The Last Son of Krypton: Superman as the Metaphorical Embodiment of Kant’s Categorical Imperative.


As a student of philosophy I have asked many time what is the practicality of my discipline and how I might apply it to the concrete world? This is a reasonable inquiry for the layman who sees a discipline so esoteric and obtuse that it defies understanding on the practical level. Many times philosophers have to resort to breaking down the concepts for those not in the discipline for the non-philosophers to understand the conceptual erudition that goes on in philosophy. Also, if the philosophers are unable to conceptualize philosophical concepts in such a way that the layman is able to understand them than on a practical level the philosophical concept is nothing more than flotsam and jetsam on the theoretical ocean. This is where characters such as Superman, Batman, or Wonder Woman may be used to deconstruct philosophical concepts and show the uninitiated reader how these concepts would work on a practical level. If we are to examine philosophy for its practical uses and how those uses might be distributed to the general population, what better way than using comic book superheroes to help with this distribution.

One of the most complex of all philosophers in the Western tradition is the Enlightenment philosopher, Immanuel Kant.  His various critiques set forth complex propositions that sought to reconcile several schools of opposing philosophy. There is no doubt Kant is easily one of the most complex thinkers to rise in the Western tradition. However, that does not mean he is indecipherable and closed off from practical understanding. One of Kant’s most important ideas is the “categorical imperative” which appears in two of his works: first in Fundamental Principles of the Metaphysic of Morals and later in Critque of Practical Reason. Both in which he creates a dense, complex argument for the treatment of fellow humans. Although these ideas are our complex and usually left to philosophers to decipher, they need not be. We need only look to Siegel and Shuster’s Kryptonian immigrant as an inspiration and metaphorical example of Kant’s “categorical imperative”  and should be used as an example of how easy it is to integrate philosophy into a practical and moral conceptual framework.

Due to his earthly parents’ inspiration Superman is a being who considers that he should do what is honorable because he has the potential to do so. Because Superman always selects to do the right thing no matter the costs, he is cast in the part as an inspirer. He is unassuming and does not believe his astonishing capacity gives him the right to be more than he should be. He realizes it is not his physical capacities that make others admire him  but it is his desire to do good and make life better for those around him. He sees his role as protector because he has the power to do things others cannot. In Alex Ross’s Kingdom Come, The Spectre foretells an Armageddon caused by all the Metahumans because Superman withdrew from public life. The Spectre declares to Norman McCay, a pastor the Spectre compels to travel with him, “Those who, a decade previous, felt the crush of Superman’s greatest and most necessary failing… His inability to perceive himself as the inspiration he is.”  (Ross and Waid 33) This is Superman’s real capability and the basis for  his endurance for over 70 years and why he achieved icon and cultural archetypes standing. Superman is the American “everyman.” He believes in hard work and doing the most with the abilities you are given. There are comic book critics who would assign Superman a godlike status, and there is an element of truth to this statement; however, if we were to ask Superman/Clark Kent, he would reply that he is merely a man who is gifted and he chooses to use these skills for honesty and ask us why we should see him as the metaphorical embodiment of Kant’s categorical imperative.

Before we can ground  Kant’s moral philosophy, we need to determine if the Last Son of Krypton is worthy to be considered the modern metaphorical embodiment of the “categorical imperative,” and  we must allow Kant to first decide what is commonly called the “paradox of freedom.” The paradox focuses the obvious inconsistency between one’s sense of sovereignty, a who person considers that he is the source of his own acts, and the apparent universal axiom of causality that infuses nature. Such as a rock has no choice about falling off a precipice; whether it does or does not is controlled by intricate but determinate natural laws. Insofar as humans are part of the same physical world, there seems no good motive to prohibit them from the same requirement. Kant solves this conundrum by referring, once again, to his transcendental philosophy. He says that if we  consider the problem empirically, humans are indeed part of the physical world and therefore not free. However, if considered transcendentally, that is, “considered as objects in themselves,” separate from the world of appearances, they are free. We might justifiably asked how this does not oppose Kant’s own principles, according to which such “noumenal knowledge,” understanding of things as they are, is impossible. Kant has no answer to this protest, but without human autonomy, his moral system, or any moral system, is unmanageable.

