Table of Contents
The Blackwell Philosophy and Pop Culture Series
Title Page
Copyright Page
Meet the Joker
Is Batman a Utilitarian or Deontologist? (Or None of the Above?)
To the Bat-Trolley, Professor Thomson!
Hush Will Love This Next Story . . .
Top Ten Reasons the Batmobile Is Not a Trolley . . .
“I Want My Lawyer! Oh, That’s Right, I Killed Him Too”
So, Case Closed-Right?
What Should a Batman Do?
The Duty of the Superhero
Using Robin for the General Good
Crime Fighting and Character
Can Batman Train Robin in Virtue?
Sometimes Heroes Fail
Batman Hates
Vice and Hatred
Is Batman Virtuous, or Does He Do Virtuous Things?
Batman’s Hatred Is Virtuous
Batman’s Hatred Is Not in His Self-Interest
Lacking Balance
No Man’s Lands: Gotham City and New Orleans
The Road to No Man’s Land
Survival over Justice: Villains, Gangs, and Hobbes’s State of Nature
William Petit versus Jim Gordon: Violence in the Quest for Justice
The Witness of Nonviolent Humanitarians
“This Is My Town”: Batman and the Restoration of Order
The Thin Veil
Gotham Made Me Do It
Do We Need Any Stinking Badges? Legitimacy and Violence
From Crime Alley to Sin City: Hobbes and Gotham
“Two” Little Security
The Anti-Batman: Nietzschean Rebellions
The Real Dynamic Duo: Batman and Gordon
Theorizing Government
Laugh and the World Laughs with You-or Does It?
Clearing Out Some Bats in the Belfry
Putting One More Card on the Table (Don’t Worry, It’s Not a Joker)
Taking the Plunge: The Fall from Freedom
Who Has the Last Laugh?
Batman Begins
The Nature of the Promise
Promises and Morality
Making Promises to the Dead
Batman Returns
Batman Forever?
What to Do with So Much Time and Money?
“The Singer”: Batman’s First Real Nemesis
Batman versus the Singer: The Battle over Aiding Gotham
Batman versus the Singer (Round Two): No Supererogatory Superheroes
The Singer’s Victory: Letting the Light of Reason Illuminate the Bat-Cave
But This Ruins Everything!
Moral Exemplars
Batman’s Virtues
The Unrealistic Objection
The Language Objection
The Exaggeration Objection
To the Defense: Incomplete Information
But Then Again . . .
Batman the Icon
Batman Is a Moral Exemplar
So, You Wanna Be Batman?
Will the “Real” Batman Please Step Forward?
Building a Batman
Arkham Asylum and the Construction of Truth
Your Turn, Batman!
How Batman Sees Through the Lies about Identity and Reality
Batman and-Well, Uh, You Know-Bats
Can You Face the Bat?
A Modal Question
Some Not-So-Secret Things about Identity
Picking through Possible Worlds
Necessary Secret Identities
“The Batman” and “The Robin”
Fictions and Possible Worlds
All Joking Aside, This Is a Modal Muddle
Comics, Conditions, and Counterexamples
Wittgenstein and Language Games
Games and Gotham
Robin? Who’s That?
Keeping It in the Family?
Answering the Batphone
What It’s Not Like to Be Batman
Bats and Thomas Nagel
What It Is Like to Be Out of the Asylum
The Saint
Justice: Law and Fairness versus Love and Devotion
The Absurdity of It All
Absurdity, Irony, and Faith
Batman, the Knight of the Infinite Resignation
Alfred, the Knight of Faith
Paradox and Peace
Does Batman Have a Conscience?
Conscience and Authority
Money, Hot Tubs, and Life’s Tough Decisions
Seeing Things Clearly with Better Bat-Vision
Feeling Guilty (or “How to Battle the Blues”)
Dark Nights and the Call of Authentic Conscience
Conclusions, Capes, and Cowls
A Determined Batman?
Alfred and Appearance
Thrown into Our Worlds
Death and the Dark Knight
I Shall Become a Bat
Determinism and the Dark Knight
Backstory: Bat-fans’ Bane
Donning the Philosophical Persona
The Origin Story: How We Make Evaluative Comparisons
Lurking Villainy: Begging the Question
Justice Restored: Superheroes and Bravery
To Be Continued . . .
World’s Finest
That Superman-What a Guy!
Superman the Aristotelian
What Kind of Friend Is Batman-or Bruce Wayne?
Batman the Nietzschean
When Friends Fall Out: Batman versus Superman
BSFs: Best Superfriends Forever?
A Superhero without Superpowers
Aristotle and Learning-by-Doing
Is Batman a Morally Exemplary Human Being?
Authority Shmauthority!
Let’s Call This the “Gordon-Yindel Disagreement”
And in the Other Corner . . . Kant!
Dick Grayson and How to Become an Autonomous Human Being (or Your Money Back!)
Leaving the Shadow of the Bat
Chapter 20 - THE TAO OF THE BAT

