Koopman: Essay

Does Iron Man Have Ethics?

Although the Iron Man movies are mainly known for their explosions, they can also be analyzed as a depiction of ethical and political issues surrounding new technologies. In this essay, I will argue that the Iron Man films can be viewed as an exploration to the question: Assuming the designer of a technological artifact bears some responsibility for its use, should designers decide how to disseminate their artifacts based more on the potential uses or the potential misuses of the artifact? First, I will examine how the Iron Man narrative attributes responsibility for the use of technological artifacts. Next, I will show how the narrative frames the armor itself as an agent in developing Tony Stark's ethics of care, albeit in a traditionally masculinized way, and how this can function as an example of the positive uses of the Iron Man armor as a technological artifact. Finally, I will show how the narrative attributes responsibility for the negative consequences of technological artifacts to the designers as well as the users.

To begin, we must first establish some definitions. For the purposes of this paper, I will employ the term "use" in the context of technological artifacts only to mean using the artifact in a way that it was intended to be used by the designer, and "misuse" to refer to ways of using the artifact outside of that intention. This distinction is unfortunately context-dependent, as the same action could be use or misuse depending on who does it, who it is done to, and so on, and this distinction is critical to the underlying ethical questions in Iron Man. Tony Stark began his career designing weapons, and when those weapons are used by the American military against approved foreign targets, it falls within the category of "use"; however, when those same weapons are used by the aforementioned foreign targets against the American military (or Stark himself), it is "misuse."

Are Designers Responsible for the Use or Misuse of Technological Artifacts?

The first issue to address is whether designers bear moral responsibility for the use or misuse of technological artifacts. First I will examine some philosophical views on this issue, and then address how the narrative in the Iron Man films explores it.

In "Moralizing Technology," Verbeek portrays technological decision-making and intentionality as a complex interaction of humans and artifacts. Because technologies mediate moral decision-making, Verbeek argues, "technology design is inherently a moral activity" (Verbeek, 235). This view is intended to widen the traditional view of technological ethics as solely focusing on individual responsibility for technological disasters by rejecting the view that only the engineers who created the technologies have agency in technological decision-making. He categorizes the different forms of agency in decision-making as "(1) the agency of the human being performing the action or making the moral decision (in interaction with the technology), but also appropriating the technological artifact in a specific way; (2) the agency of the artifact mediating these actions and decisions, sometimes in unforeseen ways; and (3) the agency of the designer who – either implicitly or in explicit delegations – gives a specific shape to the artifact used, and thus helps to shape the eventual mediating role of the artifact" (Verbeek, 238). It is the second and third categories of agency that are most important in the Iron Man narrative.

The Iron Man narrative itself associates morality with the artifacts themselves and with designers, not only users. Perhaps the most obvious association of morality with artifacts is regarding Stark Industries' production of weapons for the military. In the first film, the character of Christine Everheart, the aptly-named reporter from Vanity Fair, acts as a mechanism to bring the consequences of Stark Industries' weapons to Stark himself. She is the first character to attribute responsibility for the deaths caused by Stark's weapons to Stark himself, referring to him as the "Merchant of Death" even though he only designed and sold the weapons and did not personally use any of them (Iron Man). Furthermore, one of the antagonists refers to Stark as "the greatest mass-murderer in history," and Stark himself later explicitly calls the military-industrial complex "a system that is comfortable with zero accountability" – in this case referring to his own lack of accountability before his change of heart (Iron Man). Later, he refers to his actions using the suit as "trying to protect the people that [he] put in harm's way," directly taking responsibility for the consequences of his weapons being used even though he was not the one who used them (Iron Man).

Disseminating for Use

Having now established the films' position that designers bear responsibility for the consequences of their artifacts' use, I will examine the philosophical arguments and the argument within the Iron Man narrative for disseminating technological artifacts based on the potential benefits that they may present.

Verbeek provides a description of how technological mediation can be brought into ethics. In it, he rejects the traditional focus on "risk assessment and disaster prevention," instead widening up the ethical examination of an artifact to include "moral reflection […] directed at the question whether the actions resulting from specific technological mediation can be morally justified" (Verbeek, 236). This is not precisely the same issue as whether to disseminate a technology or not; instead, Verbeek focuses on the design process itself. However, it can provide a framework for how to consider issues of technological dissemination: can the actions resulting from disseminating a specific technological artifact be morally justified? This section will examine the ways that the Iron Man narrative argues that the dissemination of the Iron Man technology might be morally justified, particularly using the lens of Michelfelder's care ethics.

Michelfelder's exploration of care ethics suggests that technological artifacts (or technological systems) can be used to create and strengthen relations, identities, and "as a means to demonstrate one's caring" (Michelfelder, 204). Michelfelder's argument is made by discussing communications technologies used to enable interaction between women, but the main argument is that the use of technology does not necessarily "inevitably hamper one's efforts at relating more to others and to the world" (Michelfelder, 206), but can, in fact, enhance one's engagement with the world. To apply this general argument to the Iron Man films, I will argue that the films portray the Iron Man armor as enabling Tony Stark to engage with the world beyond himself and provide care for those close to him.

