Watchmen and Philosophy 

How all ethical theories are flawed 

Watchmen is a philosophical movie which tackles the problem of ethics — which moral system is the best? Every single member of Watchmen each embodies a different moral system. If you adhere to any of these ethical theories the story should make you feel a bit skeptical and queasy, if only for a little while.

Walter Kovacs/Rorschach

Rorschach is a deontologist. Deontology says that we should not think of morality in terms of ends and means at all. The outcome doesn’t matter, what matters is doing the right thing. He lives by a strict code of ethics and strives for a world where others do the same.

“I will not compromise. Not even in the face of Armageddon”

Rorschach favorite maxim, is an echo of the deontologist’s slogan, “Let justice be done, though the heaven may fall”. Deontology goes beyond saying that the ends justify the means. It actually says that at least in moral decisions, you shouldn’t think in terms of ends and means, or consequences, at all. Once you start thinking about means and ends, you’ve left the realm of morality altogether, because you’re only thinking about how to get something you want, either for yourself or someone else. According to Immanuel Kant, morality begins with the good will. Anything else you might value in life; intelligence, strength, even happiness itself, can be used for evil. The only thing good, really, is the will to do good, the mental act that says, “I am going to do the right thing.”

“This rudderless world is not shaped by vague metaphysical forces. It is not God who kills the children. Not fate that butchers them or destiny that feeds them to the dogs. It’s us. Only us.”

Rorschach carries a terrific burden. He has seen the true face of the city. He has seen this world full of vermin for what it is: a cesspool of the wretched, each climbing over the back of his or her neighbor for nothing but one more trifling pleasure, to simply continue this pathetic life for one second, one minute, or one day longer. So, what do you do when confronted with such filth? Do you walk by and pretend there is no infestation? Do you focus only on the least repulsive and delude yourself into the belief that the world is good underneath it all? Or do you become an exterminator, stomping all the human cock- roaches you can while relentlessly pursuing the rest? You’ll never get them all, for they scurry to the shadows when the light is turned on. But you can get some; you can make a difference.

The mind of Rorschach is indeed a dark place, yet it’s ruled by a simple principle with a long and venerable heritage: evil must be punished. And it must be punished not because doing so makes the world a better place, but simply because it is evil and thus is deserving of punishment. Rorschach thus exemplifies the retributive theory of punishment. He maintains that wrongdoers must be punished for no other reason than that they did wrong; they deserve it. Likewise, the punishment they receive must be fitting. You don’t execute a petty thief and, some might argue, you don’t let murderers live or, for Rorschach at least, even multiple rapists. A retributivist dishes out just desert; you get what you deserve, and what you deserve is dictated by the heinousness of your deeds.
To some degree, we all desire retribution. We are all a little bit Rorschach. We all want to see wrongs righted and wicked people suffering. There is no shame in this, even if retribution often looks shameful. Rorschach, as is befitting his name, lets us see ourselves. Through him, we see our desire for justice pushed to its limits. With him, we see an uncompromising goal of meting out just deserts, its beauty and its horror.

What is Retributivism

  1. only the guilty are to be punished, that is, you punish someone only for a voluntary wrongdoing
  2. the punishment must be equivalent to the wickedness done
  3. the justification for punishing persons is that the return of suffering for wrong doing is itself morally good

“When you stare into the abyss, the abyss stares back into you”

But Rorschach is not a hero and his deontology is not Kant’s. Rorschach’s downfall is his obsessive dichotomous thinking, the mistake of looking at the world in black and white. Rorschach is thus guilty of committing a fallacy, a mistaken but very tempting way to reason. Veidt could at least see shades of gray, Rorschach is a simple dichotomous thinker. His initial attraction to the fabric he made his mask from, for instance, came from the fact that black and white never mixed. Rorschach seems to think that dichotomous thinking comes with deontology. All of his statements of deontological principles also say that he sees the world in black and white: “There is good and there is evil and evil must be punished, in the face of Armageddon I shall not compromise in this.”

Having absolute moral principles only works if you deal with entirely static situations that do not vary. But in real life, no situation is exactly the same, and almost anything is possible.

In the end, when everyone sides with Veidt’s selfish, mass-destructive scheme he feels betrayed! Horrified even! Despite saying that he was only Rorschach before, he willingly takes his mask off to Dr. Manhattan and reveals that he’s weeping! He’s distraught over the senseless massacre of so many unknowing people, especially perhaps since it was his own city. His request for death was due to his own despair; his allies complied with Veidt’s scenario, they had complied with killing people to “save” others. If they saw nothing wrong with allowing it to pass with millions of people dying, what did it ultimately matter if he or really ANY of them else had been sacrificed. He’s basically begging Dr. Manhattan to not treat him any differently than anyone else who was killed, reflecting his antipathy towards “status”. In the end, it was too terrible for him to even pretend that he wasn’t human .