The Blackwell Philosophy and Pop Culture Series
Series Editor: William Irwin
South Park and Philosophy
Edited by Robert Arp
Metallica and Philosophy
Edited by William Irwin
Family Guy and Philosophy
Edited by J. Jeremy Wisnewski
The Daily Show and Philosophy
Edited by Jason Holt
Lost and Philosophy
Edited by Sharon Kaye
24 and Philosophy
Edited by Richard Davis, Jennifer Hart Week,
and Ronald Weed
Battlestar Galactica and Philosophy
Edited by Jason T. Eberl
The Office and Philosophy
Edited by J. Jeremy Wisnewski
House and Philosophy
Edited by Henry Jacoby
Heroes and Philosophy
Edited by David Kyle Johnson


To the memory of Heath Ledger (1979-2008)

The Oscar Speech George Clooney Never Got to Make
We wish to thank the Justice League (Eric Nelson, Connie Santisteban, and the rest of the staff at Wiley) for their stewardship and valuable input; Commissioner Gordon and the Gotham City Police Department (Jeff Dean and Blackwell), under whom this project was started; and Thomas Wayne (Bill Irwin) for his interminable assistance and inspiration. (Never fear, Bill’s still alive—who would oversee Batwoman and Philosophy if he weren’t?)
Mark wishes to thank the legions of writers, artists, and editors who have made Batman come alive for him for decades; and Rob wishes to thank his wife, Susan (even though she’s never written a Batman story—not even one!).

We know what you’re thinking (because we’re smart—we’re philosophers): “Batman and Philosophy? Seriously? Why?”
Well, since you asked. . . . Because we believe that Batman is the most complex character ever to appear in comic books and graphic novels. Because the stories featuring him over the last seventy years, not only in the comics but also on animated and live-action TV shows and in movies, have provided us with a wealth of philosophical material to discuss. And because we had the chance, along with about twenty other fans, to combine our passion for the character with our love for philosophical mumbling, all to create the book you now hold in your hands. (No need to thank us—we’re happy to do it.)
One reason Batman appeals to so many people around the world is that he is “just” a human being, even though he is nothing like the rest of us. He has devoted his entire life to avenging the death of his parents and all other victims of crime by risking life and limb to protect his city of Gotham and beyond. He has spent years and sacrificed everything to train his body and his mind to the point of perfection. He is wealthy beyond measure, but denies himself all luxuries (except a butler) in pursuit of a goal that will never be attained. And he does all this dressed like a giant bat. (Well, that we can do, but that’s about it!)
What makes a person go to such extremes? Is what Batman does good, or right, or virtuous? And what does his obsession, his devotion to “the mission,” say about who he is? How does he treat his partners, his friends, and his enemies? What is it like to actually be Batman? These are all genuine philosophical questions, and when we read Batman stories, we can’t help but think about this stuff (and then write down our thoughts). The twenty chapters in this book explore issues of ethics, identity, friendship, politics, and more, using examples drawn from famous Batman stories such as The Dark Knight Returns, Batman: Year One, No Man’s Land, A Death in the Family, and The Killing Joke, as well as the various movies, animated series, and yes, old chum, even the 1960s TV series with Adam West and Burt Ward.
So whether you know every detail of Jason Todd’s recent resurrection, or whether you can recite all of Jack Nicholson’s lines from Tim Burton’s first Batman movie, or if you just have fond recollections of Halloweens past wearing the blue cowl and cape, there’s something in this book for you. The Bat-signal’s shining—let’s go!


Mark D. White

Meet the Joker

In the last several decades, the Joker has transformed himself from the Clown Prince of Crime to a heinous murderer without rival. Most notoriously, he killed the second Robin, Jason Todd, beating him to a bloody pulp before blowing him up. He shot and killed Lieutenant Sarah Essen, Commissioner Jim Gordon’s second wife—in front of dozens of infants, no less, whom he threatened to kill in order to lure Essen to him. Years earlier, the Joker shot Barbara Gordon—Jim Gordon’s adopted daughter and the former Batgirl—in the spine, paralyzing her from the waist down, and then tormented Jim with pictures of her lying prone, naked and bleeding. And let us not forget countless ordinary citizens of Gotham City—the Joker even wiped out all of his own henchmen recently!1
Every time the Joker breaks out of Arkham Asylum, he commits depraved crimes—the type that philosopher Joel Feinberg (1926-2004) calls “sick! sick! sick!,” or “triple-sick.”2 Of course Batman inevitably catches the Joker and puts him back through the “revolving door” at Arkham.3 Batman knows that the Joker will escape, and that he will likely kill again unless the Caped Crusader can prevent it—which, obviously, he can’t always do.
So why doesn’t Batman just kill the Joker? Think of all the lives it would save! Better yet, think of all the lives it would have saved had he done the deed years ago, just among Batman’s closest friends and partners. Commissioner Gordon has contemplated killing the Joker himself on several occasions, and Batman is usually the one to stop him.4 In a terrifically revealing scene during the Hush storyline, Batman is this close to offing the Joker, and it is Jim who stops him. Batman asks Jim, “How many more lives are we going to let him ruin?” to which Jim replies, “I don’t care. I won’t let him ruin yours.”5
So though he may have considered it on many occasions, Batman has never killed the Joker, decidedly his most homicidal enemy. Of course, with the exception of his very earliest cases, Batman has refused to kill at all, usually saying that if he kills, it would make him as bad as the criminals he is sworn to fight. But that seems almost selfish—someone could very well say, “Hey—it’s not about you, Bats!” Or . . . is it? Should it be? Usually we think a person is obligated to do something that would benefit many people, but what if that “something” is committing murder? Which is more important, doing good—or not doing wrong? (Ugh—Alfred, we need some aspirin here.)
In this chapter, we’ll consider the ethics of killing to prevent future killings, exactly the problem Batman faces when he balances his personal moral code against the countless lives that he could save. In fact, this issue has been raised many times, very recently by both the villain Hush and Jason Todd himself (returned from the dead), and earlier by Jean-Paul Valley (the “Knightfall” Batman), none of whom have the strict moral code that Batman adheres to.6 I’ll do this by introducing some famous philosophical thought experiments that let us trace through the ethics of a situation by whittling it down to its most basic elements, just like Batman solving a cleverly plotted crime. (Well, not quite, but you have to let a guy dream!)

