Growing up, I just assumed that everyone deep down wanted to become a better person and took steps to try and improve themselves. As I’ve gotten older I’ve sadly come to doubt that assumption.
Now I’m wondering if some people are content to simply stay where they are, as they seem to express no desire to strive for higher ideals. Worse, it feels like the social shackles are loosed for some and they are actively trying to be as boorish and horrible as they can be.
Not so with Thor.
Thor’s very existence is driven by a desire to be worthy. Aye, Thor has a hero’s heart through and through.
Verily, the Virtue of Thor, the Odinson
Let’s dissect that hero’s heart of Thor, cut it open, and explore each atrium and ventricle to see what it’s made of. Because I think the ethics and virtue of Thor can have something to teach each of us today, should we *ahem* be willing to take it to heart.
Ancient philosophers like Plato outlined three main frameworks for ethics:
- Deontology, and
- Virtue Ethics.
I’ve written about utilitarianism and deontology before, using Captain America and Iron Man as their avatars. Tony Stark is a utilitarian. He tries to weigh the consequences of various actions in order to determine the best action to take. Captain America leans on his principles in order to do what he thinks is right.
Even though Cap and Tony are really different in their ethics, utilitarianism and deontology have something big in common: their focus is on action, specifically the action of determining the ethical thing to do in a given situation.
But the 3rd ethical framework–virtue ethics–focuses on the person instead of on action. It’s a framework that wonders if the person is even worthy (are they virtuous enough) to make weighty decisions to begin with.
Virtue ethics emphasizes enduring character traits that good–virtuous–people possess. Some examples would be love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control, what the Bible calls the “Fruit of the Spirit.” Other examples of these virtuous traits are honesty, courage, and resolve, the hallmarks of a hero like Thor.
The Odinson lives by a code of honor. He doesn’t fret the positive and negative consequences like Tony Stark does, but rather lets his instincts guide him to the right action. In this way Thor resembles Cap, in that they both are looking to do the “right thing.” However, they do things for very different reasons: Cap does the right thing because it represents his duties or principles, but Thor because it represents his character, who he is, the person he is trying to exemplify, to become, often at the example of his father Odin.
We know this because the comics (and Norse mythology) remind us that Thor is worthy of Mjolnir.
In order to dig a little deeper into the virtue ethics that define Thor, we need to look to religion. The idea of becoming a better, more virtuous person is something that is common among religions, even if the primary knock on religion is that adherents don’t always live up to those ideals.
The concepts of “divinity” and “the sacred” in monotheistic religions (we’ll particularly focus on Christianity for this example) are thought to be worlds apart. The sacred and the profane are typically thought to form a pair of mutually exclusive, black-and-white, dualistic opposites that never, ever intersect or overlap: God vs. the world, spirit vs. matter, the soul vs. the body, good vs. evil, law vs chaos, etc.
This is significant in that it allows for a basis for morality in monotheistic religions, which consists of a single set of laws that people are expected to follow. Why? Because there’s only one God, He is sacred, and He has given us a few instructions for being good. Don’t lie, don’t steal, don’t kill, love your neighbor, and have a fruitful life of peace, mercy, and generosity. That sort of thing.
An individual who makes their decisions based upon virtue ethics is always asking themselves if they are worthy of these high ideals, if they are good people who are actually becoming more virtuous.
In the comics, Thor once dressed down Tony, criticizing his actions. Thor’s rationale was that a good person doesn’t act against the basic concepts of camaraderie, loyalty, integrity, respect, trust, and friendship. Instead, good people embody these virtues, and they should be an essential, core part of their character, so that they might manifest themselves in their decision, intentions, and actions.
Thor subscribes to the Michael Jackson school of ethics. If you want to make a change, if you want to be worthy, you need to first take a look at the Asgardian in the mirror.
But virtue ethics aren’t some Ayn Rand hyper-indivialistic worldview that is solely intent on the betterment of self, often at the disregard of others. No, Thor has always held counsel with the community around him. Although he’s often portrayed at odds with Odin, Thor values input from others.
Which makes sense, particularly as Thor comes from the polytheistic Norse pantheon of Gods. The Christian theologian Paul Tillich noted that “polytheistic religions don’t hold the same view of divinity and the sacred as monotheistic religions do.”
Polytheism (and D&D) offers a radically different view of divinity and the relationship between divinity and the world. For a polytheist, gods and goddesses are the animating forces of this world. Everything in the physical world – wind, sunlight, trees, goats, lightning – is a manifestation of some god or goddess or other invisible, divine being. These concrete manifestations may be profane, but they all point back to something sacred or best. (Well, the good aligned ones at least!)
These same tendencies play out in the realm of ethics as well. Whereas monotheistic morality might be something static like 10 commandments, polytheism offers a dynamic and pluralistic framework wherein many different value systems can readily coexist side by side.
To be clear, this is not the “anything goes” attitude of moral relativism, the inversion or denial of the Judeo-Christian perspective of an absolute, universal morality. In traditional Germanic (Norse) society, a person who occupied a particular social role and was a devotee of that role’s corresponding god or goddess could rightly be held to the appropriate standard of conduct. They’d have to first look at that Asgardian god in the mirror, in other words.
To give a few examples, many Viking Age men looked to the gods Tyr, Thor, or Freyr as their object of devotion.
- Devotees of Tyr were ruling-class men who ordered their lives according to upholding and administering the law and societal standards of justice.
- Those of Thor were predominantly warriors whose codes of conduct emphasized strength and bravery in the defense of one’s people and way of life, and a meticulous adherence to standards of honor.
- Freyr’s men were mostly farmers whose lives were much more hedonistic and centered around fertility, fecundity, and production.
As a result, the indigenous Norse worldview had a healthy appreciation for what we today would call “moral ambiguity” – the recognition that one’s values often conflict with each other, and that one often finds oneself in situations where one is forced to sacrifice a cherished value in favor of another (which is true for Captain America and Iron Man as well, even as they would process it differently).
Thor acts for the sake of these virtues, rather than out of the expectation of good consequences or respect for duty or principle. A virtue ethicist like Thor would seek to be the best person he could be, so that he’s readied himself for those tough, morally ambiguous decisions when they come.
The thinking goes that even as you can’t control the ethics of those around you, you can at least take charge of your own. Thor simply strives to be a good person. A virtuous, worthy person.
Are you worthy like Thor?
Virtue ethics are clearly relevant in today’s age with rampant polarization, “anything goes” attitudes, failing leaders and role models, unprecedented anxiety, and extremely difficult “grey” areas in our day-to-day lives. No wonder Thor got depressed and let himself go when he thought Thanos had won and he was left to live with the existential thought of not being worthy.
Listen, I’m not telling you to worship Thor comic books, although that’s not a bad idea if they are the ones created by Walt Simonson.
All I’m saying is that even as Thor is looking at the Asgardian in the mirror, striving and living to become a better person, perhaps we could do likewise and take a look in the mirror ourselves. What’s the worst that could happen?