The Web of Inquiry

By Jonathan J. Sanford (Editor), William Irwin (Series Editor)

Wiley, 2012

$17.95, 288 pages

To order: wiley.com


When it comes to tackling the most meaty and complex ethical and philosophical issues of our day, the image of a masked man wearing blue-and-red spandex and shooting spider webs out of his hands may not be the first that comes to mind.

In Spider-Man and Philosophy: The Web of Inquiry, a group of philosophy professors and other academics have written a book in which they thoroughly examine the exploits of the superhero against a host of ethical issues.

Does Spider-Man live a life of Christian ethics? Is he to blame in the death of his Uncle Ben? Is it right or wrong to produce a genetically modified being or a clone? Can Spider-Man serve humanity while also being true to the family and friends he loves most?

Spider-Man and Philosophy is certainly not a book for everyone. The chapters are dense and deal with complex ethical and philosophical issues. Perhaps the biggest challenge of the book for Spider-Man and related superhero novices like me is that each chapter is full of detailed references to Spider-Man films and comics. While the authors explain the finer points for those of us who lack a Ph.D. in “Marvel-comicology,” the book would probably be appreciated most by those well-versed in Peter Parker lore.

Nevertheless, the book is worth reading and certainly provokes thought. In a chapter exploring the responsibility of Spider-Man, Adam Barkman, an associate professor at Redeemer University College, writes:

“By reneging on his promise to Uncle Ben to paint the kitchen and by failing to stop the criminal who robs the manager at the wrestling event, Peter is initially shown to act according to his own distorted or purely selfish desires, instead of doing what he knows to be right. He’s unjust because people ought to keep their promises (all things considered), and if people have the power to stop a criminal — especially with little trouble — people also have a duty to do that as well. Throughout the movie, however, Peter becomes more and more just, insofar as he chooses to focus on something greater than himself: justice and responsibility based on what he is and has been given.”

In a following chapter, J. Keeping, an assistant professor at York University in Toronto, explores the responsibilities a superhero like Spider-Man must take as a “Good Samaritan” to help those in need. Were Spider-Man not to act, he asks, to save a falling window washer while he certainly could do so with minimal effort, how much blame should be assigned to the window washer’s death?

With the United Kingdom acting recently to approve an in vitro fertilization process that would create embryos containing DNA from three persons, chapters exploring the creation of super-human beings and clones were quite timely. With regard to the former, Ron Novy, a lecturer at the University of Central Arkansas, poses some thought-provoking questions as to: Just where is the line between medical treatments or enhancements — such as to correct vision or an overbite and even vaccinations or gene-therapy techniques — and actions where the end goal is more questionable?

In another chapter, Tony Spankaos at Montclair State University explores the type of love that exists between Spider-Man and his family and friends, as well as to society at large:

“Spidey may not be a Christian, but the ‘great responsibilities’ that come with his ‘great powers’ are built on ideas of sacrificing himself for others, a secularized version of agape centered on unconditional love for individuals for their own sake. … The creators and the fans of Spider-Man value agape, even if they are unaware of its Christian essence.”

Most of us will hopefully not encounter situations identical to those faced by Peter Parker — where we are the last line of defense against a threat of super-human proportions. But each and every day, we will likely find ourselves navigating issues — how we treat those closest to us as well as other members of society, how we respond to a cry for help and how we focus on the greater good — that require well-formed consciences to be resolved well.

For provoking many of these questions in a manner that blends serious ethics and philosophy with pop culture and comics, the authors of Spider-Man and Philosophy should be commended.


Nick Manetto writes from Herndon, Virginia.