More To That

An illustrated, long-form blog that delves deeper into the things that make us who we are.

Mere Superheroes

The setting is New York City.

A subway train full of 50 passengers has been hijacked, and the tracks have been rerouted so that the train will soon crash into City Hall. There’s nothing the police can do, as there are only a few minutes left before the moment of impact.

As the passengers fear for their lives, one of them looks up and sees a faint glimmer in the sky. This little speck is moving at a dazzling speed, and it appears to be getting larger as it circles around toward them.

A passenger screams, “It’s a bird!”

Another proclaims, “It’s a plane!”

A kid tells them both to shut up and calmly says:

“No. It’s Superman.”

superman in the sky

Alas, Superman is here to save the day. He zips his way to the front of the hurtling train, positions his hands, and with incredible strength, manages to give enough pushback to bring the train to a screeching halt.

He then smashes his way inside, where the awaiting hijackers fire everything they have at him. They must have forgotten that he has impenetrable skin, as he swiftly kicks their asses and piles them on top of each other, creating a trophy for all to remember.

Everyone cheers. They shower him with adulation. Superman grins, looks up, and flies away with pride.

What a superhero.

we love you superman

Interestingly, while this is going on, another act of heroism is about to happen.

While waiting for her train at Union Square Station, 16-year-old Stephanie Xue suddenly faints. But instead of falling straight to the ground, she topples off the platform and experiences every passenger’s worst nightmare:

She collapses onto the tracks below, and a train is only minutes from arriving.

While bystanders hover and gasp (aka don’t do anything), one man springs into action. Joshua Garcia, a 34-year-old NYU food service employee, immediately jumps down, grabs Stephanie, lifts her up onto the platform, and hoists himself up to safety.

The train arrives mere seconds later.

saving a girl in train station

Joshua stayed with Stephanie until the paramedics arrived. Afterward, he disappeared into the crowd and barely even mentioned the incident to his family. When asked later to comment on the event, he would say, “I was just a pawn in the game of life that God put me in this situation, because I normally would’ve left work at 5 instead of 6:45.”

One day. Two acts of heroism.

Superman saved 50 lives by defeating a band of hijackers. Joshua Garcia saved one by taking action when no one else did.

Now consider this question: Who is the greater hero here?

superman or joshua garcia

I’d like to think that you’d say Joshua Garcia, considering Superman isn’t even real. However, let’s suspend our disbelief for a moment, and pretend that Superman actually is real. Doing this exercise will reveal something interesting about the nature of heroism, and will help refine some of the intuitions we have about it.

Generally, when we look at acts of heroism, we tend to plot them against a rather simple axis:

superhero axis

If you don’t do anything ethically noteworthy, you’ll have no place on this axis. There needs to a be minimum level of bravery or courage to even be considered a hero of any kind.

In Superman’s case, he exhibited bravery that led to the saving of 50 human lives. That’s objectively an incredible feat, and one that results in a position that’s high up on this scale.

superman's heroic act

Now let’s turn to Joshua Garcia.

Joshua exhibited courage that led to saving one life: that of Stephanie Xue’s. This is undoubtedly a heroic act, but if we look strictly at outcomes, it wouldn’t surpass that of Superman’s. Stephanie’s family might beg to differ here, but from a moral perspective, if you have a choice between saving 50 lives and 1, it would be quite repugnant of you to choose the 1.1

So if we were to plot Joshua’s act of heroism, it would be somewhere around here:

joshua garcia's heroic act

Looking at this result, it’s tempting to say that Superman is the greater hero. However, your intuitions are probably screaming that there’s something wrong with this conclusion.

Here’s the thing about Superman. His incredible heroic acts are made possible by his already incredible capabilities.

He can fly. He has bulletproof skin. He can deadlift planets. He can take off his glasses, and suddenly no one will recognize him.

He’s superhuman.

Given this, how much courage does it take for him to stop a train, and face an onslaught of bullets that feel like raindrops on his skin? How much bravery is required when you’re already impenetrable?

To truly measure one’s heroism, another point must be added to the graph. Instead of viewing the heroic act in isolation, it must also be paired with the hero’s capabilities to perform that very act.

And in Superman’s case, his capabilities are just as incredible as the manner in which he saved those 50 lives that day.

superman's abilities

Joshua Garcia, on the other hand, didn’t have any extraordinary abilities that helped him save Stephanie that day. In fact, there was no real difference between his abilities and those that were bystanders of the incident.

He was of average health and average height. He was a normal person, which meant that his capabilities weren’t anything too remarkable either.

joshua garcia's abilities

But this is precisely what made his heroic act so incredible.

His bravery stems from the fact that he had everything to lose. His skin is certainly penetrable, and the force of an oncoming train would be more than enough to shred through it.

He was a father of three, and he was willing to give it all up for a young girl he didn’t even know.

What makes you a superhero isn’t the heroic act itself. It’s about the difference between the bravery of the act, and the limits of your capabilities. And Joshua Garcia’s difference was far greater than Superman’s ever could be.

what makes you a superhero

A person that does extraordinary things as a result of having extraordinary power is a mere superhero. The superhero that does incredible things despite being powerless, on the other hand, is the real deal.

This conclusion extends beyond the realm of fictional characters like Superman and into the real world as we know it.

For any notable humanitarian movement, we have the tendency to designate a key figure as the champion of that cause. Gandhi’s name is synonymous with non-violence. Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Dalai Lama are also representatives here.

These are the people that we have enshrined as superheroes, and their names will be evoked every time we see history rhyming with the present moment. This is only right, given the extraordinary things they were able to accomplish in their lifetimes.

However, how much of their incredible accomplishments were made possible by their incredible capabilities?

In Superman’s case, he has impenetrable skin, X-ray vision, and superhuman strength. In the real world, people have incredible fame, wealth, and influence. If you already have any combination those things, then how much of your heroism is made possible by this immense platform you occupy?

wealth and fame

For example, Bill Gates is the archetype for global philanthropy, but how much of that is made possible by his fame, deep pockets, and power? Is his heroism defined by courage, or is it more so about his capabilities?

Perhaps it’s a combination of both, and to be clear, this is no criticism of him. After all, he’s doing immense good for the people most devastated by poverty, and I think history will be kind to the man.

The important thing to realize is that for every famous superhero, there are countless people that have no incredible abilities, but do extraordinary things with what little they have.

Humanity inches forward through the collective progress of faceless heroes. It moves with the energy of those who face danger, proceed bravely anyway, and have zero expectation that anyone would ever remember their name.

faceless heroes

To me, the real superheroes are the Joshua Garcia’s of the world. The people that do something amazing without any remarkable abilities to leverage. The people that don’t care to be a hero, because wanting to be a hero disqualifies you from actually being one.

It’s the single mom working two jobs to put food on the table. The undocumented family sending their kid to college. The orphan thanking his foster parents on graduation day.

Mere superheroes wear capes and need incredible powers.

The real ones wear courage and need nothing more.


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Note: This post was inspired by Eliezer Yudkowsky’s discussion of the superhero bias.


Related Posts

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My personal heroes all understand the nature of our shared humanity:

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