Watchmen movie: Really a critique of utilitarianism?

Yesterday I saw the Watchmen movie. I haven’t read the comics or any of that jazz, but I was told that it provided a compelling critique of utilitarianism. As an ethical theory it definitely illustrated the short-comings of utilitarianism. But in the way economists use utilitarianism – namely as a framework to hang value judgments off – the argument is far less compelling.

Note if you don’t want any spoilers don’t click the tag …

Effectively, the critique of utilitarianism came through the actions of the “villain”. He was willing to destroy people in a number of major cities in order to prevent/delay a nuclear holocaust. Millions would be killed to save billions. This is seen as a critique as there are other moral issues that are ignored in the statement “millions would be killed to save billions” – there is something wrong with doing an action to kill millions of people, even if the outcome was to save billions of other people.

In this sense, we can say that the “outcome orientation” of utilitarianism is wrongheaded – that the process does matter, and has to be taken into account.

Now, this is all well and good – but this seems like less of a critique of the concept of utilitarianism than it is a critique of the implicit value judgments associated with the persons choice. Economists realise that we cannot value outputs so crudely – which is why we tend to say that all goods are differentiated in some way.

For example, economists realise that an apple now is intrinsically different to an apple in 5 minutes. An apple that you have to pick up with your left hand is different to one you pick up with your right hand – and needs to be valued accordingly. In this sense, economists make simplifying assumptions surrounding the value of these disparate goods (fundamentally assuming that the values are sufficiently close that any difference can be ignored) – this assumption can be criticised, but it does not destroy the usefulness of the method.

Similarly, in Watchmen, if we didn’t agree with the killing of millions to save billions it is because we believe that a different set of value judgments exist surrounding “what is social welfare”. Again our critique is of the implicit value judgments, not the framework provided by utilitarianism.

Also, once we can look at things this way we can ask another question – if the “villain” decided to do nothing, would he not hold some responsibility for the death of billions rather than the millions he could have been responsible for. Could we not term it selfish if the character did not kill millions to save billions just because he personally felt uncomfortable about it. If this character had perfect foresight then I think this argument in itself would still be apt – implying that the “correct” value judgment is still incredibly vague, no matter what framework we try to use to describe it.


The critique provided by Watchmen illustrates the problem with any policy prescription – it relies on a set of value judgments that are hard if not impossible to uniquely define as the “optimal set” of value judgments. I don’t see this as solely a critique of utilitarianism – but of all types of theories.

Now, the reason we can illustrate it so clearly with utilitarianism is because utilitarianism is both flexible enough to be bent to uncomfortable situations and transparent enough that everyone can see what is going on. If anything these are the strengths of utilitarianism as a framework.

  • We CAN critique Ozymandius for using an inefficient mechanism: he could have had a giant genetically modified squid appear someplace highly visible, looking like extradimensional invasion by space aliens, as a mechanism for getting the “external threat” that overcomes national differences. But that wouldn’t have provided a nice mechanism for getting Dr. M off the stage.

  • I’m a little confused: utilitarianism is a moral philosophy that we can use to determine what is ‘best’. As such, isn’t it a method for making value judgments about what is right and what is wrong? I don’t really understand how you distinguish the moral philosophy of utilitarianism from economists’ utilitarian framework. But perhaps that’s more of a book than a blog post reply 😛

  • @Eric Crampton

    Indeed very true

  • You might have heard discussions about the “giant squid”. In the graphic novel, the endgame was actually a deliberately ridiculous plot involving a genetically engineered telepathic squid thing, which caused everyone in New York to die horrible, painful, gruelsome deaths. A big section was devoted to impressing the horror upon the reader. So the utilitarian calculation wasn’t so much millions of deaths vs billions of deaths, but millions of horrible gruelsome deaths vs total annhilation.

    It also gave a lot more time to the fear around nuclear war, setting up a dichotomy between the crazy “real world” that was plowing headlong into violence, decay and nuclear oblivion, and the “superhero” world where these entirely Nietzschian philosophical discussions were taking place.

    There wasn’t really a question over whether the world needed saving, or whether Ozymandias’ plan was “right” – after all, the only dissenter was Rorschach, and he *wanted* the world to burn – but about about how we should feel about it.

    Interesting diversion. Back to work…

  • @rauparaha

    The way I see it utilitarianism is a framework for discussing value judgments. As a result, anything that attacks utilitarianism is usually just attacking the value judgments made by the person using the argument – not the framework.

    I agree that this makes utilitarianism in itself empirically empty – but I think economists only use it in the framework regard.

    As a moral philosophy I’m under the impression that utilitarianism roles with some shady value judgments (such as weighting individuals equally). That may give the subject a bit more bite (in terms of providing conclusions) – but when value judgments are just given to us I don’t see it as the essence of what utilitarianism means to economists.

  • @Keith Ng

    Sounds very interesting – I might have to give the comics a look at some point …

  • One point that comes across better in the comic is the interaction of the players. Huge chunks relate to the interaction of the minor characters; the newspaper vendor, the taxi driver dyke, Rorschach’s shrink. These are “the villain’s” sacrifices.

    The villain is never seen interacting with these people. You have a man pretending to be a god and a god pretending to be a man. It’s not so much about utility as futility.

  • I’m not entirely sure it is intended as a critique of util. Obviously we’re suppose to feel distate at the ‘kill some to save many’ consequence of it, but it seems like the film sets it up so there’s no other option. Even the smartest guy in the film, Doctor Manhattan, is at the end persuaded by the utilitarian argument, despite his original misgivings. He even blows up Rorschach to defend it.

    It seems to me like the film’s saying ‘utilitarianism sucks, but the alternatives are worse’.

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  • Miguel Sanchez

    I’d be interested in a ‘game theory’ perspective on this, from someone who’s better versed in it than I am. Seems to me that Ozymandias’ plan might work as a one-shot solution, but maybe not in an infinitely-repeated game – as Laurie (film) or Dr Manhattan (comic) says, “nothing ever really ends”. The world may be all friendly and sharing in the short term, but over time the temptation to ‘cheat’ by stockpiling nuclear weapons would surely creep in again. And it’s already established (more so in the comic) that Dr Manhattan is not that effective a deterrent in the first place – Russia accumulated far more warheads in Watchmen-world than they did in real life.

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  • @Will de Cleene

    He sounds a lot like a social planner in the comic then 🙂

  • @Tom M

    Hi Tom,

    I have been told it is a critique of utilitarianism – but I didn’t really see it that way. It seemed like, if you didn’t agree, it was because you didn’t agree with the weighting placed on different aspects.

    Ultimately, it illustrated one of the hard things about policy – having to make choices when all outcomes look sucky!

  • @Miguel Sanchez

    Hi Miguel,

    Indeed – the real trade-off here is a few million lives with the amount of time that the threat works.

    If they don’t keep blowing up the odd thing to make the threat of Dr Manhattan credible, then over time people will begin to defect – as the implied cost of doing so will be lower.