Batman’s Promise

The next essay in “Batman and Philosophy” is “Batman’s Promise” by Randall M. Jensen. This essay examines the details of Batman’s main motivation for fighting crime and particularly fighting crime in Gotham: the promise he, as a child, made to his parents after their death from “some punk with a gun”.

One issue with the essay is that Jensen focuses on two of the three main categories of morality in consequentialism and deontology and then has a hard time fitting Batman’s promise into those moral systems. The promise is to make Gotham a better place, but it doesn’t seem like that’s Batman’s main purpose for doing that. However, his promise doesn’t seem to be him just following a set rule that breaking promises is a bad thing to do and he made a promise. Against both interpretations is the idea that his promise seems to be more to him than a moral calculation or reasoning, but has instead become part of him, and in fact in a lot of ways has come to define who he is, which is generally not the case for one element in a consequentialist or deontological moral system.

The way out of this, of course, is to look at the third moral system or category and use that one: Virtue Theory. Batman tries to make Gotham better and tries to keep that defining promise simply because that’s what he has concluded a virtuous person in his circumstances would do. There doesn’t have to be a set rule defining this demand. He doesn’t have to evaluate every circumstance to see if that is making things, overall, better or worse. He doesn’t have to demand that everyone else do so as well, because they are differently situated. He can even, at least initially, tell people whose circumstances are closer to his that it’s not their responsibility to do that. Batman made that promise, and virtuous people keep their promises.

This would also resolve the long discussion in the essay over whether you can or need to keep promises to the dead. Consequentialists require keeping promises to provide utility, and it’s difficult to see what utility there can be in keeping a promise to someone who is dead and so can no longer be helped by doing so or harmed by not doing so. Deontologists would require there be a set rule, but it’s hard to imagine a deontological moral system that can properly justify a rule that promises must be kept to people when the promise is utterly irrelevant to them. Both, of course, can justify promises made to someone who is now dead but where, at least, the promise can be kept to their relatives or friends, but that’s not really the case with Bruce Wayne’s parents. This is, again, far easier to explain with Virtue Theory: Batman made that promise, and as long as the promise is in any way relevant and as long as he is able to fulfill it he is obligated to do so. He is obligated to live up to his commitments even if no one — other than himself — can hold him accountable for them.

This is also seen with the idea that Batman doesn’t do this out of revenge or, I’d argue, even out of retribution. Batman can easily be seen to be trying to make Gotham into the city that his parents wanted it to become, and tried to make it through their charitable works and other, more normal means. And despite that, street crime ended their lives and the lives of other people, which is why Batman focuses on that sort of crime and improvement. It can easily be argued that Batman fights not merely for the Gotham that his parents wanted, but ultimately for the Gotham his parents should have had, but couldn’t because of “some punk with a gun”.

While Jensen focuses on the comics and recent movies, the DCAU is the better source for these statements. In the Justice League two-parter “A Better World”, Batman faces off with an alternate universe Batman who has joined an authoritarian Justice League in controlling the world. As they fight in the Batcave, the alternate universe Batman convinces the DCAU Batman to join him by saying that through seizing power they’ve created the world Batman wants: one where no child ever has to lose their parents because of some punk with a gun. But as they drive through Gotham, DCAU Batman notes the horrific cost of that authoritarianism, and then fires back at his counterpart by sarcastically saying that his parents would have loved this world, which convinces the alternate universe Batman to change sides and realize how bad this was. This was not the world his parents wanted. This is not the world his parents deserved. This was not Batman keeping his promise to them. Batman doesn’t want to avenge his parents, or get retribution against the criminal underworld for their deaths. He wants to make a world that they would be proud of and want to live in. That, and only that, will keep his promise.


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