The New Humanism


Higher Power

James Orbesen

A Fictional Character As Moral Guide .

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by James Orbesen

"I challenge anyone to find a literal interpreter of Superman

Before I left the house for school or to see friends, my mother would always tell me to be good. She said it with the finality of a goodbye. Be good. She had done her best to keep me good. But she was busy trying to keep a roof over our heads. Growing up non-religious, my friends could look to their What Would Jesus Do bracelets and find in that piece of rubber a role model. To be good, they had a clear example to turn to. Who could instruct me with the same vigor and acclaim of a Jesus? I didn't believe in Jesus any more than I believed a man could fly. Without religion, how could I be good in the eyes of my neighbors? I began to understand the disadvantages to growing up non-religious. Not only did I miss out on a whole support and social network, I couldn't even share in a moral role model endorsed by parents and bracelet manufacturers alike. Even though I didn't believe in heaven or hell, I began to wonder who I could look to save me.

Aside from my mother, there had always been someone who told me to be good. No one really took him seriously. As I got older, I was less secure reading about him in public. I did so behind a book or made sure no one was looking. He wore underwear over his pants. His boots were a bright, lipstick red. His cape (who honestly wears a cape?) fluttered in the midday air. My parents both had read him when they were young. It was my father who bought me my first comic books. Superman was good. He knew what it was to be good and he made being good not based on expecting anything in return. Doing good wasn't a ticket to heaven's express counter. And it certainly wasn't a way to avoid hell either. One did good, acted good, simply because it was good to do so. One helped others not for reward but because each had a responsibility to his or her own. Superman was good because Clark Kent was good. His parents, Jonathan and Martha, had poured the best of themselves into their adopted son. Morality came not from a holy book but from his parents and the people around us. If you do right by them, you'll do right for yourself. This is what Superman taught me.

It's silly, kind of, looking for moral inspiration in comic books. I realize that. But I also realize it is also a bit silly to believe that morality comes exclusively from religion. I didn't understand this as a child, but I wonder now as an adult, if those looks I got from parents and peers, after telling them I wasn't religious, weren't tinged with more than just condolence? Was there pity or remorse? Might they have thought I was damned or doomed to immorality? I'll never know for sure.

So, why Superman? Why the Big Blue Boy Scout? The Man of Steel? Last Son of Krypton? Man of Tomorrow? Really the question is why, and how do I know this is for the best? I opt for Superman because he embodies a number of traits and qualities that I not only find commendable but, also, inspiring in a way that makes him a verifiable moral icon and role model. He is a moral figure I can take instruction from because his moral framework is appealing and doesn't tiptoe into dangerous and contradictory territory, like ordering the death of Sabbath breakers, endorse selling daughters into slavery, and stoning X for Y. He practices what the philosopher and atheist Walter Sinnott-Armstrong would say is a harm-based moral system. Moral decisions are made on the basis of minimizing harm caused while maximizing the amount of harm prevented. Plus, Superman is familiar and has been a constant presence in my life since I was young. As a boy, Superman mattered to me in a way that talk or thoughts of Jesus or God didn't. Not only did Superman do good things but he was a contemporary, fought alien monsters, and wore a sick costume with some seriously awesome big red boots. And now, as a slightly older and possibly more mature boy, Superman still speaks to me in his various interpretations in comics, film, TV, and video games. I guess if there are some tenets to believing—insomuch as someone can "believe" in a thoroughly fictional character—these would be them:

1. Superman, at his core, is non-violent. Maybe even a pacifist. At first, considering the ample evidence of said superhero slamming a super-powered fist into the face of many an enemy, calling him a pacifist is certainly a very distant conclusion to draw. However, consider the nature of Superman's use of his physicality and how he responds to threats. Superman is reactive, not proactive. He only responds to violence. He does not instigate it and is very often on the receiving end of punishment or must deal with the collateral damage of violence e.g. repairing bridges, stopping trains, etc. Furthermore, a situation often doesn't become hostile as Superman has a preference to simply talk opponents down from a violent course of action. He talks first rather than punches. While he may not be a complete pacifist in that he does actually fight back if provoked or threatened, it is important to note that he does not utilize his tremendous physical power for vengeance or for selfish ends. He especially doesn't use physical force unless as a last resort. A great example of that can be found in Joe Casey and Derec Aucoin's The Adventures of Superman #616. Superman faces down a trio of villains intent on (literally) draining the world of color and into a drab, monotone, Orwellian experience. Instead of simply tossing these foes into the stratosphere with ease, Superman opts to face them and allow them to try and sway his convictions. He refuses the easy path and instead opts to win the argument and settle the matter, letting his beliefs win out over his fists. He goes and gets his digitally colored ass kicked. BUT, his resolve wins out. He has held onto his beliefs, despite terrible pain and suffering, and defeated the villains by simply being true to himself and his commitment to using nonphysical force unless he has no other option.

