Superhero Ethics: The Duty To Rescue

Which is the cold, calculating, utilitarian face?

Which is the cold, calculating, utilitarian face?

In the new Superman film, Supie fails to rescue an important character in distress after the character requests that he allow him to perish.

Lawyer and superhero obsessive James Daily, co-author of “The Law and Superheroes” and the Law and the Multiverse blog, has taken to his keyboard to examine whether the transplanted Kryptonian had a legal duty to rescue the victim anyway.

His conclusion, and the law’s, is no. Daily writes,

“People are sometimes surprised to learn that, by default, there is no obligation under American law to help or rescue other people…Even “Good Samaritan” laws do not create an obligation to act as a Good Samaritan, but instead only encourage such acts of kindness by shielding some would-be rescuers from legal liability if they accidentally end up hurting rather than helping the victim. This “American rule” (not to be confused with the American rule for attorneys’ fees) applies even when a life could be saved with the most minimal of effort. As a result it has been called “morally repugnant” and “revolting to any moral sense,” but it is nonetheless the law in most states….”

That does not mean that Superman shouldn’t have rescued this individual anyway, especially since the reason for the proposed self-sacrifice is to benefit Superman. For the Man of Steel to acquiesce in what is an extreme example of utilitarianism, and dubious utilitarianism at that, is not super-ethics. OK, saving the life will make things a little harder for Superman (perhaps), but he’s Superman, for heaven’s sake. He’ll deal with it. Letting a human being die he could save because the victim argues, “It’s for your own good!” is just allowing someone else to make a bad decision for you.

Daily is right: Superman broke no law, and wouldn’t be civilly liable. Superheroes, however, are role models and thus are duty-bound to exhibit exemplary ethics, especially when the tights-clad vigilantes stand for “truth, justice, and the American way.” I’m disgusted with Kal-El, and boycotting the movie on principle.

You can read Daily’s whole piece here. Be warned that it reveals more about the situation, and thus the film, than I just did.


Pointer: ABA Journal

Source: Wired

Graphic: Comic Vine

Ethics Alarms attempts to give proper attribution and credit to all sources of facts, analysis and other assistance that go into its blog posts. If you are aware of one I missed, or believe your own work was used in any way without proper attribution, please contact me, Jack Marshall, at

12 thoughts on “Superhero Ethics: The Duty To Rescue

  1. Failing to save this person, when it helps Superman, would seem to be a conflict of interest for the Man of Steel, wouldn’t it?

  2. It is a real problem when the movie makers do not respect the ethics that make him Superman. It is what separates him from the more morally ambiguous characters. There are other solutions within that universe but they’d rather force that break than test it.

    Apparently destruction is their goal, and that has never been what Superman has been about. Even the darker Batman has a code against killing in the source material. Superman has always been the hero’s journey not nihilism. Reboots lately lose the spirit of what made it great,

  3. In addition to letting Jonathan Kent die there is some collateral damage that would put most any WMD to shame in this movie. The whole time Zod and Supe were trashing Metropolis I couldn’t help thinking, “take it outside boys.” Our hero could have lured Zod away for his required thrashing and spared at least a few leveled buildings.

    Superman of old was very focused on each individual victim. That is what set him apart from other superheroes – he can zip around fast enough to give that individual attention.

    Maybe he deserves a “first day on the job” pass this time and he will be more like the superman I expect in the sequel, after he has had time to reflect.

  4. But that point he wasnt Superman yet, he was still the teenage son of the Kents and had an obligation to obey his Father.

    The bigger betrayal of the Superman character is later in the film where he does something to Zod that Superman has never done.

    • Bill, your first sentence says what I have been thinking. That was my favorite scene, if not for any other reason than because it’s the one I remember best. There were a couple of memorable bullying scenes too. I don’t want to spoil the plot for anyone, but by the later scenes, I was so disappointed, I didn’t even notice what you say about Superman’s doing something to Zod. I guess there was foreshadowing of that, in how the young superman responded to the saloon bully, out in truck parking. But wasn’t that also exactly how “Clark” returned to the bully-in-the-diner, in the first Superman that starred Christopher Reeve? That troubled me then, too: Too much like Batman, not enough like Superman (even though Clark handed over some cash for the damages before walking out).

      • That scene of the teenage son obeying his father was memorable for another reason: The way everyone ran for the underpass, which is supposedly, despite terribly beguiling video evidence to the contrary, the WORST place to run for. Get away from cars, if you can: Yes. Go flatten yourself on the ground in the lowest spot you can get to, in whatever time you have: Yes. Go to the underpass, even if you have time: NO.

        • Thanks Bill. My first exposure to Superman was not the TV show of the 1950s or comic books, but a book, of what copyright year I do not know. In that book, near the end, he killed the bad guy, or at least, one of them.

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