The Flash Season 2, Episode 18
Writing Shortcut or Kantian Ethics?
By Matthew William Brake
My friends and I have a sacred tradition.
Thursday is “Nerd Night.”
Let me explain.
I am a part of a holy gathering of nerds who come together on Thursdays to binge watch that week’s episodes of the so-called “Arrow-verse” shows (the DC comics superhero show universe begun on the CW with the Green Arrow adaptation Arrow, which has spawned spin-off shows like The Flash, Legends of Tomorrow, and now Supergirl).
We eat. We drink wine. We nerd out.
This past year seemed like a difficult one for the Arrow-verse. Having spawned two new shows (Legends of Tomorrow and Supergirl) after the successful launch of The Flash the previous year, our holy gathering couldn’t help but notice that some of the plots felt kind of “thin.” Rushed. Inconsistent.
The Flash provides a perfect example of this trend.
The Flash’s first season was in many ways a home run. The show integrated intense sci-fi elements with the more grounded world of Arrow pretty well. It told a fairly consistent story about Barry Allen’s origins as the Flash and the identity of the season’s Big Bad all while digging deep into the Flash comic book mythology and making a lot of continuity-heavy elements like time travel (mostly) digestible to a more mainstream audience.
Enter season 2.
Season 2 attempted to establish the DC multiverse as part of its lore. I think it worked for the most part, but there are two big problems the writers faced. First, they had to establish the plausibility of these alternative worlds, making sure that they were more than just caricatures of the primary world. Second, the writers had to keep track of multiple doppelgangers of the same character. This created a growing complexity for the show’s plot, which also continued to incorporate time travel elements.
So the multiverse and time travel.
Honestly, in spite of this complexity, The Flash probably was still the best written of all the Arrow-verse shows, but it still relied on certain writing shortcuts to further its plot, which is understandable in light of the increasingly ambitious (and complex) comic book elements being introduced.
One shortcut in particular was especially grievous to one of my Nerd Night friends (we’ll call her “Jenni”). She describes this event as the moment when the show “lost her trust.”
In episode 18, “Versus Zoom,” after an entire season of Flash, “the fastest man alive,” getting his ass handed to him by yet another, faster evil speedster, Team Flash develops a device to increase Barry’s speed, allowing him to become a match for the evil Zoom (and crossover to CBS’s Supergirl), who ultimately wants to steal Flash’s speed.
Barry is able to beat Zoom, who nevertheless manages to get away and capture Wally West, the biological son of Barry’s foster father. Zoom gives Barry an ultimatum: give up his speed to Zoom in exchange for Wally’s life. Barry agrees to the exchange.
Zoom shows up to Star Labs with Wally and hands him back over to Team Flash.
(This is what really angered Jenni…brace yourselves).
Then Barry…just gives Zoom his speed.
Keep in mind that at this point Zoom had given Wally back, and the Flash had proven he could beat Zoom.
But the Flash gave Zoom his speed because of—his word?! He kept his end of the exchange because of—the honor system?!!
It’s really hard for me to defend this plot decision against Jenni’s anger, but I’m going to try and offer an alternative interpretation that might help my friend’s nerd rage to subside.
Regarding the question, “Should Barry have kept his word to Zoom?” perhaps Immanuel Kant’s essay, “On the Supposed Right to Lie Because of Philanthropic Concerns,” will be useful.
In this essay, Kant considers the question of whether there should be exceptions to telling the truth, responding in part to a critic of his who asserted that there are those who don’t have “a right to the truth” (64).
Kant poses the situation of having a murderer come to your door looking for his victim. Supposing his victim is indeed inside the home, Kant inquires about whether it is appropriate to lie to the murderer. Does he have a right to the truth?
Kant’s answer is “yes.” One must remain truthful “however great the disadvantage that may arise therefrom for him or for any other” (64).
One reason Kant gives for being truthful with the murderer has to do with the unintended consequences of our good intentions (about lying). We might think we are doing the potential victim a favor by lying to the murderer, but what if the victim sneaks out of the house while you are talking to the murderer and the murderer leaves and encounters him or her on the road? You would then be liable for the death. Because the duty to be truthful is unconditional, you can be held responsible for the unintended consequences of the inherently immoral act of lying; however, you can’t be held responsible for the unintended consequences of an inherently moral action, as Kant makes clear: “But if you have adhered strictly to the truth, then public justice cannot lay a hand on you, whatever the unforeseen consequences might be” (65). Instead of lying, Kant maintains it would have been better for you to tell the truth and allow the murderer to ransack your house looking for his victim hoping that the neighbors would hear the commotion and come to help. Perhaps our truthfulness would even detain the murderer at the front door while the victim snuck out the back.
Before you mock this line of reasoning, one need only look at Oliver Queen/The Green Arrow over in Star City to see a perfect example of Kant’s point. Oliver has lied multiple times to his allies in an attempt to “protect them” only for his best of intentions to backfire (i.e., lying to Felicity about his son, lying to Detective Lance about the death of his daughter Sara in season 3, etc.). It is hard to deny that Oliver isn’t accountable for the unintended results of his lies.
Kant gives anther reason for remaining truthful that is more central to his argument.
Kant says that any lie “always harms another; if not some other human being, then it nevertheless does harm to humanity in general, inasmuch as it vitiates the very source of right” (64-65). So to tell a lie, even with the best of intentions, is to destroy the foundation upon which one can even make claims about right and wrong, justice and injustice. Lawfulness itself depends on the unconditional duty to be truthful. One can neither claim that the truth is not something we can give to one person and deny to another nor can anyone “be excused from this duty” to be truthful (66). To look for exceptions to telling the truth is to already become a liar.
In Barry’s case, he’s a hero. More than that, he’s superhuman, attempting to show humanity the good that it can do. He can’t model the good by compromising the good. He isn’t Oliver Queen. Harrison Wells made this point in The Flash season one episode “Flash vs. Arrow” when he said, “You’re a hero, Barry. You offer protection, hope, light. What that man does is carry out a dark reckoning for his city. It is a brutal, violent vision of justice, one we do not share. You truly think he’s a hero, fine, so be it. But he’s not the kind you should be looking up to.” Oliver may lie to advance his mission, but Oliver isn’t the hero that Barry is. Oliver admitted this himself in the pilot episode of The Flash: “You can be better [than me]. Because you can inspire people in a way that I never could.”
To be an inspiration for hope, goodness, and justice, Barry must model those things and uphold their foundation no matter the costs or the temptations to compromise.
At least Kant would say so, and Barry did make a very Kantian decision in his exchange with Zoom. He must be Kantian.
At least, that’s what we can tell ourselves about this particular situation.
You’re welcome Greg Berlanti and Andrew Kreisberg! Hopefully, I’ve put out the nerd rage of one of your fans.
Immanuel Kant, Grounding for the Metaphysics of Morals with On the Supposed Right to Lie Because of Philanthropic Concerns, translated by James W. Ellington. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, Inc., 1993.
Matthew William Brake is a dual masters student in Interdisciplinary Studies and Philosophy at George Mason University. He also has a Master of Divinity from Regent University and is a teaching pastor at Hill City Church in Arlington, VA. He has published numerous articles in the series Kierkegaard Research: Sources, Reception, Resources. You can follow him on Twitter @mattybrake.