Today, I rambled with my nephew about the city, and then we went to a local play yard. As I thoughtlessly watched my nephew jumping around on the monkey bars, an unexpected thought came to my mind: why doesn’t Batman just kill the Joker?
At first, this question might seem quite trivial, but, on closer examination, it provokes many philosophical thoughts. In the following, I want to discuss it and reach a conclusion.
In this corner: The Batman
Batman is probably the most multi-faceted and psychologically complex character in the comic universe and graphic novels in general. He’s interesting to many people, including myself, because he’s like you and me in a certain way; he’s just a normal human being without any superpowers, yet he differs from the rest of us in many other aspects: ever since his parents’ murder, he has dedicated his whole existence to revenge; he’s unbelievably rich, but denies himself any luxury that does not serve the purpose of sustaining his billionaire-playboy-image; he devoted many years of his life to achieving both peak mental and physical fitness through hard training; he takes on all of these burdens in order to strive after an unattainable ideal: justice.
In the other corner: The Joker
Across the years, the Joker went from being a ridiculous and unremarkable freak to a ruthless, brilliant and infamous serial-killer-clown – having no equal. Countless of casualties have been caused by him such as (Spoiler alert!) the deaths of Jason Todd, Bruce Wayne’s adoptive son and side-kick, Jim Gordon’s wife and many other innocent victims. (Spoilt enough!) He has, in fact, dedicated the rest of his life to making Batman’s life a living hell.
An eternal game of cat and mouse
Over and over again, after each crime, the Batman ropes in the Joker, and puts him into Arkham Asylum; from there, the Joker breaks out, and then the game starts all over again! You could almost think that Batman should put an ultimate end to this story by simply killing the Joker, proactively, given that he already knows that the latter is going to relapse anyway. Occasionally, the Joker even announces that he is going to wreck havoc again. Well, is it even acceptable to rely on this “certainty”, or even the credibility of threats coming from someone whose mind is the epitome of insanity?
What does Batman think about it?
Batman himself puts it concisely in a nutshell: the reason why he doesn’t kill anyone – including the Joker – is his very personal principle: he doesn’t want to kill anyone; he deems the act of killing bad and morally wrong. He argues that he wouldn’t be any better than the criminals he fights, if he did what they do: namely murder. Therefore killing the Joker is absolutely no option for him due to said ethical reasons.
The Dualistic Dilemma
Principles like Batman’s no-killing-policy are what deontological ethics are all about. Deontology is a philosophical discipline that does not judge actions by their consequences, but rather by their intrinsic moral value. The essence and framing of this philosophy are moralities and rules. Just like yin goes hand in hand with yang, there’s also an opposite pole to this approach, turning this into a dualism: the utilitarian ethics. Utilitarism is also a philosophical discipline; it doesn’t judge an action by its moral value, but rather by its consequential outcome and benefits. To cut it short: to utilitarians the end justifies the means.
How does that connect with Batty’s decision-making?
From a utilitarian point of view, it’s a fairly simple decision: preventively killing the Joker, and thus blighting all of his potential future crimes leads to beneficial consequences for everyone. Case closed? Of course, not! Superheroes are no utilitarians by nature.
Now, let us try turning the tables. Instead of asking, whether or not it’s morally acceptable to kill the Joker, we could ask whether it’s acceptable not to kill him. It’s actually Jason Todd himself who confronts Batman with that brutal accusation: by letting the Joker live despite the sureness of further future crimes and murder, the Batman becomes co-responsible for all of the Joker’s victims, because of his stubborn self-righteousness.
Five Lives at the Cost of One
Let’s enlist the aid of an analogous mind game, in order to find a possible answer. This one is, in fact, one of the classic ethical dilemma scenarios: the trolley problem. Imagine, you’re standing next to a track. No, imagine Bruce is standing next to this track. It is clearly seen from afar that an out-of-control trolley is about to steamroll five unsuspecting people very soon, lethally. However, let’s assume further that there is one way Bruce can save these people from certain death; he has to reverse the points so that the trolley makes a track change. The price: there is one person on the other track and his death would be certain, too. Does this scenario sound kinda familiar?
Yet again, Bruce has to decide whether or not to kill one person in order to save many. Would the decision to do so be morally right or even obligatory? The initiator of this thought experiment, Prof. Thomson, chose a compromising solution: you’re free to choose whether or not you want to reverse the points; both the utilitarian and the deontological reasons are “valid”. So Bruce has to decide between a) remaining inactive, and letting these five people die without carrying any responsibility for it and b) proactively redirecting the trolley, in order to save five lives at the cost of being responsible for that one guy’s death.
From the Trolley back to the Batmobile
Is the trolley problem really applicable to the situation of Bruce Wayne, or are there possibly relevant factors which were not borne in mind in that thought experiment? There are indeed a few factors left out which I want to mention. On the one hand, from an ethical perspective, all possible victims of that experiment are homogeneous. They randomly got into that situation and are absolutely innocent.
This does not apply to the Joker; he’s the initiator and aggressor. It’s him who literally ties his victims down to the main track, and then ties himself down to the side track in order to give Batman the fatal choice, and wait for his reaction, because he perfectly knows about Bruce’s inner conflict; it’s just a game to him. This is definitely a major factor that speaks for the utilitarian solution.
A “statutory” Approach
What is the legal situation regarding this question? Is The Batman even allowed to kill the Joker? There’s, in fact, one circumstance under which this would be law-abiding: Bruce has to catch the Joker in flagrante delicto, right before he finishes his victim (or Batman himself) off. In this case, and only if there is no alternative, Batman can kill the Joker in self-defense – from the statutory view.
However, that will never happen, because a) the Joker would never intentionally kill the Batman due to their sick and twisted mutual dependence and b) we are still talking about the effing Batman; there is always an alternative. In addition to that, there’s also another point speaking clearly against a preventive homicide: Batman has many extraordinary skills, but he’s not Nostradamus himself; he cannot tell the future. Even if the Joker is highly relapse-predictive, there’s no way Bruce can sure as death know whether or not the Joker’s claims are true: “This is my last one, Batty, I promise!“.
From Black and White to Grey
All in all, killing the Joker early on would have been in the general public’s best interest, from a consequentialist perspective. However, there’s no way you can deprive a free man of his right to have moralities. That’s why I’d like to round off this entry with Batman’s justified response to the aforementioned allegations brought up by Jason Todd: only the Joker himself is responsible for his actions, crimes and murders.
With that being said, the discussion of the initial question actually raised more questions than it answered; as so often there’s no simple answer! I think this might be due to the lack of play space in the dualism of deontology and utilitarism. It’s the contradictoriness of these two concepts which throws us back to Prof. Thomson’s “solution”: Batman is free to decide whether or not killing the Joker is an option; either he sticks to his no-killing-policy, and lets the Joker live without carrying the responsibility for his victims, or he breaks his rule, and kills the Joker, and thus prevents potential future crimes – at the cost of being responsible for the Joker’s death.
He consciously chooses the first option.
Now, what do you think? Is there a way to unite the deontological and utilitarian approaches in this case? Which option would you choose? Would you reverse the points, if the thought experiment became reality?
I hope you enjoyed this entry and I’m looking forward to reading your views and ideas!