Last night we went to the opening of Iron Man. While I’ve never been into comic books nor their superhero’s the film is excellent. Robert Downey Jr. is a perfect fit as the womanizing jerk Tony Stark. But after being betrayed and captured in Afghanistan by people using the weapons he designed Stark has a change of heart as he watches the man who saved his life die.
In one sense, this is a conversion story where the character goes from a producer of weapons to the protector of people. Stark creates the ultimate weapon but uses it for “good.” I loved the story, but I struggle with the individualized sense of ethics that Stark converts to. What are his orienting points that guide his new moral compass? Certainly his change is laudable, but what we need to think about is where do we get the framework for what is good in our life. How do we define what is good? Can we leave it up to the individual? The state? Can that individual help others achieve that same type of conversion?
The struggle with individualized values is that there is no larger framework beyond the self to uphold and re-enforce ones chosen values. They can be matters of convenience able to increase or decrease in value (essentially what is profitable for that person) depending on the circumstances. The idea of value comes from the market economy built on needs, wants, and scarcity. Is this where we really want our moral values to emanate from? Values shift from person to person based on what is effective for their own self advancement or fulfillment.
To what are we looking for the moral ideal? From whom or which tradition are we learning our behavior? Who’s traditions are we using and being used by?