-Spoiler Alert: Details of the Season 1 Finale of The Flash are revealed in this post.
Philosophers often make use of fictional examples in order to discuss ethical issues. In some cases, this is because they are discussing hypotheticals and do not have real examples to discuss. For example, discussions of the ethics of utilizing artificial intelligences are currently purely hypothetical (as far as we know). In other cases, this is because a philosopher thinks that a fictional case is especially interesting or simply “cool.” For example, philosophers often enjoy writing about the moral problems in movies, books and TV shows.
The use of fictional examples can, of course, be criticized. One stock criticism is that there are a multitude of real moral examples (and problems) that should be addressed. Putting effort into fictional examples is a waste of time. To use an analogy, it would be like spending time worrying about getting more gold for a World of Warcraft character when one does not have enough real money to pay the bills.
Another standard criticism focuses on the fact that fictional examples are manufactured. Because they are made up rather than “naturally” occurring, there are obvious concerns about the usefulness of such examples and to what extent the scenario is created by fiat. For example, when philosophers create convoluted and bizarre moral puzzles, it is quite reasonable to consider whether or not such a situation is even possible.
Fortunately, a case can be made for the use of fictional examples in discussions about ethics. Examples involving what might be (such as artificial intelligence) can be defended on the practical ground that it is preferable to discuss the matter before the problem arises rather than trying to catch up after the fact. After all, planning ahead is generally a good idea.
The use of fictional examples can also be justified on the same grounds that sports and games are justified—they might not be “useful” in a very limited and joyless sense of the term, but they can be quite fun. If poker, golf, or football can be justified on the basis of enjoyment, then so too can the use of fictional examples.
A third justification for the use of fictional examples is that they can allow the discussion of an issue in a more objective way. Since the example is fictional, it is less likely that a person will have a stake in the made-up example. Fictional examples can also allow the discussion to focus more on the issue as opposed to other factors, such as the emotions associated with an actual event. Of course, people can become emotionally involved in fictional examples. For example, fans of a particular movie character might be quite emotionally attached to that character.
A fourth reason is that a fictional example can be crafted to be an ideal example, to lay out the moral issue (or issues) clearly. Real examples are often less clear (though they do have the advantage of being real).
In light of the above, it seems reasonable to use fictional examples in discussing ethical issues. As such, I will move on to my main focus, which is discussing whether the Flash is morally worse than the Reverse Flash on CW’s show The Flash.
For those not familiar with the characters or the show, the Flash is a superhero whose power is the ability to move incredibly fast. While there have been several versions of the Flash, the Flash on the show is Barry Allen. As a superhero, the Flash has many enemies. One of his classic foes is the Reverse Flash. The Reverse Flash is also a speedster, but he is from the future (relative to the show’s main “present” timeline). Whereas the Flash’s costume is red with yellow markings, the Reverse Flash’s costume is yellow with red markings. While Barry is a good guy, Eobard Thawne (the Reverse Flash) is a super villain.
On the show, the Reverse Flash travels back in time to kill the young Barry before he becomes the Flash—with the intent of winning the battle before it even begins. However, the Flash also travels back in time to thwart the Reverse Flash and saves his past self. Out of anger, the Reverse Flash murders Barry’s mother but finds that he has lost his power. Using some creepy future technology, the Reverse Flash steals the life of the scientist Harrison Wells and takes on his identity. Using this identity, he builds the particle accelerator he needs to get back to the future and ends up, ironically, needing to create the Flash in order to get back home. The early and middle episodes of the show are about how Barry becomes the Flash and his early career in fighting crime and poor decision making.
In the later episodes, the secret of the Reverse Flash is revealed and Barry ends up defeating him in an epic battle. Before the battle, “Wells” makes the point that he has done nothing more and nothing less than what he has needed to do to get home. Interestingly, while the Reverse Flash is ruthless in achieving his goal of returning to his own time and regaining the friends, family and job he has lost, he is generally true to that claim and only harms people when he regards it as truly necessary. He even expresses what seems to be sincere regret when he decides to harm those he has befriended.
While the details are not made clear, he claims that the future Flash has wronged him terribly and he is acting from revenge, to undo the wrong and to return to his own time. While he does have a temper that drives him to senseless murder, when he is acting rationally he acts consistently with his claim: he does whatever it takes to advance his goals, but does not go beyond that.
While the case of the Reverse Flash is fictional, it does raise a real moral issue: is it morally right to harm people in order to achieve one’s goals? The answer depends, obviously, on such factors as the goals and what harms are inflicted on which people. While the wrong allegedly done to the Reverse Flash has not been revealed, he does seem to be acting selfishly. After all, he got stuck in the past because he came back to kill Barry and then murders people when he thinks he needs to do so to advance his plan of return. Kant would, obviously, regard the Reverse Flash as evil—he regularly treats other rational beings solely as means to achieving his ends. He also seems evil on utilitarian grounds—he ends numerous lives and creates considerable suffering so as to achieve his own happiness. But, this is to be expected: he is a supervillain. However, a case can be made that he is morally superior to the Flash.
In the season one finale, the Reverse Flash tells Barry how to travel back in time to save his mother—this involves using the particle accelerator. There are, however, some potential problems with the plan.
One problem is that if Barry does not run fast enough to open the wormhole to the past, he will die. Risking his own life to save his mother is certainly commendable.
A second problem is that if Barry does go back and succeed (or otherwise change things), then the timeline will be altered. The show has established that a change in the past rewrites history (although the time traveler remembers what occurred)—so going back could change the “present” in rather unpredictable ways. Rewriting the lives of people without their consent certainly seems morally problematic, even if it did not result in people being badly harmed or killed. Laying aside the time-travel aspect, the situation is one in which a person is willing to change, perhaps radically, the lives of many people (potentially everyone on the planet) without their consent just to possibly save one life. On the face of it, that seems morally wrong and rather selfish.
A third problem is that Barry has under two minutes to complete his mission and return, or a singularity will form. This singularity will, at the very least, destroy the entire city and could destroy the entire planet. So, while the Reverse Flash was willing to kill a few people to achieve his goal, the Flash is willing to risk killing everyone on earth to save his mother. On utilitarian grounds, that seems clearly wrong. Especially since even if he saved her, the singularity could just end up killing her when the “present” arrives.
Barry decides to go back to try to save his mother, but his future self directs him to not do so. Instead he says good-bye to his dying mother and returns to the “present” to fight the Reverse Flash. Unfortunately, something goes wrong and the city is being sucked up into a glowing hole in the sky. Since skyscrapers are being ripped apart and sucked up, presumably a lot of people are dying.
While the episode ends with the Flash trying to close the hole, it should be clear that he is at least as bad as the Reverse Flash, if not worse: he was willing to change, without their consent, the lives of many others and he was willing to risk killing everyone and everything on earth. This is hardly heroic. So, the Flash would seem to be rather evil—or at least horrible at making moral decisions.