Is It Right to Make a Robin?

The second essay in “Batman and Philosophy” is “Is It Right to Make a Robin?”, by James DiGiovanna. This, shockingly, attempts to answer the question of whether it is right for Batman to take on his young wards and turn them into his partners in crime-fighting. He talks about both Dick Grayson and Jason Todd, but focuses on Jason Todd, because that’s the example that best fits his case: that of Batman taking a kid and turning him into a Robin, instead of having a kid come along in the same situation as himself and essentially volunteer to take on the role.

He focuses on the morality of Batman training a Robin, an evaluates it from the perspective of the three main moral systems: deontological, Utilitarian, and Virtue Ethics. His conclusion:

Batman is a lousy deontologist, a decent consequentialist, and, most assuredly, some kind of a virtue ethicist.

I think that he somewhat misrepresents the deontological position (which he bases on Kant) and the Virtue Ethicist position to come to this conclusion, and so my discussion here will focus on that.

In evaluating Batman’s actions in training Robin against Kant, he relies strongly on the Categorical Imperative, which is that one cannot assert that a maxim is right unless it can be made into a universal law. Now, he seems to make the common mistake of assuming that this means that you’d like the world that this produces, but that notion is in fact aimed at consistency: can you make it a universal law without it being self-defeating. So when Kant argues that one cannot universalize a maxim to lie, he doesn’t mean that if that was the case we’d have an undesirable world, but that you can’t do it without defeating any possible purpose for having that rule, because if everyone held a maxim to lie and more importantly everyone knew that that was the maxim that people were following, no one would believe the lies … and the purpose of lying is to say something untrue as if it was true and have people end up believing that it was true.

Given this, we’d have to ask if it is inconsistent for Batman to take on a Robin. And it doesn’t really seem to be the case, because a rule of “If someone willing to take on the role of your crime-fighting partner asks to do so, take them on” doesn’t become self-defeating when made a universal maxim … but amending the last part to “don’t take them on” doesn’t either. The bare consistency check, then, doesn’t really tell us much about what is or isn’t moral. In fact, DiGiovanna has to import a lot of additional moral maxims to try to demonstrate that Batman should not put a child in harm’s way, and so was wrong to train Jason Todd and Dick Grayson, at least.

So, if the consistency check doesn’t do much for us, what does? Well, Kant also advocates for his equally famous maxim, which is that one should always treat others not merely as means, but as ends in themselves. So, if we try to apply this principle, what do we come up with? Well, we’d have to note that Batman isn’t actually soliciting partners. In general, canonically Batman always wants to work alone, and has to be pushed into accepting a partner, from Dick Grayson to Barbara Gordon to Terry McGinnis in Batman Beyond. If Batman was finding and training orphans in order to further his cause, regardless of what that meant for them, then he definitely would be acting wrongly by Kant. But he doesn’t. In general, they push their way into being his partner, generally by making it clear that they will do it anyway even if Batman refuses to let them come along. Treating them as ends in themselves, and in some sense able to make their own decisions, if they can make the decision to join Batman then it’s not necessarily wrong of him to let them. But he wouldn’t be obligated to do so, because that would force him to be means to their end: their thirst for justice or revenge, or their desire to be a hero and even their desire to help others.

So, as a deontologist, Batman is definitely allowed to take on Robins as long as he doesn’t take them on as merely a means to his end, but considers them as ends in themselves. And since he generally doesn’t want partners, it seems that he doesn’t use them as a means to help him fight crime, but instead sees something inside them that means that their desire to work with him is a credible decision for them. So, no, Batman would be a lousy deontologist.

The issue with DiGiovanna’s analysis of Virtue Ethics is that he moves from the fact that Virtue Ethics is about developing the proper moral character to an idea that a person is therefore obligated to develop the moral character of anyone else. This, however, isn’t required for most forms of Virtue Ethics that I’m aware of. The Stoics, for example, claim that you are responsible for only your own actions and therefore, by implication, your own character. Unless there’s a virtue that demands that you develop the character of others, you can’t be obligated to do so. The same seems to apply to Aristotle. So it’s a fairly weak argument to say that Batman is responsible for the character development of his Robins, for good or for ill.

The closest you can get is to import the idea of the exemplar from Aristotle, and argue that Batman needs to act like an exemplar for them if they want to try to emulate him, and in that sense Batman is obligated to bring them into the crime fighting business in order to facilitate that. The issue with this is that Batman may not be a good exemplar for anyone, and the criticism of his handling of Jason Todd makes it clear that he wasn’t the right sort of exemplar for him. While there is a lot that the Robins and Batgirls can learn from Batman in order to develop a properly virtuous character, simply emulating him is not likely to lead to a good outcome, as most of them learn. So Batman doesn’t really work as an exemplar, and probably shouldn’t try to be one.

Given the right circumstances, all three moral codes can support Batman training Robins. Utilitarians can argue that under some circumstances it allows Batman to save more people … but it may be too onerous for the various Robins to justify that. If there is a virtue to develop the character of others, Batman may be obligated to develop the character of the Robins … but has to consider the possibility that he is the wrong person to do that. Finally, Batman may have an obligation to respect the chosen ends of the Robins to become crime fighters … as long as that does not reduce him as a means to their achieving that end.

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One Response to “Is It Right to Make a Robin?”

  1. Criticizing Fiction … | The Verbose Stoic Says:

    […] 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 or not. Works of fiction can raise interesting philosophical issues and provide excellent thought […]

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