So it’s been a while. Right now I’m in the middle of seeking an agent for a sci-fi novel and also in the middle of several other writing projects. I’m neck-deep in a sci-fi horror novel set on the moon. My wife and I are in the planning stages of a space opera. And I’m also in the middle of helping my wife turn a novella that she’s written into a graphic novel. Fun (and busy) times!

But when I read Marvel Comics Presents #1 this morning, I was so struck by it that I had to take the time to write about one of the stories in it.

Namor and the Allies

Marvel Comics Presents #1 is a revival of the classic anthology book, and the debut issue of the new series has stories about Wolverine, Namor, and Captain America. Each of the stories is enjoyable in its own right, but Namor’s story struck me for the way in which it uses the Atlantean king to highlight one of the most important and dramatic ethical questions in recent history: the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

As Marvel readers will know, Namor sided with the Allies during World War II (in spite of the rocky relationship he had with the surface world early in his history). In “War’s End,” the second story in Marvel Comics Presents #1, writer Greg Pak shows that Namor was present for the bombing at Nagasaki and tried to prevent it.

The Allies deploy Namor to South America in order to stop Nazis there from creating a super-weapon. While he’s there, the U.S. drops the “Little Boy” bomb on Hiroshima. When Namor finds out, he is furious and says that he’s done helping the Allies. When he finds out that they’re about to drop the “Fat Man” bomb on Nagasaki, he tries unsuccessfully to stop it. He hits the bomb and causes it to explode mid-air. But of course, an atomic bomb does the most damage when it explodes above the ground (I assume that Namor doesn’t realize this), so Nagasaki is devastated.

Schools of Ethics

When Namor and Sawyer, the military officer in charge of sending Namor where he is needed, quarrel over the Hiroshima bombing, they each make arguments that are familiar to most of us. Sawyer argues that the bombing was necessary to prevent further deaths in an extended ground war. Namor counters that nothing justifies the deaths of innocent children.

To his great credit, Greg Pak doesn’t try to tell us what we ought to think about the bombings. He allows Sawyer to make the best argument that can be made for what the Allies did, and he lets Namor make the best argument against it. This allows the audience the freedom to decide for themselves.

While many people probably know instinctively how they feel about the bombings, it can help to consider different theories of ethics when we think about the choice that that the Allies made in order to end World War II.

Sawyer justifies the bombing by appealing to utilitarian reasoning. Utilitarianism is a form of ethics that judges whether or not an action is good or bad based upon its outcome. A good action is the one that produces the most good for the largest number of people. Sawyer believes that even when we take into account the innocents who died, more good came from bombing Hiroshima and Nagasaki than would come from a conventional ground war followed by an invasion of Japan.

Namor utterly rejects this reasoning, taking for granted that whatever the circumstances, it’s always wrong to kill innocent children. For him, no matter how much “good” one thinks will come of it, killing babies is never justified. Here Namor might be appealing to one of two ethical theories.

One is deontology, an ethical theory whose most famous exponent might be Immanuel Kant. Deontology grounds morality in a set of rules that one can discover by the use of reason. Kant’s version of deontological ethics basically expands on the Golden Rule: we ought to act in a way that we can also wish to be universalized. In other words, act the way we want other people to act, as well.

The other is natural law theory. Natural law ethics says that moral rules are “built-in” to nature and exist independent of our understanding of them. Natural law thinkers believe that there is a law or code built into the nature of things and knowable to us through well-formed conscience. A natural law ethicist might say (with Namor) that it should be obvious to anyone that killing babies (even in the service of a supposedly good end) is evil.

The Limits of Utilitarianism

War is bad, and just about anybody would agree that the sooner a war ends, the better. So Sawyer’s argument in favor of the Hiroshima bombing is pretty persuasive. But at the same time, it’s hard to argue with Namor when he points out how evil it is to kill babies. We can talk about the numbers of casualties in a ground war and compare them to the number of casualties in the bombings all day long, and on paper the ethical choice might seem obvious. But to do so, we have to ignore the babies incinerated by the bomb or poisoned by radiation.

In the end, reasoning about future goods as if morality is merely calculus isn’t good enough. If whatever “good” we’re chasing requires us to deliberately kill children, then how good is it really?