Avengers: Infinity War & Morality

By Kyle Barrington

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May 25, 2018

I am going to assume that if you are reading this article you have already seen Avengers: Infinity War. If not, I urge you to stop reading, as there will be numerous spoilers along the way. I am also going to assume that after seeing the movie, you left the theater and either felt that you needed a strong drink, or to take a long, meditative, walk on the beach while asking yourself repeatedly, “what in the world just happened?”. I know that’s how I felt. Having a basic, cursory, understanding of the Marvel Comic Universe and Thanos’ story arc therein, I was completely caught off guard when the Marvel Cinematic Universe decided to give Thanos a new moral foundation for his quest to gather the infinity stones and decimate half of all life in the universe. Not to mention, DOCTOR STRANGE AND HIS INTERACTION WITH POSSIBLE/FEASIBLE WORLDS PHILOSOPHY BLEW MY MIND (See Tim Stratton’s article on the topic here)!

Some of you, like me, left the theater feeling a sort of confused sympathy for Thanos, who, at the end of the movie, is joyfully watching the sunrise on what appears to be his home planet Titan after seemingly initiating the destruction of half of all life in existence. Not only did you feel confused about your sympathy for Thanos there, but you also shed a tear with Thanos when he decided to offer up his only daughter Gomorra in order to obtain the Soul Stone. But the sympathy – the overt emotional entanglement – does not stop there. Watching the Avengers lose nearly every battle that they engaged in, watching Vision seemingly escape gruesome death at the hands of Thanos only to have Thanos turn back time and place him under the very torture he thought he had escaped, watching the brutal death of Loki, the emasculation of the Hulk, the despair of Nebula, the pain of Quinn, and, ultimately, the disappearance of many of our beloved heroes when Thanos completes his mission. You were certainly like me; emotionally torn in different directions throughout the entire movie. But, amidst all of the emotional turmoil, there was one question turning in your mind that you seemingly could not answer:

Who was right?

On the one hand, it seems that Thanos is right; the universe is limited in resources, and if life does not cut down their consumption of those resources, no life will exist at all. So, Thanos has saving the future of all life in mind when he decides to sacrifice half of human life in the present. But then it seems that the Avengers are right; trying to stop Thanos to save life in the present. But we’re torn; save life now and potentially risk the presence of life in the future or sacrifice life now to save life in the future. It seems that both of these options hit us right in the moral gut; we are torn between the two.

But is there a way to know if one of these options is right and the other wrong; one option good while the other option evil?

What we see in Avengers: Infinity War is the tension between deontological ethics and consequentialist ethics. Deontological ethics refers to how actions are either right or wrong, good or evil in and of themselves while consequentialist ethics refers to how the consequences of a choice determine whether it is right or wrong, good or evil. For the deontologist, morality is not determined by circumstances or situations, but by the nature of an action itself. For the consequentialist, there is no morality in an action itself, but rather in the outcome; if there is a good outcome, then it is a right and good choice, if there is an aversive outcome, then it is a wrong and evil choice. Consequentialist ethical theory is almost always relative; that is, it is determined by the situation surrounding the person making the choice. Deontological ethical theory places its stock in overarching, objective, rules that govern that universe. For the deontologist, the consequence of an action doesn’t matter if the action itself is evil.

And this is where Thanos makes one critical error: he believes that the morality of his actions is determined by the consequence of those actions. He believes that the action of wiping out half of life is good because the outcome of ultimately saving life is good. But there are many situations that human beings find themselves in where the outcome is good, but the action is not. For example, it is good for a woman to have a baby. Claire having a baby is a good outcome. But Claire only has a baby because she was abused by her uncle as a teenager. Consequentialists could argue that because the outcome is good (Claire having a baby) that therefore the action does not matter. Moreover, it is good to play a musical instrument well. Lee is five years old and plays the piano better than his senior instructors. However, Lee was forced by his parents under threat of physical harm if he did not play his piano well enough. Consequentialists might argue that because Lee came out as a virtuoso piano player, that the actions of his parents are irrelevant. If the result is good, to the consequentialist, then the rest of the process was good also.

But surely this cannot be. For who determines what consequences are “good” in the first place? Who gets to determine whether it is, say, good for life to continue rather than to cease to exist by consuming all of the universe’s natural resources? Deontologists would say that there are governing principles, governing rules, that determine what is good and what is evil. Consequentialism ultimately collapses into moral relativism in which there just is no good or evil, right or wrong, at all, since it is all relative to each individual. Thanos’ argument that protecting the future of human life is more morally significant than protecting present human life appeals to a higher standard which has the authority to dictate that such things are true. In other words, Thanos’ moral law cries out for a moral lawgiver. And if there is a moral lawgiver, then that means that certain actions truly are right, are wrong; are good, and are evil, regardless of the consequences of those actions.[1] The moral lawgiver – that is, God – has determined, by virtue of His own character, what is right and wrong, good and evil; and has thereby determined what actions are right and wrong, good and evil by issuing commands that are in accordance with His character. God’s character is where we derive moral values; God’s commands are where we derive moral duty. These are the moral rules – the deon – that govern the universe.

Thanos’ action to sacrifice half of humanity for the sake of what he perceives to be a good outcome (eg. the continuation of life in the future) simply is an act of evil, and thereby wrong, no matter how much our emotional appeal drives us to sympathize with him. Though we can sympathize, and though we can feel what Thanos feels, our feelings do not determine what is right or wrong, good or evil, and surely neither do the consequences of our decisions determine these things. Thanos simply has no moral right to take it upon himself to act as arbiter of the universe by destroying certain, unidentified, people while saving certain other, unidentified, people. Thanos’ actions are simply, unequivocally, morally evil, and thereby morally wrong. The Avengers recognize this, and the Avengers act in accordance with what they know is morally right and good, regardless of the consequences of those actions.

So, we can be confident, fellow Marvel connoisseurs, that our inclination to side with the Avengers is, indeed, justified and is, indeed, good and right. Long live the Avengers! (and long live Captain Marvel!)


Notes

[1] We have good reason to believe in what is known as objective morality, and we have good reason to believe that
God exists, and therefore objective morality is true. See “The Moral Argument:” http://freethinkingministries.com/free-thinking-podcasts/

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About the Author

By Kyle Barrington

Kyle Barrington has his BS in Education and Social Science from Liberty University, as well as having studied Systematic Theology for 3 years in a church-based partnership program with Trinity Evangelical Divinity School at Xenos Christian Fellowship. He converted from atheism to Christianity at age 19 after studying Islam trying to convince his Muslim friend to become an atheist and has been involved in international mission since 2011 in Southeast Asian countries such as Cambodia, Indonesia, India, Thailand, and the Philippines, primarily working among Muslims. He has been living in the Philippines since 2015 working among the Muslim population, teaching Islam and effective methods of engagement to Christians living there. He primarily writes at https://kyleandrewbarrington.com/ about his personal experiences in ministry and his personal questions concerning Christianity.