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Watchmen and Philosophy

Watchmen raises a host of compelling philosophical questions. How do Ozymandias and Rorschach justify their actions? What are the political ramifications of the Comedian's work for the government? How do we explain the nature of Dr. Manhattan? And can a graphic novel be considered literature?

Whether you're reading Watchmen for the first time or have been a fan for more than twenty years, “Watchmen and Philosophy” will help you read deeper into the philosophical questions and the revolutionary story that changed comic fiction forever.

Recently, we had a chance to interview Mark D. White, editor and contributor of the book, which is part of a series of philosophy and pop culture books published by Wiley.

“Watchmen and Philosophy” is part of a series of books. For example, I believe there is a philosophy of Family Guy book?

Mark D. White: Yes, but it's not the philosophy “of.” That’s one distinction we really try to make clear with the books. It’s not the philosophy “of” something, it’s something and philosophy, in other words we’re using the something to introduce people to the basic concepts of philosophy. Certainly, we can’t do one with out touching on the other. We can’t use Watchmen to introduce philosophy without talking about the philosophy of Watchmen to some extent.

Watchmen and Philosophy

The books are not trying to... I’ve heard and I’ve read so many criticisms of the Batman book which I co-edited that say, “oh they didn’t totally talk about this aspect of Batman or that aspect of Batman”, But that wasn’t the point of the book. It wasn’t supposed to be the philosophy of Batman, it was supposed to use Batman to introduce people to different theories of ethics and identity and things like that, and touching, of course, on a lot of parts of the Batman mythos but not give a comprehensive coverage of the philosophy of Batman from A to Z.

How did the book come together? Do you solicit writers who have written on philosophy from the series in the past and ask them if they have read Watchmen and if they have any ideas for essay topics?

MW: That’s pretty much how it goes. We develop a plan for the book. We develop about a couple dozen sample chapter titles between myself and the series editor Bill Irwin, as well as the folks at Wiley, who are very pop culture savvy, and we issue a call for papers. This call for papers goes out to two main groups. The one is just posted to a lot of philosophy Web sites, philosophy listservs, and philosophy blogs, so we try to cast the net fairly widely. And we also send to past contributors to the series because, Someone who wrote for, let’s say, the Batman book — there’s going to certainly going to be some interest among that group for writing about Watchmen as well. Or people who didn’t write for Batman, but another pop culture book and that they are also interested in Watchmen. The nice thing about that is these chapters are written in a very specific style and it’s not natural for an academic philosopher to necessarily write in this style.

You wrote an essay entitled "The Virtues of Nite Owl's Potbelly." Is Nite Owl II your favorite Watchmen character? What made you choose Nite Owl as the focus of your essay?

MW: Well, he’s not my favorite character, necessarily, but I think he was a neglected character. Whenever people have discussions whether philosophical or otherwise about Watchmen the characters that usually get most the emphasis are Dr. Manhattan, Ozymandias, and Rorschach because they are most extreme characters. They are either extreme in their nature, like Dr. Manhattan, or are extreme in their actions, like Rorschach and Ozymandias, but Nite Owl is kind of this normal guy. I’m sure you know the characters in Watchmen were planned to be the Charlton characters that DC had acquired in the early 80’s. Nite Owl was based on the Ted Kord/Blue Beetle character. Blue Beetle was kind of like that, just a normal guy who had a lot of money, built himself a ship, had a suit, and just became an adventurer. That’s kind of what Nite Owl is, he never had aspirations to save the world (like Ozymandias), and he never had aspirations to cleanse the world of evil (like Rorschach). He was just out there trying to make the world a little better in so far as he could. I just thought that was really kind of nice. I mean the fact that he didn’t take it too far, he didn’t take it to extremes, and that’s why I discussed him through the lens of virtue ethics and one of the main tenets of virtue ethics is don’t take things to extremes. Find the comfortable Middle.

Pretty much the antithesis of the Rorschach character.

MW: Yes, or Ozymandias because they both take things too far. They both have their grand plans to save the world, and of course they do it in very opposite ways. But, Nite Owl never had that in his head or Silk Spectre for that matter. Silk Spectre is not really a separate case.

I noticed that there wasn't much written about Silk Spectre in the book.

MW: Well, there is the chapter written from the aspect from feminist philosophy about both the mother and daughter and how did they stand in respect to theories of feminism. There was that chapter but as far as the ethics chapters, they did focus on Ozymandias
and Rorschach, and I stuck in the chapter about Nite Owl too just to show that you don’t have to be so extreme or dedicated.

