Superheroes With Dirty Hands


Alan Moore’s graphic novel Watchmen (filmed back in 2009 by Zack Snyder) is an anti- superhero tale about super anti-heroes. Some of these ‘costumed adventurers’ are obsessives driven by the thrill of dressing up and breaking heads; others are co-opted by political interests or have shadowy agendas of their own. The Watchman known as ‘The Comedian’ is an amoral killer on a fat CIA remittance. The only one with actual superpowers, the glowing blue god Dr Manhattan, casually maintains US nuclear Hegemony, but sees humanity as a lower order of being than the inert desert of Mars.

Watchmen honours superhero tradition by sheathing these vigilantes in improbable tights and by culminating in a desperate battle to prevent a maniac killing lots of Americans. Here, though, the balletic combat is futile. As snippets of broadcast TV testify, the Americans are long dead before the first blow lands, and the architect of the plan, Ozymandias – AKA the ‘Worlds Smartest Man’ – is just a Watchman with a self-prescribed remit to usher in an era of global peace.

Ozymandias informs his fellow Watchmen that he has saved the world from nuclear annihilation by gulling the US and USSR into uniting against an illusory alien menace (the story is set in an alternative 1980’s during Nixon’s third term). To simulate this threat convincingly, though, he has had to kill half the population of New York with a vile artificial life form.

Ozymandias seems like an obvious candidate for villain (This is a comic book after all). Yet whether this is so, turns on the solution to the classic philosophical problem of ‘dirty hands’.

Ozymandias’ provides a consequentialist argument for his actions. Pure consequentialists believe that actions must be judged according to the value of their outcomes. Thus if the murder of a million New Yorkers is preferable to the death of billions in a nuclear war, it is better to murder a million New Yorkers.

Once they learn that nothing can prevent the deaths, all but one of the Watchmen agree they are ‘morally checkmated’.

Only Rorschach – so-called for the mutating inkblot concealing his face – contests this. He holds that some actions are intrinsically wrong and must be condemned irrespective of any beneficial outcomes they may produce (the philosophical term for this position is deontological ethics).

Who’s right?

Let’s assume for that Ozymandias is factually correct in believing that humanity would have been destroyed had he not acted. This is the kind of thing we might expect the World’s Smartest Man to know. But Ozymandias has committed murder on the scale of a Hitler or a Pol Pot. Surely, his actions are wrong, no matter what?

So is Rorschach right?

Well, if he is, then Ozymandias should be killed or punished and the plot revealed. But Rorschach’s insistence seems wrong-headed. As Dr Manhattan points out ‘Exposing this plot, we destroy any chance of peace, dooming the Earth to worse destruction’.

Moore reinforces this impression by portraying Rorschach as a moral fanatic obsessed with punishment for its own sake. Ozymandias, by contrast, appears reasonable and genuinely pained by the deaths he has caused. So we seem confronted with four alternatives.


Ozymandias is right to sacrifice millions to save billions.

Or Rorschach is right.

Or they are both wrong.

Or they are both right.

The last possibility can be discounted if their positions are genuine contraries. However, there is another way of interpreting these moral claims. In his famous work, The Prince, Nicolo Machiavelli argued that canons of moral right have little place in politics. When deciding the future of a state (or a planet), we should be prepared to commit evil acts to secure the paramount goal of political order.

Machiavelli’s position is a kind of consequentialism. However, he does not claim that conventionally evil acts cease to be bad when performed for worthy political ends. If judged according to the principles of public morality they are necessary and bear testimony to the prowess of a Prince (or a Superhero). But they’re still wrong according to the standards of personal morality.

Thus, adopting Machiavelli’s position, we can regard Ozymandias as having performed a very ‘dirty’ but necessary act. Both his position and Rorschach’s can then be affirmed on different grounds. Is this a satisfactory resolution of the dilemma? One could object that any claim that an act is politically necessary must involve an appeal to moral grounds if it is not to be merely cynical – and Ozymandias, unlike the Comedian, is no cynic. Thus it remains troublingly uncertain whether this anti-superhero tale contains a genuine super-villain.

© The Open University 2011, all rights reserved

More Open University Philosophy @

OpenLearn: Introducing Philosophy

A222: Exploring Philosophy


References: Alan Moore and Dave Gibbon, Watchmen, New York: DC Comics, 1987. Zack Snyder, Watchmen (2009).

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