Supposing that this last, step is effective, Kant goes on to conclude the substance of the “moral law.” For Kant, the “moral law” is based on the concept of autonomy.  What differentiates people from the rest of reality is the will and, more specifically, the” rational will;” for Kant, to be unrestricted is nothing more than to be able to obey one’s sense. Rocks, plants, and animals all obey natural laws of causation, even if they are inconceivably multifaceted rules. Humans, however, are free from this necessity, and this freedom or autonomy is what gives them their intrinsic dignity and ethical substance. The specific kind of logic which is relevant to the good life is what is called “practical reason”. “Practical reasoning,” Kant contends, is just as characteristic to human nature as the unity of apperception; not only do humans experience, they also see the world as a “field of action.” Practical reason is what directs humans as to what they ought to do. Now, the ethical law, Kant considers, should flow decisively from practical reason; if it is contaminated with separate requirements and conditions, one is no longer free. One must be committed to reason alone.

When Kant says “I ought never to act except in such a way that I could also will that my maxim should become a universal law.” (Kant, Fundamental Principles of the Metaphysic of Morals) he distinguishes two different kinds of imperative or “ought” statements. There are hypothetical imperatives which place some state or requirement on their imperative. For example, one might say “If you want to make a lot of money, you should go to school.” This declaration may or may not be true, but it certainly does not apply to a person who is not concerned in making a lot of money. A categorical imperative, on the other hand, is completely unqualified; it is a “ought” statement which applies equally to every conceivable actor: “You should not steal.” Kant believed that at the origin of all morality, there was a lone categorical imperative, though he delivered several interpretations for it. The first formulation is that one ought to act in a way that is always consistent with a universal law. In other words, one should not act in such a way that he would not want others acting. The next formulation of the categorical imperative, professed to be derivative from the first, is that one must treat people always as ends and never as means. That is, one cannot just use other individuals to fulfill their own objectives, with no reverence for the fact that they have aims of their own as well. The third formulation, comparable to the first, asserts that one should always act as if his actions were establishing some rule that the rest of civilization had to follow.

From this foundation, Kant is able to grow a ethical law that is more or less in agreement with “common sense.” It forbids such anti-social actions as homicide, robbery, and rape because such things are not consistent a “universal law” and view other individuals as means and not ends. Kant’s moral system, however, does challenge “common sense” in some areas. Particularly, he has a peculiar way of handling the problem of emotions. Kant believed that an act is good only if it is opposing to one’s proclivities; to merely act in agreement with one’s wishes is a submission of autonomy and, therefore, not a uninhibited act. It is not corrupt, but simply nonaligned act. The only ethically worthwhile acts are those which are done in harmony with obligations divergent to one’s proclivity. Thus, an accomplishment is only worthy insofar as it is demanding.

If we scrutinize the superhero genre as a entirety, we find that collectively the hero/superhero allows himself/herself to be subjugated to a higher ethical vocation. In the article “The Definition of the Superhero” by Peter Coogan, he cites the court case National Publication, later to become DC Comics, brought against Fox Publications in 1940 where Judge Learned Hand defined the superhero as

(a) heroic character with a selfless, pro-social mission; with superpowers — extraordinary abilities, advanced technology, or highly developed physical, mental, or mysterious skills; who has a superhero I dandy embodied by a codename and the iconic costume, which typically express his biography, character, powers, or origin(transformation from ordinary person to superhero): and who is generically distinct, i. e. can be distinguished from characters of related genres (fantasy, science fiction, detective, etc.) by a preponderance of generic conventions. Often superheroes have dual identities, the ordinary one of which is usually a closely guarded secret.