2. Perhaps the longest enduring trait is Superman's unwillingness to kill. He does not kill under any circumstances. A good demonstration of this is in Joe Kelly, Doug Mahnke, and Lee Bermejo's Action Comics #775. A new breed of hero shows up, challenging Superman's abhorrence of killing. Brash, bold, arrogant, and violent, these new heroes—called The Elite—freely kill their enemies and called their methods progressive. Despite Superman's repeated attempts to show them the error of their ways, citing how killing is not only wrong and immoral but crosses a line that separates one group of spandex wearers from another, Superman faces down the Elite and utilizes non-lethal force while they repeatedly attempt to kill him. Simple and easy morality. But, Superman could kill people with incredible ease if he wanted to. Ridiculously incredible ease. He is capable of killing people without even trying. Author Larry Niven, in his essay "Man of Steel, Woman of Kleenex", posited that Superman, faster than a speeding bullet and more powerful than a locomotive, could kill people just by having sex with them. But he doesn't and he won't because he is so consciously aware of how fragile we are—how easy we can break against his steel hard skin—that the better part of his day is filled with trying to prevent death, trying to prevent the men and women of Kleenex, from falling apart. He doesn't kill because it is far too easy for him. It must be hard at times, for him. But it is infinitely harder to stop once one has started.

3. Of all the people on Earth, very few can say they're busier than Superman. Not only does he repeatedly save the day but he also holds a full time job as Clark Kent, keeps up a brisk social life with his coworkers from the Daily Planet, spends time with the Justice League, drops by Smallville occasionally to see his parents, continues eluding Lois Lane's suspicions and that isn't even scratching the surface of all sheer amount of upkeep that goes into maintaining his costume. Superman is busy, perhaps the busiest, person around. Yet, he is still charitable and compassionate despite his workload. In Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely's All-Star Superman #10, one can see what a 'day-in-the-life' of Superman would be. In the middle of a usual hectic day, a troubled teenager is about to take his own life after his therapist is held up due to a runaway train—of course prevented from succumbing to a nasty 'splat' by Superman. Considering the scale of threats and the sheer scope and magnitude of his powers, one would imagine a troubled teenager not registering at all if examined from a John Stuart Mill Utilitarian outlook. However, Superman not only notices and talks down the teen from the proverbial (and literal) ledge, but does so in a disarmingly empathetic way and humble manner.

4. Superman values all life as intrinsically worthwhile and valuable. Being a strange visitor from another planet with powers far beyond those of mortal men, one cannot help but think that Superman wouldn't be just a little arrogant. After all, he can juggle tanks and bench press a mountain if he wanted to. However, Superman doesn't place himself above other forms of life and he certainly doesn't make a claim to be superior despite the moniker of 'Superman'. In Mark Waid and Lenil Yu's Superman Birthright #2, Superman is established as a vegetarian. Due to his advanced sensory powers, mainly his ability to see frequencies of light beyond our vision, Superman can view the world in a unique way. Aside from being able to see through buildings, watch radio waves, and hear the division of a skin cell, Superman can also view the bioelectric outline of humans and animals. Furthermore, Superman can also see the atoms that link and connect every single living thing on this planet, connections that extend from person to person, animal to animal and, importantly, from himself to everything in the biosphere.