Is Batman a Utilitarian or Deontologist? (Or None of the Above?)

The argument in favor of killing the Joker is fairly straightforward—if Batman kills the Joker, he would prevent all the murders the Joker would otherwise commit in the future. This rationale is typical of utilitarianism, a system of ethics that requires us to maximize the total happiness or well-being resulting from our actions.7 Saving many lives at the cost of just one would represent a net increase in well-being or utility, and while it would certainly be a tragic choice, utilitarians would generally endorse it. (We could add more considerations, such as satisfying the quest for vengeance on the part of the families of his past victims, or the unhappiness it brings to some people when anyone is killed, but let’s keep things simple—for now.)
Superheroes, however, generally are not utilitarians. Sure, they like happiness and well-being as much as the ordinary person, but there are certain things they will not do to achieve them. Of course, criminals know this and use it to their advantage: after all, why do you think criminals take innocent people as hostages? Superheroes—just like police in the real world—normally won’t risk innocent lives to apprehend a villain, even if it means preventing the villain from killing more people later. More generally, most superheroes will not kill, even to save many other lives.8
But why do they refuse to kill in these instances? The utilitarian would not understand such talk. “You’re allowing many more people to die because you don’t want to kill one?” In fact, that’s almost exactly what Jason Todd and Hush recently said to Batman. Hush asked, “How many lives do you think you’ve cost, how many families have you ruined, by allowing the Joker to live? . . . And why? Because of your duty? Your sense of justice?” Jason Todd put a more personal spin on it (of course): “Bruce, I forgive you for not saving me. But why . . . why on God’s Earth—is he still alive? . . . Ignoring what he’s done in the past. Blindly, stupidly, disregarding the entire graveyards he’s filled, the thousands who have suffered, . . . the friends he’s crippled, . . . I thought . . . I thought killing me—that I’d be the last person you’d ever let him hurt.”9 Batman’s standard response has always been that if he ever kills, it will make him as bad as the criminals he fights, or that he will be crossing a line from which he would never return—though he is very open about his strong desire to kill the Joker.10
While utilitarians would generally endorse killing one person to prevent killing more, members of the school of ethics known as deontology would not.11 Deontologists judge the morality of an act based on features intrinsic to the act itself, regardless of the consequences stemming from the act. To deontologists, the ends never justify the means, but rather the means must be justifiable on their own merits. So the fact that the killing would prevent future killings is irrelevant—the only relevant factor is that killing is wrong, period. But even for the strictest deontologist, there are exceptions—for instance, killing in self-defense would generally be allowed by deontologists. So killing is fine, but only for the right reasons? Might killing a homicidal maniac be just one of those reasons? We’ll see, but first we have to take a ride on a trolley. . . .

To the Bat-Trolley, Professor Thomson!

