***FULL SPOILERS for Avengers: Infinity War. You’ve been warned!***
I saw Avengers: Infinity War last night at a 7:00 IMAX showing, and it’s not an overstatement to say that it was the most overwhelming movie-going experience I’ve ever had. It’s probably Marvel’s best movie, and I have a feeling that it’s going to go down as the best superhero movie ever made (unless Avengers 4 somehow tops it).
But I’m not going to do a straightforward review Infinity War in this post. Instead, I want to explore the philosophy behind the main conflict of the film. Since I’ve already thrown caution to the wind and said that it might be the best superhero movie ever made, I’ll also say that it is also one of the most philosophically interesting superhero movies. Several months ago, I wrote a couple of posts predicting (and expressing hope) that Infinity War would be heavily based on Jonathan Hickman’s 2013 Infinity crossover. As I wrote then, I admire that event for a lot of reasons, one of which is the way in which it contrasts utilitarian ethics with deontology (rule or duty-based ethics)––not in a preachy or academic way, but in a way that shows the personal and spiritual consequences of the two moral systems.
My hopes were not disappointed. Infinity War seamlessly and faithfully combines some of the best elements of Jim Starlin’s Infinity Gauntlet and Hickman’s Infinity––not only in terms of plot, but also in the way that the comics blend philosophical heft with a very human story. Ultimately, the conflict of Infinity Gauntlet isn’t a MacGuffin hunt; it’s a conflict between two ways of deciding what’s right and what’s wrong.
The Russos have been telling us for a while that they changed Thanos’ motivations for seeking the Stones in this movie. In Infinity Gauntlet, Thanos seeks the Infinity Gems so that he can impress Mistress Death by giving her what she wants: the death of half the beings in the universe. This was fine for Infinity Gauntlet, but in order to give us the villain for the ages that they promised, the Russos had to give him a better reason to want to commit cosmic genocide.
In Infinity War, Thanos is motivated by a utilitarian calculus: since the universe has limited resources, Thanos reasons that more people equals more misery. Having grown up on a planet whose population depleted its resources, Thanos is acutely aware of the suffering that comes from malnourishment. He thinks that he can “save” half the beings in the universe by snapping his fingers and wiping out the other half. This would allow the remaining half to live comfortably on the universe’s resources. (I guess Thanos didn’t notice that the predictions in The Population Bomb turned out to be a load of hooey.)
One alternative to utilitarianism is deontology––in other words, rules-based or duty-based ethics. A deontologist says that right and wrong are determined by a set of rules or obligations that we can discover through reason, intuition, or revelation. Some deontological thinkers believe that our use of good reasoning can help us determine what is the right course of action. Others believe that we know it through moral intuition or that we learn it from divine revelation (say, from the Bible or the Qur’an). But all agree that duty determines the goodness of an action, not the consequences that will result from it.
In Infinity War, Captain America and the Scarlet Witch are perhaps the most prominent deontologists. When the Vision proposes having Wanda destroy the Mind Stone in order to stop Thanos from assembling all the Infinity Stones, both Cap and Wanda reject the idea out of hand. Destroying the Mind Stone will kill Vision. The offer is heroic and admirable (and perhaps right if you’re a utilitarian), but Cap and Wanda don’t decide what is right and wrong by mathematics. “We don’t trade lives,” Cap says, so he takes Vision to Wakanda, where he believes advanced science can remove the Stone from Vision’s head without killing him.
Thanos’ motivation might make sense if you accept the Mad Titan’s starting premises:
- Population increase causes scarcity of resources.
- Scarcity of resources causes suffering.
- Suffering is evil.
- Good means the elimination of suffering.
The conclusion that might follow from these premises is that the best course of action is the one that Thanos takes. But you don’t have to be a deontologist to question or reject this line of reasoning. Many utilitarians would point out that suffering comes from more than just not having enough to eat or drink. There is also emotional suffering, and if suddenly half of the people in the universe disappeared, the other half would suffer tremendous grief. The evil of their emotional pain might outweigh the good that they get from suddenly having plentiful resources.
