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Rant #430
(published April 16, 2009)
What Happens When You Assume? (An Essay About Watchmen)
by Anastasios Manettas
Most people who read Alan Moore's Watchmen can view it as illustrating the debate between the two main schools of moral philosophy; where Rorschach represents Kantianism and Ozymandias represents Utilitarianism. However, when Rorschach's actions are examined rather than his words, it becomes evident that he is actually a Utilitarian. With Rorschach being a Utilitarian, yet still in opposition to Ozymandias, one can then see that what Ozymandias does to save the world is not utilitarian since his actions are based on a prediction while Rorschach's are based on a reaction. Significantly, this argues that preemptive violence is not justifiable, even under Utilitarianism, and this has implications concerning America's foreign policy.

The obvious interpretation entails that the debate at the end of the novel, where Rorschach wants to reveal to the public the true nature of the squid attack, is a playing out of the classic philosophical debate between its two major ethical schools. In this interpretation, Rorschach argues for Kantianism and Ozymandias argues for Utilitarianism. In Utilitarianism, the morally correct action is the action which leads to the best possible outcome for the greatest number of people. John Stewart Mill, the most famous Utilitarian philosopher, writes, "Actions are right in proportion as they tend to promote happiness, wrong as they tend to produce the reverse of happiness" (Sandel 17).

Utilitarianism focuses on the consequences of an action, and not on the action itself. Ozymandias exemplifies this philosophy when he says, "I engineered a monster. . . sent it to New York and killed half the city" (Moore XII.9.2) (for note on citation system, see foot of page). It seems as if he is arguing a Utilitarian position because he attempts to justify his actions based on the consequences. "All the countries are unified and pacified" (XII.20.3). Ozymandias does what he thinks will produce the best consequences and he justifies the squid attack using a Utilitarian perspective, so he seems to be a Utilitarian.

On the other hand, Rorschach opposes Ozymandias and appears to take the Kantian position. In Kantianism, actions themselves are judged and consequences are ignored. Kant, its founder, writes, "The moral worth of an action depends neither on the result expected from that action nor on any principle of action that has to borrow its motive from the expected result. . . "moral" consists therefore in nothing but the idea of the law in itself" (Kant 13). Kantianism deals strictly with moral laws, and good actions are only those in accordance with these laws regardless of their consequences. Rorschach talks like a Kantian for the entire duration of the novel and seems to embody this philosophy in his final confrontation with Ozymandias. He says, "Evil must be punished. People must be told" (Moore XII.23.5). Here, Rorschach wants to tell the truth despite the devastating consequences that lying would avoid. He seems to be countering Ozymandias' Utilitarian attitude with a Kantian one because he doesn't want to lie even though it will lead to a better result. However, there are several instances where Rorschach behaves like a Utilitarian despite talking like a Kantian. These instances do not fit with the obvious interpretation where he and Ozymandias epitomize the classic struggle within moral philosophy, so a new one is required.

One of these instances occurs when Rorschach confronts the woman who lied to the press about him making sexual advances to her. He inquires, "How much did they pay you to lie about me, whore?" (Moore X.6.5). The woman, who has her children in front of her, begs Rorschach not to punish her for the kids' sake. "Oh please, don't say that. Not in front of my kids. . . Please. . . They don't know" (X.6.5-6). If Rorschach were truly a Kantian, he would not consider the children in his decision of whether to punish her or not. In Kantianism, consequences are not considered, and the consideration of the children would be a consideration of consequences. However, he does consider them and goes along with her request. Without punishing the woman, and therefore not revealing to her children that she is a prostitute, he tells Nite Owl, "Got what we came here for. Finished here now. Let's go" (X.6.8). In this instance, as in others which include torturing innocent people, Rorschach is behaving like a Utilitarian. He considers the consequences of his actions when making moral decisions, instead of the action itself. To him, then ends justify the means even if the means aren't good actions. Even though a Kantian who abides by moral laws would have punished her regardless of the children, he does not so that they will not suffer. In this new interpretation, Rorschach is a Utilitarian.

