DR #27: So Who Won? Civil War and Great Power

Dear Reader,

So you’ve seen Captain America: Civil War by now, right? You must have. According to the box office, literally every person has.

Which begs the question: Who was right?

CW Pic 1And that’s only fair, Marvel. You set up the Nintendo/Sega-style “Which side are you on?” publicity campaign, so you now that we’ve seen the movie you get to sit quietly and listen to us actually debate who was right, Captain America or Iron Man. You can put your head down on your desk if you want, but if you interrupt you don’t get a fruit snack.


One thing you have to give Civil War is that it made that a good question. When they did this in the comics, it was pretty transparent that Captain America was right and that Iron Man had added several experimental Become-a-Huge-Nazi-Douchebag modules to his suit. When they do the upcoming sequel they may have learned a lesson or two—the moral conflict this time is apparently going to be over Minority Report style precognitive crime-fighting, which at least has the advantage of not being a real thing in the real world that people already have strong opinions about.

The movie kept it ambiguous and let both sides have good arguments—so much so that I think whose team you are on isn’t a matter of whether you think freedom is more important than safety, it’s a matter of how you think social ethics work. (This is where I prove that my philosophy degree wasn’t worthless after all, Strawman Dad!)

At first glance Iron Man seems to be arguing “Safety” and Captain America seems to be arguing “Freedom”, but they really aren’t. Iron Man isn’t saying that disasters won’t happen—he never claims that being under the authority of the U.N. would have, for example, prevented Scarlet Witch’s powers from backfiring (Spoiler Alert, they do that at one point. Further Spoiler Alert: Water is revealed to be wet.) And while Captain America does make the point that bureaucracy would infringe on the Avengers’ freedom, that’s not his objection to the Sokovia Accords themselves.

The central issue that they disagree on is, I think, is also the reason Spider-Man is in the movie.

CW Pic 2

Did anyone else notice, that in the scene where Tony Stark is chatting with Peter Parker, that (though they did dance around them for a bit) nobody actually says the words “With Great Power, Comes Great Responsibility”?

THAT’S what the War is really being Civil about. Iron Man, after his harrowing encounter with the dreaded supervillainess Passive Aggressive Mom and her Guilt Aura, is arguing that since the Avengers’ Great Power is needed to protect entire communities—you know, like Earth—that the Great Responsibility should rest with those communities, the same way that individual citizens are not responsible for the actions of their governments. The earth doesn’t have the option of not having the Avengers, because then it gets renamed Lokiopolis. The Avengers don’t have the option of not being the Avengers, because by not using Great Power they would become responsible for whatever they didn’t try to prevent (which is the line of thinking that led to building a James Spader Murderbot. And sit back down Cap, you’ll get your paragraph soon enough).

So the Avengers don’t really have a choice. If you don’t have a choice about doing something, then you could argue that you can’t really be responsible for the consequences of it. But if there’s a duly-elected overseeing authority (whether that’s S.H.I.E.L.D., the UN, Secretnazi Robert Redford), they can share that responsibility among the total population. So this is a Thomas Hobbes kind of solution to the problem.

CW Pic 3

Not this Hobbes. Well, maybe.

Captain America, on the other hand, doesn’t think that the responsibility can be handed off. Signing to the Sokovia Accords might disperse some of the authority to use Great Power, but the saying doesn’t go “With Distributed Authority Over The Use of Great Power comes Great Responsibility”, does it? More importantly, he doesn’t trust the people to whom he’s being asked to hand the Avengers over to actually behave with Responsibility (which is understandable, given that this was the exact same argument he had with S.H.I.E.L.D. in Winter Soldier and he was proven 100% right then).

So what happens when you give someone access to Great Power without the Responsibility? There’s a quote from C.S. Lewis that I think sums up the objection: “What we call man’s power over Nature turns out to be power by some men over other men with Nature as an instrument.” That would be worse than unavoidable collateral damage—that would presumably lead to avoidable intentional damage, because that’s what an irresponsible but powerful person would do.

So the real argument is about who is responsible when this powerful thing—that we can’t do without—has unintended consequences that hurt people.

The one side says, “Set up a structure that distributes the responsibility in such a way that it’s sanctioned by society, so that people have no more real right to complain than they would about taxes or the weather.” The other side says “Take comfort in the fact that sometimes bad things happen to good people, and at least the person who wanted to do something much worse didn’t succeed.” The one side says to build/invent a genius solution to the problem, while the other says to just endure because at least you’ve got moral right on your side.

These aren’t out-of-character arguments, is what I’m saying.

So who is right?

That was the question I claimed I was going to answer, wasn’t it? I think it comes down, Reader, to whether you believe in communities (as did Plato, Thomas Hobbes, Karl Marx, and Tony Stark) or in individuals (as did C.S. Lewis, Ayn Rand, Friedrich Nietzche, and Steve Rogers). Notice: I deliberately included philosophers I disagree with on both of those lists.

Notice also that the biggest predictor of who the Avengers side with is how strongly they identify with their powers: Falcon is giving his gear cute nicknames, while War Machine still thinks of himself as a soldier (even after he might have lost the ability to use his suit; again, spoilers!). Scarlet Witch is convinced that all anyone sees of her is her powers, while Vision seems to see his job as wearing Mr. Rogers turtlenecks and cooking and sees the whole forehead-lasering-thing as an interruption to that. Hawkeye takes his secret agent past in stride, while Black Widow thinks hers makes her a monster. Tony Stark built his suit to change who he was, while Steve Rogers was told that his real superpower was something he had before he got the super soldier serum.

Spider-man is a teen, he doesn’t know whether he identifies with his powers or not, so he could have gone either way. But he isn’t here to choose a side, really, he’s here as the thematic link to Uncle Ben.

CW Pic 4

Not this Uncle Ben.

So who you end up thinking is right in Civil War comes down to whether you think that power can be used more responsibly by a whole society or by individuals.

Feel Free to Cite Me Out-of-Context in Your Facebook Arguments,

-The Guy Who Wrote This.

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