Is the Hulk a Moral Agent?

Warning, spoilers abound.

Greetings, heroes!

After returning from viewing The Avengers this weekend, we decided to put aside our planned post and discuss the Hulk instead.

He made a compelling case

Joss Whedon’s interpretation of the Avengers is second to none (seriously, go see it), and the Hulk’s character is likewise amazing.  Whedon brilliantly captures the terrifying power of the Hulk and contrasts it with the demur and frightened Bruce Banner’s struggle to contain that power.  Because if Dr. Bruce Banner, brilliant physicist, becomes angry, he transforms into the Hulk and places all those around him in danger.  Any attempts to stop the monster directs the Hulk’s deadly fury against those who try to contain it.  While the Hulk is on his rampages, he lashes out at anyone and everything he perceives to be a threat while providing clumsy protection to those he loves.  But Whedon gave the Hulk a telling moment in The Avengers.  In the climactic battle, Captain America gives orders to each member of the team.  He concludes by turning to the Hulk and saying,

“Hulk, Smash!”

To which the Hulk smiles and proceeds to smash.  Effectively.

If anyone has the ability to give the Hulk an order, its Captain America.  And without denigrating Cap’s superlative leadership, telling the Hulk to smash is like telling a dog to sniff or a clock to tick; its in his nature.  But the moment the Hulk smiled and acknowledged the order, it implied that the Hulk had a choice, accepted it, and was pleased by the choice.

And that, fellow heroes, presents a dilemma.

If the Hulk has the ability to make decisions based on morality, he is what’s known as a “moral agent”.  This means that he can examine a situation, consider actions which are “right” or “wrong”, and understand and act based on that decision.

On the other hand, the Hulk may not have the ability to make moral decisions.  He may simply react to stimuli and respond without thought, in which case Cap’s order to him made him happy for the same reason a dog is happy when its master throws a ball.  He is like an animal, and at most his will follows the philosophy, as Arthur Schopenhauer wrote, that

 

“Man can do what he wills but he cannot will what he wills.”
http://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/Arthur_Schopenhauer#Quotes

In other words, the Hulk can “make decisions”, but simply doesn’t have choices: he makes the obvious decision available to him at any given time.

Determining the Hulk’s moral status may be impossible, and the consequences are tragic if he turns out to be a moral agent.  That would mean it is fully aware of its actions, and is thus responsible for the death and destruction it causes.  But in addition to being held responsible for ruining billions of dollars of military grade equipment, leaving thousands without homes, causing his part of the $160 billion to New York, and the collateral civilian casualties caused by his smashing, it also means that the Hulk is also being held as a prisoner by another individual: in short, the Hulk is illegally imprisoned inside Bruce Bannner.  Moreover, Banner is forced to serve as a caretaker to another moral being, regardless of his desire or ability.  This is problematic, as our society goes through great pains to remove moral beings from those who are incapable of caring for them, think of unfit parents. Thus, if Hulk is a moral agent, it creates a whole host of moral problems which would require the patience and wisdom of a saint to untangle.  This one may be beyond even Reed Richards’ genius.
Fortunately for human rights lawyers in the Marvel Universe, a group which includes Bruce Banner’s cousin, She Hulk, it would appear the Hulk is not a moral agent.  The Hulk has always served as an analogy of the nuclear age, and just as a nuclear weapon cannot be blamed for the damage it causes, the Hulk is merely a weapon which causes massive collateral damage amongst both friends and foe.  The Hulk means well, but like a bomb dropped with the best of intentions the devastation wrought is tragically more than predicted.  And there is no doing away with the Hulk.  There is no putting the nuclear genie back in the bottle, and the best the scientists like Bruce Banner can hope for is to contain the monster in as dispassionate a manner as possible.  The tragedy is that they will not always succeed.
Peter David’s Hulk: The End neatly illustrated this point.  After humanity was wiped out by, of all things, nuclear war, only the indestructible Hulk remained, suffering as a modern Prometheus for the decision to unleash nuclear fire into the world.

From Incredible Hulk: The End, 2006 From Incredible Hulk: The End, 2006

 

From: Incredible Hulk: The End

 

The story ends with Hulk, alone, without Banner or any living human anywhere.  The Hulk is finally by himself, the remnant of humanity’s nuclear ambition and a symbol of the uncontrollable power which destroyed it. But this decision, though satisfactory, does leave us with a moral problem.  If the Hulk is not a moral agent, who is responsible for what he does?  Do we blame Bruce Banner for being in the way when the gamma bomb went off?  Do we blame the military in the form of Nick Fury (and thus, the government) for not ridding of or at least containing the danger?

Unfortunately, neither answer satisfies, as neither can control the monster.  The nuclear problem is such that, just as in The Avengers, it would only take one decision maker, either government or scientist, one moment of unrealized anger and passion to unleash nuclear death on the world.  And this may be the ultimate message of the Hulk: the key is not to make the holder of the weapon angry, and if we are the ones holding the weapon, not to become angry ourselves.  While emotions have their place, when dealing with a Hulk or a bomb that has no moral agency of its own, we need to exercise our own moral agency to the absolute best of our abilities.  Because all of the Hulk’s strength ultimately lies in our hands.

And as Bruce Banner’s struggle for control demonstrates, the greatest strength is avoiding the power until it is truly needed.