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The Arrow and philosophy, part one: the morality of vigilantism

Oliver Queen operates outside the law in pursuit of justice as the Arrow. fanabouttown/flickr, CC BY-SA

I’ve spent the last few weeks binge-watching The CW’s Arrow, the television adaptation of DC Comics superhero The Green Arrow. Like most of the world I’ve spent the last few years enamoured by superhero films and television shows. And they haven’t been short in supply. Not only are the plots usually gripping – having been tested with comic book audiences for years – but superhero films are able to prompt a number of compelling questions. Arrow is no exception. The issues that it covers warrant detailed exploration, which I’ll be undertaking in the next series of posts in the coming weeks.

Arrow tells the story of Oliver Queen, playboy heir to a multibillion-dollar corporation. Whilst yachting with his father, Robert, engine malfunctions sink the boat. Oliver finds himself adrift with his father, who admits that he was not the philanthropic businessman the media portrayed him as. Robert implores Oliver to survive, and return to Starling City in order right his wrongs. Then, realising there are not enough provisions for both of them to survive, Robert kills himself.

Oliver drifts through the North-China Sea before discovering a small island which is no safer than the open waters. Lian Yu (which literally translates as “purgatory”) is replete with lethal dangers: mercenaries, former assassins, an Australian intelligence agent cum ally cum deadly rival, and abandoned landmines from WWII.

Here, Oliver learns to fight, develops killer instincts, resourcefulness, and – most importantly – becomes a master archer. After five years he finds his way off the island and returns to Starling City, where he takes up as a vigilante. As the Arrow, he punishes the criminal activity of his father’s former accomplices with a bow and arrow, forcing them to correct the injustices that they have committed against the people of Starling.

The vigilante

For this first instalment of my philosophical treatment of Arrow, I’ll try not to spoil the general plot any further than the above. Almost immediately upon beginning his work as the Arrow, Oliver falls foul of the law: he is a vigilante who pursues his own brand of (admittedly effective) justice. The Arrow plays the roles of investigator, interrogator, judge, jury, and executioner. He is a law unto himself. Detective Quentin Lance, who heads the anti-vigilante taskforce designated to capture Queen, remarks:

My whole career, my whole life, even when I knew nothing, I at least knew right from wrong and I knew vigilantism was wrong. And the day that we take law into our own hands is the day that we become outlaws.

Lance is right, it is a tautology to say that vigilantes are outlaws, but is his certainty that vigilantism is wrong equally true? Despite the prevalent role it plays in literature, and the activities of online movements such as Anonymous, vigilantism is a question that has received scant attention from philosophers and ethicists.

What is vigilantism? The Encyclopedia of Criminal Justice Ethics provides a helpful working definition: “generally refers to a group activity performed by private individuals that uses violence or the threat of violence to enforce values in the absence of effective state intervention.”

However, although in the case of_ Arrow_, the activity eventually ends up being performed by a group, it is initially Queen operating alone, and it doesn’t seem clear why a group of people need to be involved to classify an activity as vigilantism.

Furthermore, it doesn’t seem obvious that an absence of effective state intervention is necessary to define vigilantism unless we hold a very high standard for ‘effectiveness’. Felicity Smoak, the IT expert who works with Oliver, frequently intercepts police communications so that the Arrow can intervene in crime prevention even when police are already present and actively working against the crime.

The vigilante is willing to violate procedure when obeying it will be detrimental to enforcing the natural justice that it is designed to protect. Vigilantes recognise the instrumental value of law, and therefore dismiss it in times when it seems unlikely to be effective. They prefer results over process.

Nomocratic and teleocratic thinking

In this regard, vigiliantism is a kind of teleocratic thinking. The political philosopher Michael Oakeshott distinguished between two modes of political thinking: nomocratic and teleocratic.

Nomocratic politics is interested in the preservation of the political association itself, as well as using law to enable citizens to choose for themselves what kind of lives they ought to lead. It strongly supports the upholding of impartial systems and ideals (the separation of powers, for instance) and relies on the integrity of that system.

