Morality and the Man of Steel (Or How I Learned Right from Wrong Reading Superman).
It’s a good bet that if you ask most people where they get their moral values, the answer will have something to do with how they were raised and the values with which they were brought up. In the world that we deal with everyday, it can often be hard to determine what the right thing to do is in a given situation. Perhaps this is why many people find comfort in turning to a ready made code of moral conduct such as those belonging to most major religions around the world. Here in America, it’s a good bet that the ten commandments form the backbone of most people’s ideas about morality and values. Even so, a casual glance at the list will reveal to objective and open minded people that most of the commandments don’t deal with moral values, at least not those most would consider crucial in a progressive world striving for true equal rights and increased wellbeing for all people. Furthermore, those few (and I mean few) commandments which do deal with moral precepts, i.e. how we behave towards and treat others, didn’t originate with any one religion or culture but rather arose independently among countless ancient civilizations the world over, marking them as universal standards of human morality.
As a child I was never made to go to church, something I feel afforded me a more objective view of religion. Even from a young age, I recognized that the stories and rituals of the religion to which certain family members of mine belonged, in this case Catholicism, were part of a long tradition of myths passed down generations from distant ancestors who relied on those fables to make sense of and create a feeling of purpose in a terrifying world full of danger and uncertainty. In school we studied Greek and Roman Mythology, learning of the various gods and demi-gods of antiquity and how they interacted with the world of mortals. It was of course a given that these beings were simply characters in made up stories from bygone days, but it occurred to me that these same stories would have been treated as truth by the people of that age. Just like the ancestors who passed down stories in the Christian mythology, the stories of Greek and Roman mythology along with the myths of other ancient cultures were a way for those cultures to make sense of a frightening world and provide them with a set of rules and lessons to guide them through life.
Perhaps this awareness of the power and influence of mythology came from my early fascination with comic book superheroes. Much like the feats of Hercules, David or Samson, I thrilled to the exploits of costumed superheroes, chief among them Superman. Although I knew early on that he was fictional, I looked up to the character like he was a real flesh and blood hero. Instead of learning about the miracles and sacrifice of Jesus or the bravery of Moses or Noah, I poured over the heroics and adventures of Superman, the last son of Krypton. When I got older and learned deeper aspects of religion, I started to see how aspects of Superman’s origins paralleled stories from the Old and New Testament. Like a Science Fiction Moses, baby Kal-El had been put in a rocket powered basket of reeds and sent away from his parents to protect him from danger, in his case the destruction of Krypton rather than the onslaught of the Egyptians. Like Jesus, he had been sent to Earth by his father to be a savior and guide to inspire mankind, (although this varies from iteration to iteration.)
When I learned Superman’s creators were Jewish, it made sense that they would’ve taken influence from the traditional Judeo-Christian mythology of their upbringing much like many elements of Christ’s story were borrowed from earlier myths. Even without this same religious background, I was able to discern the fundamental moral core of the character through his stories. Superman has always represented the best parts of humanity, namely our ability to take what we’re good at, those things which distinguish us, and use them to try and make the world around us a better, more compassionate place for all people. There’s no doubt that much of Christianity, at least those parts based on the teachings of Jesus, aspires to this goal. The problem for me has always been that this aspiration in the context of Christianity is couched in the idea that we’re essentially sinful beings who must submit to the will of God. In Christianity (as well as the other Abrahamic faiths, Judaism and Islam), being a good person who tries to do good things for others simply because they’re good isn’t enough; you can be the kindest, most compassionate, most selfless person on earth and yet if you don’t believe in God and furthermore the right God (a veritable impossibility to ascertain given the conflicting and mutually unverifiable “truth” claims of most religions), these same religions say you’ll be sentenced to eternal damnation.
One of the many problems with this idea is that no one chooses what they believe or don’t believe. We either truly believe something or we don’t and what we believe or not has almost everything to do with where and how we were raised and what influences we were exposed to during our formative years. Therefore, gullible and unsuspecting people (mostly children) can be led to believe they’ll suffer unending torment for a lack of belief or even a questioning of a belief over which they have no control. If you’re at all in doubt about this, just do a quick mental exercise and think about your fundamental beliefs, whether belief in a God or some moral or personal viewpoint. Do you actively choose to believe these beliefs or did they just sort of align with who you are? Do they just instinctively feel right to you the same way that a particular food or piece of music or type of person just feels right or wrong to you? An examination of any core belief leads to the realization that we don’t choose our beliefs, we can only choose what we do with them.
The idea of eternal damnation for non-belief or the wrong belief has certainly created an incalculable amount of undeserved terror and suffering among good people, many of whom are innocent children too young to reason for themselves. It may be true that many religious doctrines aspire to make people act better, but historically, this has been done primarily through the use of fear, coercion and intimidation, if not outright violence. Although this certainly isn’t always true among individuals within a particular religion, religious institutions as a whole have employed these tactics and many far worse during the centuries when they wielded almost unlimited power. This is the central problem with morality derived solely from religion; as even a casual glance will reveal, several of the ten commandments (especially the first four) are nothing more than demands for blind and absolute allegiance to authority with no explanation of why breaking these commandments are bad simply within themselves. They contain nothing pertaining to the wellbeing or treatment of other people.