(Coogan, The Definition of the Superhero 77)

This successfully expresses the superhero archetype in a cultural framework where the superhero is subjugated due to their obligation to society to use their amazing facilities for the betterment of mankind. Anybody who has seen the first Spiderman movie, directed by Sam Raimi, will recognize the creed Uncle Ben Parker gave to young Peter Parker/Spiderman. Uncle Ben said, “with great power comes great responsibility.” This defines the superhero archetype as the individual who is willing to use their gifts not in a selfish way but as a person who recognizes they are to affect change in the world and be an inspiration to those without power. This is Superman’s primary strength as an icon and why he has remained relevant as an icon and an archetype for the superhero for almost 70 years.

It is the selfless duty that Superman possesses and is his greatest means of inspiring others. If we examine H. J. Paton’s book  The Categorical Imperative: A Study in Kant’s Moral Philosophy in which he seeks to examine the Kantian categorical imperative as a means to ground moral philosophy, we find in Chapter 3 where he discusses duty he states,

Our concern, however, is not with a holy will, but with a good will under human conditions and therefore a will which acts for the sake of duty. Hence the phrase ‘under human conditions’–which it would be tedious to repeat–must be read into many of our sentences; but this must not lead us to forget that much, if not most, of what we say is not to be taken as true of all good wills without exception.  (Paton 46)

It is this human condition that Superman is inherently tied to because of his Kryptonian heritage, immigrant status, his earthly parents who instilled in him the concept of duty and sacrifice, and his unique status on the planet Earth.  According to Paton, Kant distinguishes between three types of action with a third of these actions breaking away from the animal instinct of self-interest toward something that is good and just. As Paton states, Superman might act “not for an immediate inclination or self-interest, but for the sake of duty”  (Paton 47) Superman could just as easily indulge his baser instincts and act in self-interest but he was not because he understands that his power implies that it was given to him for a purpose beyond baser ideals.

To illustrate Superman as the embodiment of Kant’s categorical imperative we need to examine the recent animated short called Superman/Shazam!: The Return of Black Adam. In the film a young 10 year old named Billy Batson lives in a rundown slum with almost no food for him and his pet rats. As the film progresses Billy gets out of bed and put some a T-shirt bearing the Superman crest. This should indicate to the audience that Billy admires Superman. (For those who are unaware who Billy Batson really is in the comic book world, he is Capt. Marvel. Capt. Marvel was a property of Fox publications in the primary reason for litigation between National Publications And Fox Publications because National Publications felt that Capt. Marvel was infringing on the Superman copyright. ) When Billy leaves his rundown apartment to have breakfast with Clark Kent, he runs into a group of bullies robbing a homeless man. In an attempt to save a homeless man Billy is beaten up by the bullies but is rewarded by the homeless man with a subway token. It is when Billy meets Clark at the diner do we understand why we should see Superman as the embodiment of the Kant categorical imperative. Clark buys Billy breakfast and Billy relates the story of what happened in the alley with the bullies and how he got his black eye. Billy states that he tries to be good to matter what it is not help him in life. Clark’s reply is being good is hard but the reward for being good is a reward itself. At this time Black Adam attacks and a battle ensues between Superman and Black Adam. Because Black Adam’s powers are magic-based Superman is particularly vulnerable to them and he is being hurt severely by Black Adam’s power. At this time Superman could just leave. He has the power to do so but he stays to protect Billy even at the peril of his own life. Superman feels a duty to protect life no matter the cost to him. Some critics will say that because Superman is so powerful that this is no real threat and his actions are not in embodiment of any moral action. I will also point out that any such critic is not a comic book reader and does not understand the full extent of Superman’s vulnerability to magic. He is more susceptible to magic because Kryptonians are from a world where there is no magic. Is the simple fact that he stays and fights a villain who has the ability to kill him because he feels a duty to another sentient being that makes it a ethical act.