Telocratic politics is characterised by the unification of individual efforts toward a singular, substantive goal. Teleocratic thinking tends toward grand narratives, but risks subsuming real people into a more far-sighted project: the achievement of some state-of-affairs that is the ultimate goal of activity. It prioritises the goal over the structures that aim to protect our society.

So, if the goal is to “stop the boats”, it might seem acceptable to pay money to people smugglers. Oliver’s stubborn commitment to righting his father’s wrongs – envisioning a world where Starling’s elite have been punished – is a kind of teleocratic thinking.

Teleocratic thinking is appealing, especially in times of fear and conflict (and that’s why it’s quite common in Australia today). Unsurprisingly, Oliver learns his way of thinking on Lian Yu, where the only morality is that of survival. And it is when our survival seems threatened that we refer back to such thinking.

In such times, the rule of law begins to appear as a burden to justice rather than its servant, and grand narratives that promise a world free of danger become all the more appealing. There is some merit to this: nomocratic politics can stubbornly insist on adherence to procedure even when it clearly promotes procedural justice at the expense of natural justice.

For instance, in an early episode of Arrow, Oliver learns that a man on death row has been framed to take the fall for a member of Starling City’s elite, Jason Brodeur. Initially, he urges Laurel Lance – a lawyer and former lover – to take the case, but when it becomes clear that acting within the law is unlikely to get the job done, he beats a confession out of one of Brodeur’s men in order to free the innocent man. Queen gets the job done, but at the expense of the law (and, as I’ll discuss in the next post, his own soul).

The lure of the vigilante

Oakeshott was sceptical of the viability of teleocratic thinking as a viable framework for a democratic society for this reason. It is liable to suspend individual rights and liberties in favour of broader pursuits. Sometimes these suspensions might be justifiable. As might vigilantism if, for instance, traditional law enforcement proves unable or unwilling to act in a way that promotes justice, but the cases where this will be justifiable are few and far between.

But that’s what makes superheroes – especially vigilantes – so appealing in times of fear, conflict, and terror. There is a romantic visual of the vigilante hero who does what is necessary in spite of what society dictates is right or wrong. The vigilante and hero possesses an acute sense of his or her own responsibility. Nothing is accepted as beyond the hero’s control, and if a better world is possible, the hero will bring it about.

And so Tony Stark builds artificial intelligence despite the obvious dangers, Daredevil tortures those who might be able to help him, and in Arrow, the secret government organisation ARGUS retain a crew of disposable supervillains, the “Suicide Squad”, to perform high-risk missions (and insert explosives in their spinal cord that can be detonated if they try to escape).

And we, the audience, although occasionally squeamish, are willing to forgive these indiscretions because these heroes are serving the greater good. They indulge our tendency toward the teleocratic. But even for these vigilante heroes, there are lines that cannot be crossed. After the death of his best friend, Oliver takes a vow against killing; Matt Murdock will never kill another person as Daredevil; and even Captain America’s nationalism has its limits. Vigilantism teaches us as much about the shortcomings of teleocracy as its merits.

Because they are visually compelling and narratively seductive, superhero violence teaches us a great deal about morality; as Damon Young argues, “superhero comics can be particularly nuanced in their depiction of violence” and, despite the textual differences, superhero television and film can be as well.

I’d suggest that’s part of the reason why we tune in each week, as Game of Thrones continues to throw morality out the window altogether, and in turn highlight other moral deficiencies in us, it’s refreshing to see superheroes appealing to the better angels of our nature.

Next week I’ll focus on what Arrow teaches us about the ethics and psychology of killing, and draw some analogies between the moral challenges facing veterans today, and those that Oliver faces in the series.

If you’re a fan of the show, let me know in the comments or on Twitter if there are any specific burning questions you’d like to discuss!

This is the first in a series of articles on Arrow and the morality of vigilantism. You can read part 2 here.

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