Over the decades from their initial encounter in Gotham
City, the Joker has transformed from the Clown Prince of Crime to a mass
murderer. He killed the second Robin, Jason Todd, paralysed Barbara Gordon
(Batgirl), and shot and killed Lt. Sarah Essen, Commissioner Gordon's second
wife. As many times, the Batman captured the Joker, as many times the Joker
escaped. Being insane, Batman knew the Joker will never be persecuted. Knowing
as he did that the Joker will continue to escape and hurt and kill people, why
did the Batman not kill the Joker?
Batman has said many times that he refused to kill because
in killing, he is no better than the criminals that he is sworn to fight. But,
the Joker? Come on, man.
I have been trying to understand Batman's reluctance to kill
and I come across this system of ethics named utilitarianism. This system will
say, Batman kill the Joker because this will prevent all the murders he will
commit in the future. While it is bad to kill, yet killing one life will be the
saviour of many other lives.
Philosopher Philippa Foot and Judith Jarvis Thomson put
forth the issue in form of a moral dilemma:
Imagine that a
trolley is going down a track. Further down the track are five people who do
not hear the trolley and will not be able to get out of the way. Unfortunately,
there aren't enough time to stop the trolley before it hits and kills them. The
only way to avoid killing these five people is to switch the trolley to another
track. But, unfortunately, there is one person standing on that track, also too
close for the trolley to stop before killing him. Now imagine an innocent
bystander standing by the track switch who must make a choice; do nothing,
which leads to the death of five people on the current track, or act to divert
the trolley to the other track, which leads to the death of the single person.
The Batman is in the place of the bystander. He is holding
the Joker's hands at the top of an unfinished office in the movie The Dark
t. All he has to do is to let go and let the Joker fall to his death.
Imagine the trolley scenario except the current track is onto the one person
and switching the track will kill the five.
Do you think the Batman should kill the Joker?
Philosopher Thomson now suggest another scenario
There is a surgeon with five patients. Each of his patients
is dying from failure of a different organ and could be saved by a transplant.
Since there are no organs available by normal channels, the surgeon considers
drugging one of his (healthy) colleague and removing his organs to use for
By killing one, many will be saved. This is utilitarianism.
This is similar to the trolley story. The death of one will save the five. Or
is it? Do you agree? Is the choice of allowing the trolley kill one person the
same as killing another person for his organs?
Do you think Batman should kill the Joker?
It would have been so easy for the Batman to kill the Joker.
Batman is an expert exponent of many types of martial arts.
The philosophical system of utilitarianism will have not
problem with Batman killing the Joker to prevent Joker from committing further
crimes. As we have seen from our earlier posts about the trolley and the
surgeon, it is not as straight forward as it seems.
In the Hush storyline, Hush asked the Batman, "How many
lives do you think you've cost, how many families have you ruined, by allowing
the Joker to live?...And why? Because of your duty? Your sense of
In utilitarianism, the end justifies the means. A popular
proponent of utilitarianism is Peter Singer, professor of Philosophy in
Princeton University and in the University of Melbourne.
However, there is another system of philosophy named
deontology (nothing to do with dentists) in which the act is more important.
When you decide "do not kill", it means do not kill under any
circumstances, irrespective of whatever good that killing may produce.
Deontology is based on a sense of duty and the most well known proponent is
Immanuel Kant. Of course, Immanuel Kant have never met the Joker.
"Is Batty a secret deontologist?" muses the Joker.
"I want my lawyer! Oh, that's right, I killed him
too" (from The Dark Knight)
In our consideration of why Batman did not kill the Joker
when he have had so many opportunities to do so, it is obvious that he is not a
follower of utilitarianism. Utilitarianism takes into consideration that the
death of the Joker will save many people in DC comic universe.
While it may appear that Batman is a deontologist; that the
act of killing is against his sense of duty to be not like the criminals he
fights, however, his other actions do not support the conjecture. Batman as a
masked vigilante is dangerously skirting the edge of the law and have been
known to break the law when it suits his purpose. His Kantian ethics will not
allow him to do this if he is a deontologist.
There is another system of ethics which come down to us from
Aristotle, the great philosopher himself. Named virtue ethics, Aristotle
postulated that the ethical behaviour of a person is not from his choice
(utilitarianism), or his actions/duty (deontologism). It arises from who this
person is. He calls these virtues or what we nowadays call character;
compassion, justice, courage, and tolerance. One of the great virtue
philosophers alive today is Alistair MacIntyre. There has been much talk of
character/virtues in leadership especially political and religious leadership.
Unfortunately these talks are of character/virtue flaws than of good strong
character with integrity.
Does Batman has such good virtues that he is incapable of
killing the Joker, no matter how much he wants to?
Our investigation into the existential question should
Batman kill the Joker? has evolved to why the Batman did not kill the Joker.
We have established that Batman does not subscribe to
utilitarianism and Kantianism (odeontologism). That left us to consider virtue
moral theory. While unilitaianism focus on the consequences of the action,
odeontologism on the duty of actor, virtue theory is about who the actor is,
i.e. the character or virtues of the actor.
Batman/Bruce Wayne has very strong influential persons in
his life. His father, Dr Thomas Wayne is a compassionate surgeon, industrialist
and philantrophist. He believed in the goodness of people. Note that he
organises the rich elite to help the poor during the depression in Gotham City
and built the monorail system for the people. His death was partially due to
the fact that he brought his family to the opera by monorail instead of by private
car (see Batman Begins
The butler Alfred was another influence and served as a
surrogate father figure after the death of Thomas Wayne. Alfred exhibits strong
elements of loyalty and integrity, looking after the family estates when Bruce
was wandering around in search of himself. Though he disapprove of Bruce's
nocturnal activities, he restrict himself to sarcastic remarks while availing
himself to rescue the Batman and offer medical treatment when necessary. It
takes a strong character not to impose his will on others and to remind in the
shadow of another.
Dr. Thompson is another who helped Bruce after the death of
his parents. She provide the nurturing mother figure to balance Alfred's Yang
with her Yin. A competent doctor, she chooses to devote her life to helping the
poor and the helpless in slum alley.
Thomas Wayne, Alfred and Thompson did not act out of a sense
of duty but because of who they are. It is their characters that dictate their
actions, not the other way around. Bruce Wayne must have pick up this moral
theory from them. In the storyline, Bruce Wayne:Fugitive, Bruce Wayne has an
identity crisis. Is he the Batman and Bruce the man behind the mask or Bruce
Wayne and the Batman is the person behind the persona? As expected, the crisis
was resolved when Bruce realise that the Batman was a means to an end (limiting
the activities of the criminal elements by putting a fear in the criminal
mind). This question resurfaced numerous times, for example in the story arch
of No Man's Land
Batman does not kill the Joker because it is not in his
nature or character to kill. Like Gandhi who resort to non-violence to resist an
unjustice government, the Batman resort to non-lethal violence to resist a
corrupt justice system and the criminal minds. It is in their strength of character
that we must respect him.
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Labels: Batman, Ethical-Questions, Philosophy