‘Green Lantern and Philosophy’: Heroic talk and the ring of truth?

June 08, 2011 | 9:47 a.m.

A 304-page paperback titled “Green Lantern and Philosophy: No Evil Shall Escape This Book” hit store shelves last month, just in time to draft off all of the hoopla surrounding the huge Warner Bros. film that arrives in theaters next week. The book is part of the pop-culture and philosophy series edited by William Irwin that frames entertainment-world mythologies and brands (“Lost,” “Watchmen,” “South Park,” etc.) within a scholarly approach. To learn more about the  green, glowing addition to the series, Hero Complex contributor Jevon Phillips chatted with the emerald-minded editors, Mark D. White, a professor in the Department of Political Science, Economics and Philosophy at the College of Staten Island, and Jane Dryden, assistant professor of philosophy at Mount Allison University.

green lantern comic 6  Green Lantern and Philosophy: Heroic talk and the ring of truth?

(DC Comics)

JP: So, why Green Lantern?

MDW: We were both devoted Green Lantern fans from way back, and the Green Lantern concept has so many elements to it that suggest fascinating philosophical topics, such as the unlimited power of the rings, the role that willpower and imagination play in using the rings, the nature of fear and fearlessness and their relationship to heroism, and the communal aspect of the Green Lantern Corps.

JP: What can you tell us about “action theory” and how it applies not only to the Green Lanterns, but to heroes in general.

green lantern and philosophy1 Green Lantern and Philosophy: Heroic talk and the ring of truth?MDW: Action theory is a field in philosophy that studies choice, judgment and action itself. Parts of it overlap with psychology, such as their mutual focus on willpower, but other parts are more purely philosophical, such as understanding what an action is. The reason action theory is invoked so much by superhero comics is that much of the drama in the stories comes down to the hard choices that heroes have to make, such as whether to save person A or person B when you can only save one. Of course, this example suggests that action theory overlaps with ethics: Whereas ethics discusses what is the right thing do, action theory would study how a person actually comes to do the right thing — which is very important for a hero!

JP: How does Plato and his tale of the Ring of Gyges enter into this, and does he really posit that a morally balanced being would not even choose to wear the ring?

JD: The ring is brought up as a story to try to separate the external advantages of being good (being trusted, respected, admired) from the actual importance of goodness itself. Plato doesn’t really return to the story of the Ring of Gyges once he starts sketching out what the morally good person would actually look like. The truly morally good person, however, wouldn’t be tempted to evil. So, it seems as though one could argue that a morally good person might choose to wear the ring, if there was a particularly good thing he or she could try to accomplish with it. Still, another lesson we get from Plato’s “Republic” is that just societies inevitably begin to disintegrate into less just societies. It’s basically impossible to have perfection here in our everyday lives. So it’s likely that there are no perfectly morally good people. Certainly we’ve seen most Green Lanterns, at some point, use their own power for self-interested goals.

JP: In figuring out who was the “greatest Green Lantern,” how much debate was there? I like Hal, but John Stewart’s pretty awesome.

final crisis cv1 Green Lantern and Philosophy: Heroic talk and the ring of truth?

(DC Comics)

MDW: It wasn’t up to us — Hal Jordan is traditionally considered by many, including the rest of the Corps, to be the “greatest” Green Lantern, and it is probably because in many stories involving the entire Corps, Hal takes the lead, makes the hard choices, leads the charge, shows the great willpower and judgment, and puts his life in danger before any others. He’s not perfect by any means, and the Guardians of the Universe repeatedly punish him for disobedience, but the fact that they still tolerate him suggests that deep down they value his rebellious spirit.

JP: Recently, Parallax was put back into the power ring’s central battery.  What do you think are the philosophical implications of reintroducing the “flaw” or “impurity” of fear into the rings (if any)?

MDW: Even though the weakness to the color yellow is mocked by comics fans — almost as much as the Golden Age’s Green Lantern Alan Scott and his weakness to wood — it does give the GLs something to overcome and makes their rings less powerful. (It remains to be seen how the writers mine the psychological aspects of the renewed yellow impurity as Parallax.) And some consider the true test of a hero to be the obstacles he or she can overcome, in which case the return of the impurity may make for more interesting stories in the future. This, of course, is contingent on how the impending DC reboot affects everything!

JP: If each of you could delve into the psyche of a different superhero, who would it be and what might be the dominant philosophical figure or theory to help define him/her? I know that there was already a heroes and philosophy book that might address a character you choose — but that’s OK.

MDW: I would probably choose Batman or Captain America, given their shared devotion to duty, an important concept in Immanuel Kant’s ethics. That’s a shameless plug for my new book “Kantian Ethics and Economics: Autonomy, Dignity, and Character,” just out from Stanford University Press.

JD: I’d choose Jamie Madrox, Multiple Man (just to wander over to the Marvel Universe for a moment!), since I’m fascinated by questions of identity and embodiment, and it’s interesting watching Madrox come to grips with his multiple selves, or duplicates, and trying to figure out whether they’re really “him.” While John Locke is the obvious go-to classical philosopher for this sort of thing, I’d want to connect this to some of Diana Meyers’ ideas.

– Jevon Phillips

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