One of many classic moral dilemmas debated by philosophers is the “trolley problem,” introduced by Philippa Foot and elaborated upon by Judith Jarvis Thomson.12 Imagine that a trolley car is going down a track. Further down the track are five people who do not hear the trolley and who will not be able to get out of the way. Unfortunately, there isn’t enough time to stop the trolley before it hits and kills them. The only way to avoid killing these five people is to switch the trolley to another track. But, unfortunately, there is one person standing on that track, also too close for the trolley to stop before killing him. Now imagine that there is a bystander standing by the track switch who must make a choice: do nothing, which leads to the death of the five people on the current track, or act to divert the trolley to the other track, which leads to the death of the single person.
Let’s call the person in control Bruce. Is Bruce morally allowed to divert the trolley to the second track or not? If he is, can we also say that in fact he is required to do it? Thomson takes the middle road here, concluding that Bruce is permitted—but not required—to divert the trolley. A typical utilitarian would require Bruce to throw the switch and save more lives, while a deontologist would have problems with Bruce’s acting to take a life (rather than allowing five to die through inaction). Thomson’s answer seems to combine the concerns of both utilitarianism and deontology. Bruce is allowed (maybe even encouraged) to divert the train and kill one person rather than five, but it’s valid also for Bruce to have problems with doing this himself.
One way to state the difference between the utilitarian and the deontological approaches is to look at the types of rules they both prescribe. Utilitarianism results in agent-neutral rules, such as “Maximize well-being,” and utilitarians couldn’t care less who it is that will be following the rule. Everybody has to act so as to maximize well-being, and there is no reason or excuse for any one person to say “I don’t want to.” By contrast, deontology deals with agent-specific rules—when deontologists say “Do not kill,” they mean “You do not kill,” even if there are other reasons that make it look like a good idea. This is simply a different way of contrasting the utilitarian’s emphasis on good outcomes with the deontologist’s focus on right action. While throwing the switch to kill the one rather than five may be good, it may not be right (because of what that specific person has to do).13

Hush Will Love This Next Story . . .

Thomson likes to compare the trolley situation with a story involving a surgeon with five patients, each of whom is dying from failure of a different organ and could be saved by a transplant. Since there are no organs available through normal channels, the surgeon considers drugging one of his (healthy) colleagues and removing his organs to use for the transplants.14 By doing so, he would kill his colleague, but he would save his five patients.
With the possible exception of our bandaged and demented Dr. Hush, few people would endorse such a drastic plan (least of all Dr. Thomas Wayne, bless his soul). You can see where I’m going with this (Batman fans are so smart)—“What is the difference between the bystander in the trolley case and the surgeon in the transplant case?” In both cases a person can do nothing, and let five people die, or take an action that kills one but saves the five. Thomson, and many philosophers after her, have struggled with these questions, and there is no definitive answer. Most people will agree that throwing the trolley switch is justified, and also that the surgeon’s actions are not, but we have a very difficult time saying precisely why we feel that way—and that includes philosophers!

Top Ten Reasons the Batmobile Is Not a Trolley . . .

How does Batman’s situation compare to the trolley story (or the transplant story)? What factors relevant to Batman and the Joker are missing from the two classic philosophical dilemmas? And what does Batman’s refusal to “do the deed” say about him?
One obvious difference between the two cases described by Thomson and the case of Batman and the Joker is that in Thomson’s cases, the five people who will be killed if the trolley is not diverted, and the one person who will be killed if it is, are assumed to be morally equivalent. In other words, there is no moral difference between any of these people in terms of how they should be treated, what rights they have, and so on. All the people on the tracks in the trolley case are moral “innocents,” as are the patients and the colleague in the transplant case.
Does this matter? Thomson introduces several modifications to suggest that it does. What if the five people on the main track collapsed there drunk early that morning, and the one person on the other track is a repairman performing track maintenance for the railroad? The repairman has a right to be there, while the five drunkards do not. Would this make us more comfortable about pulling the switch? What if the five transplant patients were in their desperate condition because of their own negligence regarding their health, and the colleague was very careful to take care of himself? We might say that in both of these cases the five persons are in their predicament due to their own (bad) choices, and they must take full responsibility for the consequences. And furthermore, their lives should not be saved at the expense of the one person in both situations who has taken responsibility for himself.
But the Joker case is precisely the opposite: he is the single man on the alternate track or the operating table, and his victims (presumably innocent) are the other five people. So following the logic above, there would be a presumption in favor of killing the Joker. After all, why should his victims sacrifice their lives so that he should live—especially if he lives to kill innocent people?
This case is different from the original philosophical cases in another way that involves moral differences between the parties. Unlike the classic trolley and transplant cases, the Joker actually puts the others in danger. In terms of the trolley case, it would be as if the Joker tied the five people to the main track, then stood on the other track to see what Batman would do! (Talk about a game of chicken!) If we were inclined to kill one to save five, that inclination would only be strengthened by knowing that the five were in danger because of the one!
We might say that the one person on the alternate track has the right not to be killed, even to save the other five. While it would be noble for him to make this sacrifice, most philosophers (aside from utilitarians) would deny that he has such an obligation. This is even clearer in the transplant case. The surgeon could certainly ask his colleague if he would be willing to give up his organs (and his life) to save the five patients, but we could hardly tell him that he had to. Once again, the difference with the Joker is that he put the others in danger, and it would be absurd—in other words, appropriate for one such as the Joker—to say, “Sure I’m going to kill these people, but I should not be killed to save them!”
The recognition of the Joker’s role in creating the situation also casts light on the responsibility Batman faces. If we said to the Caped Crusader, as many have, “If you don’t kill the Joker, the deaths of all his future victims will be on your hands,” he could very well answer, “No, the deaths that the Joker causes are his responsibility and his responsibility alone. I am responsible only for the deaths I cause.”15 This is another way to look at the agent-centered rule we discussed earlier: the bystander in the trolley example could very well say, “I did not cause the trolley to endanger the five lives, but I would be causing the death of one if I diverted the trolley.”16

