Only the Future Can Watch the Watchmen The Failures of Utilitarianism Presented in the Most Extreme of Examples

Ryvenna Lewis

woman with red rings on eye


I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shatter'd visage lies, whose frown
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamp'd on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed.
And on the pedestal these words appear:
"My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!"
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,
The lone and level sands stretch far away.
-Percy Bysshe Shelley

The scene I’ll be discussing opens with an innocent phrase, “Today marks a day especially worthy of such attentions. In many ways, it is the culmination of a dream more than two thousand years old.” Adrian Veidt, lovingly called the smartest man in the world by the media which adores him, is the former masked hero known as Ozymandias. The day he is referring to is a day culminating in horror. If it is any kind of dream, it is a nightmare. Half of New York has been destroyed, and the world is in a panicked terror. But Adrian’s language does not seem to feel horror at this turn of events. Soon, we discover that it was a far from random, unexpected attack to Adrian. In fact, he painstakingly planned and organized this attack, waiting for the right moment to strike. In the comic book version of Watchmen, Veidt fakes an alien attack (involving a giant psychic squid), though in the movie, Veidt sets Dr. Manhattan up to take the blame. The two endings, though vastly different, accomplish the same thing: they both set up an outside party as having the responsibility for this horrible, devastating action.

He justifies his actions by telling us that the United States and the Soviet Union, the two largest superpowers on the planet, are fighting with one another and both have the nuclear technology to destroy each other. His rationale states that it is better to kill a few million people by making them believe they are under attack from an outside source-thereby creating a halt on global conflicts, leading to world peace- than it would be for two nations to kill billions of people and plunge the world into a self-caused chaos and turmoil.

The scenario is similar to many thought experiments regarding utilitarianism. Simply put, in utilitarianism, we are taught that the right action is the one which produces the greatest amount of good for the greatest amount of people. Any action taken, despite the motivation behind it, can be good as long as it follows this guideline. But can we live by this kind of principle? I say that we can’t. What would happen if we did something horrendous to benefit the world? This is exactly the situation that Adrian puts us in. Through closely examining Adrian Veidt’s actions in the comic book Watchmen we can see the extremes and the extreme flaws of utilitarianism. Utilitarianism is deeply flawed because of three important factors: it ignores motivation/intention, it demands prescience from we who have none, and it can lead to the devaluation of human life.

Veidt begins the explanation of his plan with these words, "My new role demands less obvious heroism, making your schoolboy heroics redundant. What have they achieved? Failing to prevent Earth's salvation is your only triumph... And yet that failure overshadows every past success! By default, you usher in a illumination so dazzling humanity will reject the darkness in its heart, and instead turn toward the light." In this quote, Adrian tries to turn the blame back onto the other Watchmen, his shocked witnesses. He blames them for not following his own example, and tells them that what they’ve done is a detriment. What they’ve done, by the way, is solve crimes and help countless human beings over the years, all without thanks or pay. But if his actions caused this global good, compared to their individual actions which caused only minor goods, then what he did is more correct, according to our system.

Though he seems to act from a misguided sense of altruism, Veidt’s admiration of Alexander the Great seems to have been the actual guiding motivation. He speaks of him fondly, “The only human being with him I felt any kinship died three hundred years before the birth of Christ. Alexander of Macedonia. I idolized him…He died, aged thirty-three, ruling most of the civilized world. Ruling without barbarism! At Alexandria, he instituted the ancient world’s greatest seat of learning. True, people died…perhaps unnecessarily, though who can judge such things? Yet how nearly he approached his vision of a united world! ...I wanted to match his accomplishment, bringing an age of illumination to a benighted world. I wanted to have something to say to him, should we meet in the Hall of Legends.” Here we see deeper into Veidt’s mind that we have previously. It is here that we realize that his intentions are not entirely what he proclaims them to be. In fact, they are mostly fiction. Veidt cares less about the fate of humanity than he does about his own reputation. Veidt doesn’t care about the lives he’s thrown aside, or the lives he’s saved; what Veidt cares about is being able to stand head and shoulders about the rest of society to think of himself as the benevolent hand of fate, guiding us toward a future that only he could have masterminded.

