On Two Kinds Of Noble Atheists

Never compromise.

I’m by no means a devoted fanboy, but I have to admit, I really do enjoy Alan Moore’s classic graphic novel (and even the movie) Watchmen. Like another of his famous works, V for Vendetta, Watchmen is something of a morality play about politics and life, set in the fantastic world of superheroes. One particular aspect of Moore’s work that has garnered him a great deal of praise is his psychological realism: even when he is writing about a superhuman being like Dr. Manhattan, you think to yourself “yeah, I suppose that is what it would be like to be an immortal who could manipulate matter on an atomic level just by an act of the will.”

The two characters that are in some ways the most interesting to me are also, in some ways, the polar opposites of each other. [And here I want to give a spoiler warning for anyone who hasn’t seen the movie or read the novel: please do so before continuing. You won’t regret it.] That is, Rorschach and Ozymandias.

Ozymandias, aka Adrian Veidt, is called the smartest man in the world in several places in the story, and this description is not a decorative one. It goes to the heart of the character. Ozymandias (so named for the Pharaoh referred to in this poem) is the consummate idealist: he believes that human beings, or at least especially himself, can create a utopia by means of political techniques like deception and violence. Only apply strategic thinking long enough, and a solution to all of humanity’s problems will become apparent. Well, as the story draws to its conclusions, you realize that the villain of the story is Ozymandias himself: he plans to murder cities full of people in order to perpetrate a deception which will force the USA and the USSR into cooperation against a common enemy. And, in the end, he (well, almost…) succeeds. But at no point is it ever suggested that Veidt was insincere; he is not depicted as a sadist, who simply takes pleasure out causing pain. No; he is explicitly described as trying to feel the pain of the loss of all the people he murders in order to bring about a utopia. He is the consummate utilitarian, but not a sadist. From his point of view, true love for humanity demands the sacrifice of a large part of humanity; anything less, to him, is simply a moral failure.

In stark contrast to Ozymandias, you have Rorschach, aka Walter Kovacs. Kovacs came out of an abusive childhood, and, in the course of investigating the abduction of a child, discovers that a pedophile has killed the child and disposed of her in a particularly gruesome way. Upon discovering this, something in him snaps; his sense of moral injustice is driven to the point of what the average person would call insantiy. There is only evil and good in this world, and it is never right to compromise, not even one iota, with evil. Evil must be punished, in all circumstances, without exception, without mercy. That’s what morality demands, and that’s what Kovacs lives out his life trying to do. In the end, when Veidt’s plot is revealed, all the other Watchmen consent to keep the secret of the truth behind the mass murder so that Veidt’s crime will not go to waste (i.e., so that the superpowers will accept the lie and thus build peace upon it), Rorschach alone refuse to lie, and fully intends to reveal Veidt’s plan to the world. He never makes it in person, but the very end of the story suggests that, in spite of his being killed, his goals will be achieved by other means.

My tentative thoughts about these characters are basically that, they both represent logical outworkings of two kinds of atheist ethical systems, the former being utilitarianism, and the latter being a kind of Kantianism. The former weighs apparent consequences, and the latter responds to perceived obligations regardless of other consequences. Both basically eliminate any necessary reference to a Creator in their ethics (yes, I realize Kant brought in God as a limiting concept to assist his ethical system, but I think his system as a whole turns out to be atheism). Veidt is able to live out a kind of moral schizophrenia, where he acknowledges the wrong of what he is doing but proceeds to do it anyway, conceiving of the world in tragic terms, where sometimes there is no option of choosing between good and evil, just evil and a slightly better evil. If he believed there were a Creator who ruled over the world, and who would one day right all wrongs, he would not be able to weight the consequences in such a manner. On the other hand, Rorschach truly believes in a real good and a real evil, but acts in ways that most people would regard as evil as a means to achieve what many would regard as good (again, betraying a tragic conception of the world, expressed also in his costume and name, which suggest the chaotic and nihilistic character of life). He is a vigilante, and a particularly brutal one at that. If he were a Christian, he would recognize that Jesus taught “those who live by the sword, die by the sword”, thereby ruling out a kind of zealot politics as a legitimate option for his humanity; correlatively, he would recognize that God will order the consequences such that obeying Jesus in this regard will be better in the long run than not. Because he is not a Christian and thus does not believe these things, he acts as if there is no final justice and no providence. And his actions, were he a real life person, would likely bring about no real improvement on a social scale, would probably get him killed, and could likely cause greater evil than they attempted to prevent by destabilising the social and political order in such a violent and dangerous manner.

Now, I don’t mean to suggest these two characters are morally equivalent; others may have a different judgment, but in my view, Rorschach clearly is a better person. But upon reflection, it is apparent the parts of these characters that the average person would find repulsive are precisely those aspects of their behaviour that presuppose the atheism of the characters. And that is something worthy of reflecting upon.