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The Punisher, a violent vigilante who wages a one man war against organized crime in New York city. Is the Punisher ethical?
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Frank Castle, The Punisher, A man on a crusade to rid the world of criminals, is his behavior ethical?
Frank Castle is a for former Vietnam veteran who barely survived the death of his family when they were caught in the cross fire of a botched mob assassination. This trauma forged Frank Castle into the violent vigilante The Punisher, who tracked down and slew all those responsible for the death of his family. After this was accomplished Frank continued his one man war against organized crime in New York city, going through organized criminals like a chainsaw through cream cheese. At the current time in the Marvel universe the Punisher has a body count in the hundreds or thousands and shows no sign of slowing down in his quest. Is his quest ethical?
I’m not sure if I should admit this in public, but I have a soft spot for the Punisher, my family was the victim of violent criminals , fortunately not fatally, and I watched the criminal justice system fail spectacularly in their just punishment when they were apprehended. I do understand the appeal of violent and justified retribution against those who have harmed your loved ones, and a general desire that all such evil men be punished.
So is the Punisher’s holy war against organized crime a just one? Can he be said to be acting ethically? At first this might seem like a crazy question, “he murderers people” I hear you say, but I don’t think it is that simple. Frank is acting as judge, jury and executioner of any criminals he deems worthy of punishment, he is taking the law into his own hands as a vigilante, but on the other hand he is dealing out retribution to those more than deserving of execution. Murderers, slave traders, sex traffickers, violent drug dealers and so on. They really are the worst of the worst and they are usually beyond the reach of the law due to power, money and connections. Perhaps it is better the Punisher deals with them rather than let them continue to harm others. It is difficult to say that many of these men are not truly deserving of the fates that befall them at Frank’s hands, probably they deserve much worse.
You might want to conclude that Frank Castle is a homicidal maniac on a murder spree, but it is clear that Frank has a very strong ethical code at the core of his being. It is a simple code, punish the guilty and spare the innocent, but as part of this, he will not harm police officers no matter how corrupt, although he will aid in the taking down of such officers even if he will not kill them. He also endangered himself in the story line ” Valley Forge, Valley Forge” to avoid killing a collection of Delta Force operators that were sent to apprehend him. He didn’t go easy on them and did work them over fairly well but he wouldn’t kill them even though that did put him in danger. On the other hand he did rescue a mob boss in “Army of One”, ostensibly to stop an out of control mob war and restore order, only to then kill all of them when they gathered for a meeting because it was an expedient method of getting them all together.
He has an unusual but perhaps understandable relationship with the police. They more of less look the other way while Frank cleans up the refuse of humanity that are beyond their reach. There are a number of different stories lines in the Punisher that have a running joke as the bumbling and incompetent Detective Soap is assigned as the sole member of the Punisher Task Force saddled with bringing Frank to justice. The comedy, and the ethical dilemma for Soap is amplified when Frank starts using him for information inside the police department.
It seems difficult to determine if the Punisher is behaving ethically. His moral code is iron clad, he is driven nearly to suicide in “Girls in White Dresses” when he thinks he has unintentionally killed a small girl and he punishes a group of vigilantes who look to him as a mentor in “Welcome Back Frank” in part because of their carelessness.
So lets fall back on our old stand bys the three ethical frameworks. Virtue Ethics, Deontology and Consequentialism. Can any of these frameworks provide us with insight into the Punisher’s ethics?
It seems at first based on a Consequentialist approach you might conclude that the Punisher is behaving ethically because by removing the criminals he is insuring that there will be much more happiness in the world, or less unhappiness, or whatever usual sort of metric you want to use to evaluate utility. Fewer criminals should mean fewer victims of criminals. This may not be as straight forward as it seems though, one of the progressions that seemed to be a part of the Punisher story line is the worsening character of the criminals that he is forced to deal with. The Italian Mobsters he starts on are murderous thugs who run supply drugs, run prostitutes, extort protection money, run gambling operations with extremely harsh terms for non-payment and so on. They are by no means good men, yet it seems after their removal Russian and other Eastern European criminals take their place that are significantly worse, having even fewer scruples or constraints. Is this a better or worse outcome? My initial thought is to say better but upon examination it seems it might not be, that perhaps the Italian mobsters are not as bad as their Russian replacements.
