Why Doesn’t Batman Kill the Joker?

So, the first essay in “Batman and Philosophy” is “Why Doesn’t Batman Kill the Joker?”, and it’s the questions like these that I think best demonstrate how philosophy can be interesting, and especially why putting major philosophical questions in the context of pop culture can get people really thinking about them. Everyone has an opinion on this, and the Batman fictional universe presents all the sides in a manner that gets people thinking. Batman himself is adamant that killing the Joker is wrong, and he’s presented as a major hero, someone that we should think is right. But we can see the damage that the Joker does, and can thus clearly see that killing him might both be justice and be the best and most moral option. But, then, what is the right answer?

Unlike cases like “Do we really know anything?” or “How is it that we can trust our senses?”, ethical issues are generally accessible to people because they clearly impact our everyday lives. Thus, even the most fantastic scenarios are easier to relate to, unlike, say, Twin Earth cases. And through them, the issues are made clear, and I think the interest grows. I think that trolley cases also do this, even if they often seem quite artificial.

The entire “Batman and Philosophy” book does an excellent job of outlining deontological, virtue theory, and utilitarian ethics, and I cannot recommend it enough for someone who wants a quick introduction to those areas. If you also happen to be a Batman fan of any stripe, run, don’t walk down to Quark’s your local bookstore and get it.

But I’m not going to talk about any of that in this post. Instead, I’m going to draw a distinction that I think is important to draw in ethics, which is about the difference between moral and personal value in determining what action to take.

In the essay, in one case where Batman really does want to kill the Joker, Jim Gordon stops him by saying this:

I don’t care [how many lives the Joker will ruin]. I won’t let him ruin yours.

Now, there are a couple of senses in which “ruin” can be meant here, but I want to split out on: the psychological. Presume that Batman violating his strict code of honour would cause him to have a mental breakdown that he might never recover from. Is that a moral reason for Jim to stop him from doing it, or for Batman himself to not kill the Joker? Well, it might be under Utilitarian ethics, but only if it provided the most utility. And Egoists would think so. But deontological, virtue ethics and even our everyday reasoning seem to think otherwise. Consider this case from the X-Wing novel “Solo Command”:

Donos: I’d follow orders sir.
Wedge: What orders would you prefer?
Donos: Let her go.
Wedge: And if you were ordered to fire on her?
Donos: I’d do it. I’ve sworn an oath to the New Republic. To hold its needs above my own.
Wedge: And if you killed her? What would you do then?
Donos: I don’t know, sir. I don’t know who I’d be then, sir

Myn Donos swore an oath to the New Republic, and he feels that that oath binds him to firing on and possibly killing the woman he might well love and that he tried to kill in a blind rage (don’t worry, this all makes sense in the books). He thus insists that even though that might well cause him to lose his mind, career, and anything else he might care about, he would follow that duty. And it seems to me that we can’t fault him for that, and think that if he had put his own mental health over his moral duty that then, he’d be wrong.

So, then, if Donos really has a moral obligation here, or if Batman has a moral obligation here, or if we have a moral obligation, then we must carry it out … regardless of what harm might befall us, mental or physical. So if Batman is morally obligated to kill the Joker, then he is obligated to do so even if it will cause him to have a complete mental or physical breakdown.

This, we can see, makes morality a stern and demanding mistress … perhaps more so than most people think. A good exercise would be to ask yourself how many of your positions would change if you considered that morality must demand that stringent a price.

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5 Responses to “Why Doesn’t Batman Kill the Joker?”

  1. Héctor Muñoz Says:

    The only reason Batman hasn’t shot the Joker is because royalties from the comic book pay the mortgage of the Wayne’s manor.

    I think we must carry morality on under reasonable circumstances. Strictly following a moral duty that will report a minimal gain against a huge personal loss is senseless.

  2. verbosestoic Says:

    Well, the problem here is this: if that moral duty is in any way “minimal”, how is it that you are suffering a huge personal loss? Once you define your moral duties, it seems to me that you should either not have moral duties that reflect such “minimal gain” or see that those personal losses aren’t losses of anything that’s actually significant, which is why your moral duty is to actually take the loss.

    In the examples given here, why would it be the case that such a minimal duty would cause someone a psychological breakdown if they met it? That would seem to be a problem with the person, not with the duty.

  3. Criticizing Fiction … | The Verbose Stoic Says:

    […] discussion in Angel over whether he should have stopped Jasmine or not, or the question of whether Batman should kill the Joker or not. But sometimes they are just implied, like the question of whether it’s right to make a Robin […]

  4. Governing Gotham | The Verbose Stoic Says:

    […] The next essay in “Batman and Philosophy” is “Governing Gotham” by Tony Spanakos. This essay examines the relationship between Batman and the law, as (mostly) exemplified through the relationship between Batman and Jim Gordon. Spanakos references Hobbes and Max Weber on the side of “The state must have a monopoly on the use of violence” and Nietzsche on the side that the state is not necessarily a force for good on the other. Spanakos also compares Batman to figures like “The Reaper” and Anarky to establish Batman as a figure poised between a couple of extremes, which provides insight into why Batman cannot kill. […]

  5. On Whose Hands Should the Blood Be Spilled? | The Verbose Stoic Says:

    […] movie examines if Superman is still relevant by asking the age-old comics question, as examined in “Why Doesn’t Batman Kill the Joker?”, as in the movie The Elite are perfectly willing to kill the supervillains that they stop while […]

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