While there are many moral theories, deontology and teleology are the big dogs of ethics. Briefly put, deontologists contend that the ethics of an action are contained within the action itself—the act is either good or bad (or neutral). The Ten Commandments are a form of religious deontological ethics: adultery is simply wrong; even if the sex was amazing. Immanuel Kant is the paradigm deontologist in philosophy.
Those who embrace teleology, like J.S. Mill, argue that the morally of an action are determined by the consequences of that action. For example, adultery being wrong or right is determined by weighing the impact on happiness and unhappiness for the morally relevant beings.
While these views are in conflict, they both appeal to our moral intuitions. For example, most people accept the principle of triage as correct on utilitarian grounds. As such, a doctor saving five patients at the cost of letting a sixth die is seen as acceptable. However, people tend to reject involuntarily using a person for “parts” to save five other people and do so on the grounds that it is “just wrong.” Of course, clever deontologists can work out systems of rules to address our utilitarian intuitions while wily utilitarians can tweak their theory to address our deontological intuitions. These modifications are typical criticized for being unprincipled and abandoning the ethical theory they purport to defend. For example, making utilitarianism capture deontological intuitions can be criticized for sneaking in deontology.
Given the popularity of these two moral systems, it is no wonder that they end up being the ethics used in superhero movies. For example, the Marvel universe pits the deontological Captain America against the teleological Iron Man. While this is in many of the Marvel movies, it comes to a sharp point during
Avengers: Infinity War. If you plan on seeing this movie, then be warned that there are spoilers to follow.
Wisecrack does a good job of laying out the ethical conflict in the movie between deontology and teleology. The gist of it is, obviously enough, that the teleologists make their moral decisions by considering the consequences of their actions. For example, Thanos wants to kill half the universe because he believes that it will thus be a better universe. As another example, Dr. Strange initially says that if given a choice between giving up his infinity stone or allowing his colleagues to die, he will allow them to die. This is because the consequences of allowing Thanos to have the stone would be so terrible. In contrast, Captain America advocates the deontological position and says he saves lives because it is the right thing to do—he does not trade lives.
In the movie, Dr. Strange seems to go back on his assertion and trades the stone for Tony Stark’s life. While Wisecrack makes the case that this shows that the writers are choosing deontology over teleology, others have made the case that Dr. Strange saw that Tony Stark will be instrumental to “defeating” Thanos and hence makes the utilitarian decision to accept a lesser evil for a greater good. Until the script is leaked, this remains informed speculation based on the Infinity stones stories in the comics. My own view is that Dr. Strange seems to be acting on utilitarian ethics, but the fact is that he is doing whatever the writers write—and this might change between now and the release of the next movie.
One common problem that arises when the deontological-teleological conflict arises in superhero movies, is that the writers almost always seem to take the easy way out. That is, when the heroes choose the deontological approach, they also get the best consequences.
In contrast, the utilitarian approach, by writer’s fiat, is often shown as leading to the worst consequences. This creates the odd situation in which the deontological approach produces the best consequences while the teleological approach produces worse consequences. While it is fair to have the teleologist be in error in their calculations or values, this strikes me as a cheat: the writers get to advocate caring deontology, condemn heartless utilitarianism and still appease the audience by still getting the best outcome. Obviously enough, a properly informed utilitarian would choose the approach that would lead to the best outcome, so the deontological aspect is something of a writer’s deceit. This deceit is, of course, understandable: having the deontological choice lead to terrible results would hardly make for a heroic movie. As such, the writers allow the heroes to have their deontological cake and eat it too, by getting the best consequences by sticking to their deontological principles.
It would, perhaps, be an interesting “twist” for the writers to own the consequences of deontology in these superhero movies. That is, rather than having the deontological approach lead to the best consequences, to accept the logical results of deontological decision making: that choosing an action based on the ethics of the action itself could lead to terrible consequences. For example, if Dr. Strange really did elect to save Tony Stark because it was the right action to take rather than based on the consequences, to have the universe live with that choice. That is, Thanos wins and the dead heroes stay dead. If, however, the writers elect to have this choice result in the “defeat” of Thanos (that he decides to undo what he did) because of Tony Stark, then Dr. Strange decision simply resulted in the best consequences, thus embracing teleological ethics. In short, the deontological vs. teleological dispute in movies really only has a true “bite” if there is a difference in the outcomes: if the writers write deontology as leading to the best consequences, the difference amounts to nothing.