Bryan Caplan  

The Dumbest Thing Batman Ever Said

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Batman v. Superman: The Dawn of Justice isn't a great movie, but it does have one great teaching moment.  Batman is trying to get his hands on some Kryptonite.  Faithful butler Alfred wants to know why.  Batman's rationale:

Batman: He [Superman] has the power to wipe out the entire human race, and if we believe there's even a one percent chance that he is our enemy we have to take it as an absolute certainty... and we have to destroy him.

No one should be a utilitarian.  But from a utilitarian point of view, Batman's logic is superficially appealing: He can sacrifice one life to save 7 billion humans with 1% probability, for a net expectational gain of 69,999,999 lives.  Until, of course, you pause and reflect.  Consider the following utilitarian counter-arguments, in ascending order of quality.

1. Out-of-pocket cost.  Destroying Superman will burn immense resources, and utilitarians have to take these into account.  But if you do the math, this is a pretty weak objection: Even if it costs $7B - a hefty sum even for billionaire Bruce Wayne - standard value of life calculations say that's worth 1000 lives, leaving a net benefit of 69,998,999 lives.

2. Opportunity cost. Superman doesn't just have the power to destroy the world; he also has the power to save it.  If there's a 1.1% chance that Superman will one day save the world if Batman lets him live, that amply justifies living with a 1% risk that he'll one day destroy the the world.  And given the hazards of the DC Universe, the world is clearly safer with Superman than without him.

3. The self-fulfilling prophesy. Batman's colossal error, though, is to fail to ask the question, "What would ever lead a superhuman as nice as Superman to destroy mankind?"  And the most credible answer is: "If mankind tries to destroy Superman first."  Batman makes the classic hawk's error: Failing to consider the possibility that he's making enemies with his aggressive actions.  And when your putative enemy is Superman, that's an error of cosmic proportions.  The common-sense strategy, rather, is to bend over backward to keep Superman on humanity's side.

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COMMENTS (18 to date)
Musca writes:

While the justification for *destroying* Superman is incorrect, the logic is correct to justify having the *capability to destroy* him.

The same logic is used by intelligence services and militaries, for good reason: intentions can change on a whim, while capabilities cannot. Character, in other words, is not immutable.
For this reason, you should watch your nuclear-armed friends very closely, while your much-less-capable enemies may not be worth as much scrutiny.

Superman has deadly capabilities, which could cause devastation should he change his opinions, or even simply make an error. This alone justifies having countermeasures, even if you do not use them.

Robinson writes:

In response to Musca:

While the justification for *destroying* Superman is incorrect, the logic is correct to justify having the *capability to destroy* him.

...you should watch your nuclear-armed friends very closely, while your much-less-capable enemies may not be worth as much scrutiny.

Superman faces the same consideration- and therefore, In light of Caplan's point 3, having the capability to destroy Superman comes at a risk (that Superman will find out, and therefore treat Batman, and humanity, as an enemy).

There's another risk, which is if you stockpile ways to destroy Superman, another bad actor could get their hands on it. This is in fact the plot of the Tower of Babel JLA series, where Ra's Al Ghul steals the secret plans Batman has assembled for defeating the rest of the Justice League superheroes.

(More practically, this applies particularly to democratic governments, where it's always possible someone you disagree with will win the next election and gain the powers you'd acquired- such as Trump and the NSA).

Andrew_FL writes:

How much money do I have to pay to see Bryan Caplan debate Scott Sumner on Utilitarianism and, as a follow up question, where do I mail the check?

Andrew_FL writes:

@Robinson-

Superman faces the same consideration- and therefore, In light of Caplan's point 3, having the capability to destroy Superman comes at a risk (that Superman will find out, and therefore treat Batman, and humanity, as an enemy).

At the end of Justice League: Doom Superman actually entrusts Batman with the Kryptonite bullet Metallo attempted to kill him with, so, actually, Superman wouldn't do that. Ironic, both you and Batman have misjudged the Big Blue Boyscout's character.

CMOT writes:

Serious question for Bryan: what does Batman think about Superman that you don't think about big government/nationalism/libertarian bogeyman of the moment?

Yes, Superman is a person (in the fictional world of the movie) but he succeeds not just because he is strong, but because he is the personification of a set of ideas or ideals.