“I Want My Lawyer! Oh, That’s Right, I Killed Him Too”

What the surgeon does in the transplant case is clearly illegal. However, if the bystander switches the trolley from its track, knowingly causing one person’s death to save five others, the legality of his action is not clear. Of course, the legalities of the Batman/Joker case are a bit simpler. Let’s assume (for the time being) that Batman has the same legal rights and obligations as a police officer. Under what circumstances would a police officer be allowed to kill the Joker (aside from self-defense)? If the Joker was just about to murder someone, then the police officer would be justified—legally—in killing him (if mere incapacitation is impossible and deadly force is the only effective choice). So if Batman came upon the Joker about to kill an innocent person, and the only way to save the person was to kill the Joker, Batman would be justified in doing that. (Knowing Batman, though, I imagine he would still find another way.)
Let’s make the case a bit tougher—say Batman finds the Joker just after he’s killed someone. Batman (or a police officer) couldn’t do anything to save that person, but if he kills the Joker, he’ll save untold others whom the Joker will probably kill. Probably? Well, let’s be fair now—we don’t know that the Joker will kill any more people. “This is my last one, Batty, I promise!” The Joker has certainly claimed to have reformed in the past; maybe this time it’s for real. Or maybe the Joker will die by natural causes tomorrow, never to kill again. The fact is, we can’t be sure that he will kill again, so we can’t be sure we will be saving any lives by taking his.
Given this fact, it’s as if we changed the trolley example like so: a dense fog is obscuring the view on the main track, but we can see the sole person on the other track. We don’t know if anyone is in danger on the main track, but we know that sometimes there are people there. What do we do? Or, to modify the transplant case, the surgeon doesn’t have any patients who need organs right now, but he guesses that there will be some tomorrow, by which time his healthy colleague will be on vacation. Should he still sacrifice his colleague today?
I imagine that none of us would be comfortable, in either case, choosing to kill the one to avoid the chance of killing others. It’s one thing to hold the Joker accountable for the people he has killed, and this may include the death penalty (if he weren’t the poster boy for the insanity defense), but another thing entirely when we consider the people he might kill in the future. Admittedly, he has a well-established pattern, and he may even say he’s going to kill more in the future. What if we have every reason—as Batman clearly does—to believe him? Can we deal with him before he kills again?
Punishing people before they commit crimes has been called prepunishment by philosophers, and the concept was made famous by Philip K. Dick’s 1956 short story “The Minority Report,” more recently a movie directed by Steven Spielberg and starring Tom Cruise.17 While Batman killing the Joker would not literally be punishment—since he has no legal authority to impose such a sentence—we can still consider whether or not prepunishment is morally acceptable, especially in this case. Some would say that if the Joker intends to kill again, and makes clear statements to that effect, then there is no moral difficulty with prepunishing him. (There may, however, be an informational or epistemic problem—why would he confess to his future crime if he knew he would be killed before he had a chance to commit it?) But others say that even if he says he will kill again, he still has the choice to change his mind, and it is out of respect for this capacity to make ethical choices that we should not prepunish people.18 Prepunishment may trigger the panic button in all of us, but in an age in which very many can be killed very easily by very few, we may be facing this issue before long.19

So, Case Closed-Right?

So then, we’re all convinced that Batman was right not to have killed the Joker.
What? We’re not?
Well, of course not. Look at it this way—I consider myself a strict deontologist, and even I have to admit that maybe Batman should have killed the Joker. (I hope none of my colleagues in the North American Kant Society reads this—I’ll be on punch-and-pretzels duty for a year!) As much as we deontologists say the right always comes before the good, an incredible amount of good would have been done if the Joker’s life had been ended years ago. Compare this issue with the recent torture debates—even those who are wholeheartedly opposed to the use of torture under any circumstances must have some reservations when thousands or millions of innocent lives are at stake.
Luckily, literature—and by “literature” I mean comic books—provides us a way to discuss issues like these without having to experience them. We don’t have to trick people into standing in front of a runaway trolley, and we don’t have to have a real-life Batman and Joker. That’s what thought experiments are for—they let us play through an imaginary scenario and imagine what we should or shouldn’t do. Unfortunately for Batman, but luckily for Batman fans, the Joker is not imaginary to him, and I’m sure he will struggle with this issue for many years to come.


