Ah, TAC tackles only the big burning issues of our day! Travis D. Smith over at The Weekly Standard raises a philosophical question that has always intrigued me: who is the greater hero, Batman or Spider-Man?
Reservations about technology are at the heart of Spider-Man’s story. Peter Parker gains the proportional strength and agility of a spider when a high-tech experiment goes awry. His webshooters and spider-tracers are products of his own ingenuity. His rogue’s gallery, by contrast, comprises a testament to the dangers inherent in modern technological science given the myriad ways it can be misused and lead to unintended consequences. With few exceptions, Spidey’s foes can be categorized as either (i) good guys who were transformed into villains (or ordinary thugs who were made much worse) by technological mishaps or unexpected side-effects (e.g., Doctor Octopus, Electro, Green Goblin, Lizard, Morbius, and Sandman; Venom, too, indirectly), or (ii) crooks who specifically invented, obtained, or otherwise employ technology for the sake of doing wrong or becoming worse (e.g., Beetle, Chameleon, Hobgoblin, Jackal, Mysterio, Rhino, Scorpion, Shocker, and Vulture; Kraven is the noteworthy exception). The young Peter Parker is corrupted by the culture around him no less than any other young man. His first instinct is to use his newfound powers in a selfish, though harmless, manner: He plans to make it big in showbiz for the sake of supporting his family. But after he internalizes Uncle Ben’s message, Spider-Man stands out as a marvel precisely because he is both the victim of science gone wrong and a manufacturer of technological wonders, yet neither makes a monster of him—if we set aside that brief period he had six arms.
Modern society, marked, if not defined, by our devotion to technological science and premised principally on theories of rights, explicitly rejects classical ideas that emphasize virtuous character and duties that transcend individual will. Assessing all relationships in terms of power, defending subjective rights as absolutes, and replacing interpersonal duties with collective responsibilities, preferring the indirect benefactions of impersonal institutionalized mechanisms, modernity is a breeding ground for tyrannical souls and a recipe for tyrannical regimes. It is in this light that Spider-Man can help us to see that modernity’s capacity to turn out relatively well depends on habits and ideas that precede it.
When I teach introductory classes in political theory, I am grateful for the example that Spider-Man provides of Glaucon’s model of “the man of perfect justice” from Book II of The Republic, one who always does the right thing (in terms of complying with conventional morality) even though he always earns a reputation for doing the wrong thing. Nobody who would wield great power intending to work on behalf of justice can avoid earning a bad reputation. Spider-Man is sure to be accused of being an accomplice in any bank robbery he thwarts. The headlines of the Daily Bugle regularly prompt readers to ask themselves whether he is a “Threat or Menace?” Nevertheless, Peter chooses to keep up the good fight. The language of “choice,” however, falls short here. Whereas Bruce decides to become a costumed agent of vengeance, acting on an internal compulsion, Peter regards what he does not so much as a choice but as a responsibility, a duty he must meet irrespective of his preferences and desires. This accords with the classical notion that virtue is demanded of us by our very nature; it is not something that anyone can opt in or out of indifferently.