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Analysis / Ideal Hero

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Ideal/moralist heroes vs. classical/war heroes

Descioli and Kurzban point out that the idea of an "ideal hero" who always does the right thing is a pretty new one, as far as cultural narratives go, and that most characters to whom the term "hero" has been applied since antiquity were of a very different mold. Many classical Greek, Indian, Chinese, etc. heroes were inherently flawed and destructive individuals who would be poor role-models in modern times, but were (and some still are) upheld as champions by their respective cultures. Descioli and Kurzban argue that the distinction between these classical heroes and the modern ideal ones (exemplified by comic book superheroes like Superman) lies in that the former excel at between-group conflict and the latter, in within-group conflict.

For most of recorded history, our species has lived in relatively small communities/groups fighting others over limited resources in an existential conflict. As such, myths of powerful individuals whose main talent was slaying their enemies by the dozen were most relevant to members of said communities. These myths didn't need complex moral messages, because most of the time, their morality boiled down to a simple and easy-to-understand mantra "we are good, the Others are bad, so our hero kills them". However, as communities grew larger and more depersonalized, their susceptibility to internal strife outpaced their ability to self-police, requiring the creation of specialized social institutes for law enforcement. By similar processes, we observe the emergence of a new breed of hero, one specializing in within-group conflict — essentially a crime fighter, whose main talent is mediating conflict according to a set of norms and morals espoused by his society. Because a within-group conflict can never be resolved just by killing every opponent, unlike a inter-group war for survival, the ideal-hero fights the "bad" guys to subdue and, ultimately, to redeem them.

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The morality of war heroes and their myths is overtly utilitarian: if they have to sacrifice innocents to achieve victory, they will do so because efficient problem solving and concentration of (fire)power are the best way to resolve existential conflicts with clear-cut sides. On the other hand, within-group conflicts tend to be much more political and messy about their sides, with allegiances fluctuating and shifting too fast to apply utilitarian, military thinking to them. The ideal hero therefore instead relies on and enforces a set of Kantian categorical imperatives compatible with the social norms of the group in question (the most popular of which is, of course, Thou Shalt Not Kill). By sticking to his society's imperatives even when it would be more practical in the utilitarian short term to break them, the ideal hero establishes a reputation and secures the majority support within the community in the long term, ultimately achieving a moral, rather than existential victory over his opponents.

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Descioli and Kurzban additionally identify three pillars of the "superhero moral code" (which is how they refer to the morality of the ideal heroes):

  1. Third-party judgment. An ideal hero will actively meddle in within-group conflicts that do not involve them personally, in order to set things right. In fact, they will often sacrifice their own well-being and relationships in order to ensure the proper functioning of society at large. By contrast, war heroes typically only get involved to defend their own home or to benefit from their conquests.
  2. Moralistic punishment. An ideal hero metes out punishments appropriate for the wrongdoings that he thwarts, i.e. he is not a Vigilante Man killing criminals for personal Revenge, but a rational agent of justice (as understood by his society) who just happens to operate outside of the society's established institutions. Contrast this with the celebration of the war heroes' destructive emotions like wrath, rage, and vengeance.
  3. Moral impartiality. An ideal hero transcends the conflicts he mediates, embodying Blind Justice. On one hand, he will apply the same punishment to his friends who crossed the line as he would to any other criminal; on the other, he will show the same restraint with his "enemies" as he would with his friends, e.g. never killing them in hopes of their possible redemption.
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Perhaps the most telling illustration of the difference between ideal and war hero moralities is their attitude towards the trolley problem: a war hero would probably push the fat man onto the tracks, because losing one potential fighter is preferable to losing five of themnote , whereas an ideal hero would do probably nothingnote , because most societies condemn deliberate harming of others more strongly than inaction that leads to death by unfortunate circumstances. In other words, the war hero is guided by utility optimization, whereas the ideal hero is all about constraint satisfaction.

The ideal hero's reliance on the local norms and morals of the society he operates within may be the reason why superheroes, realistically, often have trouble operating globally, as different countries may have divergent norms, making foreign ideal heroes look to them like war heroes coming over to conquer them (especially if said countries are not themselves at a point of needing their own superhero myths).


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