Batman: Capital Punishment & Self Defense

This is an essay I wrote on Facebook about the morality of Batman, on November 6th, 2009. As I recall, it was prompted by a particular playthrough of the most excellent Batman: Arkham Asylum and the scene where Joker gives Batman a free shot to take him out “once and for all” (around 1:45 in the clip).

I’ve recently been contemplating the ethics of Batman. Specifically, his refusal to kill. For the sake of argument, I’m going to use the Joker as the primary case.

The question at hand: Should Batman kill the Joker?

Three sets of circumstances come to mind: capital punishment, self defense and defense of others.

I maintain the position that capital punishment is wrong in all circumstances. If the Joker is already in Arkham, whether for treatment or simply for containment; the state has no right to kill him as he is no immediate danger to anyone. It may be argued that, in the case of the Joker, treatment is not an option: he’s just that crazy. But even if he is a hopeless case, we can still hold him in custody so that he isn’t a danger to others. Of course, this is the Joker: Batman’s greatest nemesis. Sooner or later he will escape from Arkham. Why not execute him now and be done with it?

The problem with that line of thought is, from a legal perspective, once you apply that reasoning to the Joker, you can apply it to any criminal. The possibility that that criminal will someday escape or be released, at which point they could be a danger to others is present regardless of the criminal. Why not execute them all? Well the general arguments against capital punishment (which I will omit here) still apply to those criminals. It’s a legal mistake to make an exception for a single one.

The second case, self defense, I choose to ignore due to circumstance. After all, we are talking about Batman, and physically the Joker is no match for him. The threat of the Joker comes from the threat he poses to others, the games he plays of which it is Batman’s job to stop. From a legal standpoint, it would likely be justifiable for Batman to kill the Joker if he truly had no other choice in order to survive. However, if given the option to take down the Joker with either lethal or non-lethal methods, I believe it’s fair to allow his personal ethics of not killing to inform his judgments.

The final case, defense of others, is, I believe, the relevant one: if the Joker is an immediate threat to another person. The term “immediate” is important and meant to distinguish between, for example, holding a gun to the person’s head and having planted a bomb. The difference being that the Joker’s death would resolve the first situation, but not the second. So, if the Joker is an immediate threat to the life of another person (whom we’ll refer to as a hostage), should Batman kill him?

One of the first considerations that comes to mind is how a regular law-enforcement officer (police, soldiers, etc…) would be entitled to handle the situation. Well that officer would be permitted to take lethal action. Shouldn’t Batman be able to take the same action?

There’s a crucial difference between a law-enforcement officer and Batman, however. Law-enforcement officers are governed by the state. They have strict restrictions on when they can or cannot kill. Batman has no such standing (unless we look at the “deputized agents of the law” of the 1960’s Batman and Robin, but they aren’t the typical representations of the characters). If Batman is permitted, by whatever ethics, to kill the Joker, there’s no real oversight to it.

That being said, this is Batman we’re talking about. We know (at least “we” the audience and not necessarily “we” the people of Gotham) that, even if he allowed himself to kill, Batman would never abuse this. His moral compass is sufficiently strong to never kill when it wouldn’t be allowed for a law-enforcement officer to do so.

But what about any other vigilantes? In a number of interpretations of Batman (Frank Miller’s Dark Knight Returns, Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight) there are groups who take up Batman’s mission, only with less discriminating moral codes. If Batman, a man with no oversight, is permitted to kill, such men might do the same, only under circumstances not typically permitted. People without proper training and oversight being given implicit permission to kill does not seem like a morally justifiable course of action.

Every way I look at it, the rational conclusion I come to is that Batman shouldn’t be morally permitted to kill the Joker. And yet, intuitively, I feel that he would be completely justified in doing so. I’m not quite certain how to resolve this incongruity. Perhaps it points to the idea that emotion shouldn’t dictate law, but rather rational thought and logic. There are a number of such laws which seem motivated more by emotion than insight, including the above-mentioned capital punishment, prostitution, drug use, bans on gay marriage and bans on polygamy.

Perhaps, rather than turning to intuition to decide laws, it would be best to consider them reasonably. Nothing ought to be sacred and everything ought to be questioned. If emotion leads to the same conclusion as rational thought, then all the better. On the other hand, if they don’t, then perhaps there ought to be some introspection to figure out why.

That quickly turned away from the topic at hand: should Batman be allowed to kill? But as I said, reason seems to disagree with intuition on that one. In the end, I suppose, I’ll have to give it some more thought to figure out why.

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  • Billy  On November 15, 2012 at 7:43 pm

    My conjecture as to why your intuition says that Batman should be allowed to kill the Joker, while your reason comes to the opposite conclusion, is that our reasoning depends on absolutes – capital punishment should not be practiced regardless of who it is on, while our intuition depends on probability – if Batman doesn’t off the Joker the chances are very high that he will escape and cause more trouble and deaths of innocents.

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