morality is relative.” But that’s up to the reader; you can’t say that Ironheart or Ms. Marvel or Black Widow themselves are relativists. They each approach the situation from a moral absolutist’s point of view. They disagree about what the right thing to do is, but they agree that there is a right thing to do. That’s why they try to persuade each other.
And really, it would be kind of hard for a superhero to be a true moral relativist. How in the world would a relativist justify putting on a colorful costume and going out into the world in order to enforce her own morality on everybody else?