Philosophy in Watchmen

In Alan Moore’s Watchmen there are a variety of conflicting philosophical and ethical viewpoints, each sublimated into a code, and every one’s agency culminating finally into the destruction of New York. But what I feel really reveals the novel’s conclusive message, and I believe there is one, is the fact that Adrian Veidt is allowed to live in spite of the fact that he is personally and individually responsible for the death of millions of civilians. In order to make sense of what Alan Moore is attempting to persuade us of I believe each of the primary characters should be reduced to their individual motivations. By primary characters, what I mean is those characters that are responsible for the knowledge of what Adrian has done[i] or in the case of The Comedian what he will do.

The first responsible party is most definitely The Comedian, as he is both the first to know about it and the first to die as a result of his knowledge. He has a surprisingly complex ethical code, being comprised of a healthy dose of nihilism[ii], utilitarian consequentialism[iii] and finally, at his end, a glimpse of deontology[iv]. The first and more obvious layers can be witnessed in his discussion of the Vietnam War with Dr.Manhattan, as follows:

When Blake[i] says the country would have gone crazy if they’d lost the war, what he is referring to largely is the idea that the victory justified the means by which it was attained. A widely employed consequentialist phrase is that “the end justifies the means”. It is common knowledge that many questionable methods were used in Vietnam, specifically with regards to civilian involvement. Blake knows this better than anyone as his face is permanently scarred by a Vietnamese woman he gunned down in cold blood, pregnant with his own child. Blake adds “as a country” to his statement almost as an afterthought, as if to cover up the fact that what he really means is that he himself, Edward Blake, would have gone crazy had the victory not justified his vicious means. He fears nihilism, and thus laughs in the face of the worlds horrors. He hopes for a utilitarian truth so that he might sleep better at night. He meets his end, at last, because when he’s faced with the sheer scale of what Adrian plans to do he can’t stomach it. Veidt would have had no reason to kill Blake had he been either of the things he pretended to be: someone that didn’t care, or someone that believed it could be worth it in the end.

The next responsible party is the Nite Owl, Daniel Dreiberg. Daniel has what to me is a severely compromised ethical code, having mainly to do with his need to fulfill his own desires. He claims to be a hero, invested in helping people, yet he has no qualms about retiring and living out his life with his abundant inheritance. You can see the various times their first meeting is recalled that Dan has intentions and hopes with regards to Laurie. He smiles at her, she smiles back, but as soon as Jon enters the picture it’s clear that Laurie only has eyes for him. Dan plays the role of friend, but it’s apparent that he has unspoken intentions when he subtly makes remarks about her costume. This culminates in his eventually becoming romantically entangled with Laurie, despite the fact that she has just broken up with a man she loved and dated for decades, a man that was theoretically Dan’s friend and if not at least his comrade. Finally, he goes so far as to have sex with Laurie immediately after they find out about the destruction of Manhattan. What follows is a disturbing scene wherein we can Jon walking over the naked, post-coitally asleep figures of Dan and Laurie.

Laurie’s ethical code is not entirely voluntary. It’s almost as if she herself, as a character or as a person, is a testament to what Blake hoped would be true, that the end justifies the means.

Laurie is the result of a series of atrocious means, including the rape of her mother and the brutality of her father. In order to believe that she is valuable and can be herself good, she must accept what Jon is saying to her: that she is a miracle and that the improbability alone of her existence makes her valuable. It is because of the nature of her existence and her recently coming to peace with the reality of what she is that she is both capable and readily able to accept what Veidt has done. Further, as Jon is the person that explained her value in these terms, it can be assumed that his own beliefs to some extent mirror hers. Jon’s beliefs likely lie somewhere on a spectrum between this consequentialist perspective and true a-morality, as he previously claimed that “The morality of my activities escapes me”.

It is Rorschach that stands alone morally, as he always has in every other respect. He states exactly what he is from the very beginning of the novel, saying “I live my life free of compromise, and step into the shadows without complaint or regret.” It is Rorschach and only he that has never wavered, never second guessed his morals or his choices. Although his methods are questionable, his adherence to a strict set of rules assuredly marks him as a deontologist, the branch of philosophy dealing in moral absolutism. Right and wrong exist with relation to basic tenets for Rorschach, the greatest of which is simply that evil must be punished. This is demonstrated most clearly in his final encounter with the other Watchmen, and in his last stand against Jon as he marches one way or another to his certain death in the Antarctic snow:

Rorschach represents a kind of moral idealism that can’t survive in the reality of Alan Moore’s world. Noble, yes. Admirable, yes. But ultimately his existence is a beautiful relic. The fact that he is murdered by his friends, and it is Adrian the murderer who is allowed to live demonstrates ultimately that what works is a consequentialist attitude. Adrian gets to be the hero after all, because in Moore’s world the majority of so-called good guys agree that what’s best for everyone overall is the correct choice. That nuclear war was averted and billions of lives saved, in the eyes of these heroes, makes it permissible to have ended the lives of millions of New Yorkers. Of course, being that Alan Moore is a somewhat enigmatic writer, he leaves us with a confusing goodbye from Jon as he says to Adrian that “nothing ever ends”. If nothing ever ends, how can there be an end to justify any means? It seems that at the last, Jon’s version morality must be as super-human as he is.

Originally written for Dan Anderson’s summer English Lit class:

Works Cited:

–          “Nihilism, N.” Oxford English Dictionary: The Definitive Record of the English Language. Mar. 2010. Web. 21 July 2010.

–          “Deontological Ethics.” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. 21 Nov. 2007. Web. 21 July 2010.

–          “Consequentialism.” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. 20 May 2003. Web. 21 July 2010.

–          Moore, Alan, Dave Gibbons, and John Higgins. Watchmen. New York: DC Comics, 2008. Print.

[i] Edward Blake is the legal name of The Comedian.

[i] Laurie, Rorschach, Nite Owl and Dr.Manhattan.

[ii] Total rejection of prevailing religious beliefs, moral principles, laws, etc., often from a sense of despair and the belief that life is devoid of meaning. Also more generally (merging with extended use of sense 3): negativity, destructiveness, hostility to accepted beliefs or established institutions.

[iii] Consequentialism, as its name suggests, is the view that normative properties depend only on consequences. This general approach can be applied at different levels to different normative properties of different kinds of things, but the most prominent example is consequentialism about the moral rightness of acts, which holds that whether an act is morally right depends only on the consequences of that act or of something related to that act, such as the motive behind the act or a general rule requiring acts of the same kind.

[iv] The word deontology derives from the Greek words for duty (deon) and science (or study) of (logos). In contemporary moral philosophy, deontology is one of those kinds of normative theories regarding which choices are morally required, forbidden, or permitted. In other words, deontology falls within the domain of moral theories that guide and assess our choices of what we ought to do (deontic theories), in contrast to (aretaic [virtue] theories) that — fundamentally, at least — guide and assess what kind of person (in terms of character traits) we are and should be. And within that domain, deontologists — those who subscribe to deontological theories of morality — stand in opposition to consequentialists.