The Joker’s Wild

The next essay in “Batman and Philosophy” is “The Joker’s Wild” by Christopher Robichaud. It examines whether we can consider the Joker to be morally responsible for the heinous acts he commits. Unfortunately, Robichaud focuses on the idea that the Joker can’t be held morally responsible for his actions because he can’t be considered responsible for his actions, by arguing that the Joker doesn’t really have the capacity to make proper or informed choices. This means that he has to spend a lot of time discussing general issues over free will and if we ever have any kind of choice and what makes an actual proper choice, which always ends up causing the discussions to descend into a morass that it is very difficult to escape from.

I think I can frame this interesting discussion much more simply by focusing on the “moral” part of moral responsibility, and asking this question: Is the Joker like a kleptomaniac, or like a psychopath?

Kleptomaniacs can’t be considered morally responsible for their stealing because ought implies can, and kleptomaniacs cannot help but steal the things they want to steal. They are subject to overwhelming urges to steal things, urges that they can resist only with heroic efforts of will that no one can be expected to make consistently. Kleptomaniacs get these overwhelming urges that they cannot reasonably resist even when they don’t what the things they are stealing, get no benefit from stealing the item, don’t get a thrill from stealing the item, when stealing the item will cause them great hardship, and when they desperately don’t want to steal the item. This also applies to moral considerations, as even if they consider stealing to be morally wrong and desperately desire to act morally and not steal the item, the urge is there regardless and overwhelms them, causing them to steal the item anyway. As they cannot stop themselves from stealing no matter how badly they want to and how immoral they consider it, they can’t be considered responsible for their choice, as ought implies can, and there is nothing they can do to avoid acting immorally. This is a case that many hard determinists ignore when arguing that we have no actual free will, as they ignore the critical difference between someone like a kleptomaniac and someone who steals because it gives them a thrill, which can be best described as the kleptomaniac doesn’t want to steal, while the other person does want to steal. This is also why Batman deciding to throw his Batrang — to use an example from the essay — is a free choice whereas once the Joker pushes the button to make him do it when he decides not to it isn’t (let’s put aside the questions of events outside of Batman’s control as mentioned in the essay, as I find those questions misguided).

The Joker does not seem to be like a kleptomaniac. He never expresses any desire to not commit his heinous acts, nor does he ever show any remorse for doing them. In all of his actions, the one thing that is consistent about him is that he seems to be enjoying them and certainly seems to want to be doing them. So we won’t be able to use the kleptomaniac to argue that the Joker is not morally responsible for his heinous acts.

What about psychopaths? One of the more interesting results about psychopaths is that they seem to be amoral, as they consistently fail to properly make the moral/conventional distinction. What this means is that they don’t seem to be able to distinguish moral actions from conventional ones, and so are critically impaired in determining what it means for something to be a moral or immoral act. Thus, it seems that they have difficulties distinguishing between moral and immoral acts. If they can’t tell what would make an action moral or immoral, then they can’t be held morally responsible for their actions, not because they aren’t responsible for their actions, but because they, themselves, have no way to determine if an action is moral or immoral before they take it. They are incapable of morality, and again ought implies can.

The Joker, in some of his more common characterizations, does seem incapable of determining what is or isn’t moral. He does things because he considers them funny, or to make a point. It’s quite conceivable that if the Joker found acting morally or treating people nicely fun or funny, he’d do that with no more thought or regret. It’s conceivable that the Joker really doesn’t know what it means to be moral, has no way to develop that ability, and honestly doesn’t care about morality anyway, one way or the other.

Thus, the best argument you can make that the Joker is not morally responsible for his crimes because he isn’t capable of acting morally at all, no matter what choices he actually has. Thus, the Joker isn’t morally responsible for his actions not because he’s not responsible for them, but because morality can never play a role in determining what actions he takes. Whether this makes him more or less sympathetic is up to the reader to decide.

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4 Responses to “The Joker’s Wild”

  1. Andrew Says:

    Both points of view presented here seem to assume that volition is required for morality. But what if morality attaches to what is expected of you, regardless of your (perceived) capability?

    It follows from this that some actions are objectively wrong even if the person is trying to do good, and some actions are objectively right even if the person desires evil (e.g. it is right to follow the road laws, even if you are on your way to commit a different crime).

    * The kleptomaniac who acknowledges it is wrong to steal proves their own moral brokenness, in that they cannot help do an action that even they admit is wrong.

    * Conversely, the psychopath can – if he wishes – be taught right and wrong behaviour. That he cannot intuit it or naturally desire it does not put him outside being obligated to morality.

    We may choose compassion or leniency based on our perception of wilfulness of immoral action, but that is about censure for breaking morality (and a perception that wilful immorality is a double wrong), not whether the act itself is moral.

