Though both are vigilantes, Rorschach (Walter Kovacs) and Adrian Veidt (Ozymandias) adhere to opposing ethical systems. Rorschach holds a strict view of morality and condemns any breach of the law in any form. Veidt takes a utilitarian approach, disregarding small breaches of the law if they serve a greater good. The two heroes’ opposite views of ethics inevitably draw them into conflict with each other, pitting one system against the other. Rorschach and Adrian Veidt’s ethical conflict compares strict moralism with utilitarianism, ultimately suggesting that utilitarianism is more effective, though neither system is necessarily more morally right than the other.
Rorschach’s methodology embodies strict moralism and the pursuit of justice, demonstrating how such an outlook leads to callousness and “psychopath[ic]” behavior. Rorschach sees the world through a moralistic, black-and-white lens. In his mind, all of the world is either good or evil—but most of it is evil. In his journal narration, Rorschach rails against the drugs, violence, and promiscuity of New York City, even though he belongs to that same world himself. He calls women who prostitute themselves “whores,” punishes people for possessing non-prescription drugs or unlicensed guns, and burns a man to death for kidnapping and murdering a young girl. For every crime, both large and small, Rorschach does not consider the broader circumstances of one’s crime (why a woman might resort to prostitution, for instance), but rather makes his moral judgment based solely on the crime itself. Because of his rigid morality and insistence on justice, Rorschach ultimately fails to understand complex situations or moral ambiguity—thus demonstrating both the callousness and short-sightedness of strictly moralistic ethics. Despite Rorschach’s obsessive moralism, he often fails to hold himself and his allies to the same standard. Rorschach tortures people for information, but sometimes hurts the wrong people. He kills dozens of people, usually justifying himself by claiming that they are bad people and he has “no choice.” After Edward Blake (the Comedian) is murdered, Rorschach hunts for his killer and even defends his friend’s honor, even though the Comedian was a murderer and attempted rapist himself. Rorschach’s mask, which is white with black ink blots that constantly move (resembling a Rorschach test), symbolizes his ethical stance: he sees morality as black and white, though inconsistently, since his judgments of what makes a person good or evil constantly shift and morph. Such shifting—yet absolutist—concepts of morality suggest that a moralistic person’s ethical code tends to be subjective and inconsistent, even if it aims to be firm and resolute.
Contrasting with Rorschach, Adrian Veidt embodies a utilitarian view of ethics, demonstrating how such an approach can address moral ambiguity but also appear callous, neglecting the rights of individuals in favor of the good of the majority. Unlike Rorschach’s black-and-white morality, Veidt recognizes gray areas and the presence of moral ambiguity. In a newspaper interview, Veidt reflects, “What does fighting crime mean, exactly? Does it mean upholding the law when a woman shoplifts to feed her children, or […] uncover[ing] the ones who, quite legally, have brought about her poverty?” Veidt recognizes that the societal injustices people face—like poverty, in this example—contribute to individual infractions of the law. Unlike Rorschach’s strict moralism, Adrian Veidt’s utilitarianism takes a broad view of ethics and society, recognizing not only individual crimes, but also the (often legally-enshrined) forces that lead desperate people to commit such crimes. However, in Veidt’s effort to fight injustice on a broad scale, he arguably takes too much power into his own hands. To prevent World War III—which is brewing between the U.S. and Russia, who are both armed with nuclear weapons—Veidt hatches what is effectively a terrorist plot. Using a cohort of artists and scientists, he engineers a gigantic “alien” and teleports it into New York City, causing a massive explosion, killing three million people, and convincing the world that they are under threat of alien invasion. This new existential threat forces the U.S. and the Russians to disarm, sign a hasty treaty, and create a strong alliance, leading the world as a unified force. By killing millions of people, Veidt prevents World War III. However, Veidt’s utilitarian action fails to account for the millions of people he kills in order to avert a nuclear apocalypse. Though many more are presumably saved, those millions who die never have the choice of whether or not to sacrifice themselves. Although his actions are effective, Veidt essentially plays God, and his utilitarianism thus appears just as callous as Rorschach’s strict moralism.