Though utilitarianism claims not to concern itself with motivations, I think it is impossible for humans to separate their feelings on a matter entirely from what they know or can guess of the responsible party’s motivations. Here, Veidt is again an enigma. After killing millions of people, he tells us, "I know people think me callous, but I've made myself feel every death. By day, I imagine endless faces. By night... Well, I dream, about swimming toward the hideous... It isn't significant... What's significant is that I know. I know I've struggled across the backs of murdered innocents to save humanity... But someone had to take the weight of all that awful, necessary crime." Veidt’s attempt to show his actions in an altruistic light is horrifying. His utilitarian mind may have seen the action as necessary, but it far from excuses his actual motivations, which we’ve already seen above.

Another flaw within utilitarianism is that it implies that good actions make a good person. Veidt is personally responsible for the deaths of millions of people, and the panic of the entire world. In no way can he be called a good person, even if his actions could possibly be justified or even praised. An ethical system should tell us how to live to be good people and to live good lives. Is this what utilitarianism is trying to tell us is the ethical life? Murder, arrogance, pride, callousness- are these the standards that we should measure a man against for him to be deemed good? This is an absurd notion. It is absolutely impossible to call Veidt “good”. And if utilitarianism can call the evil actions of an evil human being “good”, then there is an important disconnect between a man and his actions. This disconnect does not seem to do the world any favors, as witnessed in Watchmen. “An intractable problem can only be resolved by stepping beyond conventional solutions. Alexander understood that, 2000 years ago."

But was Veidt’s crime necessary? Just as we can’t predict the future after our actions, we can’t predict the future before our actions either. In those final moments before detonation, both the Soviet Union and the United States could have realized their mistakes. They could have realized that what they are about to do is murder nearly half the world between them, and throw the rest of the world into panic and chaos. Though we can’t be sure that this is what would have happened, we can certainly say that it seems better that nobody should die and the two global superpowers (as presented in this book) should realize their mistakes and take actions toward world peace rather than global, nuclear violence. This would certainly seem like a better outcome. Rather than giving humanity the chance to save itself, Veidt decides to take matters into his own hands and make decisions, by himself, that affect the entirety of the world.

John and Adrian later have a conversation were Adrian asks John if he'd done the right thing, "in the end". John looks at Adrian for some time and then says. "Nothing ends, Adrian. Nothing ever ends." Adrian asks what John means, only to discover that John has already left. What he means, of course, is that utilitarianism is really a game of fortune telling. We have no idea how much of the future our actions affect.

It is impossible to judge, through the standards of utilitarianism alone, whether or not an action is “good” or “bad”, or how much happiness it causes or inhibits. The future always looms over our heads, threatening to tear apart what we know of the past. Time keeps going with no end, constantly altering our perceptions of the past. Adrian’s actions may have temporarily ended war, but in so doing, they created an atmosphere of terror. Even if his actions create 2,000 years of peace, what’s to say that after those 2,000 years, a civilization more violent than we can possibly imagine were to rise up from the ashes? Also, what if, without his actions and within those 2,000 years, humanity could have found a way to live together harmoniously without this terror guiding their actions? In killing half of New York to create thousands of years of peace, he may have created a future that is more terrible than we have ever known. So, what does this mean for utilitarianism? If this is the case, are Adrian’s actions good and correct for 2,000 years, but, if traced back to him throughout the years, not past that point? This is exactly what Dr. Manhattan means when he claims that nothing ever ends. The course of human history, or even of just history itself cannot simply be “solved” like a Rubik’s Cube, and put neatly away. It is a messy, ever changing thing. This may seem like an extreme example, and rightly so. But it is in extreme examples that we find the true flaws in any ideals, in any code of ethics.

