In case it isn’t obvious . . . SPOILER ALERT.
In addition to the edge-of-your-seat action scenes and a devastating ending, Avengers: Infinity War gives us one of the most interesting contrasts of ethical systems in any superhero movie. For example, in Thanos, we have utilitarianism taken to a horrifying extreme, while Captain America exemplifies some combination of duty- or virtue-based morality. Other characters basically line up behind either Cap’s view or some softer version of utilitarianism. Though they bicker about the particulars (like whether to destroy the Mind Stone, killing Vision in the process), most of the Avengers basically agree with Cap that “we don’t trade lives,” meaning that we must never deliberately kill one life in order to save another.
Some (like Tony Stark) on the other hand, tend to treat ethics as a matter of numbers and weighing competing goods on a scale. From the beginning, Stark favors either hiding or destroying the Time Stone, which Doctor Strange and Wong are duty-bound to protect. Though he seems later to change his mind, Stark initially balances what he thinks is the fate of the universe against Strange’s obligation to protect the Stone and finds that there is no contest between the two.
But while it is fairly easy to analyze most of the characters in Infinity War and see how their ethics pretty clearly follow one of the great ethical traditions in philosophy, Doctor Strange presents a more difficult case.Strange Ethics
When Strange first meets Tony Stark, the two of them clash immediately. Since they share certain character traits—like pride, self-confidence, and a snarky wit—anyone might have predicted this. But it isn’t just their similarities that makes it hard for Strange and Stark to get along; they also clash because of their competing values. We’ve already seen that Tony is willing to cross just about any line and defy anyone in order to protect the world. Age of Ultron proves that. The ends might not justify every means, but for Tony the good of the end determines what means one must use to achieve it. Doctor Strange, on the other hand, is unwilling to set aside his obligation to protect the Stone, even though destroying or discarding it would greatly reduce the threat posed by Thanos. Whatever the risk, he must protect the Time Stone.
Strange shows the seriousness of his dedication to this duty when he tells Tony that if he is faced with a choice between saving one of the other heroes and saving the Time Stone, he “will not hesitate to let [any of them] die.”
But things seem to change when Strange, Tony, and Peter Parker reach the planet Titan, Thanos’s home world. Before their battle with Thanos, Strange looks into the future for a clue about how to proceed:
Strange: I went forward in time . . . to view alternate futures. To see all the possible outcomes of the coming conflict.
Peter Quill: How many did you see?
Strange: Fourteen million six hundred and five.
Stark: How many did we win?
It is interesting to contrast how a utilitarian and a futurist like Tony Stark might interpret these numbers with how someone who follows a different ethical system might see them. For Tony, 14,000,605 to 1 probably sounds a lot like the odds of their losing. Such a number simply impresses upon him the importance of coming up with a good plan because the odds against the heroes are staggering. But to a deontologist (someone who believes that the right course of action is determined by duty or obligation), one out of fourteen million simply means that the right course of action is clear. In other words, there are plenty of wrong courses of action to take, but there is only one right course.
Strange’s behavior and motivations change after he looks into the future. Indeed, two incidents in particular seem to fly in the face of the motivations that he expresses early in the movie. First, when it becomes apparent that Peter Quill is going to let his temper ruin the plan to get the Infinity Gauntlet from Thanos, Strange is the only character who says nothing. While Mantis, Tony Stark, and the rest are desperate to get Quill to calm down, Strange watches quietly. Even when Quill, grief-stricken over the death of Gamora, begins to beat Thanos’s face and breaks Mantis’ empathic hold on him, Strange says nothing. Undoubtedly Quill’s loss of control is one of the steps along the one path that leads to the heroes’ victory. Second, at the moment when Thanos is about to kill Tony Stark, Strange willingly hands over the Time Stone, seemingly in violation of his primary duty.
How do we analyze Strange’s moral choices, then?
Knowing the Future
On the one hand, we might say that Strange acts by utilitarian logic because he looks into the future, sees all possibilities, and chooses the one that will lead to the greatest good. And in that way, he is able to get around one of the biggest difficulties of utilitarianism: our inability to know the future. Utilitarianism says that the right course of action is the one that will lead to the greatest good for the greatest number of people. Since this “greatest good” must come about for the “greatest number of people” after we have taken a course of action, utilitarianism assumes that we can know with reasonable certainty what will happen in the future. But can we really know all of the future consequences that will arise from our choices? History demonstrates that we can’t. And if we can’t, how can we possibly determine the best course of action by utilitarian reasoning? This is why I have grown suspicious of both the Democratic and the Republican approaches to taxation, for example. Instead of trying to decide what is the most just way of taking money from citizens (I hope that I have some libertarians reading this; they might laugh at the way I phrased that), both parties try to predict what economic benefits will come from a particular philosophy of taxation. But the truth is that we simply can’t predict the future with any certainty, no matter how hard we try.
But Doctor Strange is different, because he can look into the future using the Time Stone. Therefore he can employ utilitarian ethics and know what he’s talking about.
Doing One’s Duty
On the other hand, a deontological ethics can make sense of Strange’s actions in Infinity War, too. We know from both his solo movie and from Infinity War that Strange is motivated by a sense of duty. As he tells the Ancient One, “I became a doctor to save lives, not take them.” Even though he has told Tony that he will sacrifice individual lives to protect the Stone, Strange feels a powerful obligation as a doctor to protect human lives and to save as many as he can. And though Strange prepares himself for those two duties to conflict with one another, in the end he finds that fulfilling the one also fulfills the other. (I’m assuming here that Strange knows that sacrificing the Time Stone now will lead to its preservation and the ultimate victory of the Avengers.)
This strikes me as a simple and yet profound truth. When we focus on what is right instead of on what is good, our right actions will generally lead to the goal that utilitarianism sets: the greatest good for the greatest number of people. Whether you reason like a utilitarian or use some other ethical system, there is no humanly possible way to achieve the greatest good for all people. But I think that we’re far more likely to achieve something like the “collective good” by pursuing what is right instead of putting what is good first.
Some Remaining Uncertainty
Infinity War lets Strange remain a mystery. At the end of the movie, he tells Tony, “This was the only way,” but he doesn’t say what “this” is or what it is supposed to achieve. In a little less than a year, I hope that we learn more about the moral reasoning behind Stephen Strange’s actions.
(By the way, if you’re interested in reading more philosophical analysis of Doctor Strange, you might like this book, to which I contributed a chapter.)