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The Philosophy of Civil War Part 2: Captain America and Deontology

In Part 1 of this series, we looked at how Tony Stark’s utilitarian outlook allowed him to justify his actions in Marvel’s Civil War.  Today I want to look at a different ethical philosophy called deontology.  The first time we looked at deontology on 4LN we were discussing why Batman does not kill.  Now we will look at how this philosophy shapes Captain America’s actions in the civil war.


So what is deontology?

Deontology is pretty much the opposite of utilitarianism. This philosophy focuses exclusively on what one ought to do, or what is one’s “duty.” Unlike utilitarianism, deontologists believe the end does not justify the means. They also believe every person has intrinsic value and that it is immoral to use someone as a means to an end. Instead, every person is an end in and of him/herself. Immanuel Kant, a major deontologist, had a list of rules for which one could determine their duty called the Categorical Imperative, which states:

  • Act only according to that maxim by which you can also will that it would become a universal law.
  • Act in such a way that you always treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, never simply as a means, but always at the same time as an end.
  • Every rational being must so act as if he were through his maxim always a legislating member in a universal kingdom of ends.

That’s some dense language so I am going to try to break it down because it really does show why Captain America does what he does. Kant is saying three things.  First, he says that one should live by a code that they think could become a rule for all; then that everyone has intrinsic value and should not be used as a means to an end, but be treated as an end; and finally, that we must all act as if our personal code is a universal law and is also an end in itself.


Cap sees the SRA as a violation of human rights, and since no person should be used as a means to an end he believes that it is his duty to oppose the bill despite it being law. This is why he refuses to back down despite the fact that his identity is not a secret. In the comics, Spider-Man asks Captain America why he refuses to give up. He responds with the following Mark Twain quote:

Each must for himself alone decide what is right and what is wrong, and which course is patriotic and which isn’t. You cannot shirk this and be a man.  To decide it against your convictions is to be an unqualified and inexcusable traitor, both to yourself and to your country, let men label you as they may.  If you alone of all the nation shall decide one way, and that way be the right way according to your convictions of the right, you have your duty by yourself and by your country. Hold up your head. You have nothing to be ashamed of.

Cap then tells Spidey:

Doesn’t matter what the press says. Doesn’t matter what the politicians or the mobs say. Doesn’t matter if the whole country decides that something wrong is something right.  This nation was founded on one principle above all else: The requirement that we stand up for what we believe, no matter the odds or the consequences. When the mob and the press and the whole world tell you to move, your job is to plant yourself like a tree besides the river of truth, and tell the whole world — No, you move.


There is not a shred of utilitarian philosophy in those powerful words. That is pure deontological reasoning. He is fighting for what he believes is morally correct based on his moral code. We see this side of Steve during Captain America: the Winter Soldier as well. He thinks Project Insight (an initiative to preemptively neutralize threats before an incident happens) is an affront to human rights, and that the punishment should follow the crime not preempt it.  He tells Nick Fury that he is holding a gun to the head of every citizen and calling it security, then says “This isn’t freedom, this is fear.”

This isn’t to say deontology is flawless.  Like any philosophy, deontology certainly has its sticking points.  However, these flaws don’t present themselves in this particular story, and since this is more of a philosophical overview of Civil War as opposed to a straightforward deontology vs. utilitarianism debate, we won’t go into them in this article (just look up Kant’s Nazi problem and start reading).

Both sides of the Civil War got out of hand. The reasons behind the SRA made sense. Superheroes have incredible power, and the collateral damage they cause can be staggering.  From a utilitarian point of view, the greatest happiness would be a general populace without fear, and that is nearly impossible with the ever-present threat of masked villains and vigilantes with the power to destroy small towns. If people had that kind of power in real life, I am sure almost all of us would want them controlled to some extent.  The problem is how the bill was implemented and the direction it took.  The SRA, and those that supported it, is responsible for the death of some heroes and the indefinite incarceration of many others without trial.  Despite Tony’s arc reactor being in the right place at first, he and his team are the clear villains in the conflict, but that’s not to say Captain America is completely blameless. He did respond to force with force, continuing the escalation of the war.  It’s hard to say if Cap would have ever gone as far had it not been for Tony being the catalyst for an arms race.  In the end though, Steve realizes that, while the law in unjust, it is his responsibility to end the war by turning himself in.  He does this with the hope that the judicial system will realize its error and discontinue the violation of their rights.

Well, there you have it.  I hope you enjoyed this series of articles.  During this two part series, we have seen why Tony was able to justify his use of force while implementing the SRA, and why Steve Rogers felt that it was his duty to oppose the law.  We have seen why Tony’s personality pushed him to go to far in his quest for maximum utility; how Steve uses Kant’s categorical imperative to determine his moral code, and his resoluteness in carrying out what he believes he ought to do despite the odds against him.  I tried to be as unpretentious as possible while presenting these ideas and I hope I succeeded.  What do you think about the conflict between Captain America and Iron Man?  Do you think these philosophies accurately describe them?  Let us know what you think in the comments!

