The Ethics of Infinity War: A Missed Opportunity
Updated: Jun 20, 2021
The blog below contains no spoilers about the film.
Sometimes evil is simple.
. We all love a good story that has clearly delineated good guys who we love to love and bad guys who we love to hate. When we get to hear, see, or read stories about retributive justice saving the day, we leave with a good feeling. . But sometimes evil is not simple. . Sometimes, the bad guy complicates things just enough to get you thinking. This is not an unwelcome discomfort because these kinds of plot twists force us to reckon with our own ethics. We must face how we understand good and evil in the world. These are important opportunities that the entertainment industry can safely provide, . Or miss. . In the case of The Avengers: Infinity War, a large, ethical softball was lobbed up by the people of Marvel only to watch it drop without so much as a half-hearted swing. It should come as no surprise to you that Thanos, the villain of the movie, is a bad guy with an evil plot. In a nutshell, he wants to kill off half the population of the universe - exactly half. His motivation, stated repeatedly through the movie, is to rid the universe of the overpopulation problem that is consuming too many resources and causing pain and misery to the life of the other half. He does not delineate between class, gender, or species. He wants to be "fair" and random so that he can implement what he calls "mercy." . Naturally, the Avengers spend a huge chunk of the movie working to prevent this. What they do not do is ever address WHY what he is doing is evil. “Isn’t killing half the population enough in and of itself to fight for? Why do we have to talk about it?”
Because in a number of ways, we are already talking about it. Thanos might be extreme but he is not simple evil. If Thanos, like so many villains before him just wanted power, authority, or glory then we could simply sit back and watch the plot. However, Thanos brings up a strangely debatable opinion that is more common than you would expect. . Overpopulation is a problem considered by global economists and environmentalists alike. The idea that overpopulation will be a destructive force on the planet and all who live here was first popularized in 1798 by Reverend Thomas Malthus. Initially, his concerns were widely dismissed but modernity has resurrected his observations so much so that those who share his philosophy on overpopulation are called "Malthusians." In Garrett Hardin’s "The Tragedy of the Commons," the effects of overpopulation are so devastating that no "technical solution" exists that can reverse the damage and so he recommends that "the only way we can preserve and nurture other and more precious freedoms is by relinquishing the freedom to breed, and that very soon." . Hardin and other Malthusians like himself would have been good bowling buddies with Thanos. . Please understand: I’m not trying to make a case about overpopulation. I am simply pointing out that the method behind Thanos’ madness is the kind of casual conversation you can find in any ethics or philosophy course. Thanos is a classic Kantian who follows his deontological ethics forward with unparalleled determination. He sees this "solution" as a remedy. He is not doing it for glory or for power. He truly believes it is his duty to save the future of the universe. . But we are still talking about a form of genocide, right? . Well, this is my point: why didn’t any of the Avengers address this quandary? I sat through the whole movie and watched this army of superheroes fight against Thanos without ever once saying why. Thanos offers up a solution to universal suffering but it is the wrong one. How do we know this?
Every entry level ethics or philosophy course will present thought experiments that challenge the complexities of morality. Remember “Lifeboat Ethics”? There are only so many spots on the boat, you can’t save everyone or the boat will sink, so who do you choose to pull out of the water? These kinds of quandaries give us opportunities to talk about values and not just any values - sanctity of life.
It might seem a forgone conclusion that the prospect of losing half the population (no matter how practical for a resource v. consumer formula) is devastating. There is something to be said about the impact any one person can have. Individuals are more than just consumers. We might even go so far as to say that every life is precious.
But there is a little bit of Thanos in all of us. We regularly devalue others in order to achieve our own maximum comfort. We want access to cheap food, cheap products, and cheap gasoline but we don’t care who the cost gets passed onto. We want businesses to have the freedom to produce efficiently and profitably without any hassle from environmental restrains despite the cost. And if we are honest, the environmental costs are always doubled down to the poorest and most vulnerable in our society.
If we start saying every life is precious and valuable despite overpopulation then we have to get into uncomfortable conversations about abortion, poverty, and global politics. We have to get real about our own consumer habits and their consequences.
This is why the Avengers should have said something. But they didn’t. Marvel missed the softball. They didn’t even swing.
The movie was entertaining and there were many parts I enjoyed but this particular aspect was just one of the most glaring disappointments among others.
Tell us what you are fighting for, Avengers. Remind us of something true. Don’t just default into superhero mode because there is a bad guy in the room. Marvel did not shrink away from providing complex layers to Thanos and his ideals. Yet, they sold short the heroes who seem to have all brawn and no brains to employ in this particular fight. I guess I just expected more than substance-void dialogue fed between action scenes.
I hope the next movie in the saga has more to contribute to this. Either swing at the pitch Marvel, or don’t lob it up in the first place.