On Friday, the eagerly awaited sequel to Avengers: Infinity War will be released. This article nicely encapsulates the philosophical dilemma at the center of the films and is worth reading before seeing the movie:
"The Marvel Cinematic Universe’s latest entry, Avengers: Infinity War, raises a question familiar to hero stories — what is the worth of one life relative to many? — but avoids offering the usual easy answer. ... Early on, it becomes clear that Thanos has a few Infinity Stones, wants them all, and intends to wipe out half the living beings in the universe if he gets them. ... One of the Infinity Stones is in Vision’s head. But when he suggests that Scarlet Witch destroy it, and likely kill him in the process, Captain America says, “We don’t trade lives.” Within that one line of dialogue lies one of the oldest disputes in moral philosophy.
On one side, you have Captain America’s deontological perspective, typically associated with philosopher Immanuel Kant, which says (to, uh, simplify considerably) that every human being is an end in themselves, a basic moral unit due basic moral consideration, not a means to other ends. ... On the other side, you have Thanos’s utilitarian perspective, typically associated with philosophers Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill, which says that the goal should be the most good (happiness, well-being, utility, what have you) for the most people. The greater good, not the individual, is the primary moral consideration. Both these positions can be made to seem ridiculous if taken to their logical extremes. ... But both positions also appeal to some of our intuitions. And their contrasting attractions are drawn with particular clarity in Infinity War.
Thanos’s plan is fairly crude utilitarianism, but not so crude that it can be dismissed out of hand. As World War II showed in the US, Japan, and Germany, the aftermath of a mass casualty event can be a period of sustained economic growth. If Thanos succeeds, there will be half as many people, but (once they recover from their shock and grief, presumably) they will have access to twice as many resources and will end up twice as happy. Their children will be happier too. Over the succeeding few generations, the total amount of well-being in the universe will increase relative to the no-Thanos baseline. Of course, life being what it is, it would eventually overpopulate again and Thanos would have to do his thing again. But if he’s willing to cull every few centuries, he could theoretically achieve a gargantuan boost in net welfare over the fullness of time. He would be hated, but he would have produced more net utility than any being in history. He would be a utilitarian god! ... [Captain America is] such a Kantian that he can’t sacrifice Vision, even though it would have saved countless Wakandan lives even before Thanos snapped his fingers. He can’t sacrifice anyone else, even when they want to be sacrificed, even when it would obviously help. (He can sacrifice himself — more on that later — but that’s a different moral calculus.) This is a familiar tension in hero movies of all kinds: the dilemma of whether to sacrifice lives for the greater good."
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