The Political Philosophy of Captain America: Civil War – Wisecrack Edition

Welcome to this Wisecrack Edition on The Political Philosophy of Captain America: Civil War!

Written by: Myles McDonough
Directed by: Robert Tiemstra
Research by: Jeanette Moreland
Narrated by: Jared Bauer
Edited by: Mark Potts
Motion Graphics by: Drew Levin
Produced by: Emily Dunbar

The Political Philosophy of Captain America: Civil War – Wisecrack Edition

Hey Wisecrack, Jared here. With the imminent release of The Avengers: Infinity War, we thought we’d go back and look at the Civil War. No, not that one. This one. Now, on its face, Civil War is a 2-hour spectacle of biceps, chases, mandatory character introductions to feed the MCU, and man… You know he lifts. But, in addition to some good ol’ fashioned fisticuffs, Civil War also explores the idea of global fisticuffs, or international relations, as you may know it. Which bring us to the question: What do super powers like the United States have to learn from Tony Stark or Steve Rogers? Welcome to this Wisecrack Edition on the Philosophy of Captain America: Civil War. Don’t forget to subscribe if you haven’t already. And as always, spoilers ahead.

While the Civil War comic series deals with issues like privacy and domestic policing in the wake of the PATRIOT Act, the film makes an ambitious break with its source material. Instead, it focuses on a conflict between two approaches to international relations. Civil War frames the conflict between Captain America and Iron Man as a battle between two opposing views on the Avengers’ role in the world. Specifically, the film asks: Should a US-based, high-powered, and potentially destructive team like the Avengers be allowed to operate internationally, independent of government oversight? It’s a poignant question to ask, especially in the wake of America’s own questioning of its interventionism abroad. In Civil War, this question comes to head in the debate over the Sokovia Accords. The Accords claim the Avengers have no right to cross national borders and fight their highly destructive battles without the approval of all governments concerned. Their argument is grounded in the notion of ‘Westphalian sovereignty,’ the idea that a nation-state is and ought to be in charge of all affairs within its borders.

This modern notion of sovereignty only came to exist in 1648, after the major European powers were tired of fighting either the 30 Years’ or 80s Years’ War, which, unlike the liar 7-years’ war, lasted as long as advertised. The resulting Peace of Westphalia created the idea of sovereignty we understand today. But in our highly globalized modern world, things are a little more complicated than when people were still charging into battle on horseback. Many contemporary political commentators are all about the idea of a ‘post-Westphalian’ world order. They argue that globalization has broken down traditional ideas of who holds power where. Under this system, independent actors (such as private corporations and terrorist cells) are able to wield as much, or sometimes more, power than the nation-states whose borders they cross at will. In the film, the Avengers are portrayed as a product of this post-Westphalian world. They are a group of US-based superhumans who go wherever they want, whenever they want, without the permission of local governments. The film even emphasizes this modern notion of the Avengers in its opening, where our heroes try to catch a former HYDRA agent, while using the language of a police operation – complete with surveillance, drones, and calls for backup. “Sam, we need fire and rescue on the south side of the building.”

However, they function less like a traditional police force and more like a private security company. If, like main villain Zemo, your family happens to be the one that gets blown up in their latest attempt at saving the world, you might even consider them terrorists. “What would you call a group of US-based, enhanced inividuals… who routinely ignore sovereign borders… and inflict their will wherever they choose and who, frankly, seem unconcerned about what they leave behind?”

The Sokovia Accords, then, are the Westphalian-world dealing with Post-Westphalian realities. The debate over the Accords is grounded in two competing views of how the international arena works: ‘realism’ and ‘liberalism’. Realism argues that states are self-interested, power-seeking rational actors, who seek to maximize their security and chances of survival. ‘Liberalism’ stresses interdependence among states, multinational corporations, and international institutions, arguing that these various actors can and should work together for the benefit of all. The Sokovia Accords fit this liberalist paradigm to a T. Under the new rules set out in the accords, governmental actors (i.e. the UN) will work together with non-governmental forces (in this case, the Avengers) for the presumed common good. This means more rules and greater oversight for the Avengers, who will no longer be able to gallivant around the globe fighting whenever and wherever they please. “Compromise, reassurance, that’s how the world works.”

Tony Stark buys into the Accords’ liberalist framework, but still manages to do plenty of gallivanting — “You seriously think I’m going to listen to you after that fiasco in Leipzig?” He argues that cooperation with sovereign governments – even to the point of accepting the imposed limitations – is crucial. For Stark, respect for the interdependent world order is part of what separates the Avengers from the terrorist groups they fight. “We need to be put in check. Whatever form that takes, I’m game. If we can’t accept limitations, we’re boundary-less, we’re no better than the bad guys.” Steve Rogers, on the other hand, is a realist. He is focused on security and his own agenda, first and foremost, and argues against the Sokovia Accords on the grounds that they will make the Avengers less able to respond to critical situations, thereby putting the world in danger. “If we call Tony—“ “No, he won’t believe us.” “Even if he did…” “Who knows if the Accords would let him help.” “We’re on our own.”

