Atrocity Committed for the Greater Good

Fyodor Dostoyevsky once said that “art imitates life” so perhaps that is why the universe in Watchmen is similar to our own. However, as true to other graphic mediums, the setting in the Watchmen is an exaggerated version of the world in which we live in. It is much more violent and unstable, with crimes populating the streets and the looming threat of a nuclear war between Russia and the United States. In the universe of Watchmen, humanity is immersed in bloodshed and hatred; it is with this backdrop that author Alan Moore discusses a critical question—is murder acceptable if it is for the greater good? This idea essentially comes from Machiavelli’s The Prince, in which Machiavelli emphasized that morality must be set aside for one to rule and in which he accentuates the idea that “the end justifies the means.” The basic interpretation of this idea is that “At the beginning of an action [one] might not be able to determine whether that action is morally right or wrong, but when the morally right goal is successfully achieved, then the steps which led to it must be morally right too.”[1] In Watchmen, Dr. Manhattan’s murder of Rorschach is a controversial topic among many fans because some feel that murder is unjustifiable. However, I believe it was the right thing to do. Under the ideology that “the end justifies the means,” Dr. Manhattan’s murder of Rorschach is justified because it prevented a more significant destruction from occurring.   

The driving force behind Dr. Manhattan’s actions is Rorschach’s black and white view of the world, which does not leave any room for compassion and humanity; therefore, for humanity to survive, Rorschach needs to be eliminated.  Rorschach’s moral absolutism can be seen by how he treats criminals of different degrees in similar ways; he believes wrong is wrong and executes both a rapist and a common mugger, being unwilling to offer the mugger a second chance.  He also states that, he will “never compromise…not even in the face of Armageddon.”[2] Rorschach’s inflexibility is his biggest flaw because it prevents him from understanding that people are too complex to be labeled as either “good” or “bad.”  As the foil to Rorschach, Veidt hopes to create a united world and, unlike Rorschach, believes it is acceptable to commit debauchery so long as the profit from the outcome outweighs the action. While Rorschach is the voice of moral absolutism, Veidt is the voice of moral relativism.[3] To him, the world is composed of only shades of grey and there are no moral certainties.  This is evident when he states “People died…perhaps unnecessarily, though who can judge such things?… [Alexander of Macedonia] nearly approached his vision of a united world…I idolized him.”[4] Interestingly, Machiavelli praises Alexander in The Prince, emphasizing that his totalitarian ways made “his reign…preeminent and his policies unchallengeable.”[5]  This indirectly shows that Viedt’s actions steam from Machiavelli’s principle of “the end justifies the means.”  For those who argue that Rorschach’s death is unjustifiable, there is evidence that shows that Rorschach himself understands that his death is necessary.  For instances, toward the end of the book Rorschach chooses not to punish his landlady for lying about him.[6] This is a departure from his normal self. In fact, when he sees the woman’s crying son, he even looks remorseful. Perhaps this is because Rorschach connects with the child and understands that punishing the woman for defaming him is too severe. This shows that Rorschach, on some level, knows his worldview cannot be applied to everything, especially something as complex as humanity.  In addition, Rorschach is crying when he commands Dr. Manhattan to “Do It!” (Kill him).[7]

Figure 1 Rorschach commanding Dr. Manhattan to kill him.

This is because Rorschach knows his death is inevitable for humanity to exist. If he didn’t report the crime, he would be going against his morals but if he did, he would be guilty of a greater crime. For a man that does not show emotions, his tears and expression represents his ultimate sacrifice.