1 Jason Todd was killed in A Death in the Family (1988); Lieutenant Essen was killed in No Man’s Land Vol. 5 (2001); Barbara Gordon was shot in The Killing Joke (1988); and most of the Joker’s henchmen were killed in Batman #663 (April 2007).
2 Joel Feinberg, “Evil,” in Problems at the Roots of Law (Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 2003), 125-192.
3 The Joker is the poster child for the insanity defense, so he never receives the death penalty.
4 For instance, after Lieutenant Essen was killed at the end of No Man’s Land.
5 Batman #614 (June 2003), included in Hush Volume Two (2003). Unfortunately, I don’t have room in this chapter to quote from Batman’s internal dialogue from this issue as much as I would like, but it’s brilliant writing, courtesy of Jeph Loeb.
6 See Hush in Gotham Knights #74 (April 2006), Jason Todd in Batman #650 (April 2006), and Jean-Paul Valley in Robin #7 (June 1994).
7 Utilitarianism is usually traced back to Jeremy Bentham’s The Principles of Morals and Legislation (1781; Buffalo, NY: Prometheus Books edition, 1988).
8 Wonder Woman’s recent execution of Max Lord in the Sacrifice storyline, in order to end his psychic hold on Superman, is a significant exception and was treated as such in the stories that followed. (See Wonder Woman #219, September 2005, also collected in Superman: Sacrifice, 2006.)
9 See note 6 for sources.
10 In the scene with Jason Todd he explains that “all I have ever wanted to do is kill him. . . . I want him dead—maybe more than I’ve ever wanted anything.” In The Man Who Laughed (2005), as he holds the Joker over the poisoned Gotham City reservoir, Batman thinks to himself, “This water is filled with enough poison to kill thousands. It would be so easy to just let him fall into it. So many are already dead because of this man . . . [but] I can’t.”
11 The most famous deontologist is Immanuel Kant, whose seminal ethical work is his Grounding for the Metaphysics of Morals (1785; Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Publishing Company, 1993).
12 For Foot’s original treatment, see her essay “The Problem of Abortion and the Doctrine of the Double Effect,” in her book Virtues and Vices (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2002), 19-32. For Thomson’s version, see “The Trolley Problem,” reprinted in her book Rights, Restitution, & Risk, edited by William Parent (Cambridge: Harvard Univ. Press, 1986), 94-116; and also chapter 7 in The Realm of Rights (Cambridge: Harvard Univ. Press, 1990).
13 For an excellent treatment of agent-relative rules, see Samuel Scheffler’s The Rejection of Consequentialism, rev. ed. (Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press: 1990).
14 Never mind the astronomical odds against one of his colleagues being a donor match for all five patients!
15 In Batman #614, he thinks, “I cannot . . . I will not . . . accept any responsibility . . . for the Joker.” But then he adds, “except that I should have killed him long ago.” And finally, after contemplating that the Joker may kill someone close to him again, “he dies tonight by my hand,” engaging in a graphic fantasy of several ways he could kill him. Makes you wonder what would have happened if Jim had not been there to stop him. . . .
16 This also brings in the controversial ethical distinction between causing a death through action and causing a death through inaction. Merely allowing a death is usually considered less problematic than directly causing a death—consider Nightwing’s choice not to stop Tarantula from killing his archnemesis, Blockbuster, who also happened to pledge to kill many more people in the future (Nightwing #93, July 2004). Interestingly, Dick actually did kill the Joker once, although Batman revived him (Joker: Last Laugh #6, January 2002).
17 You can find the short story in Philip K. Dick’s collection The Minority Report (New York: Citadel, 2002). Tom Cruise, in case you don’t know, is mainly known for being married to actress Katie Holmes from Batman Begins. (To my knowledge, he’s done nothing else worth mentioning.)
18 Christopher New argues for prepunishment in “Time and Punishment,”Analysis 52, no. 1 (1992): 35-40, and Saul Smilansky argues against it (and New) in “The Time to Punish,”Analysis 54, no. 1 (1994): 50-53. New responds to Smilansky in “Punishing Times: A Reply to Smilansky,”Analysis 55 no. 1 (1995): 60-62.
19 Of course, Wonder Woman already faced this question with regard to Max Lord, who promised to force Superman to kill, and she came to the opposite conclusion. (Apparently she had read New’s papers.) But ironically, it was she who stopped Batman from killing Alex Luthor (who nearly killed Nightwing) in Infinite Crisis #7 (June 2006). Even more ironically, who eventually killed Alex at the end of the same issue? The Joker.

James DiGiovanna

What Should a Batman Do?