While the realist position allows for cooperation that will increase the likelihood of the world’s survival, Captain America is simply unconvinced that this will improve security for anyone. Steve argues that shifting agendas of those who uphold the Accords could lead to compromised security down the line. “This is the United Nations we’re talking about. It’s not the World Security Council, it’s not SHIELD, it’s not HYDRA.” “No, but it’s run by people with agendas and agendas change.” The film asks some pretty heavy questions that may as well be directed at a modern superpower: Is unfettered power inherently dangerous? Do rules only tie up crucial fighting forces in dangerous amounts of red tape? Instead of providing some black and white answer for an insanely complex question, the film offers us some ambiguity. While one may criticize Captain America for his unilateral approach to solving things, “Stark tell you anything else?” “That you’re wrong, and you think you’re right. That makes you dangerous.” You could equally say the same of Tony Stark as he tries to enforce the Sokovia Accords, leading to plenty of collateral damage along the way.

While exploring these international frameworks, the film also explores how personal ethics can complicate these concepts. When a terrorist blows up the UN, killing Black Panther’s father, he goes on the hunt for presumed culprit, Bucky Barnes. The attack on the UN creates a rift between those Avengers who want the government to take in Bucky, and those who believe Captain America is right to attempt his own rescue. Through this conflict, the film asks us to consider whether it is better to act based a preconceived set of moral obligations, like the Captain’s obligation to Bucky, or with consideration for the greater good, like Stark and his compatriots.

Tony Stark and his gang embody a branch of philosophy known as ‘utilitarianism,’ which holds that actions should be judged based on their overall consequences, rather than on their adherence to abstract ideals. Tony Stark believes that oversight will reduce the amount of collateral damage caused by their activities, and that this is reason enough to support the Sokovia Accords – above and beyond his belief in the usefulness of a liberalist world order, Tony Stark supports the Accords because they align with his own utilitarian conception of morality. These two ideas are different, though not necessarily contradictory. While he knows that the new rules will inconvenience him and his team, he is convinced that they will improve the lot of humanity as a whole. It’s not about his personal convictions, it’s about the greater good. “Captain Rogers! I know you believe what you are doing is right. But for the collective good, you must surrender now.”

Captain America, on the other hand, flirts with an ethical position known as ‘deontology.’ Deontology judges the morality of an action itself, without consideration for the effects that said action might have. Again, not contradictory to his realist beliefs, but different nonetheless. From a deontological perspective, certain actions can never be justified, no matter how much they might promote some “greater good” – like killing an innocent person, even if it could save millions more. While Steve Rogers isn’t a perfect deontologist in the sense of OG deontologist Immanuel Kant – he acts according to personal laws, rather than universal ones. He bases his actions around a set of moral duties. Cap believes that his moral duty to save his friend, Bucky Barnes, trumps whatever greater good might be served by his death or imprisonment, no matter how many cops Bucky happens to beat the piss out of. In the film’s closing minutes, we learn that that all of the carnage, betrayal, and heartbreak we’ve followed for the last two hours is the secret plan of former Sokovian special operative Zemo, whose loved ones were more collateral damage of the Avengers. Zemo reveals that it was his plan all along to tear the Avengers apart by showing Tony Stark footage of Bucky Barnes murdering his parents. “An empire toppled by its enemies can rise again. But one which crumples from within? That’s dead… forever.”

And here, I think, the film suggests a failing of all of these philosophical systems. No matter how right participants in these systems believe they are, there will always be somebody who gets the shaft. Tony Stark is confronted by the mother of one of the many eggs he had to crack to make a superhero omelette — “Who’s going to avenge my son, Stark? He’s dead. And I blame you.” She is essentially in the same camp as Zemo. Whether you’re operating for the greater good, your personal ethics, at the behest of your own country, or an international agreement, there’s always a Zemo that loses out. And that’s the problem with a force as powerful as the Avengers. As Vision says, “Our very strength invites challenge. Challenge incites conflict. Conflict breeds catastrophe.”

Someone is always gonna get shafted by these philosophical systems, but when the team doing the shafting has the force of a nuclear superpower, the forces that challenge them will invite equally destructive force. And that can turn out pretty poorly for the world. So what do you think? Are the Avengers right to agree to the Accords? Should Captain America give up his own code for the greater good? Or are there no right answers? Let us know what you think in the comments, and thanks for watching. Peace!

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