One of my favorite shows is the British science fiction drama, Misfits. Currently filming its fourth season with an American production in the works, Misfits is just about everything you might want in a show – superheroes, evil villains, obscene language, clever writing, superb acting, dark humor, murder, sex, drinking, and a fantastic soundtrack.
The show follows a group of 5 early 20’s delinquents, sentenced to community service. In the first episode, they are struck by an electrical storm, and each delinquent develops some sort of superpower – immortality, the ability to rewind time, overhearing others’ thoughts, invisibility, and sexual power. Their probation worker is deranged from the storm, and one of our crew kills him in self-defense. Much of the first season revolves around “the gang” trying to prevent anyone from finding out about the murder, as they fear no one will believe that a group of juvenile delinquents has superpowers and had to kill their crazy probation worker in self-defense. It soon becomes clear to the viewer that each episode centers around one villain, usually a citizen who uses a power gained in the storm to harm others, and it is up to our quirky delinquents to stop each villain. Hilarity ensues.
In later seasons, more complex scenarios are introduced – other characters with complicated backgrounds enter the Misfits world, and questions of morality arise. At the end of the second season, our gang has finished their community service and is trying to adjust to normal life. By this time, (spoiler alert!) the appearance of “superpowers” within certain citizens has been outed to society, and their powers are no longer a secret. For some of the gang, their powers are a nuisance. The last episode of the season, a “Christmas Special”, centers around a discouraged vicar, who buys the superpowers of walking on water and telekinesis, and uses these powers to convince people he is the next Jesus. Meanwhile, the same dealer has bought the powers of the misfits. As the vicar exploits his new followers for money, he continues to buy more powers, including some of the gang’s. A follower of the vicar attempts to rob a bar where our misfits are currently day drinking, and in the process, kills one of the gang. Realizing that they cannot save her without their powers (especially the power to reverse time), they run back to the power dealer, who will sell them the remaining powers back for a much higher price than they recieved. What now?
Watch the scene below, starting at 30:00 – hulu will ask to you to log in due to mature content
Fortunately, we really don’t have to worry about the morality of superpowers on a daily basis. But watching this scene several months ago, I remember wondering about how Seth, the dealer, was able to justify his actions. He even explains in the scene above how he sold the time rewind power to an old Jewish man, looking to go back in time to kill Hitler. Seth had to have been aware that however the murder attempt turned out, he was going to irrevocably change history (this scenario later becomes the basis for an entire episode in the next season). As evidenced by the buying and selling scenes, Seth has little to no pre-screening process for the power exchanges; if you have the money, you get the power, no questions asked. How does Seth know that the customer won’t use the power for harm? Should he care?
This brings up a lot of the same questions we have been asking throughout the whole semester. Sure, Seth is running a business – he recieves money for the powers he sells, and pays citizens for their powers if they are willing to part ways. Should Seth have a pre-screening process? Should he deny someone a desired power, even if they have the money? Even in the specific case of selling the old man the power to teleport knowing that he wanted to go back to kill Hitler, should Seth have sold him the power?
Well, one argument is that Hitler created so much hate and was responsible for so much death that yes, the world would be better off without him. A utilitarianist might argue along this line; a world without Hitler would most certainly maximize the greatest good for the most people. But do we know that for sure? How do we know that someone with even worse intentions wouldn’t have come along and done worse? During this episode, the old man fails; he is overpowered by Hitler, teleports back, but leaves his cellphone. The Nazis then use this new technology to win the war, and history is immediately changed. Now Seth is responsible for the pain and death of hundreds of thousands more people over the years. A consequentalist may argue that the old man’s intentions were pure, but no matter how you look at it, the effects of both his and Seth’s decisions were deadly.
As a business owner, Seth has an incredibly large set of stakeholders. One might argue that every citizen of the world is now a stakeholder – just look at the Hitler case above. Hartmann’s argument that Seth is now responsible for avoiding helping to deprive, which opens up a whole new can of worms. What would Seth do? Killing Hitler would help his stakeholders, but only if it goes right. But at the same time, why should he care? If his clients have the money, it is their decision what they do with the powers after purchase. What is to stop them from lying during a pre-purchase screen? Economically speaking, it is in Seth’s best interests to buy and sell powers based on supply and demand, not the ethics of superpowers.
What do you think? What should Seth do? Should he hold pre-purchase screenings? Or somehow enforce these powers? Is he responsible for what the clients do after purchase? Interesting questions! And by the way, everyone should watch Misfits – it is a fantastic show, and I promise it will make you laugh until you cry. Just keep it out of hearing of the kiddos.