Utilitarianism assumes responsibility for the future. It’s easy enough to use a simple example to show cause and effect through this method. It works wonderfully in small situations. For example, me, reaching for one of two boxes of cereal in the morning, stop and try to decide through a utilitarian route which causes me more happiness than suffering. One of them is a sugary, delicious cereal that I can imagine adding great happiness to my current future, but less to my overall happiness, since I would suffer from the increased weight gain that the cereal would help to cause. The other is a less flavorful though more healthy choice. I would gain less immediate pleasure, but I would also avoid the suffering of dealing with an expanded waistline. But how can one really equate an expanding waistline to the ingestion of a single bowl of cereal? Certainly other factors come into play, such as exercise, general health, metabolism, etc. If we cannot be certain of even such a minor occurrence, how can we assume that we understand the outcomes of something so major, so grandiose, something that affects so many people? Ultimately, utilitarianism doesn’t work simply because we cannot predict the future. And even if we could, could we really weigh the future of the world against our prescience?

"I saved [the Earth] from hell. Next, I'll help her towards Utopia." This is Veidt’s ultimate reasoning for his actions. He claims that he would have been willing to do anything "until all countries [were] unified and pacified." The crew of masked heroes originally threatens to bring Veidt to justice. They claim that his actions, even if they might be understandable, are too horrific to go unpunished. They cannot envisage lettering the people of the world live in terror (of either alien attack or of Dr. Manhattan, depending on your version). But Veidt remains calm and asks "Will you expose me, undoing the peace millions died for? Kill me, risking subsequent investigation? Morally, you're in Checkmate." After this, he is let go. But why? The heroes realize that good may come of his actions. Nuclear war has been averted, and this seems to be a good thing. If they expose him, the United States and the Soviet Union would just pick up their hostilities, brush them off, and resume their regime of terror against one another. Is it good or fair to have the millions encompassed within half of New York die, just to see the rest of the country, or another, follow quickly afterwards? Rorschach, one of the few characters who seems truly evil throughout the entire book, seems to understand the situation with more clarity than the others. When Dr. Manhattan tries to stop him from exposing Ozymandias’ horrific actions, he sarcastically says, "Of course. Must protect Veidt's new Utopia. One more body amongst foundations makes little difference." He realizes how intensely human life has been cast aside and turned into a numbers game. This leads us to another problem in utilitarianism- what becomes of the value of a human life? If we are to adhere to the idea that our only concern is “the greatest happiness for the greatest amount of people” then we can cause as much suffering as we want, as long as we create at least slightly more happiness. And this is exactly what Ozymandias has done. The suffering he creates is a worldwide panic and millions of deaths. The peace that is established is not a peace of happiness and goodwill, but a peace born of an unknown terror.

However, since he saves lives and avoids the suffering that world would have had over either this nuclear detonation or over any future wars where they would lose loved ones, he comes out ahead on the happiness scale. But what of the value of a human life? Is the life of a human being worth nothing more than numbers? Isn’t this the kind of thought we try to avoid? This seems to be the worst kind of thinking. A moral, ethical system should be one based upon the preservation of life, and the value of the individual. Ozymandias treats the people he’s killed like numbers and not like people, without taking into account that arithmetic doesn’t balance out the cost of the lives taken.

Through the actions of Adrian Veidt, also known as Ozymandias, the most beloved of the masked heroes in Watchmen, we see the incredible flaws within utilitarianism. Through his heartbreaking actions stemming from pride and a lack of faith in humanity, he robs us of the ability to choose the future for ourselves, and reduces the value of human life to nothingness.

Featured Art

  • "Push Pop" by Viki Eagles

Works Cited

  • Moore, Alan and Dave Gibbons. Watchmen. New York: DC Comics, 1986. Print. (All quotes and references are taken from the DC Comics book Watchmen.)
  • Shelley, Percy Bysshe. "Ozymandias." 1818. Web. 4 May 2010.