One of the biggest questions asked since Infinity Wars has hit the theaters has been “Was Thanos right?” This question pits schools of philosophy against each other, and speaks to the psychology and motives of those who seek to change the world, supposedly for its own good.
So was he right or was he misguided?
Let’s exlore. [spoilers]
The Philosophical Debate
When the philosophy of ethics are debated, it is standard practice to evaluate an issue according to the two main schools of ethics, mainly those of Deontology and Utilitarianism. Deontology, simply put, is the ethical school that states that ethical decisions are those made by applying moral ideals, duties, and principles. What is ethical is what your morals say is right. Utilitarian ethics is the school that focuses on the effects of a decision. What is right in utilitarian ethics is what causes the greatest good for the greatest number of people.
Infinity War pits these two schools against each other. Captain America is the champion of the Deontological school. Early on, for instance, Vision offers himself for sacrifice to save the universe. He suspects that if Wanda uses her powers, she can break the mind stone and thwart Thanos’ plan without the need for anyone else dying, but he himself would die in the process. Captain American ardently refuses on moral grounds.
“We don’t trade lives.”
This statement and the logic of the decision made from it has been examined and criticized since the movie premiered, but the reasoning behind it is rooted in a moral principle he refuses to compromise on. The result of this deontologically rooted decision sets the stage for the climactic battle of the movie.
Thanos, on the other hand, is the avatar of Utilitarian ethics, specifically the sub-field referred to as lifeboat ethics. Lifeboat ethics specifically wrestles with situations of limited resources. Using the analogy of a lifeboat with a fixed number of seats and limited survival supplies, this school wrestles with the questions of who gets to be on the lifeboat, and who does not. In Infinity War, this is the philosophical argument that drives Thanos’ actions. Facing an environmental crisis due to overpopulation on his home moon, Thanos proposed cutting the moon’s population in half so that those left would have enough resources for survival. In his mind, there are twenty survivors in the sea, but only 10 seats/rations in the raft, and he feels that 10 must die so that the other 10 can live. In his twist, rather than argue who should deserve the privilege of living, he treats all people as truly equal and randomizes death so everyone has an equal chance at life.
This is the philosophical battle that lies behind the symbolic battle on the ground in Wakanda. The iconic scene where Captain America catches Thanos’ gauntleted hand was set to be the symbolic denoument of the philosophical battle between them. The pause itself was more a point of Thanos’ hesitation of belief in the face of Cap’s “argument.” There was no reason why, after all, that Cap could have stopped the hand of a being who was strong enough to treat the Hulk like a ragdoll. Thanos’ pause, instead, was a pause in his resolve as he faced this mere mortal who stood against him all out of deontological principle.
Those who argue that Thanos was right in his philosophy do so on the grounds of Utilitarianism, that the hard choice he makes will ultimately be best for the universe. Those who condemn Thanos do so on the Deontological principles that deem his killing as mass murder that is never ethical.
However, there is more to this question than just the question of philosophy. There are deeper issues that drive the question of what actions need to be taken to solve a problem, and these lie in the psychology of those making the choice.
The Psychology of the Choice
One of the biggest aspects of moral decision making that often gets overlooked, however, is that despite the philosophies utilized, research on ethical decision making shows that these decisions are often more made emotionally at first, and then are justified later. [Haidt, J. (2001). “The emotional dog and its rational tail: A social intuitionist approach to moral judgment.” Psychological Review, 108, 814-834.] Because of this, just discussing philosophy is never sufficient to examine a decision, you must also look at the emotional factors.
This blog has explored the personality types of the core Avengers team before, and how it has driven some of their conflicts. A good argument can be made that Thanos falls within the paranoid personality organization. A look into his backstory shows that he was ostracized from birth due to his physical disfigurement, setting him apart and socially isolating him. This set up for the sense of “badness” that he would have to choose to internalize or project within his own psyche. When his people were facing an environmental crisis due to overpopulation, he argued utilitarian lifeboat ethics, suggesting he kill have his home population. His people refused, and the planet collapsed. His response to this, however, was to become a world conqueror that would destroy half of the population of the worlds he conquered. He would boast of the utopias he created by this path, as if he was trying to prove that he was right all along, that had they let him , he would have been the savior of his home planet as well. This thinking style reflects the heart of those with a paranoid personality structure. They face their sense of badness by externalizing it. They aren’t the bad ones, the badness is the evil force outside of them, and they have to be the heroes to find and destroy it, and usually it is at any cost. This is what lies at the heart of Thanos’ motivation and why he clings to the Utilitarian school. If he can present the solution, he is no longer the outcast, but the savior, and he is willing to do anything to become that savior. (Cap’s depressive personality organization, however, causes him to internalize the badness, which made him more prone to attach to a external ideals and a deontological leaning, as well as hold other’s lives as being more important than his, so while he won’t sacrifice others, he won’t hesitate to sacrifice himself.)
