My wife and I love the Marvel movies. They’re always charming and fun, even if they aren’t profound. But the latest one, Avengers: Infinity War, was an exception. Don’t get me wrong, it was charming and fun. But it was also profound. It was possibly the most effective anti-utilitarian movie I have ever seen.
Spoiler warning: Plot summary ahead.
Avengers: Infinity War revolves around the character of Thanos and his personal quest to reduce the population of the universe by 50%. His adopted daughter Gamora describes this as a goal he has had for as long as she can remember. The film even shows a flashback scene where Thanos meets Gamora as a little girl and takes her in. His army invaded her city and divided the survivors randomly into two groups. While Thanos bonds with a young Gamora, his soldiers opened fire on one of the groups. The reason he pursues the incredibly powerful infinity stones is that if he gets all six of them, he can wipe out half of the universe with just a snap of his fingers.
Why would someone want to murder billions? Thanos explains his motives very clearly: There are too many people. The universe has limited resources. If we don’t kill some, it will be worse for all.
Gee, why does that sound so familiar?
I have heard the exact same argument to justify abortion, the slaughter of hundreds of thousands of innocent babies, countless times.
Utilitarianism holds that actions are morally right or wrong on the basis of whether or not they cause the greatest good for the greatest number of people. It’s a tempting worldview. It seems sensible because, like a broken clock, sometimes it gets the right answers. Bank robbery is wrong, and it causes more harm than good. Murder is wrong, and it causes more harm than good. Child abuse is wrong, and it causes more harm than good. Therefore, someone inclined towards utilitarianism reasons, perhaps what makes something morally right is that it causes more good than harm. But utilitarianism is an inconsistent system; it gets the right answers sometimes, and it clearly gets the wrong answers other times.
Here’s an example I often present to utilitarian pro-choice students:
Suppose a given person has a healthy heart, lung, kidneys, bone marrow, and blood. By kidnapping him, we could save five people or even more by distributing those body parts to other people that need them. Should we do it? Or what if it’s just one person that we can save, but it’s a more important person? Should we kill a homeless person if it means we can save, say, an important scientist?
That story has worked out great for me, but I’ll happily switch to using a story from one of the highest grossing films of all time. The next time I talk with a pro-choice student who asserts utilitarianism, here’s what I’m going to say:
Hey, you saw Avengers: Infinity War, right? What did you think of Thanos’ mass murder at the end of the movie? I think there are two major problems. One is that if someone had the infinity gauntlet, he could have dealt with the overpopulation problem another way. He went with a super simplistic and costly fix. Heck, he could have gone around creating new planets and resources, effectively increasing the universe’s supply instead of reducing the universe’s demand. But my bigger problem is that I think it’s just wrong. It’s wrong to murder some people to make the world better for the rest. Let’s even suppose for a minute that it would make the world better, which is highly suspicious. It’s evil to kill billions of people. What do you think?
One of the responses I suspect I will get is that the movie’s alternative to Thanos’ utilitarianism is Captain America’s mantra: “We don’t trade lives.” It’s simple, and it seems noble, but it’s also pretty foolish. I don’t think the filmmakers did this intentionally, but they actually made Thanos seem a bit more reasonable than he ought to because they made his alternative very weak. If this comes up, I will say:
I actually agree with you that Captain America’s mantra is foolish. It’s like a poorly thought out response to utilitarianism. The problem is that there are certain types of moral actions that can be thought of as trading lives, while other types of trading lives are immoral. For instance, as Vision pointed out in the movie, Captain America sacrificed himself at the end of his first movie. Captain America “traded his life” for thousands of others. When a soldier jumps on a grenade to save his friends, that’s trading lives, but in that case it’s clearly noble. On the other hand, if we murder a homeless person to save a rich person, that’s also trading lives but it’s evil. Trading lives is at least okay when the person who is going to die is willingly sacrificing themselves for others. Vision was right, they should have allowed him to sacrifice himself in order to prevent the murder of billions.
Granted, that case is a little more complicated because he needed Scarlet Witch to destroy the stone, but it isn’t different in a morally relevant way. It’s kind of like if you and I were both tied up in a room with other soldiers and someone threw a grenade into the room. You want to roll yourself onto the grenade to save everyone else, but you need me to help by giving you a push. In that case, I am helping you to willingly sacrifice your own life in order to save other people. The same would be true if they had agreed to have Scarlet Witch destroy the stone earlier in the movie. She would be helping Vision to willingly sacrifice his own life in order to save other people.
The film had an unfortunately simplistic representation of deontological ethics, but, nonetheless, I applaud Marvel for depicting the utilitarian struggle as well as they did. Unlike some of their previous villains, whose character traits extend as far as being scary and evil, Thanos is surprisingly sympathetic, and I’m glad he is. It makes the moral dilemma more relatable and accurate. Utilitarians struggle like Thanos struggles. They want to make the world a better place. They hate suffering and want to limit it. If the filmmakers had depicted utilitarians as secretly hateful monsters, that would have made for a significantly less interesting movie.
Thanos is relatable, and his motives are understandable. But he is also dead wrong. Whatever suffering and societal problems you may have in mind, the murder of billions is never the answer. Similarly, whatever suffering and societal problems can be prevented by abortion, killing innocent babies is never the answer.
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- Tweet: Utilitarianism is an inconsistent system; it gets the right answers sometimes, and it clearly gets the wrong answers other times.
- Tweet: Whatever suffering and societal problems you may have in mind, the murder of billions is never the answer. Similarly, whatever suffering and societal problems can be prevented by abortion, killing innocent babies is never the answer.
The post “Thanos Would Be Pro-Choice” originally appeared at the Equal Rights Institute blog. Subscribe to our email list with the form below and get a FREE gift. Click here to learn more about our pro-life apologetics course, “Equipped for Life: A Fresh Approach to Conversations About Abortion.”