    • verbosestoic Says:

      This would be taking a VERY strong consequentialist approach. The problem you’ll immediately run into is that morality is normative and ought implies can, as I said, so you cannot in any way assign moral praise or blame to someone who is doing the only thing they can possibly do (which is precisely the case with the kleptomaniac). You really can’t say that someone should have done something that they could not have done.

      For psychopaths, while there may be ways to teach them what is or isn’t moral the normal ways of actually teaching that fail for them. So it’s not simply a matter of them not having it intuitively, but of them being incapable of being able to grasp a difference despite them being taught the distinction. It’s kinda like telling people who can’t distinguish faces to go out and learn to do so: while there are ways they can work around it, their brains are simply incapable of learning that.

      • Andrew Says:

        I’m not convinced that “ought implies can” works as a guiding principle.

        Put crassly, if the rules for a ride require you to be of a certain height, it’s not valid to argue that they should not apply to you because you are unable to be that height.

        If person A steals person B’s car because they need to take someone to hospital urgently, there is a moral debt owed from A to B. From B’s perspective, it’s not a morally neutral act. Now, B may choose to forgive that debt, or there may be a social understanding or even law governing what form of implicit consent applies, but that doesn’t negate the basic idea that A is either presuming on B’s generosity or ignoring it.

        Whether A first considered the impact on B and made a judgement call or just acted without consideration doesn’t change the morality of the act – the impact of the act on B is identical. The latter case instead adds a second moral offence – that A didn’t care enough about B to attempt to minimise the impact of his action. We sometimes reason as if intention mitigates the original action, but it’s usually because we’re sympathetic towards A for some reason and are trying to find an excuse rather than because we actually consider the action moral.

        You can’t build a legal system on the fundamental basis of how the actor thinks or feels about what they do, and the same applies to morality.

        Issues of compassion and “what is reasonable to expect” come in here as well, but the principles need to be objective with the application possibly modified by subjectivity, not the other way around.

        Extreme example: Someone is prone to fits of murderous rage, and shows no ability to control this (pushing the kleptomania example). Do you say:
        * it’s OK, because he can’t help it
        * we’ll restrain him, because he has a propensity to do wrong (i.e. he in some sense deserves what is being done)
        * it’s not wrong, but we’ll restrain him anyway because his morally acceptable behaviour is bad for others (i.e. he doesn’t deserve this, but we’ll do it anyway)

        If you go for the third option, consider the can of worms you’ve just opened.

      • verbosestoic Says:

        Put crassly, if the rules for a ride require you to be of a certain height, it’s not valid to argue that they should not apply to you because you are unable to be that height.

        “Ought implies can” doesn’t work that way. It’s more that if someone doesn’t meet the height requirement for a ride and their sibling goes on it and ends up crying you can’t say to them that they ought to have gone on that ride with their sibling to keep them from getting that scared. They couldn’t go on the ride, so we can’t demand that they should have done that.

        If person A steals person B’s car because they need to take someone to hospital urgently, there is a moral debt owed from A to B. From B’s perspective, it’s not a morally neutral act. Now, B may choose to forgive that debt, or there may be a social understanding or even law governing what form of implicit consent applies, but that doesn’t negate the basic idea that A is either presuming on B’s generosity or ignoring it.

        This, though, is only the case from a very specific idea of morality, and in fact a very strongly consequentialist one. So it’s not a given. For example, Utilitarianism — which is consequentialist — will say that if stealing the car is the thing that maximizes utility then A should do it and B should accept that A did the right thing. Others might say that you can’t steal the car at all because consequences don’t matter.

        That being said, even in cases where it’s acceptable there is a sense where A might have some moral duties to B, like trying to keep the car in good shape and returning it to them afterwards. But that’s not really the sort of moral duty you’d need to challenge “ought implies can”.

        You can’t build a legal system on the fundamental basis of how the actor thinks or feels about what they do, and the same applies to morality.

        But our legal system DOES make intent a key component of legal judgement. When someone is killed by someone else, intent is the determining factor of what if any charges are brought against that person, ranging from first degree murder if they clearly intended to kill them to no charge at all if they had no intent to kill them and weren’t in any way acting negligently. If you’re driving your car at the right speed for conditions but it happens to spin out and hit someone, you likely won’t be charged, but if you aim it at someone or even drive recklessly for conditions you will be. Intent is a very important part of the law.

        it’s not wrong, but we’ll restrain him anyway because his morally acceptable behaviour is bad for others (i.e. he doesn’t deserve this, but we’ll do it anyway)

        He won’t be responsible for his actions if he does fly into that uncontrollable — and presumably incurable — murderous rage, but he’s responsible for what he does when he isn’t in one. So he morally ought to try to take measures to minimize the chances of him doing that, and so should agree to those restraints. If he won’t, then he has to face the consequences of that where others find ways to try to prevent him from killing people in that rage of his. The same thing would apply to the kleptomaniac: morally, they ought to reduce their instances of stealing and try to make it up to people that they steal from. That shifts the moral question to the things they CAN do, as opposed to the things they CAN’T do.

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