The consequentialist calculation is complicated by the reality that had the Punisher done nothing it is reasonably likely that the Russians and Italians would have engaged in a turf war that would have been worse than the transition that took place with the end result being the Russians assent to power anyway. It probably also depends on exactly what sort of criminal that Frank punishes. If he kills the worst of the worst then this may, by a process of selection tend to create a more careful and quieter more peaceful gangster because any sufficiently bad criminal is noticed and pruned. Of course the reverse may also be true and Frank’s pruning efforts may remove less ruthless but more careless criminals because they are more easily reached. Perhaps the end result is about the same, the transitions the same but in a world with few criminals. I’m not sure a consequentialist framework can really answer our question perhaps because it fails to address the central question at issue.
Can deontology or virtue ethics help then? Perhaps. The sort of Kantian Deontological ethical framework we looked at with its Categorical Imperative will probably be worthless here. There would seem to be no meaningful way to make the Punisher’s rules of engagement into some generally binding set of ethical principles for all men to follow. Even if we conclude the Punisher’s actions are right it would seem they are inevitably Supererogatory and therefore not generally applicable, but perhaps some other sort of Deontological framework could be used? Whatever framework was used it would have to place an extremely high value on bad men being appropriately punished for their behavior but one that had no tolerance for those punishing to make make mistakes or have lapses in judgement. Even then i’m not sure how we would fit the Punisher into such a framework, certainly it would be difficult to fit general violent vigilantism into any ethical framework. Who gets to decide who deserves punishment? The Punisher ‘wannabes’ in the “Welcome Back Frank” story line have very divergent ideas about who deserves to be punished. “Mr Payback” wishes to punish what he sees as corporate criminals while the “Elite” will kill drug dealers and destroy hot dog carts because they both bring down the tone of his neighborhood.
I’m not sure virtue ethics would be much use here either. It may not be completely unhelpful though. Frank is driven in part by a desire for revenge against those who killed his family but that was accomplished long ago and now whatever drives his crusade cannot simply be revenge. Perhaps we could call it vengeance, perhaps even a righteous vengeance against those who deliberately harm others for their own profit. Socrates took great pains to say that it was better to suffer evil in the body that take evil into the soul by participating in it. Does Frank by his methods do evil? Or are his methods simply the necessary means for carrying out a just cause? Virtue ethics is ultimately about the character of the virtuous person so what is to be done?
The question quickly gets murky. Frank Castle is an extremely violent vigilante who will think nothing of using nearly any means necessary to achieve his goal, a goal which always includes the deaths of those he judges as needing punishment. Yet he is not without limits and boundaries. He will never target those he regards as innocent and will not harm police officers. He is also careful to make sure that there is no collateral damage, avoiding confrontations where innocents may be harmed. The Punisher will wage his war against evil but has no desire to do to another what was done to him and his family in the park that lead to the creation of the Punisher. For all his savagery it seems difficult not to perceive some nobility in Franks self imposed quest to rid the world of violent criminals. A quest for Justice beyond what the traditional structures of courts and laws can supply.
Perhaps we are going about all this wrong, perhaps Frank should be considered a moral force of nature, beyond the normal moral framework that is required to make civilization function and yet tightly constrained by a higher and simpler moral code that ha less shades of grey because the subjects of it are so much worse. That whatever deities exist in the Marvel Universe make use of Frank as their agent for making the world a better place.
This does raise a final thought. Is the Punisher’s quest futile? Although Frank seems to be very difficult to kill, it is inevitable that at some point he will fall, he is not some sort of super hero immortal he is “just a man” subject to aging and the other frailties of the flesh. When Frank’s quest finally comes to and end, will it have made any real difference? The criminals will not be banished forever, even as we look at the current story lines there seem to be a never ending series of criminals who are willing to try to fill the vacuum that the Punisher leaves in his wake. But perhaps that is inevitable and that is true for all of us. Whatever ethical framework we adopt we can only seek to make the difference we can, to help those we can and do what we can in the time allotted to us and leave the question of putting the whole universe to rights to those in a position to do so.
You can find more information on the different ideas contained in this episode in the show notes on sciphishow.com. You can find links to some of the punisher comics in the show notes, I like them, make of that what you will. I can be reached with comments via email@example.com, you can leave comment in the show notes at sciphishow.com and you can also leave comments on our Facebook page Facebook.com/sciphishow, you can also follow the show via thesciphishow on twitter. If you do enjoy the show please go over to our facebook page and click like. If there is a topic you would like me to look into please don”t hesitate to ask. And don’t forget, it’s Phi with a P H.
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