Batman’s Worst (Daily) Ethical Decision
We loved the last two Batman movies, and we’re willing to bet this next one blows the first two away. Nolan’s redefinition of the Batman myth elevates the character from the camp of the Adam West series, the surrealism of the Tim Burton movies, and whatever pile of guano composed Batman and Robin, and places it firmly within the recognizable conventions of our modern world. But by doing so, Nolan forces us to consider Batman by the ethical standards of our modern world as well. While compelling, broody, and entertaining, Chris Nolan also demonstrates why a real life Batman is problematic. Surprisingly, placing Batman in the real world reveals a surprising truth which ruins Batman’s ethical foundation.
Being Batman is Bruce Wayne’s greatest ethical failure.
And no, we’re not referring to Batman’s failure to kill the Joker, his failure to save the second Robin, or his failure to avoid being directed by Joel Schumacher. Bruce Wayne makes his greatest ethical mistake every time he dons the cowl: his decision to be Batman is the worst ethical mistake he makes all day. Whatever his motivation, his being Batman fails to avenge those he lost, fails to protect those he seeks to defend, and completely ruins Bruce Wayne and others. In short, being Batman fails in every ethical category.
For the sake of argument, we’ll only focus on Chris Nolan’s Batman in this post. There are other versions of Batman which may avoid this condemnation, but for the sake of Batmite, the Batman of Zur-en-Arrh, the batsuit with nipples, and Calender Man, we’re going to treat Batman as seriously as possible.
First, being Batman serves no aspect of justice. According to Kantian ethics, one should pursue justice at all times, even if, according to Kant, “the world burns.” While the superheroes who supervise this blog affirm the need for justice, we fail to see what justice Batman upholds. Yes, he lost his parents, and would be entitled to some sort of justice if the state had failed to enact it. But the state did its job, and Wayne should be satisfied giving that up. And if Wayne would only be satisfied personally enacting justice, then he shouldn’t be out there fighting criminals who harm others; he should be inviting victims along with him to enact their own justice. His position is inconsistent. Moreover, his parents would not have desired him to avenge their deaths, and even if they did, they had no right to ask him to avenge anyone beyond themselves. Finally, his avenging of their deaths destroys their legacy. He destroys his father’s monorail, which was designed to allow the poor to get to work and to make Wayne Tower the official center of Gotham. His father was a doctor, while Batman causes injury and death. In short, Bruce Wayne fails the state, his parents, and his parents’ legacy by failing to preserve justice as Batman. He only exists to punish criminals, a task already assigned to a small part of our society know as the police and the justice system. And if those are broken, is justice done best by replacing them with a guy in a bat costume? Only if they can legitimately not handle the task, in which case Batman needs to empower the system to work, not serve in its place.
Of course, that is the deontological view, where we judge the action itself. But who can argue with results? After all, hasn’t Batman prevented Gotham’s destruction? So even if Batman were a failure in most regards, wouldn’t the simple act of saving the city just once justify Batman’s existence? Of course. But there is no way Bruce Wayne/Batman could have known about the threat to Gotham. Unless you follow the ethics of “do something just in case something completely unexpected might happen”, the decision to become Batman had nothing to do with saving the city. Based on Wayne’s knowledge, the League of Shadows and its ringleader were all dead. But Wayne could have predicted that dressing up and promoting vigilante justice would have encouraged others to do the same. In fact, Wayne’s goal was to out-crazy the criminal element of Gotham on order to scare them, and he discovered the hard way that criminals are difficult to out-crazy. Wayne could have predicted that acting insane could potentially draw even more individuals who love the crazy to Gotham. By doing what he does on a daily basis, Wayne draws all the most insane, discord loving elements of society to Gotham, making life hell for those Gothamites looking to live a normal life.
And let’s not forget Bruce Wayne’s day occupation: owner of a $7 billion company. As a world leader in pharmaceuticals, military technology, aerospace, and materials sciences, decisions made by the owner of Wayne Industries directly affect the lives of its workers and those who use its products, particularly soldiers, cancer patients, and airline travelers, among others. In short, Wayne makes a positive difference in the lives of thousands just by going to work in the morning. A major incident involving the leadership of Wayne Industries puts all of those livelihoods in jeopardy, and its doesn’t help that its owner is running around at all hours of the night risking his life. And Wayne doesn’t go out of his way to share knowledge of the company. In fact, his antics as Batman encourage the people he needs for continuity to quit. And just as owners are liable for activities which they perform which damage the company, Wayne is responsible for what happen to his company, a company that does legitimate good, due to his dressing up as a giant bat.
Finally, there’s something to be said for honest, though misguided, attempts to do the right thing. Wayne may be making the wrong decision, and his choices may cause some immeasurable harm to society. But citizens are allowed to do so, even ethically. He can go skydiving out of his own airplane as much as he wants, even if his injury could potentially cause undo burden to others. But ethics change when encouraging others to do the same thing. So while there may be personal distaste at an adult learning to use deadly weapons while harboring what can only be described as a revenge oriented lifestyle, if that same adult were to encourage others to do the same, ethically multiple problems present themselves. While Nolan’s Batman has yet to encouraged anyone else to take up the cowl, internet speculation points to Joseph Gordan-Levitt’s character taking up the role of Batman. Meaning that instead of Batman making a bad personal choice day after day, he’s encouraging others to do the same. People of Gotham, you will never have a normal day ever again! Enjoy that move you’re undoubtedly planning!
Of course, this is what leads to the heart of Batman’s ethical failure: he doesn’t trust anyone but himself to take care of anything. His lack of faith in the justice system caused him to bring a gun to his parents’ killer’s hearing. That same lack of trust caused him to become Batman. His lack of faith in those who run his company means he doesn’t involve others in running it, and his faith in his own method of dealing with the ills of society causes him to raise up other vigilantes when he could be strengthening the bonds of society. And this is unfortunate, because trust, ultimately, can make the world better, while distrust erodes communities. To quote Robert Putnam in Bowling Alone:
Other things being equal, people you trust their fellow citizens volunteer more often, contribute more to charity, participate more often in politics and community organizations, serve more readily on juries, give blood more frequently, comply more fully with their tax obligations, are more tolerant of minority views, and display many other forms of civic virtue…In short, people who trust others are all-round good citizens, and those more engaged in community life are both more trusting and trustworthy.
We’d like to hold up Batman against another hero, Spiderman. The great moment in the latest Spiderman movie comes when, in order to help, ordinary citizens come together to enable Peter Parker to reach the scene of an unfolding disaster together. Spiderman doesn’t just believe in himself, he believes in us, too. Batman believes only in himself, and will, alas, be left with nothing but that in the end. And alone, left with nothing but his own attempt at justice, will ultimately show that no justice can be achieved in this manner. At least, we think. And we’ll be in line Friday to find out!
We’re looking forward to this and other ethical challenges in The Dark Knight Rises, and will comment on those next week, after we’ve seen the movie. Enjoy, true believers!