The text supports this aspect of the new interpretation because Rorschach admires former U.S. President Harry Truman. He writes in his journal, "I like President Truman. . . He dropped the atom bomb on Japan and saved millions of lives...I think it was a good thing to drop the atomic bomb on Japan" (VI.End.3). Truman is an exemplary Utilitarian and the dropping of the atomic bomb in order to end World War II is a perfect example of Utilitarianism. Rorschach's approval of him, and the decision to drop the atomic bomb on innocent Japanese civilians, solidifies his status as a Utilitarian.

However, this new interpretation remains incomplete because while Rorschach is actually a Utilitarian, he still oddly opposes Ozymandias and disapproves of the squid attack. This opposition leads one to compare the motivations of Rorschach and Ozymandias. Under the new interpretation, Rorschach is a Utilitarian and his actions are based on a reaction to an actual event. This event is the murder of the Comedian. On the other hand, Ozymandias, who one initially views as a Utilitarian, is motivated by his prediction of mass destruction. Since Rorschach is a Utilitarian and yet disapproves of the squid attack, the squid attack must not be a Utilitarian action. Therefore, Ozymandias lies outside of the realm of conventional moral philosophy. He is neither Kantian nor Utilitarian. Based on a comparison to Rorschach, one can see that it is his motivation for acting which sets him apart. What Ozymandias does is not morally permissible under Utilitarianism because it is based on a prediction, not an actual event. This completes the new interpretation.

The text also supports this aspect of the new interpretation once The Tales of the Black Freighter is examined. The main character of this comic within the comic, the Davidstown man, closely parallels Ozymandias. The Davidstown man's goal is created by an assumption and he says, "Everything I loved, everything I lived for depended on my reaching Davidstown in advance of that terrible freighter" (V.9.1). Here he is assuming that the ship is headed towards his hometown to kill everyone he loves. The rest of his actions are done to prevent this assumption. In the same way, Ozymandias has assumed that the world is headed towards a nuclear holocaust and his squid attack is intended to stop this. The Davidstown man reveals, "The woman I strangled" (X.12.9), and Ozymandias kills millions with the squid. The Davidstown man and Ozymandias both kill innocent people to prevent their assumptions. Finally, the Davidstown man learns, "There'd been no plan to capture Davidstown" (XI.13.7). For his story to completely parallel Ozymandias', the squid attack must have been a vain effort as well. Therefore, Tales of the Black Freighter shows that what Ozymandias did was wrong because it was based on an assumption rather than an actual event. This is what exiles Ozymandias from the realm of Utilitarianism and constitutes the new interpretation.

Most people who read Watchmen view it as the debate between Kantianism and Utilitarianism where Rorschach and Ozymandias are representatives of their respective schools. However, an examination of Rorschach's actions reveals him to be a Utilitarian, yet still in opposition to Ozymandias. This fact, along with the Tales of the Black Freighter, shows that the squid attack is not justified under Utilitarianism and is therefore morally impermissible. Importantly, one can learn from this that preemptive violence is never justified, and Alan Moore warns against it. Unfortunately, America learned this lesson through experience rather than from Alan Moore's warning. The uncertainty about the future, panic, and perception of threat following the September 11 attacks led to a preemptive invasion of Iraq the same way those things led to the squid attack in Watchmen. Ultimately, this use of force resulted in one of the worst foreign policy disasters in America's history. Significant amounts of money and human life were lost needlessly. This invasion was based on an assumption similar to Ozymandias' and the Davidstown man's. In the future, America should heed Moore's warning and act more like Rorschach and Truman, basing Utilitarianism on reactions to actual events as opposed to the predictions and assumptions associated with preemptive action. Under Kantianism violence is never justified, and violence is only justified under Utilitarianism if it is a reaction to a certain event.

A Note on the citation system for Watchmen. This system was developed by Fritz Swanson at the University of Michigan. It is based on Biblical citations. In the Bible, we would cite Book.Chapter:Verse such that you might have (Gen.3:10) which would point you to The Book of Genesis, Chapter 3, Verse 10. Watchmen is regular in format, and printed identically across all editions, and so it lends itself to this kind of system. So, here, we can point to any moment in the book by citing Chapter.Page.Panel where the panel is enumerated from upper left (1) to lower right (usually 9). (XI.13.7) therefore points to Chapter 11, page 13, panel 7. Please enjoy using this citation system in all your future Watchmen essays.

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