During the fight between Superman, Capt. Marvel, and Black Adam, Black Adam rips a woman from a car and holds her by the neck revealing to Billy Batson/Capt. Marvel the reason why he is Black Adam and chose to stay in his powerful form that he got when he said the magic word “Shazam!.” He said the power changed him; made him realize he was far above regular humans and God like. In other words he is indulging his baser instinct and not acting according to a higher moral calling of duty for which the power should be drawing him toward. He is the antithesis to Superman because of this indulgence of the baser instincts. And Black Adam says if Billy does not revert back to his mortal form he will crush the woman like “ant.” At which time Billy says the magic word and reverts back to a child although he knew this would be his death it was Superman’s inspiration that drew Billy to this selfless act in an attempt to save the woman, whom he did not know, from death at the hands of Black Adam. At this point being the villain he truly is, Black Adam throws the woman over a skyscraper and grabs Billy by the mouth so he may not say shazam! again. Although Superman had been off saving the city from one of the many catastrophes set up by Black Adam in an attempt to separate Superman and Capt. Marvel from each other, Superman returns carrying the one Black Adam had thrown over the skyscraper and distracting him long enough for Billy to revert back to Capt. Marvel. Filled with rage Billy begins to beat Black Adam into submission with the thought of ending the threat of Black Adam forever. Once again, Superman reminds Billy/Capt. Marvel that being good is hard and that the murder of Black Adam will serve no purpose other than to corrupt him.

Superman’s mission can be stated in one simple concept. He believes that if you have the means and the power that you must use those means as a tool to help humanity and not further yourself. As Peter Coogan states in his seminal work on the superhero genre he takes a quote from the DC comic arc called Final Night in which Robin and the Spoiler flight in a building with looters and it collapses on them from the weight of the snow and the ferocity of the fight. Putin states, “Robin picks himself up and revives the Spoiler. He then works to free the looters from the snow. The Spoiler disagrees arguing they should let the looters, who had tried to kill them, die. Robin rejects this reasoning, saying “that’s not how it works[…]. What Batman and I do isn’t all that venture and cheap thrills. There is a commitment and it’s never an easy one””  (Coogan, Superhero: The Secret Origin of a Genre) And this is what Superman does over and over again throughout comic book history. He repeatedly pushes himself to do the right thing not because he wants some gain from it but because it is hard and the correct way to act. This is why Superman should be seen as a metaphorical embodiment of Kant’s categorical imperative. He continuously and thoughtlessly places himself in a position that would morally compromise most other characters that he chooses the road of right because he believes in a higher moral calling that his great gifts and abilities have instilled in him.

Coogan, Peter. Superhero: The Secret Origin of a Genre. Austin: Monkey Brain Books, 2006.

Coogan, Peter. “The Definition of the Superhero.” A Comic Studies Reader. Ed. Jeet Heer and Kent Worcester. Jackson: Univesity Press of Mississippi, 2009. 77-.

Daniels, Les. Superman: The Compete History. New York: Chronical Books LLC, 1998.

Engstrom, Stephan. “Introduction.” Kant, Immanuel. Critique of Practical Reason. Trans. Werner S. Pluhar. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, Inc., 2002. XV-LIII. Print.

Kant, Immanuel. Critque of Practical Reason. Trans. Stephen Engstrom. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, Inc., 2002. Print.

—. Fundamental Principles of the Metaphysic of Morals. Trans. Thomas Kingsmill Abbott. Project Gutenberg, May 2004. Web. 20 March 2012..

Paton, H.J. The Categorical Imperative: A Study in Kant’s Moral Philosophy. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1948. Print.

Reynolds, Richard. Superheroes: A Modern Mythology. Jackson: University of Missiissippi, 1992.

Ross, Alex and Mark Waid. Kingdom Come. New York: DC Comics, 1997.

Superman/Shazam!: The Return of Black Adam. Dir. Joaquim Dos Santos. Perf. George Newbern, et al. 2010. DVD.



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