Even with those commandments which do speak of our behavior and attitude towards others, such as theft, perjury, infidelity and murder, the impression is that one shouldn’t commit these acts not so much because they cause harm to others but because God will punish you for acting this way. Some people might be tempted to say that God doesn’t want you to do these things because they cause harm to people, but I feel if that was the driving reason behind this, a truly benevolent God would’ve put the commandments against murder and theft at the top of the list rather than starting off with the commandments against worshipping other Gods or taking His name in vain, both intended solely for the purpose of not angering a Supreme being who for some reason is prone to such petty human emotions as jealousy. Additionally, I like to think a truly benevolent God would’ve outlawed acts such as rape, child abuse and slavery, three horrors along with outright genocide and blood sacrifice not just permitted by God throughout the Old Testament but often specifically ordered by him. Even the commandment to “honor thy father and thy mother” speaks to blind obedience rather than morality because it says nothing about honoring parents as being contingent on the way they care for their children.
It’s clear to see that the commandments are not truly a moral list but primarily a list designed to elicit blind obedience. If we still blindly followed the list to this day, we’d put to death people who work on the sabbath or say the Lord’s name in vain. Parents would be able to murder their kids simply for disobedience. Also, anyone who happens to worship another God besides the Hebrew God of the Old Testament simply as a result of where in the world they happened to be born are in for eternal suffering regardless of how good a person they are where it counts. Try to imagine what our economy would be like if people actually took seriously the commandment against coveting your neighbor’s property. Since coveting takes place in the mind, this means thoughts themselves are a crime. Marital fidelity and fidelity in general is regarded as a good idea among most rational people, assuming we’re talking about marriage between two consenting adults, but given that wives are included in the list of a neighbor’s goods not to be coveted, fidelity here really pertains to a man’s property, a terrifying idea. If we still blindly followed the ten commandments, it’s a sure bet we wouldn’t have laws against slavery, rape or domestic and child abuse. The fact that most countries now have laws against these and other heinous crimes not in the list shows that in determining these to be horribly immoral acts, we deferred to something beyond the commandments, a more universal scale of humanist ethics as they pertain to improved wellbeing and the mitigation of suffering.
For me, a character like Superman cuts through this Gordian moral knot by always doing what he feels is right simply because he feels in his heart that it’s right. He tries to help as many people as effectively as he can and inspire others to try for the same. Even when he’s been forced to take life, he’s only done so for the greater good and to prevent further loss of innocent lives. Obviously, we can’t all be expected to come to the same conclusion about what’s right as Superman, but the notion that the best way for people to do what’s right is through fear of eternal suffering or hope of reward is both insulting and, as our bloody history has shown us time again, simply erroneous based solely on the countless people persecuted and murdered in the name of religion. These tactics amount to a policy of doing right for the wrong reasons. The belief that fear of eternal punishment is the best way to enforce morality naturally begs the question; if it takes threats to get people to act good rather than a genuine belief in good for its own sake, then they aren’t truly good but rather are motivated solely by fear or hope of reward. Even if the use of these threats was the most effective moral motivator, a notion cast into serious doubt after a look at the crime/homicide rates in many of the world’s most religious countries, intellectually evolved beings such as ourselves shouldn’t remain hostage to barbarous fear tactics of an ancient and superstitious world. Our goal as a society should be endeavoring to do what is right solely for the right reasons, chiefly the goal of increased health and wellbeing among our fellow human beings.
Perhaps the main theme of Superman boils down to the golden rule, “Do unto others as you would have done to you.” Although often attributed to Christ, the sentiment it reflects predates Christianity and is found in countless other religions and philosophies, including Hinduism, Buddhism and Confucianism, to name a few. It’s clear that this concept eventually dawned on most ancient cultures, making it a universal concept not confined to any one religion. Perhaps it’s better to phrase the sentiment in the negative along the lines of “Don’t do to others what you wouldn’t want done to you.” The problem with the positive version is that what one person might want done to them might be very different from what another wants for themselves, but it goes without saying that nobody wants something done to them that they truly don’t want done, (unless you’ve been led to believe you’re a sinful creature deserving of pain). This notion contains the seeds of empathy, the idea of putting oneself in the place of another as a way to recognize our essential similarities. If it’s something you truly wouldn’t want done to you, that which causes real pain or harm, whether physical or mental and diminishes your happiness or wellbeing, it’s a safe bet that someone else doesn’t want it either.
Admiring a character like Superman provided me with a moral compass containing many of the same core values as that of many people, religious or not, values like empathy, respect and always trying to do what I feel is right to increase in even small ways the wellbeing of others. Of course like anyone else, I’ve had my share of moral lapses and have done things I felt were wrong like lying, but I usually feel bad about these, not because they violate the rules of some deity but because I wouldn’t want it done to me. The distinction here is that this desire to try and do good and rise above my worst, most self serving impulses isn’t driven by wanting to win points with a celestial ruler. I aspire to be judged and defined by my intentions and actions and their effect on others, not personal beliefs over which I have no control. This is why the values of Superman are universal, inclusive and fundamentally human. They transcend race, religion, tribalism, nationalism and any other ism which threatens to divide us and instead speak to the best parts of us all. There’s no iron clad dogma or absolutist commandments to unquestioningly obey, no fear of unending punishment for certain thoughts or a lack of belief; there’s only a genuine effort to try and help people however one can and a sincere hope in the potential of all people to be a force for good and kindness in this world.