Batman’s Virtuous Hatred

So, the next essay in “Batman and Philosophy” is “Batman’s Virtuous Hatred”, by Stephen Kershnar. “Batman and Philosophy” has focused a lot on Virtue Theory, especially in the early chapters, and as you all know Stoicism is a Virtue Theory. In this essay, Kershnar examines the issue of whether hatred can ever be considered virtuous, by pointing out that Batman hates bad people and loves punishing them. Does this make Batman a vicious person, or can Batman be virtuous even when presumably consumed by hatred?

The main argument is based on a “just desserts” argument, where Batman hurting criminals isn’t a bad thing because they deserve it. The example given is of a humiliating punishment that Jim Gordon gives to a crooked cop, as an example to others that trying that won’t be tolerated. And it’s true that almost no Virtue Theory will consider just and reasonable punishment vicious. However, the Stoics will still argue that a hatred for the vicious and a love of punishing them is at a minimum an extremely dangerous attitude to have and one that the true Stoic sage will not possess.

To see why, let’s look at Gordon’s punishment again. The punishment was humiliating, but if that was what was required to fulfill his presumably virtuous end, then that wouldn’t really be an issue. However, Gordon had been hurt by that crooked cop. Could it be, then, that one of the reasons for the punishment he inflicted and especially the humiliation was because he was seeking revenge, not justice? Could he have then overstepped the bounds of justice in punishing that crooked cop? Well, then that would be vicious, and Gordon would have been acting viciously and rationalizing that it was really what was required to satisfy justice. So, knowing that Gordon had an emotional commitment that could have been influencing this decision, how can Gordon know that he was really acting only within the bounds of justice, and was not instead acting out of revenge and rationalizing it as justice? His strong emotional reaction can interfere with his decisions, and unless he acknowledges and suppresses that, he is always at risk at acting from it rather than from rational considerations attached firmly to virtue.

Batman’s hatred of criminals is a strong emotional reaction, and his love of punishing them flows from that emotional reaction and from the emotional reaction he had towards the death of his parents. Batman is at huge risk, then, of punishing because of that hatred and not because that is what virtue demands, which means that he is at great risk of acting viciously and claiming to be merely seeking justice. The only way that Batman’s hate can be considered virtuous is if he conditions it so that it only triggers in accordance with justice, both in terms of when it kicks off and in terms of the amount of punishment it recommends. But since hate is such a strong emotion, this is incredibly difficult to do. Batman would be better off trying to reign in his hate and not listening to it rather than trying to condition it to do what it was never meant to do.

It is very difficult for strong emotions to be virtuous. If they were virtuous by nature, then we could rely on them always, but emotions tend to overwhelm us and also tend to get the conclusions wrong rather regularly. Thus, no one should ever think that hating the vicious is a good path towards acting virtuously. Rather, one should aim to be virtuous and then use that to determine how to treat the vicious. Only then can one feel confident that one is being virtuous and not vicious.

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