There are two sorts of people in this world: those who draw arbitrary distinctions and those who don’t (1). Through thirty years of geek living, I’ve come to see the world through one particular bipolar lens. My view is that the arbitrary distinction most worth drawing is the one between Supermen and Batmen (2).
Those in the Superman camp tend to hold an optimistic view of human nature (Nietzsche notwithstanding). They believe that we’re all fundamentally kind and helpful, and always open to self-improvement. Despite the character’s alien background, Superman stands as this camp’s role model because Superman is a moral saint: he exemplifies all the best traits that a human can have, even if no human can ever hope to have them all.
By contrast, the Batman camp is pessimistic about humanity. Those in this camp tend to believe (to quote one of my favorite sitcoms) that people are “bastard-coated bastards with bastard filling,” and that it’s only through a great deal of discipline and training that our intrinsic fear, loathing, and selfishness can be overcome. These pessimists see Batman as their role model specifically because he’s a moral human rather than a moral saint: the character has shortcomings, but so too do we all. His is an attainable standard.
I would discourage you, dear reader, from turning to Hollywood for any sort of moral guidance; still, one need only to look at box-office receipts to see which camp has more followers. I’ve even heard apparently cogent arguments as to why this is appropriate. “Superman is too perfect,” say many of my fellow geeks. “Nobody’s perfect; nobody can relate to Superman.”
It’s true: there are no moral saints and it’s doubtful that there ever could be. It’s true: we owe our imperfection to deep-seated drives that must be overcome through willpower and discipline (if at all). But my allegiance on this matter should be clear (see attached photo), and I’d be a poor philosopher (or perhaps a good political commentator) if I didn’t make some attempt to justify that allegiance (3).
The relevant question here is one about the importance of role models. Certainly, not every moral theory recognizes any need for particular exemplary people. Deontological ethics demands only that people follow moral rules determined a priori; in principle, even the proverbial stepchild of wild wolves ought to be able to figure those rules out. Consequentialist ethics can also dispense with exemplars: when the only standard for moral right is the increase of utility, actors matter less than actions. Existentialist theories place greater value on the actor, but that actor is meant to determine moral right for herself; following another person’s example would only undermine whatever rational struggle the existentialist has undergone. In virtue ethics, however, the role model takes on unmatched importance.
In my own dealings with virtue ethics, I find it helpful to bear in mind the work of biological taxonomy. After all, the moral theory is most clearly associated with Aristotle (4), and Plato’s star pupil is often (inappropriately) blamed for what many evolutionary biologists see as an archaic practice (5). In classifying organisms into species, taxonomists first identify a type specimen which is meant to serve as a sort of standard against which other organisms are measured; those deemed sufficiently similar to the type specimen are then considered members of the same species. Virtue ethics defines virtues relative to types. This is why the virtue ethicist’s choice of role model is so vitally important. According to the theory, a person is judged as good or bad by their similarity to or dissimilarity from a standard role model.
The question at hand, then, is whether Superman or Batman — the moral saint or the moral human — serves as the better moral type specimen. Nobody’s perfect, so it can’t be the moral saint, or else none of us will ever measure up. Batman it is! Atomic batteries to power; turbines to speed!