Part of what makes Thanos in Avengers: Infinity War so scary is that his “evil” plan makes a certain amount of rational sense: The greatest enemy of the Marvel Cinematic Universe isn’t Thanos; it’s overpopulation that will eventually lead to famine and ruin. By writing his own narrative, Thanos becomes the hero if he succeeds in wiping out half of the universe’s population from existence. Thanos isn’t a generic villain like Ultron or Steppenwolf who simply wants to destroy everything. He’s much more calculated, even logical in his approach, and more than 20,000 people in the real world agree with him enough to subscribe to a subreddit called /r/thanosdidnothingwrong. Even in moral philosophy, they’re probably not alone.
Further spoilers follow for Avengers: Infinity War.
Though a mostly unserious breeding ground for hilarious, sometimes crassly NSFW memes, the pro-Thanos subreddit actively worships the Mad Titan as their “saviour.” The whole thing comes off as a joke, but plenty of people out there would acknowledge that overpopulation is a real-life problem that’s only getting worse. Thanos earnestly believes in a proactive solution, one that is technically genocide, but also one that you might argue is viable within the frame of utilitarian ethics.
The base concept of utilitarianism judges the morality of an action by the amount of happiness or unhappiness it produces. Most would say that mitigating many potential future disasters by manufacturing one gargantuan genocide sounds horrifying and bad, but to Thanos, who saw his own world die despite his warnings, it probably looks like a noble mission.
Midway through Infinity War, Thanos uses the Reality Stone on Titan to show Tony Stark what his home planet looked like in its prime before it consumed itself. Thanos accurately predicted that his race’s society would crumble due to a growing combination of resource scarcity and overpopulation. We see the ruin and extinction that occurred when his people didn’t listen, so Thanos then made it his mission to travel the universe systematically, halving sentient populations so they wouldn’t suffer the same fate.
Infinity War spends the majority of its screen time developing Thanos’s story to make him a more relatable character. He’s humanized enough that people even genuinely wonder whether or not he’s hot. He gets the most screen time as the main character of Infinity War, and we spend so much time with him that you almost start to root for him. Say what you will about his villainy, but the fact that he was able to successfully acquire the Soul Stone confirms he did love Gamora.
On the pro-Thanos subreddit, the members saw him taking Gamora in as an act of compassion rather than one of kidnapping. Is this a warped version of what really happened or just moral relativism in action?
Peter Singer, an Australian moral philosopher, has been writing and speaking about the need for population control for decades. Over on his website, Singer notes that “continued global population growth will eventually bring disaster,” which sounds like something Thanos might say. Singer espouses a kind of ethics that could be broadly generalized as utilitarianism, which is commonly oversimplified with the example of sacrificing one for the sake of many. Many moral philosophers might argue it’s an immoral approach to take because killing is always objectively wrong, even if it has a positive consequence.
Singer would disagree. He might be one of the foremost animal rights activists in the world, but he also supports abortion, infanticide, and euthanasia, along with controversial biomedical research deemed unethical by many people. In summary, he supports and condones merciful killing if it leads to a positive outcome. Isn’t that kind of like Thanos?
We see this philosophical conflict with utilitarianism dramatized even within Infinity War. Vision wants to sacrifice himself to destroy the Mind Stone rather than let Thanos succeed in his mission. Some might call this suicide, but others would call it a noble utilitarian sacrifice that could save the universe. Scarlet Witch, Steve Rogers, and the other Avengers take a more classic approach to morality and immediately refuse to let Vision die — even though Wanda has to kill him in the end anyway.
Yet, because we — and Doctor Strange — know the eventuality that is Thanos’s success, these ethical debates seem pointless and shortsighted. We’re led to believe based on Doctor Strange’s comments about the “endgame” that letting all of this happen is the only way to save the universe. Letting all these people die in the short-term to ultimately reach a happy ending could be construed as no better than Thanos’s ethical theory.
So ask yourself: Could Thanos be right?