Of course, killing Superman the person would be murder, but how about killing the idea of an all powerful all knowing problem solver that can be trusted to never have negative side effects?

James writes:

Andrew_FL:

I get the impression that the disagreement between Sumner and Caplan is over something more foundational and logically prior to utilitarianism vs some alternative. Let me give you a summary of how the debate might go.

Caplan: If we accept utilitarianism, we have to accepts a bunch of absurd implications too. For example, a utilitarian must believe that if there had been a sufficiently large number of Jew hating Nazi's the Holocaust would have been morally good! In fact any event, no matter how depraved, can be a good thing in a utilitarian worldview, so long as there are enough people who find happiness in the knowledge of that event.

Sumner: If I were a moral realist trying to use utlitarianism to discover moral facts, I'd find that argument about Nazis troubling. But I don't believe in moral facts at all. I just believe that utilitarianism is the best available guidepost for making ethical decisions.

In other words, the utilitarianism Caplan rejects is not the same utilitarianism that Sumner claims.

Ben H. writes:

"How much money do I have to pay to see Bryan Caplan debate Scott Sumner on Utilitarianism and, as a follow up question, where do I mail the check?"

Me too!

mawendt writes:

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Edan Maor writes:

From a quick search, 1 in 3 seniors in the US die with Alzheimer's.

So this statement:

""What would ever lead a superhuman as nice as Superman to destroy mankind?" And the most credible answer is: "If mankind tries to destroy Superman first.""

Is not necessarily true. Superman could just come down with Alzheimer's (or some other disease that exists in his species), and wield immense power while being insane.

Here's a short story that develops the idea of trying to stop Superman because he's too powerful (remember that he can also see and hear *everything* he wants to without check - talk about a surveillance state):

https://www.fanfiction.net/s/10360716/1/The-Metropolitan-Man

baconbacon writes:
At the end of Justice League: Doom Superman actually entrusts Batman with the Kryptonite bullet Metallo attempted to kill him with, so, actually, Superman wouldn't do that. Ironic, both you and Batman have misjudged the Big Blue Boyscout's character.

There is a big difference between giving my friend $20, and finding out that my friend took $20 from my wallet, even if I had been willing to give him that amount had he asked. Batman seeking a way to stop superman on his own is very different from Superman entrusting Batman.

Scott Sumner writes:

Good post, but of course it's not a critique of utilitarianism, just an example of how we need to be thoughtful, regardless of our value system.

Andrew_FL writes:

@baconbacon-You're misunderstanding the context. Superman is entrusting Batman with the bullet after it has been established that the Legion of Doom's plans to kill the Justice League were derived from Batman's pre-existing plans. Meaning Superman is metaphorically entrusting Batman with the 20 dollars he just found out Batman took from his wallet-and worse, that Metallo subsequently took from Batman!

@Scott Sumner- "of course it's not a critique of utilitarianism"

I wasn't aware this was how critiques work, where if we dismiss the devastating takedowns of our ideas, we don't have to deal with them! Amazing!

J Mann writes:

Andrew_FL, with the exception of the link labeled "no one should be a utilitarian," Caplan's article isn't that Batman is mistaken in being a utilitarian, it's that Batman is bad at being a utilitarian.

Andrew_FL writes:

And with the exception of clouds, the sky is blue, what's your point?

Tom writes:

The self-fulfilling prophesy logic here is also why the Federation did not develop a cloaking device (except that one time...) But it's a slippery slope towards appeasement. Suppose Superman appropriates some large chunks of the South China Sea, do we reevaluate at that point? I wonder what the Federation's cloaking device breakout time was?

Lex writes:

Opportunity costs, indeed.
This has forever colored my perception of the Superman economy.

Sebastian H writes:

"I just believe that utilitarianism is the best available guidepost for making ethical decisions."

Utilitarianism just hides its principles one step further back in the analysis.

You still have to decide what 'best' means. You still have to decide which results are 'good' and which ones are 'bad'.

Floccina writes:

And what about the superman Anthropogenic Global Warming. Looks good so far but maybe there is a 1% chance that AGW will destroy mankind, but maybe there is a 1% chance that AGW will save mankind by preventing another ice age.

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