I’m reading an interesting collection of essays, Batman and Philosophy: The Dark Knight of the Soul, which covers the slippery moral ground of the Batman world. In the first essay, “Why Doesn’t Batman Kill the Joker?”, Mark White discusses the differences between the classic Utilitarian and Deontologist positions, of which Batman is clearly the latter. Utilitarianism is the system of ethics requiring us to maximize the total well-being resulting from our actions, while deontology judges the morality of our actions based on features intrinsic to the actions themselves, regardless of the consequences which follow. Thus a Utilitarian would easily endorse murdering the Joker to save lives, while a strict deontologist would counter that the ends don’t justify the means — the means have to be justified on their own merit. It is this latter position which governs Batman. He’s religious about not becoming like the criminals he opposes, on account of personal integrity and for fear of fueling less enlightened vigilantes.
I’m afraid I’m not cleanly one or the other. In an ideal world, I’m a strong deontologist, but in practice I have to lean at least sometimes heavily on utilitarianism. Philosophically, the deontologists have it right. Killing even the worst criminals, no matter how necessary (self-defense being allowed by even the most aggressive deontologists), harms the inner being of the killer. But it’s irresponsible, even selfish, to want to shield our inner beings at the expense of innocent lives. Some criminals are just too dangerous to let live, and while I would never endorse killing for justice or vengeance sake (as natural as it is to crave justice/vengeance, killing the criminal doesn’t resurrect the victim), I do sometimes endorse it for sake of preventive maintenance (to save future lives). But I do so with serious unease, for two reasons. First is that ideally, capital punishment doesn’t represent enlightened thinking. The fiery prophet who counseled turning the other cheek perhaps saw this too clearly. But in reality we have a lot of work to do before we can hope to put such wisdom into practice on a global scale and be responsible to society at the same time. Second is the message sent to others. Even if we know we are being utilitarians for the right reasons (preventive maintenance), others readily hear the wrong message and allow their biological impulses towards vengeance and “blood justice” take over. And when that happens, utilitarianism cuts its own throat: we are indeed harming ourselves, and thus society at large, under pretense of doing otherwise.
The case of Batman and the Joker is admittedly extreme (few in their right mind would advocate sparing the life of a real-life nihilistic Joker), but it’s extreme scenarios that work so well in the context of drama. Doctor Who fans think Tom Baker was crazy to question committing genocide on the Daleks, yet acknowledge that it’s one of the Time Lord’s most powerful (and convincing) character moments. Ditto for Batman’s deontology vis-a-vis the Joker. The extremity of his morality asks us to think through all the implications of utilitarianism, and realize that answers which may appear easy in particular dramatic moments carry harsh implications.