Freebie: Iron Man and the Ethical Implications of Engineering

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Posted on 05 May 2013 01:55

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Iron Man made its film debut in May 2008 to more or less positive reviews. Anyone who’s seen the movie knows that it plays out as your typical action blockbuster—hardly the political or social critique it could be. Yet, given the movie’s subject matter, it is possible to look past the action-porn façade and bring to light some of the issues the movie just hardly touches on—most notably the ethics surrounding engineering and technology.

The movie’s protagonist, Tony Stark is the culmination of a life of genius. Raised by a father who made his fortune on weapons for “nazi-killing”, he was nurtured by a life of privilege and intellect. At age four he made his first circuit board. At age six he built his first engine. And at eighteen, he graduated summa cum laude at MIT. Eventually, he inherited his father’s business—defense contractor Stark Industries.

Stark is regarded as a mastermind inventor and captain of industry. Throughout the movie he is heralded as a patriot, keeping America safe by manufacturing bombs, missiles, and various other military equipment. Stark lives an extravagant lifestyle paid for by the weapons of war, and he acknowledges it: when asked by an investigative journalist whether he considers himself a “Da Vinci of Our Time” or a “Monger of Death” Stark responds that he’s never been a painter—the latter is much more accurate in its description. Stark nonchalantly embraces his line of work and the criticism that comes with it. But is Stark wrong for taking on this “business as usual” attitude towards his work?

It would seem that in the genre that is superhero movies (or comic books), there are two widely overarching themes. These are: 1. that a hero’s duty is often inherently patriotic (often throughout the genre, heros are superimposed with patriotic symbolism—think Superman, Captain America) and 2. that a hero musn’t use his power to promote their own self-interest. The famous quote “With great power, comes great responsibility,” comes to mind; the mantle placed upon the protagonist by fate dictates that they must use their power to benefit society.

Iron Man brings these two ideals into conflict: Stark supposedly safeguards America—but the means through which he does so is inherently unethical. As a defense contractor, he helps sew war throughout the world. And why he may be “protecting” America, he does so at the cost of others throughout the world. Early on in the movie, the doctor caring for Stark’s wounds (from his own weaponry) comments how he has seen many injuries like Stark’s in his village, where these people are referred to as “the walking dead”. And while Stark should be dead, it is his “power”, intellect, that keeps him alive where others would have died. Ironically, it is not until Tony’s weapons kill American soldiers, and put him in a life-or-death scenario, that he realizes the err of his ways.

The movie as a whole brings up questions reminiscent of Regina Dugan’s TED talk about the military research agency, DARPA—most significantly, should knowledge and intelligence be bound by morality? When asked about the applications for hypersonic technology DARPA has developed, Dugan responded, “Our responsibility is to develop the technology for this. How it’s ultimately used will be decided by the military.” Dugan also analogizes engineers and scientists to superheros, but one must wonder that if war is immoral, working for the military would make them supervillains according to the genre. Profiting from the war machine.

It would seem as though Stark too realizes this—after his own creations are used against him and his fellow Americans, he realizes the cost of his profiteering and shuts down the military research divisions of Stark Industries, seeking to develop clean energy in the form of the arc reactor. If we look at Stark as an engineer, it could be said that we can also look at engineers as superheros. The power of the engineer, much like Stark and Iron Man, lies in his/her intelligence and ability to think critically.

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