About The Dark Knight and Ethics

What, is it 2013 already? I guess I am a tiny bit late to write about a film that was made in 2008… But school made me do it, and as a Batman fanboy, The Dark Knight proved to be too good of an example not to be used, despite the untimeliness. The following are excerpts are from a philosophy of Ethics essay focusing on Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight (2008), that I thought was worth sharing on with you.

The sense of duty mentioned earlier also brings us to Kantian deontological ethics. Wayne can be perceived as a moral person according to Kantian ethics as Kant argues that a man must act according to that feeling of duty in order to act morally. Moreover, Kant claims that the morality of an action lays in the intention behind the action, not necessarily its result. This aspect is illustrated in the movie when the dark knight tries to rescue both Rachel Dawes and Harvey Dent with the help of the police, but only saves Dent, partially since the district attorney loses half of his face in an explosion, eventually making him switch from hero to villain. The action is moral according to Kantian ethics since the intention was to save both characters even though the outcome isn’t quite as ideal. However, the Batman is not a complete figure of Kantian ethics either, as his methods do not fit Kant’s most important definition of morality, the categorical imperative, which contains this famous maxim: “Act only according to that maxim by which you can also will that it would become a universal law.” (Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals, 1785) Bruce Wayne does not wish for everybody to act the way he does, he considers his power and resources, and exploits them for the common good. But he sees it as a burden, a responsibility. He shows it at the very beginning of the film, when he handles his “copycats” the same way he does the bad guys, not tolerating people trying to replicate his actions. That is what he expresses when he talks to Alfred about the copycats: “That wasn’t exactly what I had in mind when I said that I wanted to inspire people.” Thus suggesting that he wanted people to be inspired for what he stands for, justice, not the way he applies it, which is through violence and breaking the law. Still, one can see a moral code that is existent and that the Batman does not seem to struggle following when fighting low-key criminals in Gotham City, but becomes questionable when challenged by a powerful villain.

That role of the challenger is the one of the Joker. A maniac who commits crime without personal interest, evil genius who enjoys causing mayhem and bringing chaos everywhere he goes and does so very efficiently. Although the Joker does not seem to have a particular purpose as Albert Pennyworth describes him: “Some people just want to watch the world burn.” (The Dark Knight, 2008), he seems to be dedicated to breaking the Batman icon and Wayne’s moral integrity. He finds ways to challenge the dark knight’s morals and push his ethical limits. What the Joker seems to strive for is to bring chaos and bring civilized men to a Hobbesian “state of nature” by destroying social structures and values. In Leviathan, Thomas Hobbes explains that men are inclined to war against everyone else when in their raw natural state, and it is social order that keeps them out of this state of nature. But Hobbes also explains how fragile social order can be and how men sometimes fall back in the state of nature when the basic rules of social order are broken. That weakness of social order is precisely what the Joker seems to be aiming for. All his crimes seem to be directed toward breaking the social order in order to show the Hobbesian nature of men. He gives a clue of his Hobbesian view of humanity in the interrogation scene: “See, their morals, their code, it’s a bad joke. Dropped at the first sign of trouble. They’re only as good as the world allows them to be. I will show you, when the chips are down, these civilized people, they’ll eat each other.” An idea that he does put to practice later on, when he manages to turn the cops against one another, using force and corruption.

[…] In order to overcome the challenges that the Joker imposes, Wayne finds himself obligated to apply the utilitarian morals. Although we saw that the Batman was somewhat of a Kantian figure in the way his intention makes his actions moral, he also adopts a consequentialist behavior, which suggests that the rightness of actions are to be judged by their consequences only. Jeremy Bentham, main figure of the utilitarian philosophy, writes: “On the one hand the standard of right and wrong, on the other the chain of causes and effects, are fastened to their throne. They govern us in all we do, in all we say, in all we think” (The Principles of Morals and Legislation, 1781). Bentham’s philosophy stresses the idea that the morality of an action is to be judged on its efficiency, on the result of the action. Utilitarianism is based on the idea of the “greatest good for the greatest number.” a philosophy that would justify the questionable means that the Batman uses to get to his goal which is to stop the Joker. All the morally unstable actions that the hero takes are directed toward this ultimate goal, which is a moral one. This is a mentality that always seems to lay in the Batman’s actions, when one considers the amount of side view mirrors he breaks with his batpod, and in a broader way the general material damages that he causes around the city when chasing criminals, accepting the cost of becoming an outlaw to accomplish what no other could.  But in this particular case, he takes the utilitarian mentality to a new level by adding the highly unethical methods to the material damage, with actions mentioned earlier such as the creation of the ultimate spying machine. “The end justify the means.”

[…] His methods eventually lead to the arrest of the Joker, ending all the madness that led him to such extremes, which can be considered as “the greatest good for the greatest number” as he ultimately secures the people of Gotham from the Joker’s everlasting terrorism. This result leads us to consider the Batman as an example of ethical altruism, which is a form of consequentialism and suggests that moral actions lead to good consequences for others but not for oneself. Auguste Comte writes: “[The] social point of view cannot tolerate the notion of rights, for such notion rests on individualism. We are born under a load of obligations of every kind, to our predecessors, to our successors, to our contemporaries. After our birth these obligations increase or accumulate, for it is some time before we can return any service…. This [“to live for others”], the definitive formula of human morality, gives a direct sanction exclusively to our instincts of benevolence, the common source of happiness and duty. [Man must serve] Humanity, whose we are entirely.” (Catéchisme Positiviste, 1852), a quote that defines precisely the ideology followed by the Batman in his actions, as he is puts himself at the service of Gotham’s people in every way possible, sacrificing his body and wealth, and even his morals as we’ve demonstrated. This idea of sacrifice out of altruism becomes obvious at the end of the movie, when the Wayne decides to take the blame for Harvey Dent’s death, thus sacrificing the symbolic image of the Batman as a figure of Justice, in favor of Dent’s new similar symbol that inspires the people of Gotham. Here, not only does Bruce Wayne accept to sacrifice the whole symbolic character he has tried to incarnate since the beginning, but he also puts himself in danger by accepting to be accounted for the murder of the city’s new symbol of hope, in order to, ironically, preserve that symbol for the “greatest good.”


If you are interested in the subject, and wish to read the essay in its entirety, it is available here.

2 thoughts on “About The Dark Knight and Ethics

  1. Great review! There are a lot of ethical issues in this film and you did a great job with the few you listed here! However, I am surprised you didn’t bring up the ethical issue if batman should turn himself in when the Joker starts killing people or at the end should batman had just killed joker? Since Batman lives off of the sanctity of life and the ethic never to kill but if he doesn’t kill the joker and the joker keeps escaping jail and kills more people. So when does batman not killing anyone ethical idea cross paths with him having to kill joker to save the lives of many?
    Overall,great review!

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