When I did the Batman book, Batman is usually portrayed as this one hundred and ten percent dedicated, devoted, driven often to the point of insanity to eradicate crime for Gotham City. That’s kind of the same model as Rorschach and Ozymandias. They both devote their lives to saving the world and Nite Owl just doesn’t do that. So, I kind of wanted to show that even though Ozymandias and Rorschach being the polar opposites ethically are interesting characters you don’t have to be that extreme to be an ethically interesting character or a noble character. Just in recognizing your limitations and doing the best that you can do with what you have is noble in it. You don’t have to push yourself to 110% devotion.

The one thing that really does stand out about Watchmen as a story is the fact that many of the characters are so extreme in their views of the world, and in the actions they take. Did you find that Watchmen had a lot more philosophical “meat” to chew on than some of the other titles in the series?

MW: Oh definitely, definitely. The genesis of this was when I finished up the Batman book. It was done in June and I handed it in Thanksgiving 2007 and I was emailing with the Wiley people, who are just fantastic, and I told them “Hey a Watchmen book would be great to do too. I just finished the Batman book, it was really fun, it was really interesting and I would like to do another one and Watchmen sounds great. Did you know there was a Watchmen movie coming out?” I am biased because Batman is my favorite character and so I had tons to say about Batman but I said, "Wow. If you want to look at a comic property that just has philosophy oozing out of the seams, it’s Watchmen."

Nte Owl II

That explains why you wrote the Nite Owl chapter because most people consider Nite Owl to be the Batman of Watchmen.

MW: I wouldn’t call Nite Owl the Batman of Watchmen — not really. I don’t really see a Batman in Watchmen. Like I said, that’s the analog, even if it’s not original to me, it's Blue Beetle or Green Arrow — another millionaire who decided to become a crime fighter. Iron Man to some extent. He had the accident in a war zone, his heart was damaged. He built the Iron Man suit to save his heart and he decided to use it to save the world. I have never found him to have that great of a moral obligation to do it. It was like he thought, "I have the money, I have the means, and I have the time. Why not try to make the world a better place?"

There are certainly similarities between Rorschach and Batman. Rorschach doesn’t have the self imposed moral limitations that Batman has of course, but Rorschach does have a messed up childhood, definitely in a different way of course. I thought the other day, Batman and Ozymandias have a bit in common too, the way they both push themselves to mental and physical perfection. So in way Batman is a combination of Ozymandias, Rorschach, and Nite Owl, and then some!

Rorschach is so extreme in his methodologies and has a "black and white" view of the world; virtually no shades of gray. That’s a strong dissimilarity to Batman who, like you said, has this moral compass behind everything he does. As your book states in many of its essays, Rorschach feels that if you’ve done wrong you need to be punished. That’s it; no exceptions.

MW: I think Batman shares a little on that point of view though. Just not as extreme. He doesn’t take it upon himself to punish the wrongdoers.

Yes, he always brings them to the Gotham Police or to Arkham Asylum.

MW: Right, he always wraps them up and puts a note on them. Of course he doesn’t leave them evidence; he doesn’t follow the rules of evidence. You have got to wonder if they could ever press a case against these people. Batman sees his role in strictly defined terms. He is going to help catch the criminals. He’s not going to try them; he’s not going to punish them. But Rorschach of course considers the criminal justice system to be broken and so he has to assume all those roles for himself. He’s more like the Punisher in Marvel Comics. He has taken upon himself to act as judge, jury, and executioner.

In reading the book I get the impression that most of the contributors seem to feel that Adrian Veidt’s end game — his plan — was a bad idea; it was a mistake and it was wrong. None of them really defend Veidt’s methods or feel that what he had done would definitely have brought about world peace.

MW: Yes, I guess so.

There is a good percentage of Watchmen fans who really feel that Veidt is the hero of the story and that what he did was the only option to prevent a full-scale nuclear war and the he ultimately ushered in an era of world peace. I found it odd that nobody really touched on whether or not Viedt could possibly have been correct in his actions.

MW: Yeah, I see why you say that, definitely.

Veidt pushed the button.

Maybe it’s just the nature of those who study philosophy. Is it just that in all the different tenets of philosophy there are no theories that can be laid down to make Veidt’s actions seem morally proper?

