As Tim Stratton has aptly noted in Avengers: Endgame, Middle Knowledge, & the Destruction of the Problem of Evil and in the FreeThinking Podcast episodes 63 – 65, Marvel’s Avengers: Infinity War and Avengers: Endgame are rich in philosophical content. In this article, I briefly examine the normative ethics of these films.
The villain of the story, Thanos, is a consequentialist. Consequentialism is the position that the only (or at least the most important) factor which morally justifies an act is the consequences of that act. In other words, the moral rightness or wrongness of an act is solely (or primarily) a matter of its outcome. If the outcome is good, then the act itself is good and any means used to achieve the outcome are morally justified; the end justifies the means. The main versions of consequentialism are utilitarianism and moral egoism. Utilitarianism is the view that in any moral situation, the right act is the one which will lead (or tend to lead) to the greatest amount of happiness for the greatest number of people. Moral egoism is the view that one ought to act in ways which maximize the best outcomes for oneself and let others do the same. Philosophers who deny consequentialism are called non-consequentialists.
Back to the films: Thanos believes his goal of a new world order justifies his means of achieving that goal. His means include murdering 50% of the population of rational beings in the universe. Thanos’ execrable plan is the hook that establishes Marvel’s plot and provides the protagonists — the Avengers — with a morally significant problem to solve: stop Thanos!
In contrast to Thanos, the heroes are non-consequentialists who combine deontology and virtue ethics in their worldview. Deontology is a duty-based system of ethics which holds that some acts are intrinsically right or wrong regardless of their consequences and that moral agents have duties to follow moral commands or rules regardless of their consequences. Virtue ethics (also called ‘aretaic ethics,’ after the Greek ‘arete’ which means “virtue” or “excellence”) emphasizes the cultivation of good character traits that enable one to be a good person; wisdom, courage, self-control, and love are examples of such traits. Deontologists and virtue ethicists reject the fundamental claim of consequentialism that the consequences of an act make that act morally right or wrong. The moral life is not about maximizing consequences. As David Oderberg puts it: “But when it comes to morality, our aim …is to be a good person, to act in the right way as a human being.” Oderberg elaborates elsewhere:
“I have given a number of fairly abstract reasons why consequentialism is on the face of it unintuitive and unmotivated. But I also think it is straight out false, and not only false but an evil and dangerous theory – a view I am not alone in holding. There are a number of ways in which I could defend the view, but I want to focus on one in particular, …This is the charge that consequentialism allows, indeed requires, certain kinds of action that are obviously wrong and so not to be done. In particular, consequentialism permits and requires actions that are horrendous evils, as evil as anything can be… In general, according to consequentialism, it is at least permitted, often obligatory, for a person to commit what looks to any sane observer like a blatant and serious violation of someone else’s rights, and hence to commit an act of grave injustice, in order to maximize value, or at least to do what he thinks is likely to maximize value. Now, for the non-consequentialist, no intuition his opponent can bring to bear in support of the consequentialist position on this matter is as strong as the intuition that such apparent injustices are indeed injustices, and so to be forbidden on all occasions, no matter what the consequences.”
The Avengers believe that Thanos’ behavior is intrinsically morally wrong, indeed, that it is horrendous. The belief that some acts are intrinsically wrong is a distinctive feature of deontological thinking. The heroes also hold that they have a duty to resist evil, which is another hallmark of deontology. Moreover, the Avengers rely on moral and intellectual virtues to win the battle against Thanos. For instance, Captain America exemplifies the virtue of courage; Dr. Stephen Strange, Bruce Banner/Hulk, and Tony Stark/Iron Man use their knowledge and wisdom; all of our heroes engage in self-sacrifice; and each is motivated by love defined in terms of willing the good for others.
In sum, Infinity War and Endgame unite to present a cinematic reductio ad absurdum against Thanosian-style consequentialism. If Thanosian consequentialism is true, then Thanos is the hero of the story. But it is clear that Thanos is not the hero; the scriptwriters, the Avengers, and the audience agree. Therefore, Thanosian consequentialism is false. The movies also provide dramatic illustrations of deontology and virtue ethics. As is often the case with good stories, Avengers: Infinity War and Avengers: Endgame are effective introductions to philosophy.
 It is interesting to note that, in Greek mythology, Thanatos is the god of death. The Greek word ‘thanatos’ means “death.” It is the root word in the English ‘euthanasia.’ Is it also the root word of ‘Thanos’?
 Utilitarians usually define ‘happiness’ in terms of pleasure or desire-satisfaction. Virtue ethicists such as Aristotle disagree with this definition. For example, Aristotle defined ‘happiness’ by the Greek term “eudaimonia,” which refers to excellence of moral and intellectual character and to the well-being produced by such integrity.
 Arguably, since (a) moral duties are obligations to follow the commands of an authoritative moral commander and (b) God is not under any moral commands, God does not have moral duties. But created persons have obligations to act in certain ways and to avoid acting in other ways.
 The classical Greek virtues include wisdom, justice, self-control, and courage. These virtues are taught in Proverbs and in other parts of Bible. 2 Peter 1:5-7 and 1 Corinthians 13 also address the importance of virtues such as love, knowledge, self-control, and perseverance.
 See Oderberg’s Moral Theory: a non-consequentialist approach, (Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2000), 1.
 See Oderberg’s Why I am not a Consequentialist at http://www.intellectum.org/articles/issues/intellectum6/en/ITL06p005015_Why%20I%20am%20not%20a%20consequentialist_David%20S%20%20Oderberg.pdf
 The term ‘deontology’ comes from the ancient Greek “deon” which means “duty.”
 Oh, and did I mention that Hulk has the virtue of smashing bad guys?
 Thanos suffers from a false belief in consequentialism, which motivates his destructive plan. On the assumption that Thanos has libertarian free will, his belief does not causally determine his behavior. Nevertheless, it gives him a reason to act.