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The world of superheroes is full of moral decisions, decisions, that if we put ourselves in the position of the superheroes that take them, we would discover that they are not easy to make. Normally we are fully convinced that our ethical convictions are correct, but the truth is that we are far from being so bluntly infallible. There are several ethical theories, according to which, moral decisions are based on different parameters. The two best known theories are deontologism and utilitarianism. Deontologism completely avoids the consequences of our actions, it defines a set of rules and duties that must be fulfilled whatever the consequences. On the other hand, utilitarianism calculates the happiness generated by an action and subtracts all pain or suffering that such action may entail. As sometimes we are guided by one of them, at other times we get carried away by the other. Something similar happens to superheroes, some of them follow deontologism while others are followers of utilitarianism. In this written essay I will focus and talk about utilitarianism.
Before focusing and arguing about the qualities that characterize Batman, I would like to introduce one of the most outstanding characters in Batman’s films, The Joker. This villain seems extremely concerned in demonstrating a person’s corruptibility, and that he also wants to show, to the world and himself, that every human being is potentially bad. During the movie, The Joker fails in his attempt to corrupt Batman. Indeed, the villain, in his attempt to bring to light the evil that is in Batman, would probably have been happy if Batman had decided to kill him. This would have proved the central thesis of El Guasón that given the right circumstances, we can all get to perform acts of evil. If Batman killed The Joker, he would have proved that the bat man is not incorruptible. Now, the above allows me to think that The Joker is trying to show that anyone, given the right circumstances, can become as bad as he is. But nevertheless, it does not achieve its objective, at least not at all. The Joker is a person who brutally rejects the moral system that governs the social context in which he lives. He places himself above the positive law and moral imperatives, and from there he looks disdainfully at what he regards as a submissive and boring society.
The Joker has caused the countless deaths of ordinary citizens of the Gothic city. Batman suffers with the Joker, the population and the police too. This could make the viewer think if it would not be better, then, for our masked hero to end up with this criminal once and for all. Many will say yes, but the answer is not so easy if you analyze deeply the moral dilemma of both Bruce Wayne and Batman. However, Batman resists temptation and does not kill the Joker. Now, you can’t see this in the movie, but in Batman’s stories it’s common for villains, after spending time behind bars, to escape from jail. The Joker is an expert in this, he seems to get out of jail when he feels like it and, of course, every time he gets out of jail, he is in charge of fulfilling the function of arming chaos and sowing terror. He kills a lot of people, and has a tendency to kill people who are close to Batman or Bruce Wayne. Faced with this, it is inevitable to ask the following question: Why not kill the Joker once and for all, and end so much suffering?
Batman has always shown that he does not kill his enemies to avoid catching up with them. This seems to me a valid answer, and I think it effectively allows Batman to claim a moral position that his enemies don’t have. However, the following question could be asked that considering that The Joker tends to escape from prison, and that every time he does there is a mortal victim, is Batman, by refusing to kill The Joker, being selfish? Should Batman put aside his concern for his own moral integrity, and kill The Joker to avoid losing more lives uselessly? I do not intend to answer these questions, but I would like to argue a little about their significance and about some possible answers.
A strong argument to affirm that Batman should kill The Joker would be a utilitarian type. Indeed, if we look at utilitarianism, we could argue as follows. By killing this villain, many lives would be saved in the name of one’s sacrifice. That type of ethics is known as utilitarianism, and was formally defended by philosophers like Jeremy Bentham. Bentham considered, in summary, what we should always guide our actions in such a way that they produced the greatest amount of well-being to the greatest possible number of people. This is a consequentialist ethic, in the end, what is morally analyzed are the consequences of the act, not the act itself. In that vision, the radical proposals already mentioned would be perfectly protected morally. In other words, the ends justify the means.
Utilitarianism asks us, when evaluating the moral quality of our actions, to consider whether this contributes our action to maximize the happiness of the society considered as a whole. Utilitarianism understands society as a sum of individuals particularly considered, therefore, it understands the notion of general interest as the sum of the individual interests of the people who make up the community. Since what is sought is general happiness, it is necessary to establish a principle that allows us to calculate whether a particular act contributes to the common welfare. This is what is called the utility principle, which determines, according to the above criteria (whether or not it contributes to general happiness), if an action can be qualified as correct or incorrect. According to this type of reasoning, it could be argued that Batman should effectively kill The Joker. It is true that killing him clearly would reduce the happiness of The Joker, and also that of Batman, since our hero would probably feel remorse for carrying out such an action.
However, overall happiness would gain a lot in the long run, because all the tragedies that The Joker would probably cause in the future would be avoided. However, Batman does not seem willing to kill The Joker. As mentioned before, Batman refuses to kill because he believes that doing something like that would lower him to the moral level of the criminals whom he has sworn to fight. I think that behind this reasoning there is something else. If Batman considers that the mere act of killing is immoral, it is because the Dark Knight reasons that the morality of a given action depends, not on the consequences of it, but on the nature of the action itself.
A typical utilitarian would be outraged at Batman’s compliance. This is because it would be your obligation to preserve the welfare of as many people as possible. But Batman never does that lesson when it comes to the Joker. However, Batman is doing what he can, for his own well-being. Utilitarian ethics implies an unpleasant consequence. If the individual finds himself in a situation where his own death is necessary to save more lives – even if they are two lives – he would be obliged to terminate himself. For example, in Batman Begins and in stories in comics, it is suggested several times that the existence of the super villain, the Joker, is due to the existence of Batman himself. In fact, there is a story in which the Dark Knight is missing, and as for the joker, he is imprisoned in Arkham. When he sees in the news that Batman has returned, at that same time he arranges a way to flee the place. That is, the existence of the hero complements, gives meaning to the life of the insane clown.
In this paper I seek to present in a general way what I consider are some aspects in which philosophical elements can be used to analyze the superhero known as Batman. I do not intend to draw any conclusions, other than to point out that philosophy is not as far away as many think, and that it can be used to think things that many of us are familiar with.
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