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Superhero Bias

Suppose there’s a heavily armed sociopath, a kidnapper with hostages, who has just rejected all requests for negotiation and announced his intent to start killing. In real life, the good guys don’t usually kick down the door when the bad guy has hostages. But sometimes—very rarely, but sometimes—life imitates Hollywood to the extent of genuine good guys needing to smash through a door.

Imagine, in two widely separated realities, two heroes who charge into the room, first to confront the villain.

In one reality, the hero is strong enough to throw cars, can fire power blasts out of his nostrils, has X-ray hearing, and his skin doesn’t just deflect bullets but annihilates them on contact. The villain has ensconced himself in an elementary school and taken over two hundred children hostage; their parents are waiting outside, weeping.

In another reality, the hero is a New York police officer, and the hostages are three prostitutes the villain collected off the street.

Consider this question very carefully: Who is the greater hero? And who is more likely to get their own comic book?

The halo effect is that perceptions of all positive traits are correlated. Profiles rated higher on scales of attractiveness are also rated higher on scales of talent, kindness, honesty, and intelligence.

And so comic-book characters who seem strong and invulnerable, both positive traits, also seem to possess more of the heroic traits of courage and heroism. And yet:

How tough can it be to act all brave and courageous when you’re pretty much invulnerable?

I can’t remember if I read the following point somewhere, or hypothesized it myself: Fame, in particular, seems to combine additively with all other personality characteristics. Consider Gandhi. Was Gandhi the most altruistic person of the twentieth century, or just the most famous altruist? Gandhi faced police with riot sticks and soldiers with guns. But Gandhi was a celebrity, and he was protected by his celebrity. What about the others in the march, the people who faced riot sticks and guns even though there wouldn’t be international headlines if they were put in the hospital or gunned down?

What did Gandhi think of getting the headlines, the celebrity, the fame, the place in history, becoming the archetype for non-violent resistance, when he took less risk than any of the people marching with him? How did he feel when one of those anonymous heroes came up to him, eyes shining, and told Gandhi how wonderful he was? Did Gandhi ever visualize his world in those terms? I don’t know; I’m not Gandhi.

This is not in any sense a criticism of Gandhi. The point of non-violent resistance is not to show off your courage. That can be done much more easily by going over Niagara Falls in a barrel. Gandhi couldn’t help being somewhat-but-not-entirely protected by his celebrity. And Gandhi’s actions did take courage—not as much courage as marching anonymously, but still a great deal of courage.

The bias I wish to point out is that Gandhi’s fame score seems to get perceptually added to his justly accumulated altruism score. When you think about nonviolence, you think of Gandhi—not an anonymous protestor in one of Gandhi’s marches who faced down riot clubs and guns, and got beaten, and had to be taken to the hospital, and walked with a limp for the rest of her life, and no one ever remembered her name.

Similarly, which is greater—to risk your life to save two hundred children, or to risk your life to save three adults?

The answer depends on what one means by greater. If you ever have to choose between saving two hundred children and saving three adults, then choose the former. “Whoever saves a single life, it is as if he had saved the whole world” may be a fine applause light, but it’s terrible moral advice if you’ve got to pick one or the other. So if you mean “greater” in the sense of “Which is more important?” or “Which is the preferred outcome?” or “Which should I choose if I have to do one or the other?” then it is greater to save two hundred than three.

But if you ask about greatness in the sense of revealed virtue, then someone who would risk their life to save only three lives reveals more courage than someone who would risk their life to save two hundred but not three.

This doesn’t mean that you can deliberately choose to risk your life to save three adults, and let the two hundred schoolchildren go hang, because you want to reveal more virtue. Someone who risks their life because they want to be virtuous has revealed far less virtue than someone who risks their life because they want to save others. Someone who chooses to save three lives rather than two hundred lives, because they think it reveals greater virtue, is so selfishly fascinated with their own “greatness” as to have committed the moral equivalent of manslaughter.

It’s one of those wu wei scenarios: You cannot reveal virtue by trying to reveal virtue. Given a choice between a safe method to save the world which involves no personal sacrifice or discomfort, and a method that risks your life and requires you to endure great privation, you cannot become a hero by deliberately choosing the second path. There is nothing heroic about wanting to look like a hero. It would be a lost purpose.

Truly virtuous people who are genuinely trying to save lives, rather than trying to reveal virtue, will constantly seek to save more lives with less effort, which means that less of their virtue will be revealed. It may be confusing, but it’s not contradictory.

But we cannot always choose to be invulnerable to bullets. After we’ve done our best to reduce risk and increase scope, any remaining heroism is well and truly revealed.

The police officer who puts their life on the line with no superpowers, no X-Ray vision, no super-strength, no ability to fly, and above all no invulnerability to bullets, reveals far greater virtue than Superman—who is a mere superhero.

Adam Warren, Empowered, vol. 1 (Dark Horse Books, 2007).

The Halo Effect




Mere Messiahs