Tony Stark has a complicated relationship with killing.

Or rather, he doesn’t. Tony doesn’t have a relationship with killing at all. Not directly. Morally, Tony Stark is a consequentialist. The rightness or wrongness of an act depends on its consequences, and not some universal quality of the act itself. In this way, Tony only has a relationship with killing insofar as he responds to individual acts of murder or other forms of homicide. Of course even a consequentialist will express distaste or revulsion to killing broadly: its chief consequence is death. This changes however. As you fill the pan of righteousness with more and more weights, the proverbial scale begins to tilt, and before you know it, on balance, killing doesn’t look so bad at all.

Of course even for a utilitarian like Tony, there may be rules or principles which guide conduct. It’s not a completely objective balancing act. Sometimes we can assign more value to some consequences than they perhaps truly ought to have. I call this ‘fudging the numbers’ (wikipedia uses ‘rule utilitarianism’) but if you dress it up right, and use nebulous language, you can fit all kinds of principles into an otherwise utilitarian ethical system. For example: Intentional killing is often avoided, against ‘more beneficial’ course where it may be required, if the victim has certain characteristics. Maybe you know them, maybe they’re an innocent. If you’ve been captured by bad guys and they tell you to shoot this one prisoner and he’ll let you and everyone else go, well, I suspect a lot if not most utilitarians would still hesitate at the prospect of murdering someone like that.

This is a massive digression, and I’m not sure Tony himself has faced a situation like that, but I don’t want to give the impression I think Tony is nothing but a cold moral calculator. I think he assigns value to certain ‘rules’ that are in the public interest, and factors them into a calculation. Sometimes this will tilt the balance in favour of life, sometimes in the favour of death.

Why is this a problem? Why should this even be of interest? Well, aside from my own personal obsession with ethics, Tony’s moral framework plays into his character as it develops and as things happen to him. The problem for Tony is two-fold. It affects him in his universe, obviously, and it also affects our perception of him in ours.

Unfortunately for Tony, utilitarianism in the form he uses is very much contrary to conventional morality, which tends to be more intuitive, and certainly incorporates a lot of deontological thinking, as well as also drawing on utilitarianism, though to a lesser degree. It’s fine though, because often enough deontology and utilitarianism come to the same answer. But then there are the times they don’t.

The poster boy for deontology in the Marvel universe (and arguably one of the many icons for deontology and conventional morality in our own universe) is Captain America. As I said, most of the time there doesn’t have to be a conflict between the two schools of thought. The Crimson Dynamo is attacking New York? Stop him. Apartment building on fire? Rescue the inhabitants. The hard cases arise in situations like… Oh I dunno, you predict America’s ruin at the hands of a burgeoning super-hero population, unless you can regulate them in some way. Or perhaps universe after universe is cascading into one another, threatening your planet, your dimension, and even the entire multiverse. 

Whatever the case may be, Tony will do what he has to do to achieve the outcome that’s most beneficial. Captain America will do the right thing. Tony has to destroy a world to save the universe? He probably will, because the universe is something worth defending. Captain America on the other hand, well, destroy a world? How can you even consider that? It’s just plain wrong. It’s Cap’s view that tends to be the more conventional one as well, for the most part. He’s considered a paragon of virtue for a reason. Superman is much the same as a DC equivalent. These are both heroes who are for the most part, deontological in their reasoning.

But how does this relate back to Tony Stark as a character? Well, his moral framework is inevitably going to lead to guilt and failure. Guilt when he succeeds, failure when he, well, doesn’t. The guilt comes from the knowledge that he had to do something wrong to do what he thought was right. Strangely this doesn’t seem to afflict deontologists as much. They don’t tend to wallow in self-pity when their principles prevent them achieving a potentially better outcome. Maybe they’re just more secure in their morality. Whatever it may be, the utilitarian will always have to look back on their actions with some measure of regret. Maybe there was another way, maybe in hindsight they miscalculated. Tony’s ‘it wasn’t worth it’ in Civil War: The Confession is an example (though I’m not sure he actually felt that way in the fullness of time).

And while Tony may just be a bad futurist, he can’t always get his calculations right. It sometimes makes excellent dramatic sense for Tony to predict one outcome and be met with another. That makes for good reading. I like watching Tony fail, and then keep on trying. Maybe that’s just me.

But is this all a recipe for a character you just can’t like? He was a cock in Civil War to be sure. Some people reckon he’s being a cock in New Avengers. But for all his cold computation, it humanises Tony and brings him more into line with conventional morality when we watch his guilt over these things. He will take lives, when he feels he has to for the greater good, but he won’t feel good about it. Not at all. Mallen, Happy, Extremis enhanciles, whatever it may be, Tony will do what he believes to be the right thing, while feeling that same guilt and reluctance about the means. To me, that makes Tony Stark an interesting character, and tragic one in the dramatic sense, because his archetype means he’ll always end up doing conventionally bad things for what he believes are the right reasons, while coming into conflict with his close friend and teammate, and feeling horrible about the whole thing.