There are two primary reasons that the Batman stories are useful in studying moral theory. The first is that ethical theorists constantly construct hypothetical situations designed to probe our moral intuitions, on one hand, and to test moral theories, on the other. However, due to their artificiality, these hypothetical situations tend to provoke little intrinsic interest in their natures. Indeed, the more specific the situations become, the less interest people tend to show in discussing, or even taking the time to understand, them. By contrast, the Batman stories provide a ready-made world, one which, despite its complexity—or perhaps in part because of it—tends to grab the attention of those confronted with it. They therefore give us a detailed set of morally relevant scenarios that do not seem arbitrary and intrinsically uninteresting. The second reason the Batman stories are useful is that Batman himself is an immensely complex moral figure—and a figure that regularly confronts difficult moral decisions. The thesis of the paper is that for the most part Batman’s actions are morally justifiable according to utilitarianism, but that the situation is more complicated—and in some cases unclear—where deontology is concerned.
A moral theory is an attempt to systematize and codify a set of moral principles that largely accord with our considered judgments about actual and hypothetical cases. As in any theorizing, there is a trade-off that must be negotiated between simplicity of theory and accurate representation of the phenomena in question. While there are many moral theories that philosophers have defended (see Williams 2012), the two most prominent are utilitarianism and deontology. For this reason these two theories are the ones that will be discussed here, and later applied to the three Batman situations.
Utilitarianism is a form of consequentialism. Consequentialism says that an act (or sometimes a rule) is morally right if it has the best overall consequences, relative to other possible acts (or rules). The forms of consequentialism are divided according to what they take to be the relevant consequences. Utilitarianism is a consequentialist view that focuses upon consequences for pain and pleasure, or sometimes happiness as a function of these two things—in other words, utility. Utilitarianism is usually considered to have been founded by John Stuart Mill (1901).
Deontology is the view that what is crucial in evaluating moral acts or situations is an agent’s intentions or motivations. There are different ways of formulating deontological theory, many of which were made famous by the originator of deontological moral theory, Immanuel Kant (2002). Kant offered what has become known as the ‘Categorical Imperative’ as the central principle in moral theory. He formulated the Categorical Imperative in different ways, which he claimed to be equivalent. Two of these will be focused upon here. One is the Universal Law formulation, according to which an act is morally permissible if and only if it derives from a maxim (a principle of action) that can coherently be willed by the agent to be a universal law. The other is the Principle of Humanity, which states that an act is morally permissible, in relation to its effect upon another person, just in case the agent, in so acting, treats the other person as an end unto him- or herself, rather than as a mere means.
A simple hypothetical example will illustrate the main differences between utilitarianism and deontology. Consider a situation in which a person makes all of the people around him miserable, including himself. Suppose that there is no way to change this fact. Now ask whether it would be morally permissible for that man to commit suicide. A utilitarian is likely to answer ‘yes’ to this question, because the act in question would result in a higher overall utility (or happiness) than the alternative of not committing suicide. The man will no longer be unhappy, and the people around him will no longer be made miserable by him. Deontologists like Kant, however, would answer ‘no’ to the question. They need not dispute that the suicide would improve overall happiness. But happiness and consequences are not what matter to this kind of deontological theory. What matters is whether the action in question accords with the Categorical Imperative. Kant argued that it did not. On the Universal Law formulation of the Imperative, we see that the man in question could not coherently will that the maxim or principle of action upon which he acts be a universal law. This is because Kant thought that no one could coherently will his own demise. On the Principle of Humanity formulation, similarly, the suicide also comes out as morally impermissible. This is because in taking his own life, the man would be using himself as a mere means—a means to stop suffering—and not as an end in himself.
As we move into the next section, what will be crucial is to understand that utilitarianism focuses upon consequences of an action exclusively, whereas deontology focuses exclusively upon purity of motivations. It can be said that utilitarians define what is right in terms of what is good (where goodness is construed in terms of the kinds of situations that will likely result). By contrast, deontology defines what is good in terms of what is right, again viewing goodness as a matter of likely resulting situations.
The first situation from the Batman stories that we will discuss concerns Batman’s decision to save Rachel Dawes, with whom he has a close personal relationship, rather than Harvey Dent—whom Batman is not only not close to, but who is a romantic rival concerning Dawes. Batman can only save one of Dawes or Dent from being killed by the Joker, and he chooses to save Dawes. However, the Joker foresaw that Batman would make this choice, and so he tricked Batman into saving Dent instead. The central question here is whether it is morally permissible for Batman to (try to) save Dawes rather than Dent.
This question is of great interest for the adjudication of the dispute between utilitarianism and deontology. The reason for this is that saving Dent will have the best consequences, of the two actions. This is because Dent is a politician with great integrity, and if he does not die the city of Gotham will be improved overall to a considerable extent. Dawes is a very good person, and if she dies many will mourn her. But her death will not have quite the same negative effect—negative consequences—that Dent’s death would have.
On the other hand, if we assume as we must that Batman can only save one of the two people, intuition seems to suggest that he should try to save Dawes. He loves her, and intuition suggests that it is permissible to save a loved one rather than a stranger, or someone whom one does not love. For example, there is a famous hypothetical example in which two people are drowning. One of them is our agent’s wife, and the other is a stranger. He can only save one of the two. Intuitively, it is permissible for him to save his wife because of their intimate connection, and love for one another. Notice, however, that while the verdict may be clear in this case, the Batman scenario is not quite like this one. The reason is that in this first Batman situation it is not merely a matter of choosing between two people. It is a matter of choosing between two people, the death of one of whom will have much worse consequences than will the death of the other. So to alter our drowning scenario to fit the Batman case more closely, we imagine a man who can save either his wife, or (say) a person who has a real chance to cure cancer. Our intuitions are not nearly as clear in this case, which is what makes it so interesting.
