Unlike the books I’ve edited or co-edited on superheroes and philosophy, The Virtues of Captain America: Modern-Day Lessons on Character from a World War II Superhero is written solely by me—for better or for worse! Also, rather than presenting a survey of philosophical ideas presented through the lens of its topic, The Virtues of Captain America has a specific focus: showing how the “old-fashioned” ethical code of Steve Rogers is neither simplistic nor anachronistic, but complex, nuanced, and just as essential today as it was when he was introduced.
I had several goals in mind as I wrote this book:
- Similar to the approach of the Blackwell Philosophy and Popular Culture series, in this book I introduce basic concepts of moral philosophy, especially virtue ethics, using examples drawn from decades of Captain America stories. In particular, I wanted to address the complexity of moral decision-making, for which simple rules, formulas, and virtues can be a guide but never the final answer. For this reason, judgment is a constant theme in the book (and takes up an entire chapter in itself).
- I wanted to address the perception that Captain America’s ethical code is anachronistic, simplistic, and “black and white.” As I argue throughout the book, none of these could be farther from the truth. The ideals that ground Cap’s ethics are timeless, and while his core principles may be simple, the process of using judgment to balance them to make moral decisions in specific circumstances is anything but black-and-white, as Cap shows time and time again in the comics.
- Most personally, I wanted to share my love of this classic superhero character through his decades of stories in comics such as Captain America, Avengers, and the countless other titles in which he’s appeared over the years (hundreds of which are cited in the book). In the process, I also pay tribute to the dozens of talented creators who have crafted his stories, starting with Joe Simon, Jack Kirby, and Stan Lee, and continuing with legends such as Jim Steranko, J.M. DeMatteis, Mark Waid, Ed Brubaker, and Paul Jenkins (just to name a few).
Here’s three amazing endorsements from people I admire tremendously:
- “An illuminating, well-written volume that gives a whole new insight to Marvel Comics’s Star-Spangled Avenger and what he stands for in the 21st century.” Mark Waid, Writer—Captain America, Daredevil, Avengers, and many more
- “An intriguing look at one of the most iconic and misunderstood characters in the history of comics. This book proves that ‘Cap’ is no one-dimensional flag-waver: he’s a fascinating and complex character who has continually reflected the changes in the equally complex nation he represents.” J.M. DeMatteis, Writer—Captain America, Moonshadow, Brooklyn Dreams
- “Captain America matters more now than ever, and this book proves it. Digging deep, Mark White excavates ‘Cap’s’ complexity, highlighting lessons and virtues that can help heal America.” William Irwin, General Editor of The Blackwell Philosophy and Pop Culture Series
Enjoyable and consistently stimulating, presenting complex arguments in ways that will be accessible to just about any reader, The Virtues of Captain America is popular philosophy of a high order.
I enjoyed The Virtues of Captain America immensely. … I was very impressed by the narrative arc the author maintained throughout and the extensive use of carefully chosen and illustrative examples from real-life philosophers and the fictional superheroes in the Marvel Universe and beyond. … I specifically enjoyed the idea of examining ethics and ethical perspectives from different historical periods and the concept of honor and “right action” that was explored in detail. … I strongly recommend this book to anyone who enjoys Captain America stories and for everyone who has any interest in the broader impact of comicbooks and superheroes on our society.
On Goodreads, msd from London reviewed the book, saying:
Mark D. White is fun and engaging, and as a professor of philosophy he knows his stuff when he’s talking about the subject of Cap and ethics (he just happens to be a massive Cap fanboy too). … This is an in depth look at what makes Captain America the man he is, and more importantly, what makes him the kind of man who should be emulated because of his virtues. White takes on philosophical concepts and dissects Cap, using comics as source (the book is filled with references to source material). … It’s clear that White is a big fan of the character, and he writes passionately about this superhero.
In addition, several instructors in universities and the U.S. Army have used the book in their classes—which was the main inspiration to start working on this blog, to give fans, students, and educators additional resources to supplement the book.
TABLE OF CONTENTS
Introduction (available at Google Books)
1 Superhuman Ethics Class (available at Wiley Blackwell)
Utilitarianism | Deontology | A Civil War … of Ethics! | Virtue Ethics | Virtuous Deontology … No, Deontological Virtue … Maybe “Deontovirtue”?
2 Captain America as a Moral Exemplar
Can a Fictional Character Be a Moral Exemplar? | Aren’t Fictional Characters Liable to Be Perfect? | Fifty Years, Dozens of Writers … One Captain America?
3 Five Basic Virtues
Courage | Humility | Righteous Indignation | Sacrifice and Responsibility | Perseverance
4 Honor and Integrity
The Honor of Captain America | External Honor as Respect | Internal Honor as Integrity | Principle and Compromise | Duty and Sacrifice (Again)
Making the Hard Decisions | Whose Right Answer? | Tragic Dilemmas and How to Avoid Them | “Black-and-White” or Red, White, and Blue? When Judgment Evolves | Hitting the Threshold
6 Principle and Politics
Patriotism: The Captain and America | Cosmopolitanism | The American Dream Versus the American Reality | “I’m a Hero, Not a Politician!” | Principle over Politics | Captain America in (Principled) Action: Secret Empire/Nomad, The Captain, Civil War
7 Can Captain America Help Us Achieve Greater Unity and Civility?
The “Divided States of America,” Then and Now | The Three Core American Ideals | Justice | Equality | Liberty | Debating What We Disagree On While Recognizing What We Share | Now It’s Our Turn