L. Neil Smith's
THE LIBERTARIAN ENTERPRISE
Number 281, July 25, 2004
"Was ... this ... really ... necessary?"
Dr. Octopus and the Morality of the State
Exclusive to TLE
Critics and movie-goers alike have lauded Spider-Man 2 as a great superhero movie. Spidey's physical battles with Dr. Octopus provide the action, while Peter Parker's moral battles with the personal burden of being a hero provide the drama. Throw in Mary Jane Watson as the love interest and maniacal boss J. Jonah Jameson for comic relief, and you've got a movie that's worth the price of admission and the markup on the popcorn as well. The villainous Dr. Octopus provides a lesson on the morality of the state for free.
Dr. Octopus doesn't start out as a monster, but as talented nuclear scientist Dr. Otto Octavius. (As Jameson points out later, "Octavius ends up with eight limbs? What are the odds?") The good doctor is researching a method for controlling nuclear fusion, to provide limitless energy to mankind. He builds four telescoping mechanical arms to help him handle the dangerous materials involved, and temporarily implants them on his own spine, allowing him to control the arms with his thoughts. But these are not your garden variety thought-controlled telescoping mechanical armsthey have their own neural networks, and a control chip must be implanted on Dr. Octavius to prevent the arms from controlling him.
The parallels to the state are obvious here. Just as free individuals create a state to serve them, Dr. Octavius creates the telescoping arms to serve him in his experiments. Just as the Founders created the Bill of Rights to keep the government from controlling the citizens, Dr. Octavius implanted the control chip to prevent the arms from controlling him. And just as the federal Leviathan grows larger and more dangerous during each national crisis, a lab accident destroys the control chip and fuses the arms permanently to the back of the scientist, turning him into Dr. Octopus.
After the accident, a team of doctors attempts to remove the tentacles, but instead become the first victims of Doc Ock. Similarly, anyone attempting to cut back the tentacles of state power realizes how permanent and how dangerous they have become.
His scientific reputation destroyed and his sanity now questionable, Dr. Octopus is no longer able to secure voluntary funding for his experiments from the private sector. (Okay, so the fascist Oscorp is a defense contractor, but bear with me.) He and the telescoping arms now ponder how to finance his ambitions. When he considers taking the money directly from the bank, some remnant of Dr. Octavius' former morality reminds him that it would be stealing, and therefore wrong. But his new state-like morality concludes that not going ahead with his nuclear fusion experiments "for the good of mankind" would be the real crime.
Dr. Octopus has now descended to the moral level of the state, and of all tyrants and would-be tyrants from Josef Stalin to Hillary Clintonviolating the rights of individuals is deemed acceptable, if it serves the "greater good." The greater good, of course, being determined by the madman in charge.
Predictably, any semblance of humanity is soon lost. Dr. Octopus takes whatever money he needs by force, destroying private property and maiming or killing anyone who tries to slow him down. When Spider-Man stands in his way, Dr. Octopus resorts to terrorism, sending a trainload of passengers toward their possible deaths in an attempt to weaken the original Web Crawler. When you're serving the cause of all mankind, and you've already opted for numerical morality over individual rights, you can murder a lot of people before you begin to doubt your decisions.
In the end, Spider-Man saves the day as expected, his voluntary self-sacrifice providing a laudable counterexample to the power-mad fantasies of beneficence concocted by Dr. Octopus.
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