MW: No, absolutely. Utilitarianism does justify Veidt’s actions. I’m trying to remember the chapter; I think it's chapter five. It has Veidt and utilitarianism. Actually it is strange: an essay I wrote for the Batman book discusses just this issue and it relates to a thought experiment called the “Trolley Problem”. The basic idea is you’re standing on the side of a trolley track or a railroad track. You see the trolley coming down the track and there are five people on the trolley and you notice that about two blocks up ahead where the track is supposed to go over a bridge the bridge is out. So, if the trolley makes it to the bridge it’s going to fall off the bridge and the five people will die. But, there is a switch right next to you and you have the option to pull the switch which will divert the trolley to a different track and will save those five people, but there is one person standing on the track that will die and the question is do you pull the switch and save the five people but condemn that one person to death, or do nothing, letting the five people die, but not killing the one through your actions. That is one way to very simply represent the whole controversy behind Veidt. He wiped out three million people to save billions.

That's what many Watchmen fans will argue. Especially because of what Dr. Manhattan says at the end with, “nothing ever ends, Adrian”. I always felt that line referred to the cyclical nature of the world. You might be able to prevent a major war from happening in the next several years or several decades, but, politics and human nature will eventually rear its ugly head again and there can be no lasting world peace.

MW: That’s one of the criticisms of what Veidt did. There are many ways to criticize what Veidt did. One of them is to say that by doing that he may have set an even larger catastrophe in motion. But he didn’t know, you can’t plan for contingencies but that is where you could argue with Veidt - if you can’t account for contingencies, then why are you doing this?

Veidt didn’t watch enough Star Trek because he didn’t know about the "Prime Directive." It was a directive that Kirk would very often break but the other captains would think, "we can’t save those people because, for all we know, we’d be saving the next Hitler." Which is really the gist of your trolley problem. Is it not pulling the switch that is morally wrong, or is it pulling the switch? It is certainly a conundrum.

MW: You could teach a whole course around the trolley problem, there are so many dimensions to it. Another ethical approach to it is the general ethical principle, which doesn’t really come from one ethical system, it’s more of a kind of feeling, that you are more morally responsible for what you do than what you don’t do. In other words, if you kill someone by acting it is worse than letting someone die through inaction. So, the idea is if you’re standing at that switch you’re going to be thinking, "I could pull the switch but I am pulling the switch that ends that one person’s life." Or you can say, "I can just walk away, I never even saw it, I don’t have to be here, no one else is here, and no one else has to make this decision. I’ll just walk by and pretend I didn’t see it and I didn’t cause those five people to die. Whoever didn’t maintain the bridge caused the five people to die. It would happen whether I was here or not."

That’s what I used in the Batman essay I wrote “Why Doesn’t Batman kill the Joker?” If Batman killed the Joker think of how many lives he would save. But he refuses to. Just before I started writing that chapter in two separate Batman stories just months before, two different characters had asked Batman Why don’t you kill this guy, Think of all the people you would save, think of all the people you would have saved a few years ago, why don’t you. That’s how I introduce the trolley problem to say that this is what Batman faces.

The reason they usually give in the Batman books is he doesn’t want to become those he hunts. He doesn’t want to become as bad as the criminals he gets, but in the counter argument I would have to say “It’s not all about you Batman. It’s about all these people you could save”. But, in the end it is really about him and who he wants to be.

Rorschach

While you were writing and editing the book, was there anything that you discovered about Rorschach, Dr. Manhattan, or Ozymandias that surprised you?

MW: Yes, with Rorschach really. I think the people who read the chapters on Rorschach, mainly Rob Loftis’ chapter — it covers the ethics of Rorschach most comprehensively. Because Rorschach is a lot more complex than I ever thought reading through the book. Reading the book again before editing the chapters and going back and making sure they had the references right, checking what they said. It was like taking a course in Watchmen as far as I was concerned. It just helped me see things I’d never seen before. The one that surprised me the most was that Rorschach is not that cut and dried, black and white, fight evil beyond any cost kind of guy. He does take a lot of different perspectives within the book and Loftis points this out. The ethical system that usually supports those kind of right and wrong, black and white kind of judgments is called deontology.

One thing that Loftis points out through different quotations and descriptions of Rorschach’s actions in the book is that he makes his moral decisions on a lot of different grounds. He’s not purely a deontologist, he’s a utilitarian at times and he’s not very consistent through out the book. This is not necessarily saying a bad thing, because even moral philosophers who support a certain system of ethics don’t necessarily behave according to that all the time. I’ve read lots of essays trying to paint some public figure or politician as a utilitarian or a deontologist, but in the end they always end up saying he’s all of them or he’s none of them. That’s really how we all act. We don’t have strictly defined ethical moral codes in our heads. We have our judgments. We have our intuitions. Sometimes it’s going to look as if we are utilitarian and sometimes we will look like deontologists. None of us, or very few of us, are acting according to these long dead philosophers moral writings.

