Four Letter Nerd

Philosophy in Comics: Batman’s One Rule

We’ve all thought about it – wouldn’t it be better if Batman just killed the Joker? Think of all of the innocent people that would be saved if the Joker were finally off the streets of Gotham for good?

The Joker has killed one of the many Robins, shot and paralyzed Barbara Gordon, tortured her father, Commissioner Gordon, and killed Gordon’s second wife Sarah. He has indiscriminately killed hundreds, if not thousands, of innocent Gothamites. Unfortunately every time Batman catches him and he is thrown into Arkham, he inevitably escapes and continues to run amuck (I had to look up how to actually spell “amuck” I have never actually seen it spelled out).

This leads us back to our original question. Why doesn’t Batman end the Joker’s reign of terror for good, effectively saving anyone unlucky enough to catch him on a bad day?

A utilitarian (like Lando Calrissian) would argue that the best course of action would be to kill the Joker. If you remember, utilitarians believe that the proper course to take in any given situation is to determine the maximum amount of happiness for all those involved and head in that direction. Happiness, in this particular situation, would mean not getting murdered by a terrifying, psychotic, clown (that’s always on my list of things that make me happy).

If you look at Batman, there is a recurring theme in almost every rendition ever made, which is his refusal to kill (ironically, this theme was mostly ignored in the Burton and Schumacher eras, I mean it’s easier to count the number of villains who survived their altercations with Batman than those who didn’t).

This shows us that Batman is certainly not a utilitarian, if anything he is a deontologist. Unlike utilitarians, deontologists believe the morality of an act is based on the act itself, not the consequences of the act. For them, the end can never justify the means. So the idea that Batman could stop the Joker from killing however many innocents in the future is irrelevant because the means to that end would require him to kill, and killing is always wrong (there are concessions when it comes to immediate self-defense — see below). An easier way of saying this is that the “right” holds more weight than the “good.”

A common philosophical thought experiment that deals with this issue is the “trolley problem.” In this moral dilemma, there is a trolley moving down a track. Further down there are five people who apparently don’t know that a trolley track isn’t the best place to hold quorum, and will be killed by the trolley unless the trolley is diverted to another track. Unfortunately, there is also a person on that track (because people in philosophical conundrums make terrible spatial decisions) who will be killed if the track is changed. In this thought experiment there is no “yell at them to get off the track” option, despite what that one guy in your Philosophy 101 class inevitably suggests (trust me, he is in every Philosophy 101 class).

A utilitarian faced with the scenario (depending on other extraneous circumstances) would feel morally obligated to switch the track. They would say that maximum happiness would be achieved by saving the five bystanders despite the sacrifice of the other. The problem for deontologists is that saving the five would require them to become actively involved in taking a life. When a deontologist says, “Do not kill,” they mean it, even if there are reasons that would make killing a good idea (such as killing a maniacal, killer clown).

Obviously, the biggest difference with the “trolley problem,” and Batman’s problem, is the Joker (the one person on the track) actually endangers the other five. So if you do not divert the track to kill the Joker, there is a good chance that he would go after the other five, or he may have even put them there in the first place. Why should those five be sacrificed so that the Joker can live? Most of us instinctively say that they shouldn’t.

It would be easy to look at Batman and tell him that he is responsible for every death that the Joker causes. However, Batman could just as easily argue that the deaths that the Joker causes are the Joker’s responsibility alone, but that he (Batman) is responsible only for the deaths that he causes – or he might not feel like arguing with you and rupture your spleen with your own face instead (I am leaning towards the latter).

Deontologists generally accept that you can kill in instances of self-defense. Remember in Man of Steel (SPOILER ALERT) when Superman is forced to kill General Zod to stop him from eye-frying (freye-ing?) that family? Deontologists are okay with that, but if Batman stops the Joker after he kills somebody, it is no longer self-defense. Would he still be justified in killing him after the fact? A deontologist would say no, because there is always a chance that the Joker would not kill again (despite the obvious pattern). Would killing Joker, or anyone else for that matter, for crimes he has yet to commit be right? Most of us would have to say no.

So despite the fact that most of us think that the death of the Joker would be a benefit to society as a whole, Batman, as a deontologist, is not morally obligated to kill the Joker himself. In fact, he is morally obligated to refrain from killing the Joker because the act of killing is inherently wrong despite the end result.

Most of us, including me, are not strict deontologists. It’s hard for us to agree with continually allowing the Joker to kill, but I think it’s interesting to see how Batman could justify his actions philosophically. And now, when it’s brought up in conversation you can share your philosophical knowledge with people who probably won’t care!

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Cam Clark

Cam is a husband, father, and a fan of many things. In college, he wrote his senior thesis on Mythological, Philosophical, and Theological Themes in Star Wars, and now spends his days causally specializing in Star Wars, Tolkien, and cubical work. No relation to Bill Clark.

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