Edward Blake/The Comedian

The Comedian is an absurdist and a nihilist. Absurdism is a philosophy stating that the efforts of humanity to find meaning in the universe will ultimately fail because no such meaning exists, at least in relation to humanity. I myself am an absurdist.

His name is The Comedian, as in it’s all a joke. He constantly says that there’s no point to anything.

By becoming The Comedian, Blake has recognize that the world is meaningless. However he is unable to affirm anything. Blake’s laughter is of the mocking sort, which denigrates, rather than celebrates. (Think here of the distinction between laughing with and laughing at. Yeasayer vs Naysayer) Although he has confronted nihilism, he is unable to move beyond it. This is what motivates his costumed career: unable to create, he instead takes pleasure in destruction, and being a superhero gives him license to do so. In Nietzsche’s words, The Comedian is a naysayer. The Comedian has swallowed the red pill(Matrix) but he remains stuck in the nihilism of the lion(Thus Spake Zarathustra — Three Metamorphoses).

“Once you realize what a joke everything is, being the Comedian is the only thing that makes sense”

The “joke” the comedian constantly refers to is that ultimately your actions do not matter, the universe is going to do what it wants.

“Once upon a time, in some out of the way corner of that universe which is dispersed into numberless twinkling solar systems, there was a star upon which clever beasts invented knowing. That was the most arrogant and mendacious minute of “world history,” but nevertheless, it was only a minute. After nature had drawn a few breaths, the star cooled and congealed, and the clever beasts had to die.” — Friedrich Nietzsche

Humans like to think the the universe revolves around them and that everything in the world was created by an all-loving god FOR them.

“The life of man is of no greater importance to the universe than that of an oyster” — David Hume

Adrian Veidt/Ozymandias

Veidt is an utilitarian or consequentialist . Utilitarian believes that all actions should be judged by their consequences, implying that the ends will sometimes justify the means. He is the kind of guy who, when he has to make a decision, carefully lists the pros and cons and goes with the option that has the most pros on balance.

Utilitarianism says that the proper course of action is the one that maximizes utility, usually defined as maximizing happiness and reducing suffering.

Unlike Rorschach, Veidt doesn’t deal with a world of black and white, of evil and good. Everything is gray, but some gray areas are darker than others. To do the right thing, Veidt simply chooses the lightest shade of gray.

“A world united in peace… there had to be sacrifice.”

The deeper harm that Utilitarianism seems to have brought, though, is letting Veidt believe that he can force people to sacrifice their well-being—indeed, their lives—for the greater good. Veidt thus fails to consider basic justice or fairness. Is it fair that the citizens of New York are forced to sacrifice their lives and sanity to end the Cold War, when no one else is asked to make such a sacrifice? The means for preventing this kind of unfairness is typically the doctrine of human rights, which tells us that there are some things the individual cannot be asked to do against his or her will, even if it is for the greater good. One of the most common criticisms of consequentialist doctrines such as utilitarianism is that they are unable to embrace a doctrine of universal human rights. And in Watchmen, we certainly see the consequences of failing to take the rights of New Yorkers seriously.

Jon Osterman/Doctor Manhattan

To me, if god really exist, then he must think like Dr. Manhattan. I wouldn’t say that Dr. Manhattan embodies any ethical system because morality simply doesn’t affect him. That being said, he has views on the human existence which are fascinating.

“In my opinion, the existence of life is a highly overrated phenomenon.”

My philosophy towards the value of the human life has always been consistent. It is overrated.

“A live body and a dead body contain the same number of particles. Structurally, there’s no discernible difference. Life and death are unquantifiable abstracts. Why should I be concerned?”

Dr. Manhattan is a materialist. A materialist rejects the idea of the immaterial and permanent soul. Materialism is the philosophical theory that matter is the only reality including consciousness. A materialist will say that consciousness is simply electrical signals interpreted by your brain.

“Who makes the world? Perhaps the world is not made. Perhaps nothing is made. Perhaps it simply is, has been, will always be there. A clock without a craftsman.”


If all ethical systems are flawed, how do I know which one to choose?

It’s easy! Watchmen was produced to open your eyes. To show you that there is no ONE absolute moral system that you have to subscribe to. Ignore everyone else who says that there is. We live in a postmodern world where there is no longer any need for religion and superstition. It is redundant, superfluous. “GOD IS DEAD” my friends, Nietzsche will say. Of course, Nietzsche didn’t literally mean that there was an actual God who was alive and now is not. Rather, what has died is the power of the belief in God to sustain a moral order. As science explains more and more of the natural world—including, especially, the origin and development of life—there remains less and less room for God. The idea of a personal, caring God who takes an interest in the affairs of humanity is simply no longer as compelling as it once was. The death of God leaves a void in the realm of morality and value: we no longer have a source of objective moral value or of order and purpose in the world. Therefore, it is up to us to fill the void ourselves.