So, what Loftis points out is that Rorschach is a lot more complicated than someone who just wants to say that he is a deontologist. That really makes him a morally real character. I hate pulling this back to Batman, but that’s one thing you find in Batman too. It’s very hard to define Batman or his ethical behavior in two or three words.

Okay, so not taking into account the different judgments throughout the book, How does Mark D. White rate all the main heroes of Watchmen as far as the most moral or ethical to the least moral or ethical?

MW: Wow. Well personally I’m not a utilitarian so Ozymandias would be near the bottom. I think he leaves so many things out of his moral deliberations. Rorschach would be higher. Because I am a deontologist, I support that side of his decision making. But I don’t support everything he does in the name of deontology. I believe in a strong since of right and wrong so I share that with Rorschach. The Comedian — I’m not even going to count Comedian in that moral spectrum. I would put him even lower than Veidt. Veidt is at least trying to do the right thing even if I don’t agree with his idea of it. The Comedian I put down in the negative zone. Other characters like Nite Owl and Silk Spectre, they don’t have the maniacal, save the world, rid the world of evil, kind of goals. So it’s hard to really put them on the same scale. When you’re thinking of Rorschach or Ozymandias you’re thinking of both the extreme characters trying to save the world in their own way and which one do you like better. Nite Owl, Silk Spectre, and a lot of the old Minutemen they weren’t trying to be that. So, it’s hard to put them on the same scale.

The funny thing about Ozymandias and Rorschach is, you’re right — they are both trying to save the world their own way. But Ozymandias does it with one giant action where Rorschach does it the old fashioned way — one criminal at a time.

Right, it’s also kind of a scale like Superman versus Batman: Superman saves the world from alien invaders and Batman saves the world one step at a time from muggers and thieves.

So what else are readers going to find between the pages of this book?

Hooded Justice steps in.

MW: I just want to point out there’s a lot of chapters on different aspects other than ethics in the book. There’s the whole section of the metaphysics of Dr. Manhattan, because he’s the only truly super powered being in the book. He experiences time so differently. He experiences knowledge so differently. He looks at life so differently. So, we have a whole section in the book about the metaphysics of how do you understand Dr. Manhattan and how does he understand the world.

There’s a whole section on the whole theme of power in Watchmen. How do the heroes relate with the state. The whole idea of the Keane Act outlawing super hero activity.
The whole theme of “Who watches the Watchmen”. It deals with the dangers of having vigilantes running free doing what they want to and vesting too much power in unrestricted individuals.

There are chapters about the feminism angle with the two Silk Specters and also bringing in the attempted rape. There is a chapter about the closeted homosexuality of the Hooded Justice and Captain Metropolis.

There is a chapter discussing should we or can we consider Watchmen to be literature. It’s famously on Time 100 most important novels of the twentieth century list. Does it deserve to be there? If not, why not?

I mean the book covers a wider slate of philosophical topics than simply ethics, though that’s what I like to talk about the most. But, it does talk about a lot more than that.

The one thing I would like to note is that I read you bio at the end of the book and it said that you actually beat Adrian Veidt at a game of RISK... once.

He won’t admit it though.

Of course he won’t. One finally final question, how many times do you need to read Watchmen before picking up “Watchmen and Philosophy?”

There are a lot of people who are going to see the movie who never read the book. It’s hard for you and I to imagine, but there are people who are just going to see the movie. I would recommend they get Watchmen after seeing the movie. I’d want them to read Watchmen first. I was very careful when I was writing the back cover blurb; the introduction and everything to say that this is a companion to Watchmen so after you read Watchmen, read our book. Then go back and read Watchmen again.

And when your brain hurts a little bit too much then you pick up Dave Gibbons’ “Watching the Watchmen” to cleanse the palate.

Here’s an argument on the side of Watchmen being among the great works of literature. I can imagine I will read this book for the twentieth, thirtieth, or fortieth time and each time I’ll get more out of it. If it’s a great movie, a great piece of music, a great novel you get something new every time you read it and I think that’s true of Watchmen and if my book helps any one do that, then I’m happy.

What’s the next book in the series? Are you editing that one as well?

There are a lot of books coming out. “X-Men and Philosophy” is coming out in May. I did contribute a chapter to it but I didn’t edit it. The current book I’m working on is “Iron Man and Philosophy.” That will be out next year.

2.3.09 Source: WatchmenComicMovie.com

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