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Grant Bartley finds time to watch them.

“Perhaps the world is not made. Perhaps nothing is made. A clock without a craftsman. It’s too late. Always has been, always will be, too late.”
Dr Manhattan, Watchmen.

Last year’s superhero film Watchmen gathered mixed reviews, but to some it is part of the Watchmen cult begun with the great graphic novel on which the movie is based. As with much art, Watchmen’s reputation as a worthy object of cultish veneration is due to the depth of its considerations. To only scratch the surface of its themes, Watchmen asks Juvenal’s famous question: ‘Who watches the watchmen?’ (Quis custodiet ipsos custodes, Juvenal, Satires, VI, 347). Watchmen answers this question by exploring the nature of responsibility and of the human character at significant levels of power. I’d like to also consider the judging of the judges, through the lens of Watchmen.

The twin questions of ethical principle underlying Juvenal’s question are “By what standard are ethical judgements themselves to be judged?” and “By whom?” Ethics demands that actions be rationally justified, but this shouldn’t be taken to imply that the moral sense is purely rational. Feelings of justice or injustice are emotional reactions, after all. It could be argued that it’s that emotional reaction which gives rise to the need for ethical justification. Emotions are hormonally driven and not naturally the product of a process of reason, which unfortunately makes it harder to do what is ethical or objectively rational, or even to know what the right thing to do is. What can we trust, if we can’t even trust the finer definition in our senses of justice and injustice?

The Superhuman Condition

Someone is murdering superheroes. Rorschach, a psychopath of righteous judgement, and former member of a superhero vigilante group called the Watchmen, recruits his retired colleagues to try to figure out why and who. Watchmen follows these once-has-been superbeings through their histories and their personal problems, as they get back on the midnight streets, make love, ponder philosophical anomalies, and discover a dark overlord and his cunning games. Yet this fashionable (ie common) Hollywood plot template here serves the interesting existentialist theme of responsibility in the face of freedom, or as this question applies to the Watchmen, how fallible people deal with the options opened to them by power . Watchmen studies the extremes of reaction when people are pushed to the limits of the sorts of decisions they have to make, so it’s about responsibility. And the Watchmen’s responses to the inalienable responsibility which comes with their expanded freedom reveal their moral characters, exposed as under great stress.

But why is the responsibility of the powerful inalienable, that is, inescapable?

A responsibility is a requirement towards somebody to do something. Any question of responsibility is a question of ethics, because what we call ethics concerns how people should behave towards one another. A society is a set of interacting individuals, so we could for short say that ethics is about ‘doing good in/for society’, or ‘the social promotion of the good’. If you choose to be a participating member of a society, it means you choose to be open to ethical considerations, and certain duties and responsibilities inevitably follow.

Why? Well, to behave rationally means to behave with rational prudence. It is rationally prudent to pursue those goods which are intrinsically worthwhile for us as self-aware social animals – those things worth enjoying just for their own sake, such as happiness, freedom, health, and the achievement of one’s potential. There are corresponding intrinsic evils too, such as all forms of pain or suffering. (Pain itself is intrinsically undesirable, even if it sometimes has positive consequences, such as getting me to let go of a hot Bunsen burner.) Similarly, what is rationally prudent for society is achieving goods and averting evils for society. Insofar as you see yourself as a part of a society, you are rationally required to be prudent for society, that is, to do good for it. This means that insofar as you’re living as part of society, you’re rationally required to be ethical. Rationally prudent behaviour for society is ethical behaviour, because as we’ve seen, one definition of the word ‘ethical’ is ‘doing good for society’. So as far as you’re commited to society you’re committed to being ethical.

An ethical or any other requirement of rational prudence we call a responsibility, as mentioned. So we can also say that insofar as you’re a social being you have a responsibility to promote social good. I think it’s fair to further say that insofar as you recognize your being part of a society, not a lone agent, thus far you will accept this inalienable social responsibility, and respond to it.

