We’re watching Captain America II, the story of a man who misses the Atomic Bomb, Cold War, and rise of Computer Technology, as a way of exploring the ethical implications of our so-called “postmodern era.” The Captain comes from a time (the 40’s) where traditional ideals and values still reigned, before they were called into question by the catastrophic and culture-warping events of the second half of the 20th century. One way to understand this is the Captain comes from a DEONTOLOGICAL moral perspective, one based on absolute standards of rules and duties, whereas our society has moved to a more UTILITARIAN or PRAGMATIST mindset which is more concerned about “what works” than right vs. wrong. Yet ironically, the Captain must break his own deontological rules when he learns that this Utilitarian mindset has led the government to create Project Insight, a massive world-surveillance program that will calculate people’s threat-levels and simply assassinate them before they commit a crime. His deontological opposition to this idea leads him to a utilitarian rebellion against government.
The philosopher Michel Foucault thought that Utilitarian thinking could be dangerous. It was better than the old deontology that simply demanded obedience, but it wasn’t really making people any freer. We went from threats and punishments to what Foucaults “training” and “discipline,” molding people into the prevailing idea of “normality.” But since everything is an interpretation from Foucault’s Nietzsche-inspired perspective, knowledge is less a matter of “truth” than power. The collection of “facts” or the development of ideas that claim to reflect a situation’s “truth” are always attempts to influence, even control others. His favorite example of this comes from Jeremy Bentham, the founder of utilitarianism, who proposed a prison called the Panopticon (literally, pan-optic mean “all-seeing”). Through constant and unpredictable surveillance, prisoners would start to discipline themselves, following the rules out of fear that they were being watched by the officer in the central tower, who kept their cells always lit:
In other words, Foucault says our society has begun to run like a giant panopticon; “panopticism,” mainly through surveillance, is the model of power that defines the (post)modern age. Foucault, like Captain America, saw himself as an advocate and defender of human freedom; Bentham and the utilitarians saw this surveillance as promoting safety and security in society. Who do you side with, and why? Cite as many real-world examples as you can to justify your position. This is worth a quiz grade!