Imagine the following scenario: Superman learns about a planet on the other side of the galaxy that may be inhabited by some long lost Kryptonian relatives. He decides to leave Earth in search of them. He has always taken seriously his commitment to protecting the people of Earth, though, so he convinces his old pal Jimmy Olsen to take his place as Superman. What would it take for this scheme to be successful? That is, could Jimmy Olson ever truly be Superman?
This question is a puzzle about superhero identity, which I discuss in “Superhero Identity: Case Studies in The Avengers”, my chapter of the forthcoming book The Avengers and Philosophy: Earth’s Mightiest Thinkers (Blackwell, March 2012). The problem of superhero identity is similar to that of personal identity, a hot topic since the days of John Locke. There are some special problems about superheroes, though—a single person could be multiple superheroes (e.g. Hank Pym), a single superhero could be multiple people (e.g. Captain America), and more importantly, superheroes are inherently fictional. My view that I’ll bring to bear on our puzzle at hand is that the two primary features that count for superhero identity are appropriateness and legitimacy.
Appropriateness can be established by someone having qualities that actually make them count as superhero (e.g., some kind of super power or extraordinary ability). Certain superheroes, however, are so closely identified with their powers that in order to be a particular superhero, someone would need to have powers of the right kind. For example, if you want to be Plastic Man, you’d better be pretty flexible.
Legitimacy, on the other hand, is about ownership. If someone is going to don a superhero mantle, they either need to create it themselves or else come by it in a legitimate way. Anyone could paint herself green, put on a swimsuit, and call herself ‘She-Hulk’, but she wouldn’t really be She-Hulk unless she’s Jen Walters, or unless the ‘She-Hulk’ title has been passed down through the right kind of channels.
Do these two constraints answer our question about Superman and his pal Jimmy Olsen? Legitimacy is seemingly easy enough in this case, since Superman himself is choosing Jimmy as his successor. Appropriateness is the tricky part—as it stands, Jimmy has no superpowers at all, much less the ones needed to do what Superman can do.
Let’s suppose that Superman has stashed away in his Fortress of Solitude a crystal that will allow him to give his powers to one, and only one, person. So he takes Jimmy to the ice cave, works his Kryptonian science, and now Jimmy has all the relevant powers: he has ice breath and heat vision, he can fly, repel bullets, lift trains, etc. Now suppose that Superman leaves Earth, giving Jimmy his costumes and his rolodex. Has Jimmy now become Superman? What else could he possibly need?
P.S. Thanks to Roy, Frank, and Qiana for inviting me to contribute to the blog this month—I’m looking forward to seeing what develops in the future!