A Philosopher's Blog

Superheroes, Robots and Killing

Posted in Metaphysics, Philosophy by Michael LaBossiere on July 22, 2013
Batman the Animated Series: Volume 4 DVD (from...

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Even as a kid watching cartoons, I noticed that while the superheroes and heroes never really hurt living opponents, they had no qualms about bashing intelligent machines to bits. While animation of this sort is rather more violent than when I was a kid, the superhero genre still has an interesting distinction between how intelligent living creatures are treated and how even intelligent machines are treated. For example, Batman might give the Joker a solid beat down during an episode of the famous Batman animated series but he certainly does not kill anyone. Anyone organic anyway. Intelligent machines, which are common fare in superhero animation, are routinely destroyed by the same heroes who are sworn to never take a life. As might be guessed, I’ve given this matter some thought.

One rather obvious basis for the difference is psychological (or even biological): while people are generally distressed and even sickened by images of maimed and dead humans (and animals), they generally do not have a similar visceral reaction to damaged or destroyed machines. So, Superman punching Lex Luthor’s head off in a bloody mess would impact viewers rather differently than Superman punching the head off a robot. Interestingly, animators do portray mechanical beings being sliced to pieces and “bleeding” (provided the “blood” is oil or some other non-blood fluid). For example, Samurai Jack featured rather “gory” battles in which slaughtered machines gushed streams of blood. Organic opponents were, of course, never dealt with in that manner.

It is easy enough to dismiss the distinction between the violence against humans (and other living things) and machines as being purely a matter of keeping the action at the appropriate rating for the intended audience. However, there does seem to be more to the matter than this.

In the case of living opponents, the superheroes are generally careful to simply subdue them (even when the villains are mere generic minions and not the valuable comic book properties that are the main villains like Poison Ivy or the Parasite) rather than killing them or even hurting them badly. This is presumably because the heroes regard excessively harming or killing people to be morally unacceptable.

However, even obviously intelligent machines are not given the same treatment—unless the machine is a valuable property (like Braniac) the machine is typically destroyed rather than subdued. Even the main villain machines are also subject to far more violence than the living opponents, even if they do come back in later episodes or issues.

As such, there is a strong indication of organicism—a bias in favor of organic life and an accompanying contempt for non-organic people. This, of course, might seem like an absurd thing to say, however it does seem to be a matter well worth considering since this bias does extend (at least in fiction) beyond the realm of comic book animation and into science-fiction.

The main point of concern is that the treatment of the entity is often based not on whether it is person or not but based on its composition.  As such, intelligent machines are treated as things despite the fact that they show the key attributes of being people. For example, they think and engage in meaningful speech. Since there are presumably no actual intelligent machines today, this matter is still confined to fiction. However, heroes seem rather less heroic when they causally destroy people simply because they happen to be mechanical rather than biological. After all, they are not acting in a consistent way towards all people—they are biased against mechanical people.

It might, of course, be contended that the machines that act like people in the shows are not actually people (in the context of the show, of course). That is, they are cleverly programmed to create the appearance of being intelligent, but are no more a person than is a gun or dump truck.

While this does have a certain appeal, there is the obvious concern of whether or not the heroes know this metaphysical fact about the fictional world. That is, that the heroes know that a human minion is a person while a seemingly intelligent machine minion that talks and fights as well as a human minion merely has the appearance of personhood.

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2 Responses

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  1. ajmacdonaldjr said, on July 22, 2013 at 9:35 am

    This is the theme of Philip K Dick’s book: Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? – http://www.amazon.com/Do-Androids-Dream-Electric-Sheep/dp/0345404475 and the film Blade Runner, which is based upon the book:

    Actress Mary Sean Young is internationally acclaimed – active from 1980 up till today – both on the silver screen and on television. Young has starred in over three dozen feature films, including such box office hits as Blade Runner, Dune, No Way Out, Ace Ventura Pet Detective, Cousins, Wall Street and many more. She has worked with directors such as Robert Altman, Harold Becker, David lynch, Carl Reiner, Ridley Scott, Joel Schumacher, Oliver Stone and Gus Van Sant. In this interview, she’ll discuss her films, the film industry and her own awakening into alternative topics and conspiracy. We’ll discuss secret agendas, mind control and the ruling elite.

  2. T. J. Babson said, on July 22, 2013 at 8:53 pm

    Interesting insight into our love-hate relationship with machines.

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