The Philosophy of Civil War Part 1: Tony Stark and Utilitarianism

One thing I have always enjoyed about pop culture is how it can express lofty ideals in unique, accessible ways.  Several books and movies have helped shape my world-view, and several others have at least helped me understand things I otherwise would not have known.  This week I want to take a look at Marvel’s epic crossover event Civil War, and how two opposing ethical views help shape the conflict that arises between Captain America and Iron Man.

Since this post was originally way too long, I decided to break it into two sections so you would actually have time to read it.  In this first section, we will look at how the philosophy of utilitarianism fits in perfectly with Iron Man’s decisions in Civil War.  Tomorrow we will see how Captain America’s deontological outlook colors the decisions he makes.  But first, let’s look at a brief synopsis of Civil War.

Please note: this synopsis does not include any major spoilers.


Civil War centers on the events surrounding the implementation of the Superhuman Registration Act (SRA). After a group of young, rash superheroes (who happen to star in a reality TV show) attempt to apprehend a group of supervillains goes horribly wrong, and an elementary school is destroyed, public outcry leads the US government to pass a bill requiring all super-powered individuals to register their secret identities and powers with the government and act as a sort of super police force.

The pro-registration side (led by Iron Man) feels that this is a natural progression of things and it is pointless to oppose that level of public uproar. Those who oppose the bill (led by Captain America) think that this is a gross violation of their rights and will take away any chance of them being able to both use their powers for good and allow them to live a normal life/protect their loved ones. The tension between the two groups eventually escalates into full-blown battle as Iron Man’s forces attempt to apprehend those who oppose the SRA, and Captain America and his Secret Avengers are trying to both carry on with their heroic activities and counter Iron Man’s attacks.

As the fight wages on, Iron Man obtains funds from Congress to build a giant prison in the Negative Zone. The purpose of this prison is to indefinitely house those superheroes that refuse to register without trial. This leads to an escalation in the conflict, which in turn leads to a no holds barred fight between the two sides.

Now that we have an extremely brief, mostly spoiler-free synopsis of Civil War I want to look at the two philosophies that I think best represent both sides. By understanding these two different ethical outlooks we might better understand why each side thinks they are making a moral choice. First up: Utilitarianism!

There are several different variations of utilitarianism but generally speaking, utilitarians believe that no action or choice is inherently right or wrong. Instead, what makes a particular action right or wrong is judged by the amount of good (e.g. happiness, pleasure, satisfaction, etc.) it brings to the greatest number of people.   To make it even simpler, the end justifies the means. When we first looked at utilitarianism, we saw how from a purely utilitarian point of view Lando Calrissian’s betrayal of Han Solo could have been considered a just decision. Utilitarianism would also be the ethical philosophy used to justify Tony Stark’s actions in Civil War.


We see hints at Tony’s utilitarian outlook in the move Avengers: Age of Ultron as well. Tony believes that using artificial intelligence will eventually lead to the greatest amount of good/happiness for the greatest amount of people. He is so set and so focused on this being the moral choice that he ignores the other Avengers and develops the technology in secret ultimately leading to Ultron, an enemy set on eradicating the human race. Obviously, this was an unforeseen consequence, but that’s kind of the thing — it’s impossible to know all of the potential outcomes of a particular decision. Perhaps the real problem of utilitarianism, at least when it comes to Tony and Civil War, is that the calculation of the greatest good for the greatest number is subject to the person working the equation. Tony is a narcissist, which inherently leads to narcissistic utilitarianism, meaning he might not see the greatest good the same way someone with a different starting point would.

The greatest good for the greatest number sounds pretty great in theory, but (like Communism) there are definitely some flaws with this philosophical stance, and these deficiencies are clearly seen in real life and in the story of Civil War. For instance, utilitarianism could be used to justify the slavery of a small group because it could bring happiness and economic stability to a greater number; or it could be used to justify imprisoning superheroes in the Negative Zone without a trial. Both of these actions (especially the one that actually exists in the real world) would be considered wrong by most, but could be justified using a utilitarian point of view.

Now that we have taken a look at Tony’s particular brand of narcissistic utilitarianism, I hope you have a better understanding of why Tony thought what he was doing was necessary in order to maximize utility.  Tony was trying to make right a lot of wrongs and thought that by reining in powerful heroes he could bring happiness and security to the greatest number of people.  If you liked this entry, be sure to come back for part 2 to find out more about deontology and Captain America’s anti-SRA stance!