Watchmen pointedly avoids presenting either Rorschach or Adrian Veidt’s ethical system as morally defensible or “correct,” leaving readers to decide for themselves. When Rorschach learns of Veidt’s plan—which has already been carried out—Rorschach chooses to remain morally rigid and refuses to compromise, “even in the face of Armageddon.” He believes Veidt must be brought to justice before the government, even though exposing the plot will shatter the illusion of an alien invasion—thus ruining Earth’s newfound peace and rendering the millions of deaths in New York City meaningless. Although Rorschach remains true to his own values until Jon Osterman (Dr. Manhattan) kills him, he ultimately accomplishes nothing. Adrian Veidt, by contrast, prevents an evil end to the world by committing what many—certainly Rorschach—would regard as an evil of its own. He makes a massive ethical compromise, but does exponentially more to prevent injustice than Rorschach ever does, suggesting that at the very least, utilitarianism is a more effective ethical system in terms of creating change, though not necessarily a more virtuous one. Additionally, the final panel of the novel shows a newspaper printer about to find Rorschach’s journal of notes which may reveal Veidt’s scheme, thus making the final outcome of events even more ambiguous. The novel intentionally lets the tension between moralism and utilitarianism stand, leading readers to decide for themselves what they believe is right in a situation without easy or clear answers.
Moralist vs. Utilitarian Ethics ThemeTracker
Moralist vs. Utilitarian Ethics Quotes in Watchmen
The streets are extended gutters and the gutters are full of blood and when the drains finally scab over, all the vermin will drown. The accumulated filth of all their sex and murder will foam up about their waists and all the whores and politicians will look up and shout “save us!” …and I'll look down and whisper “No.”
This city is dying of rabies. Is the best I can do to wipe random flecks of foam from its lips? Never despair. Never surrender. I leave the human cockroaches to discuss their heroin and child pornography. I have business elsewhere with a better class of person.
Meeting with Veidt left a bad taste in my mouth. He is pampered and decadent, betraying even his own shallow, liberal affectations. Possibly homosexual? Must remember to investigate further.
Because there is good and there is evil, and evil must be punished. Even in the face of Armageddon I shall not compromise on this. But there are so many deserving of retribution… and there is so little time.
Osterman: You sound bitter. You’re a strange man, Blake. You have a strange attitude to life and war.
Blake: Strange? Listen… Once you figure out what a joke everything is, being a comedian is the only thing makes sense.
Osterman: The charred villages, the boys with necklaces of human ears… these are part of the joke?
Blake: Hey… I never said it was a good joke. I’m just playin’ along with the gag…
Dreiberg: […] The country’s disintegrating. What’s happened to the American dream?
Blake: It came true. You’re lookin’ at it.
Black and white. Moving. Changing shape… But not mixing. No gray. Very, very beautiful.
[The Comedian] understood man’s capacity for horrors and never quit. Saw the world’s black underbelly and never surrendered. Once a man has seen, he can never turn his back on it. Never pretend it doesn’t exist. No matter who orders him to look the other way. We do not do this thing because it is permitted. We do it because we are compelled.
Shock of impact ran along my arm. Jet of warmth spattered on chest, like hot faucet. It was Kovacs who said “mother” then, muffled under latex. It was Kovacs who closed his eyes. It was Rorschach who opened them again.
Dreiberg: …And anyway, this is Adrian for God’s sake. We know him. He never killed anybody, ever. Why would he want to destroy the world?
Kovacs: Insanity, perhaps?
Dreiberg: Ha. Well that’s a tricky one… I mean, who’s qualified to judge someone like that? This is the world’s smartest man we’re talking about here, so how can you tell? How can anyone tell if he’s gone crazy?
Teleported to New York, my creature’s death would trigger mechanisms within its massive brain, cloned from a human sensitive… the resultant psychic shockwave killing half the city.
Veidt: I did the right thing, didn’t I? It all worked out in the end.
Jon: “In the end”? Nothing ends, Adrian. Nothing ever ends.