Intrinsic goods and evils are the two sides of human motivation, and so the two sides of the coin of ethics. Other people need these intrinsic goods or to avoid intrinsic evils just as much as you do, and from an objective (ie, not personally biased) viewpoint, all have an equal right to them. Likewise, there’s no unqualified objective reason dictating who has the responsibility to do any particular good thing. Well, if you’re walking past a pond and you see a child drowning, it is your responsibility to rescue them; but if you’re alone your responsibility is more acute than if there’s a crowd of people gathered around the pond.

In recognition of our instinctive sensibilities, our personal responsibility to people is traditionally acknowledged as being proportional to the closeness of our relationship to them. However, the responsibility to provide intrinsic goods, or to avert intrinsic evils, is not equally distributed, because the power to do good or avert evil is not equally distributed. If there is significant suffering and only you can stop it, then a certain amount of responsibility rests on you for that reason. Or, the more you can do good in peoples’ lives, the more you’re objectively required to do so. “With great power comes great responsibility” as Spider-Man’s uncle says in the first Spider-Man movie, and repeats in the rest – and with great power, higher responsibilities spin out too, including working out which possible ethical actions you are most rationally required to pursue. This means that thinking ethically is an inalienable ethical responsibility of the powerful – as Plato and his intellectual descendents well knew.

Superheroes have exceptional capacities to avert evils for fellow members of society, and the fact that their powers are so much greater than those of ordinary mortals means that they are effectively alone in their ability to act emphasises their responsibility still further. Therefore the topic of responsibility is something of a moral idée fixe in superhero stories, as it was in Greek tragedy, with its stories of kings and gods. People may more easily taste the essence of the ethical when it’s distilled through its most extreme tests, so, what are even the gods required to do as a response to the stormy circumstances of their dramatic lives and moods? In our secular culture, heroes from films and comic books ( ‘graphic novels’) take the place of the gods in expressing moral dilemmas and moral struggle. Thus, like a Greek tragedy, Watchmen poses the question, how are you going to act if you have great power but great moral weakness? One lesson of this modern myth is that to the wise, power is a source of sorrow.

A Clockwork Mélange

I’ve argued that each Watchman’s responsibility is inescapable in virtue of the good (=prevention of suffering/injustice) they know they alone can do. It’s clear in the film that they recognize this responsibility. It’s what they do with it which expresses their character. For instance, the man who will not compromise, Rorschach, sees himself as judge of all; but his righteousness is a channel for his hatred of humanity, including himself. This is a significantly misleading bias for a judge.

The (self-)righteous are not necessarily subtle of understanding. In good superhero tradition, none of the Watchmen show doubt, or even consideration, as they commit serial murders of the good and bad, shooting crowds, breaking necks, vapourising with a gesture, and so on. Naturally, they’re all mass murderers in the name of some higher ideal, such as justice, peace, freedom, morality. However, whether they use it for good or bad, it seems each Watchmen’s ultimate justification for their use of power is only that they have it.

Freedom from the considerable distractions of society’s expectations means the super-race have achieved Nietzsche’s dream, and become amoral, or beyond good and evil. (All conflicted superheroes are a footnote to Nietzsche in this way.) But equally significantly, none of the Watchmen are of a different species than those they watch over, so the lessons derivable from what they do in their personally complex situations can be said to be universally human too. Personalities and characters are stressed and stretched with every tough choice and action. Yet this is the situation of the powerful even in the real world; and so the Watchmen’s truths apply to our leaders also. And Watchmen takes pains to demonstrate that all the Watchmen are corrupted in very human ways by the options open to them and their lack of accountability. In an existentialist manner, the Watchmen are hurled without choice into very high levels of influence, and with this, into ‘great responsibility’; but despite their superhuman capabilities, they’re human, and they each have their share of authentically human personality defects. Like most of the ‘great historical figures’ who have had the power to sway the destiny of millions, the Watchmen are the sort of heroes you wouldn’t trust to do the babysitting. Even the ‘smartest man on the planet’ is arrogant, vain and aloof. He calls himself Ozymandias (= Rameses II), after the Shelley poem, and only feels kinship with Alexander the Great (Intellect ≠ Wisdom).