This understanding of psychological motivation is important in arguing whether or not Thanos was right. Though a Utilitarian might argue that motivation is unimportant so long as the results serve the greater good, in actual practice, this motivation prevents a person from finding the solution that would actually serve the greater good for two very important reasons. First of all when one is motivated to be a savior, the goal of helping others is placed above the goal of solving the problem. The second reason is that in the real life, most big problems are too complex to solve by one individual’s actions.
With the first problem, that of the savior motivation, the issue that gets set up is one of priorities. If you are driven to prove yourself good and the other bad, your primary priority is the reinforcement of your status of savior. Because of this, when there are multiple solutions, and the better solution requires one to share glory in a way that sacrifices that savior recognition, they can’t accept it as contracts their primary goal. In short, they will surrender the more effective solution for the one solution of glory.
This feeds into the second issue, mainly that important solutions are so complex, that any simple solution will not be a long term effective solution. Large important problems exist because of a complex interaction of causes and require multifaceted interventions that rely on the dedicated work of a lot of people. As much as society likes quick fixes and prizes the unilateral actions of heroes (this is due to several intersecting motivations, some more noble than others, not solely due to everyone having a savior complex), such actions never cause stable solution. Backpacks that turn into tents won’t solve a housing crisis when there are complex social and political forces that would have the homeless arrested for even trying to use them. Nail polish that detects drugs won’t stop new drugs from being used or rapes that don’t rely on drugs, and do nothing to stop the fact that society continues to find ways to justify rape. Finding or creating a new miracle food crop won’t stop world hunger because the world actually overproduces and discards food as it is, and the miracle plant will get wasted because the problem of food access hasn’t been solved. While working in Africa, I saw several quick fix solutions come in and fail, and often the failure would leave the community worse off. And as the Film Theorists point out, Thanos’ quick fix would not work because he has not actually addressed the factors that lead to the overpopulation in the first place.
A real plan to save the universe would be one where you push the universe to save itself. In modern effective community development work, both domestic and abroad, effective interventions are developed in collaboration with the community itself. When I worked into the Peace Corps, we were taught to begin nothing for the first 3 months, and spend that time connecting to the community, identifying counterparts, and understanding the unique needs and barriers of the community. We were there to provide resources and technical knowledge, but for change to be stable, our goals had to be to empower the community to provide the real solutions. A plan to save the universe would have to be similar. Each world would have to be visited and worked with individually. This would take a lot of time, but a certain green gem would make sure that time were available.
What is interesting is that in the the movie itself, there is one person that takes this tactic, Dr. Strange. At first, Dr. Strange has a similar ethical battle where he and Tony Stark argued about destroying the time stone. Tony took the role of the Utilitarian while Dr. Strange took as stance involving the Deontological refusal to break his duty to protect the time stone. In his story arch, however, he struggled to balance the two as he ought to find the best possible plan to stop save the universe from Thanos. Rather than rely on his own beliefs and judgements, however, he consulted the time stone to help understand all the factors involved and built his intervention around what he learned. And in this final plan, he identified a counterpart, someone else who would lead the heroes to victory, even though he himself would be removed from the active role as a result. His motivation was primarily solution focused, and he chose the collaborative option that negated his own glory because that would lead to the best decision.
So in the end, the question of whether Thanos was right lies not in the philosophy used to justify his solution, but rather the psychology that drove him to choose that solution. Motivated to be a savior, he chose an overly simplistic solution that cut everyone else out of the glory. Thanos’ paranoid personality structure made him need a solution that put him in the superior position. He needed to have the answer that saved his people, and when they rejected him and died, he needed to prove that his solution was the best. In short, he needed to show everyone he knew better than them, and therefor was better than them, in opposition to the sense of badness he held. But in doing so, he chose the solution that would most likely fail in the long run. In the end, he was wrong, and wrong because he was driven to be the one knew best.