It was the night, but not a silent one: screams and cries of hundreds of people could be heard from all over Gotham city. Batman, standing on the tallest point of Wayne tower, sighed. The Joker had escaped; again. It was going to be a long long night.
The thought of writing this post came to me after I watched “The Dark Night Rises”. (Have in mind that although the next sentence is most likely expected by those who will watch it, but it is a spoiler nonetheless): There is a scene at almost the end of the movie, in which Catwoman (played by Anne Hathaway) kills Bane (Tom Hardy), saving Batman’s (Christian Bale) life, and immediately telling him: “About the whole no guns thing, I’m not sure I feel strongly about it as you do.”
She is of course referring to the fact that Batman does not kill criminals, no matter how “evil” they are, and obviously would not allow other “vigilante superheroes” to do so either (e.g. Catwoman). This phenomenon of course is the underlying theme of almost every superhero movie and cartoon ever made (for example my favourite one the justice league), and though I’m not very familiar with the original comic books, I’m positively sure the same theme happens there as well.
I believe that this poses a very interesting moral dilemma, that shows the conflict between individual-right-based ethics and consequentialist ethics. The question is, should Batmen kill Joker (Should a superhero kill a super villain)? But there is even a better question: Is Batman doing something wrong by not killing the Joker?
Justice demands it
There is a common perception among people (religious or not) about justice, which is very close to the notion of “An eye for an eye”. Although in recent years and under the influence of social activists this perception has changed in some cases (for example capital punishment by death based on “A life for a life”), still most people think it is justified to retaliate an action with the same opposite: “you destroy my property, I destroy yours”.
This is not the position that most (if any) philosophers take in ethical issues. And the reason is simple, I think most people would agree that two wrongs will not make a right. In more sophisticated terms, this notion cannot be justified in any of the moral theories we know and we use as the “right” thing to do. Looking closely at the issue, we can see that there is an equivocation between “revenge” and “justice” in such perception.
therefore, based on that argument, no matter how many people the Joker “has” killed, Batman cannot justify killing him based on the idea of “An eye for an eye”.
Killing is wrong, period
If one asks Batman himself why he does not kill the Joker, his answer will most likely be in form of a moral code: Killing is bad, because it is bad. It seems most of the time that it is taken as it is given, without any justification behind it. But occasionally even the comic book characters need to give a better reason. This is the case for “Under the Red Hood”, with the following dialog (Extracted from IMDB):
Batman: You don’t understand. I don’t think you’d ever understood.
Jason Todd: What? What, your moral code just won’t allow for that? It’s too hard to cross that line?
Batman: No. God Almighty, no. It’d be too damned easy. All I’ve ever wanted to do is kill him. A day doesn’t go by I don’t think about subjecting him to every horrendous torture he’s dealt out to others and them end him.
Joker: Aw. So you do think about me.
Batman: But if I do that, if I allow myself to go down into that place, I’ll never come back.
Of course, Batman is talking about revenge, not justice; but this is a crucial point: Where should a superhero stop? The argument here is a superhero (or no one for that matter) is in a position to decide about the lives of others, no matter who they are or they have done, simply because no one is capable of escaping the “corruption” it brings to them. They fear they will never come back.
Well, although this seems still an unsatisfying argument, we can see it as a moral code: “Killing is wrong, period”.
The case of “What if?”
In history of Batman comics, Joker has proven special. He has escaped the infamous “Arkham Asylum” numerous times (I dare say double digit, in games, cartoons, books and films), and each time has killed more people. A consequentialist (or Utilitarian) argument could be made that simply the cost of having Joker around is going to be much higher than the cost of simply “ending him”. The reason for that is Joker is most likely (as far as the Joker goes, definitely) going to kill much more than he already has. This argument is not about what he has done in the past, it is about what he is most likely to do (or will do) in the future.
If we look at the case from the consequentialist perspective, “Not” killing the Joker will be the wrong doing. At least at the point that Batman’s knowledge of him reviles the fact that he (the Joker) will kill more people in the future. I believe that many of us intuitively would agree to this notion. If someone presents us with the case of “Someone has a time machine, should s/he kill Hitler?”, I think many of us (most of us?) will agree to that.
Now comes the hard question: “Someone has a time machine, should s/he kill baby Hitler? Or Hitler’s mother?” Should one kill the source of “potential” crimes against humanity?
The case of reality
I think that Batman in fact “should” kill the Joker, since not only there is no guarantee that he will kill more people, but also it is highly likely. But in reality, or a more practical sense, the case is not as easy as it seems. Most criminals cannot escape prison and remain there. Even if they do escape, at least it is not repeatedly (unless of course they are Steven Jay Russell).
Also, our ability to judge the future actions of a sane person is highly untrustworthy (remember that the Joker was completely insane). It is possible that a person actually changes his/her behaviour, and it seems justifiable to give them “a second chance”, not just “end them”.
In the end, there is an irony in Batman’s story: It seems that Batman has done more or less the wrong thing in the context of his own story, while in reality basing one’s actions in such a way that takes not killing to be a virtue seems the right way to be. Batman has done the wrong thing, but has given the right message.
P.S. This discussion can go much more deeper than this. As I was writing it, I knew there’s a lot more to say on this subject which are ignored here.