Batman and Robin, the Dynamic Duo, the Dark Knight and the Boy Wonder—what could sound more natural? But no matter how familiar and right it sounds, you may ask yourself: is it really okay for Batman to train a young boy to be Robin in order to send him out to fight dangerous criminals? To answer this question, we turn to ethics, the branch of philosophy that considers questions like “What should I do? How should I live my life? What sort of person should I be?”
Let’s say, for example, that you have a superior intellect, an unsurpassed martial prowess, and a haunting memory of watching your parents being killed by a criminal. You might answer these ethical questions by saying, “I should probably put on a cape and cowl and slip into the dark of night to violently stop criminals from engaging in their nefarious deeds.” Or perhaps you might answer these questions with “I should get some therapy. I should become a less obsessed and more humane person. I should be a caring nurturer.” (But then few people would write comic book stories about you.)
What about this: suppose you find an orphaned boy living on the streets, and you want to help him. What should you do? It seems that the morally acceptable answers include turning him over to social services, finding a home for him, and adopting and caring for him yourself. But what about putting him in a costume, training him to fight crime, and exposing him to constant danger in the name of refining and improving his skills and character? This is what Batman did with Robin . . . twice (Dick Grayson and Jason Todd)! It’s harder to imagine that this would be as morally acceptable as turning him over to the state, and so on. And yet, throughout history, many people have taken a similar path in raising children. Ancient Spartans, medieval European royalty, and New Guinean warriors have all exposed young boys to potentially lethal danger in the name of making them into proper adults. While only the medieval Europeans dressed their children in capes and symbols, there’s still something rather Batman-like about the behavior of all these people.1
Can we justify this sort of child rearing? Can we excuse Batman’s penchant for taking young boys and throwing them at vicious criminals who dress up like clowns? These issues form the core of ethical questions concerning the appropriate rearing and education of Robin, and they also form the basis for this chapter.

The Duty of the Superhero

Ethics could be defined as the attempt to live by a set of rules or duties, where it’s necessary to follow some of these rules or act on some of these duties regardless of the consequences, simply because the duty itself is most important. We call this deontological ethics, from the Greek word deon, meaning “duty.” The most important deontological ethicist is Immanuel Kant (1724-1804), who famously held that the most important duties must be universal and categorical. “Categorical” means “without exception”—in other words, I can’t choose a duty and then think of cases where it doesn’t apply, or choose not to apply it in some particular instance. So, for example, Kant says that there’s an ethical duty not to tell lies. Suppose that Batman was captured by the Joker, and the Joker wanted to know where Robin was. Batman could certainly say nothing, or dodge the question, but he couldn’t lie to the Joker and say that Robin was in some location where Batman had set a trap for the Joker unless Robin was actually there, because that would violate the duty to tell no lies.2
“Universal” means that the rule applies to everyone; in other words, we should ask of any given act, “What if everyone did this?” or as Kant puts it, “Act only according to that maxim [the rule I propose to follow] whereby you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law.”3 Kant argues that if your maxim doesn’t “universalize” in this way, then it can’t be ethical, because everyone has to be able to live by the same moral rules that you do, and no one person can make exceptions for himself.
So let’s consider Jason Todd, the second Robin, whom Batman decided to train after he found Jason trying to steal the tires off the Batmobile.4 If we want to be Kantian deontologists, we’ll have to ask, “Is this in accord with a rule that is categorical (has no exceptions) and universal (applies to everyone)?” Batman’s maxim could be something like this: “If you see an orphan stealing your hubcaps, you should put him in a bright red-and-yellow costume and send him out to fight the Penguin.” This hardly seems universal, so maybe Kant would argue that it’s immoral to do this.
But maxims are rarely this specific; after all, if everyone followed the maxim “Become a philosopher,” the world would surely screech to a halt, but becoming a philosopher hardly seems immoral. “Become whatever makes you happy” or “Make use of your talents” would be more general and more easily universalized. Likely, we could reformulate the Jason Todd maxim to read “Do what you can to help orphans”—that’s certainly universalizable, and it fits with Kant’s general duty of helping others. Of course, helping orphans doesn’t necessarily include “Send the orphans out to fight psychotic criminals in Halloween costumes.” In fact, we would probably think that it should be a universal rule to safeguard children from harm while you help them. In this sense, a duty to safeguard children places limits on what you can do to help them. If we accept this, then Batman is not a very good Kantian, at least on this score, because he does expose Robin to harm.

Using Robin for the General Good

Ethics could also be defined as the process of figuring out which of our actions would produce the best outcome, and then following that course of action. This is called consequentialist ethics, because it’s concerned with the consequences of our actions more so than with their inherent moral rightness. Utilitarians such as Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832) and John Stuart Mill (1806-1873) argue that an action is morally good insofar as its consequences promote the most benefit, payoff, or pleasure for the greatest number of people.5 In opposition to the deontological position that says “Safeguard children,” or at least “Don’t expose children to grievous harm,” the utilitarian perspective could be used by Batman to justify placing Robin in danger if doing so promotes the general good of Gotham City. If training Robins does more good for the citizens of Gotham than it costs in time, punching bags, and injuries, then the utilitarian would find it justified.
But what about the Robins themselves? After all, Jason Todd was famously bludgeoned to death by the Joker. Isn’t their sacrifice too high a price to pay, even if their service to Gotham helps many people in return? Utilitarians are notorious for justifying the treatment of persons as means to the greater good of the majority, even if it means harming those persons who are used in the process. For example, if the greater consequence of saving the group from some evildoer requires killing one, two, or even a hundred people in the process, then, on utilitarian grounds, this seems morally correct. So we can presume that Batman may agree that putting his young sidekicks in danger is justified due to the good consequences for the community.6 But we know Batman will never sacrifice the life of an innocent bystander to catch a criminal. So he applies this logic only to those he trains, who have also volunteered for the job. (But then again, what young boy wouldn’t?) So while the training of Robins can be explained by utilitarian thinking on the part of Batman, this thinking only goes so far.

