Famine, Affluence, and Superheroes

Suppose you are walking by a small pond.  You notice near the shore a small child is face down in the water.  All you need to do to save the child’s life is flip the child over.  Do you have an obligation to do so?  Most people would say yes, even though it is not your child and you are not responsible for the child being in the pond.  Peter Singer in “Famine, Affluence, and Morality,” uses this scenario to argue that we have a moral obligation to donate as much money as we can to aid famine victims even when this means severely reducing the quality of your lives.  I intend to show that if we have an obligation to save the child from drowning, then superheroes have an obligation to kill at least some villains.

A key aspect of Singer’s argument is that we have an obligation to prevent something bad from occurring if the cost is not something of equal or greater moral weight.  It is not an obligation to promote the good, as utilitarianism requires.  Instead, it is just the obligation to prevent a foreseeable bad.

In Marvel’s Avengers: Infinity War, Proxima Midnight and Corvus Glaive hunt down Vision in order to obtain the Mind Stone for Thanos.  They are stopped by Black Widow, Falcon, and Captain America.  The three heroes surround Proxima and Corvus.  Black Widow remarks, “We don’t want to kill you, but we will.”  A ship comes by and teleports Proxima and Corvus away.  Those two return at the Battle in Wakanda where they kill many people.  While our heroes may not have known of the upcoming battle, they did know that these two would continue to harm if given the chance.  If we assume an obligation to prevent bad, then shouldn’t Proxima and Corvus have been killed?  Imprisonment could have been a way to prevent the bad so in this case; escape was simply an unfortunate outcome.  If they had known the choice was kill them or let them go, our heroes would have killed them.

Consider Batman and the horribly insecure Arkham Asylum.  Batman knows that the Joker, and other criminals who are sent to Arkham will escape.  He knows that when they escape, they will kill people again.  Knowing that, should Batman kill the Joker and other repeat offenders?  If one has an obligation to prevent a foreseeable bad outcome, especially one that involves the deaths of innocents, then Batman has an obligation to kill the Joker and other major criminals.

If Batman fails to kill these criminals when given the opportunity, then Batman is failing to prevent a foreseeable bad.  In fact, much of superhero lore is based around the assumption that superheroes have an obligation to help others.  By fighting supervillains and their thugs, superheroes are acting to prevent the bad from occurring.  If they are serious about preventing the bad from occurring, then it cannot be confined to just the immediate danger, but all foreseeable dangers.

In other words, if we condemn a person for not pulling a child out of the water, then should we not also condemn Batman or other superheroes?