The philosophy of superheroes

no picture UNESCO Youth
Member since March 16, 2017
  • 11 Posts

Many aspiring young leaders or change-makers were first inspired to try and make a difference in the world after they read the Harry Potter series, Lord of the Rings or watched superhero films. Because of this, I believe fictional characters can be an incredibly exciting way to connect youth with philosophy by using the characters as examples of philosophical concepts. I think superheroes, specifically, can be used very effectively to educate youth about philosophy.

I have always been a huge superhero fan and believe superheroes serve a significant role in our society. Especially in a growingly cynical world, superheroes are beacons of hope and markers of morality. They give us ideals to strive towards and are often our first role models. I started looking up to Superman specifically because of his values of truth and justice and also because his story represents that of the immigrant or refugee. He was sent to another world for a better life and had to balance a local identity with a foreign heritage like many newcomers do.

Now, we can’t all have superpowers, but each of us can try and live up to the values and morality of our heroes. Superheroes reflect what is outlined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights—like life, liberty and personal security. And their virtuous actions and moral lessons exemplify what is studied in philosophy. When I came across a series of books online on the philosophy of superheroes, including Superman, Wonder-Woman, Spiderman, Batman, The Avengers and many more—I was very interested.

Last summer, I read Superman and Philosophy: What Would the Man of Steel Do? The book breaks down the values and actions of Superman into philosophical concepts. Essentially, it used philosophy to teach you how to think like a superhero does. It ended up being an extraordinary read that provided unbelievable examples in moral philosophy and ethics. Using scenes from comic books or movies where Superman has to make a tough decision or is challenged somehow, I learnt about Utilitarianism which emphasized how we need to live in such a way that will maximize the amount of good in our world. I read about Deontology and how we should do things because they are morally right. And I learnt about Virtue Ethics which explains how we think about what a virtuous person would do in a certain situation where the right decision needs to be made. I learnt about how we can use philosophy to become more responsible, to do the right thing and maximize the amount of good that exists in this world. When I read the Superman book, the lessons I had learnt in my philosophy classes at school became much more vivid. I could apply the theories and ideas I had learnt in philosophy to one of my fictional heroes.

I wish I had been exposed to philosophy at an earlier age as it would have helped me make better choices and have a better idea of what was the more responsible or just course of action in a lot of situations. Because, sometimes, especially as a young person or a leader in a complex new situation, making tough decisions with larger consequences can be a challenge. During our lives in general, doing the right thing is not always as clear as choosing to save a cat from a tree. It’s obvious that saving a cat is the thing we ought to do. I’ve met youth who put a project on hold to address another issue in their community that took priority. I knew one youth who gave up a government position she always wanted because the decisions being made there went against her own principles. Another stopped working on an initiative to address issues in their personal life with the plan of returning to it a better and healthier person. Sometimes we have to compromise and make sacrifices or other times we have to dig our feet into the ground and stand firmly for what we believe in. These were not easy decisions. Young people face these kinds of dilemmas all the time and philosophy can aid all of us in making the right choices. Superheroes are also constantly challenged with dilemmas too, like when the Joker forces Batman to decide who to save first in the Dark Knight or when Superman has to decide whether he wants to save a group of people or adhere to one of his unbroken principals in Man of Steel. Today, young people across the world are doing great things on enormous scales and holding incredible positions like never before and truly making a difference in the world. I’ve been humbled to meet many inspiring young people over the last year and they’ve given me hope in the same way superheroes do.

Superheroes represent the capability of each and every person to be virtuous and can teach us what we ought to do. They will always be there on screen or on the pages inspiring us to keep fighting for the rights outlined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights 70 years later. As Superman once said, “On my soul, I swear until my dream of a world where dignity, honour and justice becomes the reality we all share -- I'll never stop fighting.” We don’t all have the natural ethical reasoning of Superman and we’re going to make mistakes or make the wrong decisions sometimes. But a knowledge in moral philosophy can help all of us all in our quest to fight for these values and make decisions like our favourite superheroes. Philosophy not only makes us better people, it makes us better leaders.

- Jeremiah Ellis, founder of the World Mosaïc Project and speaker at UNESCO's World Philosophy Day #Youth4Philo.

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