First, there is the relatively unsubtle metaphor of the arc reactor (a key component of the Iron Man armor) as Stark's heart. This metaphor is established in multiple ways: first, in the placement of the arc reactor's glow directly above Stark's sternum; in the continual use of the arc reactor's glow as an indicator of Stark's physical well-being by having it flicker or go dark when he's physically unwell; the electromagnet itself keeps the shrapnel created by Stark's previous (and callous) development of weapons from piercing his heart; and, of course, when an old reactor is put on a stand with a plaque indicating that it is "Proof That Tony Stark Has A Heart." (all Iron Man) In The Avengers, Stark explicitly links the arc reactor and the armor to his perceived duty to act as a superhero, calling it "a terrible privilege." (The Avengers) All of these ecamples tie the presence of the arc reactor to the development of Stark's conscience over the course of the first film: it is a symbol of how Stark has changed and a physical reminder of the dangers of disengagement.

The subsequent films establish the connection between Tony Stark's ability to maintain interpersonal relationships and the armor even more strongly. In the second film, it is heavily implied that Stark allows his friend, Colonel James Rhodes, to take an Iron Man armor even though he had previously refused to share it with anyone (Iron Man 2). Furthermore, despite several failed attempts to display the kinds of actions of care that Michelfelder describes (cooking and attempting to give gifts to his love interest, Pepper Potts), Stark successfully shows how much he cares for her by using the Iron Man armor to save her life (Iron Man 2). This becomes even more explicit in the third film, when he directs the armor to cover Potts to save her life in a time of crisis at the potential expense of his own, and uses the communicator embedded in the helmet to contact her when he cannot tell anyone else that he's alive without becoming a target (Iron Man 3). While Stark is unable to deploy traditional actions of care (or is merely terrible at it), he is able to demonstrate his empathy using the Iron Man.

To return to Verbeek's framework, the positive effect that the Iron Man has had on Stark's moral development is itself a strong argument in favor of disseminating the Iron Man armor. If the Iron Man armor could have the same effect on others as it had on Stark himself, then its dissemination would be morally justified.

The Decision Not To Disseminate As Protection Against Misuse

Perhaps the strongest philosophical argument against the dissemination of a potentially dangerous artifact lies in Langdon Winner's "Do Artifacts Have Politics?" Winner argues that some artifacts, such as the atomic bomb, require certain political structures. The atomic bomb, Winner says has "lethal properties [that] demand that it be controlled by a centralized, rigidly hierarchical chain of command closed to all influences that might make its working unpredictable" (Winner, 258). Politics are certainly not the same as ethics, but Winner's argument has a certain morality embedded in it: the reason that the atomic bomb necessitates this power structure is that otherwise, it may be vulnerable to use in ways that are counter to its intended use. Winner even explicitly discusses this "practical necessity" as itself a "moral claim" that must be considered alongside other moral claims (Winner, 260).

The Iron Man armor, in the context of the Iron Man films, is a similarly inherently political artifact, as is every weapon that Tony Stark designed. In the first film, Stark decides not to put any blueprints or information related to the armor on (presumably insufficiently secure) Stark Industries servers, saying, "I don't want this winding up in the wrong hands. Maybe in mine, it can actually do some good." (Iron Man) This assertion (that any hands other than Stark's are the wrong hands) is reinforced by the narrative itself. All of the antagonists of the first two films are driven primarily by a desire to use or appropriate Stark's technologies (including the Iron Man) against Stark's wishes, from the Ten Rings group that wants the Jericho Missile and Obadiah Stane in the first film to Justin Hammer and Ivan Vanko in the second film (Iron Man and Iron Man 2). Stane, at perhaps the height of his villainy in the first film, asks Stark, "Do you really think that just because you have an idea, it belongs to you?" (Iron Man) By consistently aligning the pro-dissemination viewpoint with villains, the films take the clear stance that the dangers of misuse outweigh the potential good that could be done through proper use.


Although the Iron Man films explore both the positives and negatives of sharing technologies, ultimately they come to rest on a single answer: that the designer bears at least some responsibility for the misuse of an artifact they helped create, and that this outweighs the potential benefits of disseminating that technology. The strongest argument that the films take this stance is simple: Tony Stark, the protagonist and hero of the films, the one we're meant to root for, is portrayed as justified in not disseminating the Iron Man armor. Nevertheless, the films also show the positive benefit that the armor has not only on Stark himself, but on the whole world. This brings some ambiguity to an increasingly important issue, as our technology advances: who is responsible for the consequences of a technology? In Iron Man, the answer is simple: Tony Stark.

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