Searching for the Moral Directive in "The Watchmen"
Great works of literature are often vessels for great truths. Herman Melville's "Moby Dick" contemplated the futility of man's battle with nature. Harper Lee's "To Kill a Mockingbird" struggled with the effects of race and class on society. William Golding's "Lord of the Flies" examined the state of man’s soul when he is removed from civilization.
Another example is undoubtedly Alan Moore's 12 part comic book serial, "The Watchmen." First published in 1986, this series was a complex, layered epic about a group of superheroes trying to navigate the political and criminal undercurrents of a world where morality has been turned on its head. One such character, Rorschach, is a brutal vigilante who operates outside the law and has few qualms about torturing and killing evildoers. By issue six of the series, Rorschach has been captured, unmasked, imprisoned and forced to undergo psychoanalysis provided by a weary, bourgeois doctor.
The doctor is intrigued by Rorschach's history. Rorschach had initially fit comfortably into the standard template of the superhero detective who carefully gathers evidence against wrongdoers and then deposits them at the steps of the police station. But at some point, Rorschach changed, morphing into an antihero who bypassed the legal system altogether and delivered a much harsher form of justice. The psychologist correctly assumes that whatever event spurred this change is the key to understanding Rorschach's psyche.
Rorschach is it first reticent to provide information, but he eventually opens up to the doctor. He tells a story of his attempt to track down a kidnapped child. His investigations led him to the shop of a middle-aged dressmaker. Once inside, Rorschach realized that the dressmaker killed the girl, chopped her up and fed her to his German shepherds. Rorschach kills the dogs, handcuffs the dressmaker to a stove and sets the house on fire. In his stilted monotone, Rorschach recalls the thoughts that went through his head as he watched the structure burn:
"This rudderless world is not shaped by vague metaphysical forces. It is not God who kills the children. Not fate that butchers them or destiny that feeds them to the dogs. It's us. Only us. Streets stank of fire. The void breathes hard on my heart, turning its allusions to ice, shattering them. Was reborn, then, free to scrawl own design on this morally blank world."
What Rorschach is speaking of is his realization that there is no moral directive to the universe. There is no God, no fate, no morality and no encoded set of rules to tell man how to behave. Man can only make up the rules as he goes along; indeed he has no choice but to do so.
It's heady stuff for a comic book, or for any work of literature. Does Moore really think morality is an ethereal ghost, a man-made concept with no real grounding in reality? Are the social rules that human civilization has constructed for itself— rules that have caused so many wars, and so much suffering—not linked to any universal truth or axiom?
Most people consider themselves moral beings. They strive to do right and to avoid wrong. They reward themselves when they think they've acted properly and chastise themselves when they think they been bad. Most religious beliefs and legal systems are based on these notions. But what if there's no such thing as right and wrong?
This was precisely the question grappled with by Yale Professor Arthur Allen Leff who wrote a series of articles on the topic of morality. In his article entitled “Unspeakable Ethics, Unnatural Law,” he stated:
In essence, he was asking God for sign. "Show me the way!" he pleaded with the universe. "Give me some way of knowing what is right and wrong." But Leff then added:
Here, he defined the main roadblock that keeps mankind from behaving morally. We have an intrinsic desire for freedom, a desire to not be told what to do, to not be lorded over, to be wholly liberated to determine our future. When we are handed down a set of rules—either from religion or society or the law—there is a part of us that intuitively rebels against it.
This is and will always be the defining battle at the heart of mankind. When Rorschach stands outside on the street and watches the pedophile burn he is struggling with Leff's arguments. Like Leff, he wants to believe in a greater power that can provide moral guidance. But everything he seen in his career as a costumed crime fighter has led him up to the realization that a moral power does not exist. So he accepts the precept of Leff's second statement. He opts to decide for himself what he ought to be, which is essentially a vengeance filled vigilante that will never compromise while attempting to punish the guilty.* As Rorschach himself states, this epiphany leaves him free to "free to scrawl [my] own design on this morally blank world."
* Being that the very notions of punishment and guilt becomes suspect when one accepts that there is no moral authority; I've never quite understood Rorschach's decision here. But that's what happens in the comic.
Of course one could blithely ask, "What's so special about the moral directive anyway? Why is it necessary?” But clearly some set of rules is essential for a functioning society. Without some notion of right or wrong, man would have no way of governing himself, no way of controlling his base and savage instincts. Instead of arriving at a place where he could appreciate the great intellectual and emotional fruits that civilization offers, humankind would never evolve past the stage of cavemen, caught in a constant cycle of war and violence.
And any honest rumination of Leff's (and Rorschach's) thesis leads into a philosophical murk so dark and cold it's enough to chill your soul. All sorts of uncomfortable questions arise—is it all right to murder?—is it all right to rape?—is it all right to lie? Leff was openly disturbed by the questions he asked, but did not shy from following them to their conclusion as he did in the closing section of “Unspeakable Ethics, Unnatural Law.”
It may be, we have no God to help us. Nor a Rorschach either.
For more info on The Watchmen read Comics that Made me Shit my Pants!
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