5. The tagline of 'Truth, Justice, and the American Way' has been associated with Superman since the 40s. Uplifting, but generally vague, and suspiciously similar to what politicians espouse come election season, it's more important to see a demonstration to understand what exactly this means. Consider Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale's Superman for All Seasons #3. A mysterious plague renders Metropolis comatose. Only a few—including Superman and Lex Luthor—have escaped the plague's effects. It doesn't take the world's greatest detective to see that Luthor is very likely behind the sickness and has engineered the plague to discredit Superman. Luthor –shielded within a hermetically sealed office building—even mocks Superman and says, disingenuously, that the virus ravaging the city is probably a result of Superman's alien physiology coming into contact with humans. Superman is not stupid and states that if he punched through the hermetic seals and exposed Luthor to the virus-laden air, a Lexcorp employee will lickety-split his or her way on up with a syringe containing the cure to said virus. It would be so easy to just assume. Yet he can't. He has to give Lex Luthor, his mortal archenemy, the benefit of the doubt. He can't take the chance that his enemy might be innocent. In that, a very moral (and American) precept, innocent until proven guilty, finds a home.

I feel now, as an adult, that coming from a non-religious background carries an advantage. The endpoint is worth those moments of exclusion or confusion. There's nothing superior about being non-religious in the same way as being religious somehow guarantees superiority. But I do think it carries a key advantage of understanding that morality is not divinely inspired. Finding morality in Superman is valid and I feel this it carries less baggage because there is no literal truth to Superman. His comics do not make truthful claims that are contrary to many human rights or a whole body of empirical evidence. Most religious followers are not fundamentalists. But some are and try and push that literal reading onto others. I challenge anyone to find a literal interpreter of Superman.

Superman was every bit as inspirational to me as Jesus was to my friends who wore those WWJD bracelets. Though my role model may be deemed silly or fictional, I can pride myself in being just as moral as most religious individuals. Perhaps the best present my father ever gave me, and that my mother supported, were those comic books. Although they may have only cost a few dollars, the lessons inside were priceless. And they didn't make me feel so alone. I had a friend in Superman and knew that he was made by other people who stressed that we all could be super men and women simply by doing the right thing.

Comments (now closed)


17 Dec 2012 · 10:00 EST

"He is a moral figure I can take instruction from because his moral framework is appealing and doesn't tiptoe into dangerous and contradictory territory, like ordering the death of Sabbath breakers, endorse selling daughters into slavery, and stoning X for Y." Yes, what a wonderful point. It defies reason that someone would be thought silly or "lost" to base his/her moral guidelines on Superman if it checks out as sound and sane, no red flags, while it's seen as completely stable and no-nonsense to put all your moral eggs in God's wishy-washy (murderous flood here, tiny miracle there) basket. This is a really thoughtful and fun essay. Enjoyed reading it.


27 Dec 2012 · 08:00 EST


Howard Barrett

23 Jan 2013 · 14:36 EST

This is VERY refreshing. It's one of the best articles expressing non-religious based morality that I have ever read. I am indebted to you... THANKS!!!

Howard Barrett

23 Jan 2013 · 14:49 EST

Clearly we need WWSD bracelets (What Would Superman Do)... IJS...

James Orbesen

25 Jan 2013 · 18:01 EST

Thank you all for the kind words!

Keith Roper

26 Jan 2013 · 14:59 EST

I too grew up and always looked forward to my daily dose of the TV show Superman in the 1960s. Since then, I've had other folk (mostly men) to look up to, admire, try to emulate. I still have this strong sub-personality of wanting to be a Superman (of sorts.) But, for whatever reason, I still sense this need for forgiveness in order to alleviate the pains of guilt & shame. Without forgiveness from something/someone greater than myself, I find I'm a tad distracted and cannot fully do the good that is a part of my mission in life. Superman doesn't fill-the-bill re forgiveness. For now, at least, I'm relying on the Christian mythos of Jesus being the "healer" of my guilts & shames as he, or so the story goes, approaches his harsh judgemental perfectionist Father-Creator with a plea of mercy & grace. I don't think Superman is enough. We all fall short of our good intentions.


23 Apr 2013 · 08:54 EST

Humanity need Heroes that is why we seek them. The problem is that heroes live in a different time than us thus their ethics and morals might be a bit off. When I was a child my grandpa was my hero. He remained to be my hero until I grew up. I left for collage and when I returned I saw an old man that was stubborn.