Moreover, there is the problem of knowledge. Utilitarianism requires people to be able to see all the possible consequences of their actions. But as Gamora tells Thanos at one point in the movie, nobody can know the consequences of their choices in any absolute sense. We can make good guesses, but often those guesses are completely wrong. Therefore an ethics based on consequences alone is likely to lead to problems––and the more important or consequential our choices, the more likely they are to lead to disastrous unintended results.
On the other hand, one could argue that the end of Infinity War proves that Cap’s deontology is wrong. Thanos wins, and in time, the remaining beings in the universe might benefit materially from the loss of the other half. Cap’s way of doing things comes to nothing except heartbreak (in this movie, anyway): Thanos assembles all of the Infinity Stones and snaps his fingers, wiping out half the universe (this scene is perhaps the biggest gut punch I’ve ever experienced in a movie). Can we say that an ethical system is good or right if it is likely to lead people to suffering and loss?
Maybe not, but only if you begin with the assumption that results are what determine the goodness of action––in other words, if you’re already a utilitarian.
Still, one might also criticize Cap’s choice from a deontological point of view. Vision points out that seventy five years ago, Cap sacrificed his life to stop a madman from destroying the world. What is the difference, he asks, between Cap’s willingness to die to save the world and Vision’s? Some deontologists would agree with Cap that there is a difference between Cap’s willingness to die in order to stop the Red Skull and deliberately euthanizing the Vision in order to stop Thanos, sure. But others might say that Cap has a duty to put the needs of the many ahead of his qualms about killing one android, however. Perhaps murder is wrong, but maybe sometimes our obligation is to kill one person who is willing to die when doing so will save many?
The movie never answers this question for us. It’s honest enough to leave the audience free to wrestle with the problem themselves. And indeed, Infinity War leaves us with many difficult questions about the choices that each character makes. For example, is Wanda’s unwillingness to destroy the Mind Stone a moral choice, or is it merely a result of her affection for the Vision? Or can it be both? Similarly, is Star Lord responsible for the death of half the universe because he puts his love for Gamora ahead of defeating Thanos?
Infinity War is too good a movie to dictate to us what the right answers are, but for my money, Cap’s duty-based morals are far superior to the cold calculus of utilitarianism––not just that of Thanos, but even that of Tony Stark, who has also shown in several movies that he thinks that results are more ethically important than actions. That’s not to say that we shouldn’t consider the consequences of our actions, but a morality that considers only consequences––especially only material consequences––is the thinking of machines; it’s unworthy of humans.
It is true that a morality based on rules or duty will require us to suffer and sacrifice, but that way is more human and more excellent than a way that pursues material good by whatever means necessary. Socrates famously said that it better to suffer an evil than to commit one, and though that argument might strike some people as paradoxical or even ludicrous, it seems to me exactly right. When we treat morality like a matter of numbers and calculation or when we think that we can do evil in the service of good, we sacrifice something essential to our humanity.
This might seem like a bit of a stretch, but I think of the Alfie Evans case in connection with the ideas presented in Infinity War. (If you haven’t read about Alfie, you should.) Alfie was born with a degenerative disease that requires him to have life support and feeding tubes, and it means that he will die soon. At the time of this writing, a British court has decided that he must be taken off of life support so that he can “die with dignity,” and it has treated his both Alfie and his parents in a horrifyingly inhuman way. A hospital in Rome has offered experimental treatment to Alfie, and Italy has extended citizenship to Alfie, offering to transport Alfie to Rome by helicopter for treatment, but a British judge has blocked these efforts. I don’t know the exact details of the policies in Britain behind Alfie’s case (and also behind the case of Charlie Gard several months ago), but no doubt it involves some sort of moral calculus. As the reasoning goes, trying to save Alfie will only waste resources that could be given to people who are more likely to survive, prolong his suffering, and only condemn him to a “life not worth living.” The cold inhumanity of such reasoning staggers me, but it also strikes me that it isn’t so far from the kind of reasoning that people like Thanos use.
How much evil has been done by people in power who think that they know better than individuals what is best for them. A British court has decided that for his own good, Alfie Evans has to die in a certain place and in a certain way. That’s not very much unlike Thanos, who decides that half the universe would be better off dead.