The most powerful son of the gods, Dr Manhattan, naked, blue, and shining with radiation, gains the ability to control reality at the quantum level: he can rearrange the physical universe to suit his imagination; and he can see the future a little, too. As he grows accustomed to being a godlike intellect, he becomes increasingly detached from human concerns, no longer making ethical decisions because organic life is ultimately just the falling of atoms in the void. As he asks Mrs Manhattan, aka the Silk Spectre, “Why would I want to save a world I no longer have a stake in?” Luckily for the world, Manhattan has an epiphany when he realizes his wife’s transcendent uniqueness, justifying his agreement to help save the humans from their final apocalypse with the sort of compliment which might be expected from a disinterested intellect: “To distil so specific a form from all that [universal subatomic] chaos, is like turning air into gold – a miracle.” The amazing thing, considering all the myriad possible paths and intricate twists a person’s history could have taken from conception onwards, is that this specific person is alive. Thus this pure intellect affirms the intrinsic value of people in their improbable uniqueness. And with the sublime value of the human race in his great mind, Dr Manhattan can’t avoid acknowledging his responsibility to stop its self-destruction.

Wheels Within Wheels

Comedian: We’re society’s only protection.

Night Owl: From what?

Comedian: From themselves.

Two ways in which history has been said to happen are the ‘Conspiracy’ versus the ‘Cock-up’ theories, but they’re both true, to different degrees. For instance, the world of the Watchmen is ready to take the nuclear suicide leap (cock-up), as a result of nuclear warmongering (conspiracy). It’s no abstract Rawlsian estate or happy hippy heaven in which the Watchmen have to make their decisions. In this alternative history version of the Cold War era, society, like hope, has decayed, and the Russians and Americans are lining their missiles up at each other increasingly pointedly.

Is human history the result of secret societies, or an accumulation of screw-ups? Human history is a lot more the result of accidents than it is the result of human design, if I’m any sound judge. Which option would you prefer to be true? Well, is there any appreciable difference between these views of history in terms of how much they might reassure us about our purpose or goals as a species? Sadly, I think conspiracies and cock-ups are both variants of the ‘We don’t know what we’re doing, but we’re going to carry on doing it until it stops working’ approach to public policy.

One intriguing aspect of the plot of Watchmen is the way it contrasts these two mechanisms of history as possible means of changing the future. The denouement involves a mass sacrifice – of someone else, naturally, but which no-one would be blasé about sullying their psyches with. The sacrifice is apparently necessary to achieve the great ideal of global peace. The only alternative to it is atomic annihilation, the supreme screw-up. So it seems a greater, more intricate conspiracy is necessary to prevent the accident of a dumber one.

The moral good must too often be the lesser of two evils, it seems. The deep question Watchmen asks concerning character is, would you want the sort of power where you frequently have to decide between two evils as a matter of inalienable responsibility? Perhaps it is better for your peace of mind to do what you can to avoid having to make these sort of hard choices.

Watchmen is an impressively precise depiction of the human condition as one of responsibility in spite of our often dubious human family character traits. It’s also, not unconnectedly, a meditation on the nature of free will and time – but I’ll leave you to piece those aspects of the film together.

The answer to Juvenal’s question seems to be that we all have to watch each other, but we especially have to watch the powerful, as the burden of their possibilities lies heavy on their weaknesses. And the more powerful people, or ideas, become, the more accountable they have to be, for our good and theirs. Only the most powerful can be the watchmen of all; but a society which watches its watchmen would hopefully be wise enough to ask if even the toughest decisions of the cleverest and strongest people are correct.

© Grant Bartley 2010

Grant is Assistant Editor of Philosophy Now. His book The Metarevolution is available as a free download. You can also order it in physical form from Amazon for only £8.99, or $17.99.


I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed.
And on the pedestal these words appear:
“My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!”
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.

Percy Bysshe Shelley, 1818

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