Crime Fighting and Character

Is there another way to understand Batman’s ethical decision-making process? His decision to train Robins for crime fighting could stem from virtue ethics, which emphasizes general character traits, called virtues or excellences, rather than judging specific acts (as deontology and utilitarianism do). Virtue ethics also takes into account differences, such as differences of character, the different roles people play, and the different cultures in which they live. While he strives to uphold abstract moral principles that he thinks are always right, Batman seems to understand that different sorts of characters demand different sorts of actions. Not everyone should be a Batman or a Robin. The specific character type needed to be a superhero is not suited to everyone, and society demands different roles from each of us.
It might be possible to justify Batman’s course of action because he instills in Robin a specific character that, while not appropriate for everyone, is still proper and necessary in its relation to the larger culture.7 In other words, Robin may have a role to play that makes the world a better place, and Batman may be making Jason Todd a better person by turning him into Robin, even if it’s not universally true that men who dress up like bats should turn tire-stealing orphans into living weapons of justice.
Plato (428-348 BCE) was the first Western philosopher to write in the tradition of virtue ethics.8 He believed that different ethical norms applied to different persons, depending on their role in society. Nonetheless, universal ethical rules applied to everyone, so in certain aspects everyone was ethically the same, whereas in the specific ethical demands of different societal roles, different ethical imperatives would be at play.
Virtue ethics faded into near obscurity in the early modern era. But in the twentieth century, philosophers including Michael Slote, Martha Nussbaum, and Alasdair MacIntyre argued that there were problems with the deontological and utilitarian ethics that were alleviated by virtue ethics.9 The deontologists and utilitarians could discuss right action, but they seemed incapable of saying how it was that someone came to be able to make right decisions. Deontological and utilitarian theories are sometimes called “act” or “rule” ethics, since they deal with individual actions and the universal rules that apply to them. What they don’t deal with, generally, is the training needed to create the sort of character who would be inclined to act morally. Deontology and utilitarianism seem to imply that simply understanding the ethical theory should be enough; anyone who knew best would, or should, do best. But it’s clear that we can know something is wrong and still do it, through weakness of the will, for example.
Further, it seems clear that certain things that we think are good aren’t necessarily good for everyone in every set of circumstances. For example, police officers can arrest people, commandeer vehicles, and use deadly force in certain situations. But we don’t want ordinary citizens acting like this. So something about the specific role of the police officer requires some specific ethical rules, even if ultimately all the societal roles must abide by certain overarching rules. Importantly, police officers undergo training to learn about their role, and only after they have been properly trained and, one hopes, instilled with the proper character, are they allowed to act as police officers. This is why the founders of virtue ethics, Plato and Aristotle (384-322 BCE), emphasized building character, noting the importance of training someone to be ethical, rather than simply explaining how to be ethical.
In his book After Virtue, Alasdair MacIntyre argues that character is created over the course of a lifetime by the manner in which we act. MacIntyre agrees with Plato, who thought that first we behave morally, and then we learn morality. In brief, we don’t explain ethics to a child, we simply say no. Only when people are older and have already internalized virtuous behavior are they capable of understanding the abstract reasons for behaving virtuously or morally. At that point, one can fully engage in philosophical thinking about ethical behavior and perform the kinds of ethical thought experiments that deontologists and consequentialists think of as the heart of ethics, that is, deducing general rules and effectively thinking about outcomes.
At first, we learn ethics by being reprimanded when we misbehave, and rewarded when we behave properly. If we wish to instill certain specific virtues, like courage, we must test the person who is to be given this character. Courage comes from facing danger. So if a child is to become courageous, he must encounter some dangers. If we see that the child has a natural propensity for courage, he becomes a good candidate for the role of soldier or police officer. We then increase the training in courage, adding other virtues, including gentleness and moderation, to slowly mold the character desired.
Without experience in ethical behavior, and general experience of the world, this sort of thought is likely to be misguided, and without the moral character to carry through on our ethical thinking, it’s likely to be ineffective. Without background training in good behavior, no amount of abstract knowledge of good behavior will suffice. No matter how much theorizing we do, without the background in action, our propensity to act selfishly and without virtue will overcome our knowledge of better ways to be.

Can Batman Train Robin in Virtue?

So when Batman takes Robin under his wing, he doesn’t just explain the superhero ethic to him; he trains Robin, teaching him by example and experience the ways of the superhero. But still, we have questions about the moral rightness of this: one could, for example, train a boy to be a thief, giving him the “virtues” of the criminal. Virtue ethics also demands that we decide the kind of training we should use, what sort of ethical character we should try to create. For this we will have to, like the deontologists and consequentialists, appeal to general rules, and like the consequentialists in particular, ask, “What kind of person do we want to train a young person to be?”