It must be acknowledged that this case does not fit squarely within a deontological framework. This is because neither possible decision seems to violate either formulation of the categorical imperative. However, there is still a sense in which saving Dawes seems like the right thing to do, as opposed to the good thing. And we saw earlier that deontology privileges the right over the good, and utilitarianism privileges the good over the right. So we can still ask how Batman’s moral situation appears from a deontological standpoint.
Our answer to this first question about Batman’s behavior has already been prefigured. Utilitarians would likely argue that he should save Dent, because doing so will have far better consequences for happiness than will saving Dawes. Likewise, deontologists will draw the opposite conclusion. The right thing to do is for Batman to (try to) save Dawes, since he loves her, and it is intuitively the right thing to do to privilege those whom one loves and values over strangers, other things equal. The conclusion for the first Batman case, therefore, is that utilitarians would say that he should save Dent, while deontologists would say that he should save Dawes.
Our second Batman case is one in which Batman advises Jim Gordon to cut off the train track in order to kill villain Ra’s Al ghoul. Batman does this because he knows that the villain is coming to wreak havoc upon Gotham city, and he thinks that cutting off the track is the only way to stop him. The question is whether Batman’s decision is morally correct, from the perspectives of utilitarianism and deontologism, respectively.
This case resembles, almost exactly, what have become known as ‘Trolley Cases’ in the literature on moral and ethical philosophy. As Mark White (2008, 8-12) notes, the ‘Trolley Problem’ was introduced in order to probe our intuitions concerning difficult moral cases. There have been many different Trolley Problems discussed. Indeed, it is the fact that the Problems can be so easily modified to seemingly refute plausible principles backing our judgments that makes them such a valuable tool. In one of the first cases proposed, we imagine five hapless souls tied to the trolley tracks. If the train is not diverted onto the adjacent track, the five people will die. However, if it is so diverted, then another person, also tied to tracks, will die. The question is what an onlooker who can change the course of the trolley ought to do. We assume that the only two options are to leave the situation along (in which case five people die), or to change the course of the trolley (in which case one person dies).
As one would expect, the utilitarian is apt to say that the onlooker should divert the trolley. The consequences of doing so are much better than the consequences of not doing so. The deontologist, on the other hand, will see things differently. On this view, what matters is not consequences, but something like the conscience of the onlooker, who will not have killed anyone unless the train is diverted.
The second Batman case is analogous to this simple Trolley Case. If the villain is allowed to enter Gotham, many people will suffer and die. If the train track is cut off, however, then this disaster will have been averted—at the cost of killing the villain. Of course, the case slightly different, since in the Trolley Case all of the victims were assumed to be innocent, and the villain is not. So it seems that Batman’s actions are moral if we adopt utilitarianism, but may not be if we are deontologists.
The third Batman case more complex. It involves the question whether it is morally right for Batman to ‘recruit’ Robin. James DiGiovanna (2008) has discussed this question at length. For him, the crucial issue is whether it is right for Batman to expose Robin (or future Robin) to the dangerous life of a crime fighter. It is important for the case that Robin was previously in a dire situation, essentially being a petty criminal. But as DiGiovanna notes, there are alternatives to training Robin, on one hand, and leaving him in his bad situation, on the other. Batman could take him to social services, give him a job and a place to live, or even adopt him (2008, 18). So granted that Batman should do something, the question is which of these options should be chosen.
Utilitarianism would probably say that Batman should train Robin, for this way lies the best overall consequences (assuming that Robin is successful in helping Batman to fight crime). The deontologist, on the other hand, will see more complexity in the issue. Would Batman be treating Robin as an end in himself, or only as a mere means, by training him? It depends on Batman’s precise motivation. But from what we know about Batman, there is no reason to think that he is being selfish in training Robin. Therefore, unlike the other two cases considered, it seems that utilitarianism and deontology agree on this case. It is morally permissible for Batman to train Robin.
Since there are no actual superheroes, it is difficult to find a real-world case to compare this one to. But we can suppose that a police officer, in a very dangerous city or neighborhood, faces the question whether to save a young person from the streets by turning him or her into a fellow officer—thereby relieving the young person’s unfortunate circumstances, but also exposing the person to grave danger. Again, the correct verdict would depend on how the details are filled-out. But we can certainly imagine an actual case that parallels the Batman scenario just considered, and concerning which utilitarianism and deontologism would give the same verdicts. But on the whole, it may be said that Batman is in better accord with utilitarianism than with deontology. As DiGiovanna says, “Batman is a lousy deontologist [but] a decent consequentialist …” (2008, 26).
This paper has explored the morality of Batman, through discussing three situations from the Batman stories. Each has been discussed from the standpoint of utilitarianism and deontology, respectively. The discussion has supported the thesis that whether Batman is morally correct in each situation depends upon the moral theory one adopts. Utilitarianism generally takes a more positive view of Batman’s actions, though in the last case we saw that the two theories seem to agree that Batman is acting rightly.
- DiGiovanna, J. (2008). Is it right to make a Robin? In White and Arp (2008).
- Kant, I., Wood, A. W., & Schneewind, J. B. (2002). Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals. New Haven: Yale University Press.
- Mill, J. S. (1901). Utilitarianism. London: Longmans, Green and Company.
- Thomson, J. J. (1985). Double effect, triple effect and the trolley problem: Squaring the circle in looping cases. Yale Law Journal, 94(6), 1395-1415.
- White, M.D. (2008). Why doesn’t Batman kill the Joker? In White and Arp (2008).
- White, M. D., & Arp, R. (2008). Batman and philosophy: The dark knight of the soul (Vol. 2). New York: John Wiley & Sons.
- Williams, B. (2012). Morality: An introduction to ethics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.