Our own history shows that sometimes to achieve certain things, atrocities may need to be committed; while these acts are unacceptable under normal circumstances, they are justifiable in cases of extreme conditions.  For instance, there is a general consensus that killing Mussolini, Hitler, or Bin Laden is acceptable because these men were a threat to peace. An unofficial study show that five out of eight people would “kill baby Hitler” if it can prevent him from doing what he did. In addition, five out of eight people also said “it [is] worth it to murder someone to help others.” [8] Although this does not apply to everyone, the survey suggests that many people, like Dr. Manhattan and Viedt, believe “the end justifies the means.” If the death of one person can prevent the death of many, then that death is justifiable. It is also important to note that in our history, some people use “the end justifies the means” to justify their brutal actions. However, tactics aside, Viedt’s actions are pure because he is not acting under self-gain. This makes Viedt actions and Dr. Manhattan’s murder acceptable by many people standards because the lives saved by their actions greatly outnumber the lives lost.

The debate on whether Rorschach’s death is permissible mirrors another important event in our own history— the question of whether the atomic bombs dropped on Japan can be justified. The arguments for the atomic bomb are that it ended the war and it led to less total casualties. However, the arguments against the atomic bomb are that it killed many civilians and it emitted a huge amount of radiation where upon individuals who were exposed have increased chances of cancer and birth defects.[9] Both are great examples of whether the end justifies the means. However, it should be distinguished that while Rorschach’s death and the atomic bombs both led to peace, Japan suffered severely after the bombing but Rorschach’s death did not affect other people. Perhaps Alan Moore was trying to use Watchmen to convey his point of view on the bombings and, judging by Watchmen, he probably thought the atomic bombs were necessary but he disproves of its impact.

It is hard to plainly state if Dr. Manhattan’s actions are justifiable because people and morality are not cut out to be black or white.  Dr. Manhattan’s actions become even more controversial when it is implied that Viedt’s united nations might only be temporary. At the end Dr. Manhattan said, “Nothing ends, Adrian. Nothing ever ends.” [10]

Figure 2 Dr. Manhattan telling Viedt peace will not be long lasted.

This foreshadows that in the future the nations may be at odds with one another again. Still, Dr. Manhattan killed Rorschach meaning he agrees with Viedt even if the peace is only for a moment. Humanities professor, Quentin Skinner, believes “the commission of acts deemed vicious by convention is a ‘last best’ option,”[11] but perhaps that “last best option” is the only option for Dr. Manhattan.  Intentional murder is in no way acceptable but Dr. Manhattan’s actions prevented a bigger catastrophe from occurring. This lessens the evilness of the act and, in a way, makes it justifiable.

                

 


[1]           Machiavelli, Niccolò, W. K. Marriott, Nelle Fuller, and Thomas Hobbes. The Prince,. Chicago: Encyclopædia Britannica, 1955. Print.

[2]           Moore, Alan, and Dave Gibbons. “A Stronger Loving World.” Watchmen. New York: DC Comics, 1987. 20. Print.

[3]           Dowling, Philips. “ENGL 685: Graphic Novels George Mason University (Fall 2010).”Can Ends Justify Means? « ENGL 685: Graphic Novels. Web. 26 Feb. 2012. <http://samplereality.com/gmu/engl685/archives/182&gt;.

[4]           Moore & Gibbons, “Look On My Works, Ye Mighty…” p. 8.

[5]           Niccolo Machiavelli’s “The Prince”” HubPages. Web. 26 Feb. 2012. <http://gclitty.hubpages.com/hub/Niccolo-Machiavellis-The-Prince&gt;.

[6]           Moore & Gibbons, “Two Riders Were Approaching…” p.6.

[7]           Moore & Gibbons, “A Stronger Loving World.” p. 24.

[8]           Morgan, Ethan. “Morality Survey.” https://sites.google.com/site/ethanwmorgan/humanities/10th-grade/morality-survey

[9]           Dietrich, Bill. “Seattle Times Trinity Web: Dropping the Bomb.” The Seattle Times. The Seattle Times, 1995. Web. 26 Feb. 2012. <http://seattletimes.nwsource.com/special/trinity/supplement/procon.html&gt;.

[10]         Moore & Gibbons, “A Stronger Loving World.” p. 27.

[11]         Nederman, Cary. “Niccolò Machiavelli.” (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy). Sept.-Oct. 2009. Web. 26 Feb. 2012. <http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/machiavelli/&gt;.

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